Technology, Work, and Society – The Age of Transition

I recently read an intriguing book concerned with the exponential advances in technology and the impact thereof on human society.  The author believes that the displacement of human labor by technology is in its very early stages, and sees little limit to the process.  He is concerned with how this will affect–indeed, has already affected–the relationship between the sexes and of parents and children, as well as the ability of ordinary people to earn a decent living.  It’s a thoughtful analysis by someone who clearly cares a great deal about the well-being of his fellow citizens.


The book is Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery, and it was published in 1836. The technology with which he is concerned is steam power, which he sees in its then-present incarnation as merely “Hercules in the cradle…opening into view a long vista of rapid transitions, terminating in the subjection of human power, as an agent of labour, to the gigantic and untiring energies of automatic machinery.”

What Gaskell sees this infant Hercules as already having caused is this:

The declension of the most numerous class of artisans in Great Britain, from comfort, morality, independence, and loyalty, to misery, demoralization, dependence, and discontent, is the painful picture now presented by the domestic manufacturers.  (he is referring particularly to the hand-loom weavers)  ‘The domestic labourers were at one period a most loyal and devoted body of men,’ says an intelligent witness before the Select Committee of Hand-Loom Weavers in 1834. ‘Lancashire was a particularly loyal county.’ (These men had been prominent among those who had volunteered to defend Britain from Napoleon.) ‘Durst any government call upon the services of such a people, living upon three shillings a week?’

Gaskell notes that prior to the introduction of automatic machinery, the majority of artisans had worked at home.  “It may be termed the period of Domestic Manufacture; and the various mechanical contrivances were expressly framed for that purpose…These were undoubtedly the golden times of manufactures, considered in reference to the character of the labourers.”  The man retained his individual respectability and was often able to rent a few acres for farming, thus diversifying his employment and (with the addition of a garden) his family’s diet.

The new automated mills had relatively little requirement for adult male labor; most jobs could be done more cheaply by women and children, who indeed were often preferred because of their more nimble fingers.  Those who continued as handweavers saw their incomes drop precipitously due to the competition from steam-or-water-powered machinery; it was John Henry versus the steam drill (although the birth of that legend was still in the future).

Before industrialization, the earnings of children were “entirely at the disposal of the head of the family”…thus home was “to the poor man, the very temple of fortune, in which he may contrive, if his earnings are not scanty indeed, to live with comfort and independence…the child of the domestic manufacturer was advantageously placed.  It remained under its paternal roof during which the period in which puberty was developed; its passions and social instincts were properly cultivated, its bodily powers were not too early called into requisition; it had the benefit of green fields, a pure atmosphere, the cheering influences of nature, and its diet was plain and substantial.”

Gaskell contrasts this perhaps rather idealized picture with a dismal portrait of parents and children all going off to work as separate individuals, with little interaction beyond meals hurriedly snatched, if even that.  “Parents have become the keepers of lodging-houses for their offspring, between whom little intercourse exists beyond that relating to pecuniary profit and loss.  In a vast number of others, children have been entirely driven away from their homes, either by unnatural treatment…(or) for the sake of saving a small sum in the amount of payment required for food and house-room….The social relations which should distinguish the members of the same family are destroyed.  The domestic virtues, man’s natural instincts, and the affections of the heart, are deadened and lost.”  He argues that feelings of family mutual responsibility are destroyed to the degree that “When age and decrepitude cripple the energies of the parents, their adult children abandon them to the scanty maintenance derived from parochial relief.”

Gaskell does admit that the factory worker was in many cases more mentally-active than his domestic-manufacturing predecessor, that he often shows “a high order of intelligence, seeking his amusement in the club, the political union, or the lecture room,”  but that “he is disbarred from all athletic sports, not having a moment’s time to seek, or bodily vigour capable of undertaking them; he has an active mind in a stunted and bloodless body.”  The domestic craftsman, on the other hand, “possessed a very limited degree of information; his amusements were exclusively sought in bodily exercise, quoits, cricket, the dance, the chace, and numerous seasonal celebrations; he lived in utter ignorance of printed books, beyond the thumbed Bible and a few theological tracts…he had a sluggish mind in an active body.”

Gaskell writes positively about the “distinctions of rank” and especially about the role of the Squire as it once had been in rural areas.  “The Squire …obtained and deserved his importance from his large possessions, low rents, and a simplicity and homeliness of bearing which, when joined to acknowledged family respectability, made him loved and reverenced by his tenants and neighbours.  He mingled freely in their sports–was the general and undisputed arbiter in all questions of law and equity–was a considerate and generate landlord–a kind and indulgent master…tinged, it is true with some vices, but all so coated over with wide-spreading charity, that the historian willingly draws the veil of forgetfulness over them.”

Concerning the mill-owners, who have to some extent replaced the Squires as masters of men, Gaskell says that few of those who started in the business as rich men have succeeded, while “the men who prospered were raised by their own efforts–commencing in a very humble way, generally from exercising some handicraft, as clock-making, hatting, etc….having a very limited capital to begin with, or even none at all save their own labour.”  He defends the mill owners against charges of wanton cruelty to employees, saying that many of the stories are exaggerated.  But while being men of high energy and quick thinking, the owners are in Gaskell’s view “men of limited information–men who saw and knew little of any thing beyond the demand for their twist or cloth,  and the speediest and best modes for their production.”  Acquisition of wealth, though was not always attended by a “corresponding improvement in their moral and social character…The animal enjoyments–the sensual indulgences which were witnessed at the orgies of these parties, totally unchecked by any intercourse with polished society, should have had the veil of oblivion drawn over them, were it not that, to some degree, they tend to explain the depravity which in a few years spread, like a moral plague, over the factory artisans.”

Gaskell in the previous passage appears to be talking at least partly about sex, a subject to which he returns several times in the book. He comments on, but is not particularly condemnatory about, the fact that in rural areas, marriages had long often followed rather than proceeded the bride’s pregnancy. What he *is* concerned about is what he viewed as extreme promiscuity and “the almost entire extinction” of sexual decency he sees among millworkers…he blames this partly on the bad example of the mill owners, partly on the greatly reduced connection between parents and children, partly on the elevated temperatures which were maintained (for technical reasons) in the mills.

Interestingly, the  author does not appear to share the (purported) Victorian view that women do not experience sexual desire. (Of course, the Victorian era had not yet begun.)  On the contrary, “Man cannot be taught to forget that he is a man, or that the breathing and blushing being before him is a woman; that she is endowed like himself with an argent temperament–a desire for gratification…and that she has passions which, if roused into activity, would overwhelm all sense of shame or propriety. Neither can he be taught to forget that he has a fire within his own breast, which, if freed from the asbestos coating of moral decency, would overthrow all obstacles standing between him and the object of his desire; nor, that he has the capability of stirring into vigorous life his own and woman’s propensities.”  Gaskell’s fear is that an industrialized and urbanized England would become–had largely already become–a sexual free-for-all in which family responsibilities and affections have ceased to exist.

So where does Gaskell see things going in the future?  Mechanization, he is certain, will expand vastly beyond its beachhead in the textile trades.  He quotes an eminent engineer:  “The cottager looks upon the neat paling which fences his dwelling; it was sawed by steam. The spade with which he digs his garden, the rake, the hoe, the pickaxe…every implement of rural toil which ministers to his necessities, are produced by steam…Applied to architecture, we find the Briarean arms of the steam engine every where at work.  Stone is cut by it, marble polished, cement ground…gratings and bolts forged…all owe to steam their most essential requisites.”  And this widespread application of steam has driven prices down, permitting ordinary people to buy things–especially items of apparel–once restricted to the richest few.  But Gaskell questions what benefit the masses of people are actually getting out of this.  “The advantage to the poor man, according to (another contemporary commentator) is, that his wife can purchase a printed calico gown for 2s, 6d.  This is a fact that he repeatedly insists upon.  It seems to us a very poor compensation for poverty, expatriation, or the workhouse.”  (Quite similar to the point sometimes made about cheap imported goods at Wal-Mart in our own time.) So, in Gaskell’s view, the reduced prices of so many items will not equal in their impact the reduction in employments and wages driven by the new technologies.  There is no refuge from the process; commenting on a then-new improvement in spinning machinery, he says, “Spinning machines, when first introduced…at once destroyed domestic spinning: the Iron Man of Roberts will as surely destroy the factory spinner.  It is utterly ridiculous to say that the extension of the trade will aborb the discharged hands–it is impossible.”  And machines can even make machines  (mirroring, again, some of the present-day concerns about artificial intelligence.) Automation will focus on the elimination of the highest-cost workers, so adult men, in particular, are in danger of becoming largely obsolete.

What is to be done to prevent a bleak future of impoverishment, family disintegration, and widespread misery relieved only by the temporary pleasures of the gin shop?

Gaskell disclaims any intention of stopping and rolling back the progress of technology.  He mentions the possibility of taxing steam power (mirroring today’s proposals for the taxation of robots) and concludes that it is not feasible…it would “derange the entire commerce of the kingdom.”  Similarly, restricting the hours of labor would have only a temporary benefit to employment in that it would “stimulate mechanical ingenuity” to recover the increased costs, and hence, “the crisis between human and automatic industry would be accelerated.”  Nor does he see emigration to Canada and other countries…of which there was then a considerable amount happening among unemployed workers (some of it subsidized) as a fair or sustainable solution to the problem of technological unemployment.

His primary proposed solution to the problem of technological unemployment is the reclamation of the waste lands, of which he asserts that there are 31 million acres in Great Britain and Ireland, of which 15 million are capable of agricultural development.  The money currently being expended for welfare and for subsidies of emigration could be better applied to investment in such a project: it could offer productive work to a large number of unemployed or underemployed.  Gaskell also proposes that wherever possible (obviously, not in dense urban areas) workers should be provided with a small plot of land (about half an acre) and that these should be held directly from the landowner rather than indirectly from a tenant farmer.

Concerning factory operations, Gaskell seems some improvement in the current set of owners, some of whom are more concerned with the well-being of their workers than had been the pioneering developers of the industry. He also sees labor-management conflict as very detrimental, and opposes ‘combinations’ on the part of both workers and owners.  He seems to want the mill owners to play a role more analogous to that which the Squire played in an earlier day; yet at the same time, he is very opposed to what Americans would call the Company Store…individual ownership of retail establishments in manufacturing areas would, he believes, not only drive down prices through competition but would promote the establishment of a Middle Class, which he sees as highly beneficial to both workers and owners.  His proposed solutions don’t seem very convincing, and I suspect they were not that convincing to he himself, either.

Tyler Cowen, in his review of this book, says Gaskell is “optimistic about the long run, but not about the transition.”  From my reading, I’m not really seeing that optimism even about the long run.

But things did work out considerably better than one might have thought from Gaskell’s analysis.  Where Gaskell went wrong, I think, is in several areas.  First, he underestimated the potential for economic growth and new industries–he never probably considered, for example, the possibility that people not in the upper classes might own their own carriages, with all the new demands for labor that would create. (And indeed, such widespread carriage-ownership would not probably have been feasible as long as the only motive power available was the horse!)  Second, his argument that reduced working hours would do no good because such reductions would merely spur additional labor-reducing technological improvements misses the beneficent feedback loops that at least sometimes exists in practice between these factors.  Third, he did not foresee the Victorian era and the social and religious trends that would have at least some impact on curbing the drunkenness and other types of social dysfunction that he saw among the urban working classes.

Gaskell explicitly states that he does not mean to portray the pre-industrial times as any kind of Arcadian paradise, but to a considerable extent he does just that.  His almost entirely positive portrayal of the Squire would, I suspect, have been roundly mocked by those living within the domains of a fair number of real-life squires.

John Stuart Mill asserted that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  To some extent, Gaskell’s positive portrait of the worker of pre-industrial times…”a sluggish mind in an active body”…argues the opposite case.

I’m reminded of something C P Snow wrote:

I remember talking to my grandfather when I was a child. He was a good specimen of a nineteenth- century artisan. He was highly intelligent, and he had a great deal of character. He had left school at the age of ten, and had educated himself intensely until he was an old man. He had all his class’s passionate faith in education. Yet,he had never had the luck-or, as I now suspect, the worldly force and dexterity-to go very far. In fact, he never went further than maintenance foreman in a tramway depot. His life would seem to his grandchildren laborious and unrewarding almost beyond belief. But it didn’t seem to him quite like that. He was much too sensible a man not to know that he hadn’t been adequately used: he had too much pride not to feel a proper rancour: he was disappointed that he had not done more-and yet, compared with his grandfather, he felt he had done a lot.

His grandfather must have been an agricultural labourer. I don’t so much as know his Christian name. He was one of the ‘dark people’, as the old Russian liberals used to call them, completely lost in the great anonymous sludge of history. So far as my grandfather knew, he could not read or write. He was a man of ability, my grandfather thought; my grandfather was pretty unforgiving about what society had done, or not done, to his ancestors, and did not romanticise their state. It was no fun being an agricultural labourer in the mid to late eighteenth century, in the time that we, snobs that we are, think of only as the time of the Enlightenment and Jane Austen.

The industrial revolution looked very different according to whether one saw it from above or below. It looks very different today according to whether one sees it from Chelsea or from a village in Asia. To people like my grandfather, there was no question that the industrial revolution was less bad than what had gone before. The only question was, how to make it better.

(from The Two Cultures, 1959)

It’s a long book, but very well worth reading.  The author was a physician, and there is a lot of data about the prevalence of various diseases among different segments of the population; possibly especially interesting to Michael Kennedy.  There are a lot of historical details that I didn’t know; for example, I was certainly aware of the riots, machine-breaking, and other violence, but had never before heard that acid-throwing was a thing back then.

Tyler Cowen, in his review, notes that “So much of (Gaskell’s) discussion of handloom weavers could come out of an Atlantic Monthly article from 2015, albeit with different historical references.”  As I’ve argued before, much of today’s discussion about the economic and social effects of robotics and AI seems quite lacking in historical perspective.  Gaskell’s book is very helpful in developing such a perspective.

14 thoughts on “Technology, Work, and Society – The Age of Transition”

  1. There was a lot of social turmoil resulting from the industrial revolution, such as with Carlyle’s Condition of England Question. His solution was a spiritual revolt led by heroes and ‘Great Men’, which proved to work better in the mythical past than in the practicable present.

    Disraeli jumped on the same bandwagon with his welfare and patronage agenda, forming a coalition with the landed gentry and working class to oppose the new merchant industrial class He once made an impassioned argument for reactionary values. He did have a point in that the social fabric was previously preserved by nobility. Business owners replaced the nobility, and those roles of social protectors were lost in the rush for profits.

    Now, what is the fundamental principle of the feudal system, gentlemen? It is that the tenure of all property shall be the performance of its duties. Why, when the Conqueror carved out parts of the land, and introduced the feudal system, he said to the recipient, “You shall have that estate, but you shall do something for it: you shall feed the poor; you shall endow the Church; you shall defend the land in case of war; and you shall execute justice and maintain truth to the poor for nothing.”

    It is all very well to talk of the barbarities of the feudal system, and to tell us that in those days when it flourished a great variety of gross and grotesque circumstances and great miseries occurred but these were not the result of the feudal system; they were the result of the barbarism of the age. They existed not from the feudal system, but in spite of the feudal system.

    Let me next tell those gentlemen who are so fond of telling us that property has its duties as well as its rights, that labour also has rights as well as its duties; and when I see masses of property raised in this country which do not recognize that principle; when I find men making fortunes by a method which permits them (very often in a very few years) to purchase the lands of the old territorial aristocracy of the country, I cannot help remembering that those millions are accumulated by a mode which does not recognize it as a duty “to endow the Church, to feed the poor, to guard the land, and to execute justice for nothing.”

  2. For a government, it really depends on it’s priorities. If it is to enrich the rich and themselves, as most governments are, then those are it’s priorities. Money buys votes, and sometimes people.

    If you can remove the corruption and have the actual vote of the people voting in their own self interest, government would tend more to support of the larger voting class. This happens rarely because the fruit of government is immensely valuable and it’s ownership so potent, that the rich and powerful never leave this to chance.

    But once in a while they screw up;)

  3. Tyler Cowen in his review contrasts Gaskell’s era and our own as follows: “However today’s stories typically claim that automation favors tech skills, whereas Gaskell argues power weaving put the skilled workers out of jobs and empowered the less skilled machine supervisors.”

    This is only partially true. Much present-day automation actually de-skills large numbers of jobs: a store checkout clerk with a bar code scanner doesn’t need to have the change-making skills, or even the basic arithmetic skills, of an earlier-era clerk. Telephone-based customer service people are often given detailed scripts to follow. A chain store manager typically does not have the inventory management responsibilities of a 1960 local store operator.

    And while it is true that present-day automation creates jobs requiring high level technical skills, this was also true to some extent of the early Industrial Revolution….and not only jobs for a few top-level inventors. Millwrights, for example, who defined the factory layout and set up the equipment. I suspect that many of these people had more satisfying careers than they would have had earlier as agricultural laborers.

  4. “As I’ve argued before, much of today’s discussion about the economic and social effects of robotics and AI seems quite lacking in historical perspective. ”

    Much of today’s discussion about ANYTHING seems quite lacking in historical perspective, even for values of “historical” that encompass no longer a time span than my college-aged daughter’s life span.

    I consider, particularly, the current discussion about “Net Neutrality”. Have none of the sober adults screaming about the end of the internet lived thru the birth of AOL and its death AFTER building out its own network of acoustic modems? Weren’t they there for the dramatic iPhone/ATT “exclusivity agreement”? Do they not see — this past year — how Amazon is re-engineering logistics services by copying Domino’s Pizza and recognize how that applies to the “last mile” of data services, as well?

    No perspective at all.

  5. It seems that one factor in the social disruption and financial pain for many in the early Industrial Revolution was the practice of parliamentary enclosure, which was sort of a form of eminent domain on behalf of well-connected private individuals. The increased difficulty of earning a living on the land drove many to factory work as the only alternative; surely it exerted a downward pressure on wages…contrast with the United States, where cheap or free land was widely available.

    The subject of enclosure and its benefits and detriments remains controversial after all these years. One interesting piece here:

  6. Fascinating. Thanks, David.

    One of the optimistic themes of “America 3.0” is the possibility that new technologies such as 3D printing and self-driving vehicles may make possible a renaissance of family-based enterprise along the lines that existed before industrialization, but with modern levels of productivity, with substantial social and cultural benefits. Any thoughts on this idea?

  7. Jonathan…as far as actual manufacturing goes, I don’t think we’re going to see a huge amount of it done by in-home businesses. 3-D printers have a lot of potential, but they’re not universal replicators. If your product includes digital circuits and electric motors, for example, I don’t think you’re going to be able to print the requisite chips on your home 3-D printers, and even if you could print the motor, it seems like a cumbersome and expensive way of doing it…so you’re going to be sourcing these components from factories and assembling them in to your product…maybe assembly robots will get cheap enough to help with this. If your product has metal parts that need a high level of strength/durability, then heat treatment may be needed.

    So, FWIW, it seems to me that most small physical-product businesses will be better off doing the design and marketing, contracting out the physical manufacturing, and using the Internet for marketing, locating business partners, etc. Exception when the product is ‘crafty’ and being handmade by someone at home is part of the selling proposition.

    I’m missing how self-driving vehicles would help home-based businesses…does it have to do with delivery?

  8. Self-driving vehicles should make it easier for people to live and work where they want to. 3D printing should obviate the need for some traditional manufacturing, e.g. of clothing, and should facilitate the separation of design and manufacturing. Of course if people prefer to work in organizations they may continue to do so, but many may not.

  9. None of the above posts or links seem to even mention the English Reformation, the destruction of the monasteries and the handing of their property over to new wealthy landowners whose motivations were entirely different from those of the monks, etc. I get why Disraeli, an Englishman of the 19th century, wouldn’t want to say anything that might seem to suggest that that atrocity against all social and cultural norms was a massive mistake, but we’re more than a century after Chesterton and Belloc and you’d think their work on distributism is a bit relevant to this discussion…(granted, they are no more impartial than Disraeli, et. al., in this area, but they do have the benefit of actually being correct in their analysis and prescription).

  10. OK, so speaking of technology, I assume everyone’s seen the “UFO” video the DoD just put out?

    The question is, who are we trying to impress/scare by showing off our next-gen aerial platform like this? North Korea? China? For what purpose?

  11. “Self-driving vehicles should make it easier for people to live and work where they want to.”

    I live in Tucson and work two days a week (about) in Phoenix. It’s a two hour drive each way. I could use a self driving car.

    Except I will probably quit in a year or two. Then the people I work for fly me over to LA almost every other week and that won’t help.

    I do listen to audio books and it is a good opportunity to do that. I listened to the entire (four volume) Robert Caro Johnson biography. 80 hours total.

    My wife got interested and we listened to it again driving over to Orange County last month.

  12. Re Brian’s comment, it’s been argued that Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries actually delayed the industrial revolution:


    It’s certainly true that monasteries were involved in much technological development, especially waterpower and its applications; OTOH, I don’t know that they would have had much interest in large-scale textile production.

  13. Another interesting things about the book – the author cites some thoughts on the current economic and employment climate by Charles Babbage. Gaskell had no way of knowing, of course, that the concepts first suggested by Babbage would mature a century later into another technology revolution which was as significant in its implications as the one of his own time.

  14. Here’s an auto manufacturing startup focused on enabling car factories at smaller scale points: $20MM for a car plant instead of $1B. Based on a combination of 3d printing and carbon fiber technologies.

    Engines are sourced from vendors, where they are fabricated and assembled conventionally.

    More here:

Comments are closed.