Siegbert Tarrasch (d. 1934) was a great chess player who loved his paradoxes.
One of them was that there’s no such thing as an unequivocally good chess move because, to take control of new squares, a piece has to relinquish control of some old ones.
Could this be a cautionary tale about not just chess but any kind of progress? For nothing in this world comes free, and progress is no exception.
I’m specifically talking about scientific and technological progress because, unlike any other kind, it’s real and observable.
Nineteenth century Luddites certainly felt that the price of progress was too steep. Those textile workers had spent years learning their craft – only to be replaced by machines serving the god of productivity better.
Quite a bit of violence followed, and one can understand both sides. Nor was the problem limited to textile workers and England – in fact, the etymology of the word sabotage goes back to a similar conundrum in France at the same time.
The god of productivity is athirst, and his thirst must be slaked. Since greater productivity usually involves more product being produced with less effort, it stands to reason that the higher the productivity, the lower the demand for workers.
A Ford assembly line in Dagenham produces more vehicles per unit of time than the number of carriages crafted by cooperatives of cartwrights and wainwrights of yesteryear.
Thus the latter two crafts were first marginalised and then wiped out. So what did those newly unemployed tradesmen do?
What did chandlers do after most candles had been replaced with light bulbs? What did all those people do after their jobs had fallen victim to progress?
Let’s just say that their plight was eased by the slow tempo of change. Cars didn’t replace carriages overnight; it must have taken at least a generation.
That was enough time for an old cartwright to tell his son that perhaps now wasn’t a good time to pursue the family trade. People won’t be riding in carriages for much longer, lad, they’ll be getting into those new-fangled noisy and smelly things. Let’s think what else you could do.
Also, all such changes happened at a time of unprecedented industrial expansion, when more and more hands were needed to perform myriads of simple operations. So whatever pain was caused was mitigated.
What’s happening now is altogether different. To mention but one small thing, technology, in the shape of kitchen appliances, washing machines, answerphones, vacuum cleaners has well nigh destroyed a major source of living for the lower classes: domestic service.
In the past even middle-class families routinely employed several servants, and such service wasn’t just a job but actually a career. A man could work his way up from groom to valet to butler to steward; a woman, from scullery maid to cook or from chambermaid to housekeeper.
That whole industry has practically faded away since the First World War, although technological progress wasn’t the only, perhaps not even the main, reason for it.
Where technology is the sole culprit is in the demise of millions of low- to medium-skilled jobs that can now be done more efficiently by machines. The problem isn’t just that such jobs disappear; it’s that they disappear instantly.
It’s arguable whether life has become better, but it has definitely become faster. A factory owner may buy a computerised system that makes hundreds of workers redundant overnight. Where will they go?
Or else a country may decide that in our global economy some commodity, say coal, is cheaper to buy abroad than to produce at home. Thus it took Margaret Thatcher what in historical terms was an instant to close the coal mines.
But what happened to all the miners? Where do such cast-offs of modern economies ever go?
They can’t go to another factory because exactly the same thing is happening there. They can’t go to another mine because it too is closed. In fact, there are hardly any jobs in the market that don’t require extensive training and education.
So what will happen to those people? Are they all going to become fund managers, systems analysts and computer programmers? Most won’t. Some may – but not straight away. Retraining will take years, but they don’t have those years.
They haven’t had the luxury of adapting to changes that take decades to come about. Last week the computer system came in; this week they’re out in the street.
Hence they’re left with only one option: going on the dole. This is an individual problem in each case. But, when welfare rolls swell to bursting, it becomes a huge social problem.
In some European countries, a quarter of young people are unemployed, and overall unemployment figures are kept down only by statistical chicanery. At the same time, people in work have to pay half of their income or more to provide for those out of work, which is neither just nor conducive to social health.
The inestimable effects of a vast dependent underclass are destructive economically, socially, morally and in every way imaginable. And, as progress rolls along like an unstoppable juggernaut, this time driven not by a man but by artificial intelligence, things will only get worse.
At some point they’ll come to a head, and post-industrial Luddites will start doing to computers what their ancestors did to those textile machines.
In this dystopic scenario, much featured in literature and on film, progress will destroy itself – and this isn’t the worst that can happen.
Let’s not forget that killing technology has also progressed beyond tanks and machineguns, and in the next world war more people may be killed in one day than the two previous world wars managed altogether.
The only thing that can prevent such doomsdays is the same thing that could have prevented every catastrophe in history: prudence and wisdom.
A measure of restraint has to be applied to our appetites – we may feel like gorging ourselves on the goodies delivered by progress just like we may feel like scoffing three pounds of chocolates or drinking three bottles of whisky. But we must check our appetites in the first case just as we do in the other two.
To paraphrase John Muir, I’m advocating not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress. But for such opposition to become effective, it requires sage and farsighted leaders, especially in government.
Thus Margaret Thatcher, arguably our best post-war prime minister, should have closed the pits gradually, perhaps over 10-20 years, while investing into retraining and relocation. The immediate economic effect would have been less beneficial, but the long-term social effect would have been much better.
Alas, the very nature of modern unchecked democracy run riot precludes foresight and planning for the future. The only future our politicians can plan for is the next election – and even that they don’t do very well.
The economic benefits of instant change will come during their tenure; the resulting social – and ultimately economic – erosion, during someone else’s. Easy choice, isn’t it?
Speaking specifically of Britain, the cumulative effect of the social alienation produced by blithe commitment to progress may soon bring to power the ultimate Luddite party that hates not so much the technological progress delivered by capitalism as capitalism tout court.
The resentful, uneducated, corrupted underclass votes, and it tends to vote as a bloc. So hold your breath – and risk suffocation by holding your nostrils as well.