“We shape our tools, then our tools shape us”
If we think of technology as “an extension of our own bodies and faculties”, making us capable “to cope with various environments” (McLuhan, 1960), it’s easy to start considering a new technology not as stroke of genius but as an unconscious attempt to solve a problem of adaptation.
In the 19th century, electricity-based technologies built the basis for a transition between mechanical and automated processes. When Telegraph (experimented in 1844 by Samuel Morse) substituted Print as a mass medium, it could be seen as a straight evolution of the old technology. Automation is often seen as a result of a simple exaggeration of mechanics features, like speed or repetition, but this is just a classic example of how a technology can be misunderstood, in particular when it is a new one.
A mechanical process, medium or technology (like Print) is specialized, fragmented and linear.
Automation is just the opposite.
Providing a high level of interrelation and interdependence between all the elements, it is general, involving and discontinuous. It doesn’t require a central authority for its functioning and it promotes complete decentralization. We have re-discovered this concept, “decentralization”, thanks to Blockchain technology and to Fintech economic sector. McLuhan used it with the same meaning in the early sixties of the last century, because he considered it a necessary part of the electric media revolution.
Since electric media appeared, men lost an authority to rely on and suddenly became nomadic gatherers of information. This happened because products became services. At the speed of light, even money became pure information. It’s not by chance that the term “Credit card” first appeared in a 1887 science fiction novel by English prolific writer Edward Bellamy. That was the period of maximum diffusion of telegraph, the first electric medium that allowed instant communication. Before that, money had never lost its materiality.
So, automation is a process started more than a century ago.
Today we clearly see the effects of automation because speed makes the patterns much more understandable, just likes cinema is able to build a story by accelerating single frames. If we make an effort, today we can also highlight the reverse effects of automation, the ones that appear when the diffusion of a medium is pushed to the limit.
Automation frees the human beings from specialized works. What is left for men is a role in their tribal society: involving, general and non linear.
Let’s think about robo-advisory, a Fintech well known tendency. A computerized process gathers a huge bunch of interrelated and interdependent information and, avoiding conflicts of interests, provides a recommendation. In such a process, some people are freed from a highly complex, specialized analysis, while other people are driven to a “do it yourself”, decentralized activity.
When we ask ourselves: “Do automation cancel jobs?”, we only make clear our mechanic, standard, linear way of thinking that we acquired from the mechanical age, that is gone forever (for what we know). In the age of automation there are no jobs, only roles.
Because “…the social and educational patterns latent in automation are those of self-employment and artistic autonomy” (M. McLuhan, Understanding media, 1964).
(visions are my own)