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<nettime> Automation: Learning a Living (Marshall McLuhan, 1964)

[Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan, 1964,
pp. 357-59, final chapter, the last four paragraphs]

Automation: Learning a Living

Such is also the harsh logic of industrial automation. All that we had
previously achieved mechanically by great exertion and coordination
can now be done electrically without effort. Hence the specter of
joblessness and propertylessness in the electric age. Wealth and work
become information factors, and totally new structures are needed
to run a business or relate it to social needs and markets. With
the electric technology, the new kinds of instant interdependence
and interprocess that take over production also enter into market
and social organizations. For this reason, markets and education
designed to cope with the products of servile toil and mechanical
production are no longer adequate. Our education has long ago acquired
the fragmentary and piece-meal character of mechanism. It is now under
increasing pressure to acquire the depth and interrelation that are
indispensable in the all-at-once world of electric organization.

Paradoxically, automation makes liberal education mandatory. The
electric age of servomechanisms suddenly releases men from the
mechanical and specialist servitude of the preceding machine age.
As the machine and the motorcar released the horse and projected it
onto the plane of entertainment, do does automation with men. We are
suddenly threatened with a liberation that taxes our inner resources
of self-employment and imaginative participation in society. It has
the effect of making most people realize how much they have come to
depend on the fragmentalized and repetitive routines of the mechanical
era. Thousands of years ago man, the nomadic food-gatherer, had
taken up positional, or relatively sedentary, tasks. He began to
specialize. The development of writing and printing were major steps
of that process. They were supremely specialist in separating the
roles of knowledge from the roles of action, even though at times
it could appear that the "pen is mightier than the sword." But with
electricity and automation, the technology of fragmented processes
suddenly fused with the human dialogue and the need for over-all
consideration of human unity. Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of
knowledge, nomadic as never before; since with electricity we extend
our central nervous system as never before -- but also involved in the
total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend
our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every
human experience. Long accustomed to such a state in stock-market
news or front-page sensations, we can grasp the meaning of this new
dimension more readily when it is pointed out that it is possible to
"fly" unbuilt airplanes on computers. The specifications of a plane
can be programmed and the plane tested under a variety of conditions
before it has left the drafting board. So with new products and new
organizations of many kinds. We can now, by computer, deal with
complex social needs with the same architectural certainty that we
previously attempted in private housing. Industry as a whole has
become the unit of reckoning, and so with society, politics, and
education as wholes.

Electric means of storing and moving information with speed and
precision make the largest units quite as manageable as small ones.
Thus the automation of a plant or an entire industry offers a small
model of the changes that must occur in society from the same electric
technology. Total interdependence is the starting fact. Nevertheless,
the range of choice in design, stress, and goal within that total
field of electromagnetic interprocess is very much greater than it
ever could have been under mechanization.

Since electric energy is independent of the place or kind of
work-operation, it creates patterns of decentralization and diversity
in the work to be done. This is a logic that appears plainly enough
in the difference between firelight and electric light, for example.
Persons grouped around a fire or a candle for warmth or light are
less able to pursue independent thoughts, or even tasks, than people
supplied with electric light. In the same way, the social and
educational patterns latent in automation are those of self-employment
and artistic autonomy. Panic about automation as a threat to
uniformity on a world scale is the projection into the future of
mechanical standardization and specialism, which are now past.

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