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“You could hear these looms”

A closeup photo of a Jacquard loom, a large wooden contraption with many threads attached and a thick stack of punch cards.

Above: A Jacquard loom. Note the punch cards on the right. This 1801 loom was arguably the first programmed industrial equipment.

Image credit: Stephen C. Dickson / Wikimedia CC Attribution-Share Alike International License 4.0

Much of the conversation about AI is about computing replacing entire swathes of workers. I think this concern is overblown and is a side-effect of the mindset I call “everyone else’s job is easy.” I say this as a front-end developer, which means my job is squarely in the sights of many people who would like to replace us temperamental, picky people with a more compliant computer.

The history of technology is often the history of taking slow, skilled labor away from artisans and putting it in the hands of less skilled workers so it can be done, as the techbros say, “at scale.” In economics this is called deskilling and it can be devastating to people’s livelihoods.

One of the earliest examples of this is the 1801 Jacquard loom, an earliest — if not the earliest — example of a programmable machine that did real, economic work. Using an early form of punch card, the loom could reproduce very intricate woven fabrics with minimal skill from the operator. This put many people out of work, especially young children. But I’ll come back to that.

Mechanization bad, maybe good, it depends how quaint the job is

In the 1990s we saw a rapid decrease in industrial jobs in the US, but it was a trend that had been building for a really long time. It was in this atmosphere of job loss and factory closings that Priscilla Herdman, Anne Hills, and Cindy Mangsen recorded a folk album called Voices. One track, “Silken Dreams,” is a reminiscence of the American silk industry.

This here loom is fifty years old.
Me and Mary, we’re a little older.
We’ve been here since 1918,
Now the factory’s closing down.

And on a hot summer night
You could hear these looms,
They never shut them down.
Weavin’ and spinnin’ the silken dreams
Of the workers in Allentown

I have to say, it’s very strange to hear a wistful song about round-the-clock labor and noise pollution. There’s a paper mill near where I grew up. Can you imagine the song? “On a hot summer night / you could smell those fumes / they spread for miles around…”

It’s worth pointing out that for at least part of its history the American silk industry and textiles in general relied on child labor. Prior to the Jacquard loom, children were necessary because they were small enough to climb through the loom and do the intricate arrangement of the horizontal weft threads. The Jacquard loom took this work over, did it better, and did it more quickly. Most of us (with the exception of some Deep South Republicans) consider child labor barbaric, so this might at first seem like a good thing. But it no doubt left many families in financial distress, with very little to fall back on.

In the early US silk industry, child labor was used because it was cheap — maybe a quarter of what an adult was paid — and silk mills were only forced to stop hiring children through political pressure and legislation. Again: we consider this an improvement, but it reduced the earning potential in a family.

The silk industry in the US died not because of mechanization — it was already mechanized — but because America’s war with Japan cut off the supply of raw silk. And before it could come back, there was a whole suite of new synthetic materials.

Coal miners were badly hurt by mechanization. But Herdman, Hills & Mangsen take a less sentimental view. They have not one but two songs on the album about the horrors of coal mining. There is “Black Burning Air:”

Day passed for night down in the mine
The walls of the seam like the black water shine,
It was rock by the ton, life by the day,
Breathing the black burning air.

And “Redwing Blackbird:”

Oh, can you see that pretty little bird
Singing with all his heart and soul?
He’s got a blood red spot on his wing
And all of the rest of him is black as coal.
Of all the colors I ever did see,
Red and black are the ones I dread.
For when a man spills blood on coal
They carry him out of the coal mines dead.

No “silken dreams” there.

This makes a bit of sense, I suppose. Weaving (and spinning), once common professions, are now part of crafting culture — so people view the old industry, at least, a lot more favorably than they do coal mining. Coal mining is not a craft, and it’s viewed by many as an industry we’d be much better off without.

The American left’s hostility to coal power has often bled into disregard for the feelings of coal workers. Or patronizing paternalism — trying patiently to explain to coal employees that they are better off without the jobs they have now, and (in many cases) the jobs their families have had for generations. And then placing them in poorly regulated and monitored retraining programs that utterly fail to deliver.

But textile jobs, just like coal jobs, were and are low-paying, low-status work and the focus of much labor organizing. Textile workers led America’s first industrial strike, and the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike shut down hundreds of silk mills for almost half a year. And, of course, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 had such an impact on worker safety than I even learned about it in high school. The original Luddites were actually textile workers.

Sometimes the strikes were against machines; other times they were against abysmal working conditions and abusive hours. Very little romance there.

What we’re really talking about is who’s job is unimportant enough to be replaced

I am thinking all of these things because relatively recently I saw a viral post on social media that said:

Okay, techbros. Look.

I don’t want an AI assistant. I don’t want self-driving cars. I don’t want a Mars colony. I don’t want robots that create art, or help with coding, or deliver food, or determine the most efficient way to maximize destruction when bombing civili—I mean “legitimate military targets”.

I just want a robot that CLEANS MY FUCKING BATHROOM FOR ME

As if there aren’t people who depend on cleaning bathrooms for a living, too. I mean, I know you clean your bathroom, but if the technology exists to automate cleaning a domestic bathroom it will almost certainly clean industrial and commercial bathrooms, too.

I doubt the author really thought that, but that’s kind of the point. A lot of the jobs that have previously been replaced by automation and technology are low-status and invisible jobs. Janitorial services is certainly in that category. The author should understand that their acceptable anti-AI choices are to learn to clean their own bathroom or hire a cleaning service to do it instead.

Full disclosure: My paternal grandfather worked in coal mining, and my maternal grandfather worked in a jeans factory, then later as a school janitor. I take the slights personally, only somewhat on their behalf.

When robots replace us, we deserve some of the benefit

When we talk about AI taking the jobs of artists and programmers, it’s phrased like “robots will replace us,” but robots and computers have been replacing us for sixty years. Machines have been replacing us for much longer.

Overall, I think we’re better off without round-the-clock silk mills exploiting cheap labor. We’d be better off, as well, without fossil-fuel extraction economy. Knitting was once a crucial household skill, now it’s something we can choose to do or not. In a certain sense, we’re a lot better off because of that.

The problem is not that machines are taking our jobs (and now they are taking your job and my job, too). The problem is that the bulk of the benefits of automation tend to get concentrated upwards. That is, into the hands of the rich people who own the machines and control the labor. We should get the benefits of improved efficiency and automation, but we’re not. Since 1979 productivity has increased by 67% while worker pay has only increased by 11%. The result is a second gilded age, where Tesla fights in court to give Elon Musk $56 billion in compensation just days after laying off 10% of its workforce. The problem is living in an economic system where not having a job is a deadly threat that can cost you your health care, your means of transportation, and your home.

People should be weavin’ and spinnin’ if they want to, but no one should feel forced to work a midnight shift at a silk mill just to feed and shelter their kids. This does not feel to me like a radical position to take, but too many people see it that way.

In the past, the way we clawed back a share of the benefits of industrialization was through political action and labor action. Banning technologies (or simply complaining loudly about it) has never worked particularly well, and robs the rich and the poor of the potential benefits a technology might provide. It is an economic fight that uses words that make people very uncomfortable, like “organizing” and “strike” — strategies that have been proven time and again to be very effective, whether it’s a silk mill, a coal mine, or the Writer’s Guild of America.

It’s really hard to argue against technology in general. Sometimes the technology is unquestionably bad (DDT, Thalidomide). Sometimes it is very good (vaccines). Often it is mixed (computers). We are undoubtedly better off with refrigerators that chill themselves instead of an ice collection and shipping industry which once employed 90,000 people, including small armies of physical laborers who “harvested” ice from frozen lakes in the winter. Freezin’ and shippin’ the chilly dreams of the workers, no doubt.

Will AI ruin us? Will it create new opportunities for us? I do not know. But I save most of my ire for the captains of industry who intend for AI to replace us but refuse to share the spoils. Which will undoubtedly happen if we let it.

Note: no portion of this article was written with the assistance of large language models. This essay is 100% human-sourced and completely artisanal awkward phrasing and grammar errors. Also, the Herdman, Hills, Mangsen album Voices is one of my favorites, and I know all of the lyrics by heart.