DOREEN
Let’s talk about technological unemployment. What is it?

RICHARD
My understanding is it’s the idea that with increasing automation you’re going to see more and more people out of work. Like for example self–checkout lines in supermarkets or robots on assembly lines. And the follow on from that is structural unemployment, where people’s skills don’t match the jobs which are available. But from what I know people have been worried about this for ages – at least since the industrial revolution.

DOREEN
That would have been the Luddites smashing the automatic looms and such like.

RICHARD
The “dark satanic mills” that William Blake describes which were in fact horrible places to work – and were eloquently opposed by many at the time from Charles Dickens to Ruskin to William Morris, who said, “It is right and necessary that all should have work to do which shall be worth doing and be of itself pleasant to do, and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over–wearisome nor over–anxious.”

DOREEN
I think there was also an aspect to it of the disappearance of a craft – like weaving – which took a certain amount of skill to be replaced by a machine must have been completely devastating. And similarly today whether it’s grocery store workers, truckers, warehouse workers, assembly–line workers, these are people whose financial security not to mention their sense of self–worth is being threatened by the impacts of automation. It just seems that there is something just plain wrong about people being replaced by a machine.

RICHARD
Yeah I think there is a kind of technological utopianism that imagines a world where people don’t have to work as hard and there’s more time for leisure. This is the idea that work is a curse or as Tocqueville described it, “a disease”. But I agree with you that a world without work is more of a nightmare than a utopia because what do you replace it with? One of the best (and most horrifying) Pixar movies ever was Wall-E which has robots doing all the work and humans as gigantic immobile babies floating around on chairs and drinking nutrients out of sippy cups. That’s worse than unemployment. It’s horrifying because it’s not what we’re made for. Human beings are hardwired to create and to work hard. So even putting aside the fact that automation only serves to make the rich richer and leaves many in poverty, technological innovation runs the risk of trivializing this very important aspect of life.

DOREEN
So how do you resist? How do you, as Neil Postman puts it, “refuse to accept efficiency and increased profitability as the most important goal”? This might be a good place to talk about our places of work. A guiding principle for us here on the Bruderhof is that any business we run exists for the benefit of the community, meaning the people who live in the community, and not the other way around. That’s why if you look at our places of work there are two seemingly contradictory things that stand out. The first one is advanced labor–saving systems and processes. The second is what you might call planned inefficiencies.

RICHARD
Let’s talk about the first one first. Some types of work are simply very mindless and boring and refusing to automate such tasks on principle is really just an insult to human dignity and creativity. It is also the case that we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves with our current businesses without adapting to technological change. So that’s why, for example, if you visit one of our woodshops, you’ll see an automated wood lacquering system that dramatically speeds up a process that used to be done by hand – very repetitive and physically demanding.

DOREEN
To the second point however, there are places where so–called inefficiencies is how we maintain a communal workspace where old and young can work side by side and learn and be inspired by one another. It’s in these places where the work is there to benefit people and increasing profitability is not the primary motive. You can also see this in the way the assembly line is broken down into discrete tasks which allows for all members of the community to come in at one time whether they’re office workers, medical professionals, or whatever and enjoy fellowship in working together which is just as important as worshipping or enjoying leisure time together. And these discrete work tasks are work literally anyone can do, from the most capable to the oldest and those with disabilities.

RICHARD
It truly is work for all and, as a side note, the work is additionally rewarding because your making products for kids and for people with disabilities. But, too, because people in management and people on the assembly line both aren’t getting paid (one of our vows as members is to give up money and property) there’s no incentive to make the businesses bigger than they have to be and a great incentive to make the workshops places where anyone be it folks with disabilities, short-term guests, or whatever, can find a job and be part of the team. Because working together is how we put what we say we believe into practice.

DOREEN
And just because you said “people in management” I want to say that the managerial class is an awful invention that really is anathema to community life.

RICHARD
Yeah titles are sometimes necessary to divide up the work but it really is at bottom just a team working together.

DOREEN
And that’s really the answer to the problem, I guess you could say, of technological innovation that replaces people. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s in the context of a narrative whose theme is restoration of dignity, overcoming of injustice and inequality as opposed to seeing technological progress and improvement as the highest good.

RICHARD
And that’s the Christian narrative. Well that’s all for this video. See you next time!