It is no easy thing to bring certain change types of change to a culture, whether you’re introducing automobiles in a land of horses or replacing waterwheels with steam power. In most every case, those who feel displaced will face and resist the change with everything from words to pitchforks to fire bombs. And sometimes with good reason: it’s hard to celebrate progress when it’s put your family out on the street and without food to eat.
I remember a class I took at Murray State University (KY) when I was working on my master’s degree in 1981. We watched a film one day that celebrated the advent of robotics into the world of manufacturing. The producers showed how one machine could take the place of three to a dozen human workers. “They don’t get tired, they don’t make mistakes, they don’t need health insurance and they never go out on strike.”
Increased production with drastically lowered costs offered clear benefits to the owners, not so much to displaced workers. “Don’t worry,” our instructor said, “they’ll be trained to take care of the robots.”
It was baloney and we knew it. Without a whit of training in advanced economic theory, we knew that thousands of people were going to lose high-paying jobs that would not be replaced. This was not some temporary blip in employment patterns; it was a fundamental change in the nature of manufacturing. It was a change in how the world would do business.
You probably know a bit about the rest of the story. Countries without an established manufacturing industry leaped from the 18th Century toward the 21st. They built factories based on the emerging technologies of robotics, computer controlled machining and modern logistics. Absent the history of unions and ignoring the factors that made them necessary, they had thousands of citizens eager to work a whole day for the hourly wages of American factory earners.
American companies with millions invested in suddenly obsolete equipment and operating systems struggled to adjust and compete. Some succeeded, some did not. Some capitalized on the changes, switching to outsourcing and building or investing in new factories in other places. Our society is still dealing with the impact and implications of a greatly diminished role in manufacturing the world’s goods. The economic ripple is still sending aftershocks, and not just through the Rust Belt.
In most cases, societal change, whether in manufacturing methods or in entertainment and communication, outpaces the anticipation and preparation for its implications. We argue, we blame, we debate, cuss and discuss while things continue to change around us. Sometimes we feel ourselves abandoned by our own culture. Whether we are “old hippies who don’t know what to do” as the Bellamy Brothers used to sing, or are masters of a new domestic reality, we all need something deep, solid and rooted that can not only sustain us but help us live triumphant lives, no matter what unbidden changes come into them.
We need faith, hope and love. And wisdom.