In my review of R.U.R., I talked a bit about the theme of progress and production. In that play, the robots are tasked with all the manual labour that man no longer feels like doing, and the director of the robot factory wants to make more and more robots all the time. This is in line with his main philosophy:
“Any acceleration constitutes progress, Miss Glory. Nature had no grasp of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time.”
There are a few things here I’d like to unpack. I’m really interested in the idea of progress, production and work, and R.U.R. does a good job of illustrating the above ideology. And it’s certainly relevant to our current global situation.
Any Acceleration Constitutes Progress
Fabry, the factory director, believes in the primacy of work. So much so that he wants robots to replace all humans in the workforce because humans are totally inefficient and expensive compared to robots (which cost three quarters of a cent per hour). I can’t argue with this. Computers, like my laptop here, can execute a bajillion computations per second. That’s why they’re awesome. And we are certainly experiencing an acceleration in technology right now, the likes of which has never before been seen in human history. Acceleration can be progress, but I think there are some important caveats here that are easy to forget.
1. What are we actually making? Making things is great, and making more of them faster can also be great. But the time comes when we have to ask ourselves: what the heck are we even making? And is it really that great?
We’re making more cars all the time. Is that such a good idea? We’re making more plastic bottles all the time. That’s not a great idea at all! If there’s no planet Earth, then we won’t be able to make anything anyway!
There’s a great little article in The New York Times, “The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics” that talks about this issue. The article states that since the 1950s, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced. And most of it is floating in the ocean, or sitting in landfills. Great.
I’m not saying my life hasn’t been directly impacted by plastics (which includes clothing fibers and building materials) and that I’m the lone innocent person in a sea of culprits when it comes to plastics use. I’m just curious about the net benefit to us a whole, when the net benefit to the planet is less than zilch. And I’m sure there’s more we could be doing in that arena.
2. Why does more, better, faster = progress? Companies measure their success in terms of production and revenue. They always want to earn more and make more. In addition, GDP, the total value of all goods and services in a country over a given time period, is positive if it increases, and a sign of an ill economy if it decreases. Why? I know it’s correlated to job growth and the unemployment rate, and the more that’s made, the more people probably have jobs. But I’m just not sure it’s sustainable.
It’s like inflation. It’s always going up. But how long can that last? A stick of gum in 1950 cost 5 cents and today it’s a dollar. In another 50 years will a stick of gum cost $20?
What I’m trying to say is that our metrics for success and progress are more, better, faster, and I’m just not sure those are the right measurements in the first place. Maybe they were during the Industrial Revolution. But I think we’re past that.
Nature Has No Grasp of the Modern Rate of Work
This point ties in to no. 2 above. Our metrics are totally out of whack with nature. At this point, I’m convinced we’re smart enough to rectify this without giving up all that’s comfortable about our lives. I suspect that deep down this is what many people fear when they consider a return to nature. But goddamn, if we can create self-driving cars and toilets with variable flush settings, then we can set up our lives in such a way that they are sustainable and comfortable.
The Whole of Childhood Is Pure Nonsense
Here again we see Fabry’s philosophy. Only work matters and time spent on anything else is time wasted. There were a good many decades when popular culture bought into this. But certainly in the past 10 years or so we’ve been seeing the errors of our ways. We’ve been poking defeating holes in the culture of overwork and realizing just how important leisure time is, and, similarly, how important play time is for children. I wonder how much this has to do with the fact that there hasn’t been a world war in a while.
One last point I’d like to bring up is supply and demand. This idea basically runs capitalism. (I think?) A lot of our problems, for example with the environment, have to do with people producing things just because there’s a demand. For example, there’s certainly a demand for soda pop, or raspberries when they’re not in season. Where there is such a demand, there is money to be made by supplying that thing.
So my assertion here is that just because there’s a demand, doesn’t mean we need to supply it.
I can hear die-hard capitalists and economists gasping now!
*Ducks to avoid thrown tomatoes*
We will be fine if we have to wait till raspberries are in season in our area to eat them. And we’ll be fine without soda pop. We’ll be fine if…I could go on and on. The bottom line is: we’ll be fine! More than fine!
Not everything is worth capitalizing on. And I think people are starting to realize this.
So anyways, I just wanted to get these thoughts out there. Like I said in my post “Why I Love Science Fiction“, this genre helps me think through real-life ideas and that’s one of the reasons I love it. Also, this theme is loaded with possible stories.
Now go forth and ponder!