A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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A few years ago I had an epiphany in a parking lot. I was visiting a railroad yard where freight cars are sorted according to their destinations and assembled into trains. It was a big place, a hub of the national rail network, and when I drove through the gate, I wasn’t surprised to find a parking lot with space for 200 cars. But the lot was empty except for a dozen cars huddled near the entrance to the main building. The superintendent who was showing me around soon explained. At one time, the yard employed a large number of brakemen, who rode along on each of the freight cars to control their speed during the sorting process. But the role of the brakemen has been taken over by mechanical “retarders” installed in the track and operated by computer control. In the old days there was also a large room filled with clerks, who handled the paperwork that accompanied every freight car on its journey across the country. But the routing of cars is now accomplished by electronic communication from one computer to another, and so the sorting yard is paperless and clerkless. The room where the clerks had their desks is as empty as the parking lot.

What struck me that morning was just how lonely a place the industrial landscape has become. It’s not just railroad freight yards; I found the same haunting depopulation almost everywhere I looked. On the docks of a cargo port, gangs of longshoremen used to swarm over a ship to load or unload it; now most of the work is done by one artful crane operator, perched high overhead, lifting 60,000-pound containers at the rate of two a minute. Where miners used to toil underground, drilling and blasting, the earth is now ripped open by gargantuan shovels and draglines; these machines, too, are controlled by one worker in a high glass booth. Telephone switching centers, once filled with the voices of hundreds of operators, are silent, dark, and deserted. On the high plains of Kansas, a solitary farmer in a tractor plows and plants a thousand acres of land. At an oil refinery, the rows of tall distilling towers and chemical reactors give the place the look of a city of skyscrapers, but it is a vacant city, with no one on the streets; everything is watched over by a few engineers and technicians inside a windowless control room.

Fifty years ago, “automation” was a matter of considerable public interest, a subject for academic white papers, newspaper editorials, and congressional hearings. The prospect of replacing human labor with machines seemed both attractive and forbidding at the same time. According to one faction, automation would liberate us all from drudgery, giving us the time and economic freedom to cultivate higher callings; we would be a society of poets and scholars at leisure. The other side asked: If our jobs are taken by sleepless machines, how shall we live? At the time when these competing visions of the future were being debated, most people probably believed neither of them. The idea that automation might either displace or liberate some large fraction of the work force was one of those fantasies that would always remain just beyond the horizon, like the nuclear-powered flying automobile. Whether it was a threat or a promise, automation was for the future, not the present. But now automation is here, even though the word itself is seldom spoken anymore. Machines have insinuated themselves into our lives in ways that the futurists of the 1950s could not have anticipated, and as a result whole categories of jobs have all but disappeared. Elevator operators, typesetters, and airplane navigators have followed milkmaids and lamplighters into oblivion.

The social and economic consequences of these developments are not yet fully understood. So far, automation has not made us a nation of poets and scholars. So far, armies of the dispossessed and unemployed are not roaming the streets. I would not attempt to predict how the important questions of work, livelihood, and income distribution will ultimately be settled. But I do feel I can say something about the effect of all these changes on public perceptions of the industrial landscape.

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