Just use your fingernails

It's been a while since we stirred up the subject of automation and the loss of jobs:
The first cargo ship with McLean containers had set off in 1956 from the New Jersey port in Texas. The complete loading of the ship took 8 hours. An extremely short time in comparison with several days needed for the traditional method, and it was reduced shortly afterward by implementing better cranes and parallel unloading and loading of the ships at the same time. But McLean was only interested in one figure: the cost of transporting of one tonne of wares. In 1956, the cost was around $5.83. McLean’s ship Ideal-X managed to do the same for 15.8 cents per tonne.
This way, McLean overcame the first regulatory barrier constraining his containers from controlling the world. By far, this was not the last one. In the introduction, I mention the loaders and unloaders in the docks. These were the workers having one of the most dangerous occupations and generally passed it through generations. In many cities, these workers were having a distinctive social position, and, for example, in New York, not just anyone could reload a truck. This job was exclusive only for the members of a so-called group of “Public Loaders.”
This exclusivity was protected by various trade unions which dictated who could load, for how much, and what could be loaded and unloaded in a port. And this occupation became completely unnecessary with the arrival of containers.
It reminds me of the Milton Friedman story about watching laborers dig holes with shovels. When he asked why they weren't using back-hoes, his hosts explained that back-hoes were expensive but--even worse--they would put workers out of jobs. Friedman answered, "Why not take away their shovels and give them spoons?"


David Foster said...

Most of the people currently writing about the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence seem to be lacking much in the way of historical perspective. I tried to address this gap in my (uncompleted) series Attack of the Job-Killing Robots:

Part I


Part 2


...and the productivity statistics over recent years certainly do not indicate any kind of sharp break upwards, as opposed to a continuation of a long-term trend.

David Foster said...

OTOH, it is true that the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, specifically the mechanization of spinning and weaving, resulted in great labor displacements, social issues, and a lot of suffering for a lot of people. I recently read Peter Gaskell's 1836 book on this subject, a fascinating read especially in the light of today's automation discussions. I reviewed it here:


douglas said...

Those jobs didn't disappear, they were distributed to various loading docks all over the place- The containers themselves still beed to be loaded and unloaded of their cargo. Trucking has also grown as a result of cargo containers.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, automation has always seemed to create new kinds of jobs, though the period of dislocation hard, very hard on some people. Some never end up with a job of comparable quality.

But that is not a guarantee that this will always happen. It is merely a sign of hope. It is already the case that low-skill people are up against it. I don't see how that part gets better.

Grim said...

AVI has the sense of it. It's worked that way in the past, albeit with more severe disruptions than we sometimes allow. The issue is there is no guarantee that this will always work. It's just the way it has worked before, not an iron law of nature.

There is some reason to think that some people just may not be economically viable in the future. Maybe, ultimately, say 90% of them.

David Foster said...

Douglas...good point that the containers still have to be loaded/unloaded. But...

1--with containerization, a very expensive ship isn't tied up which the loading and unloading goes on.

2--the geographical distribution of the labor means that the bargaining power of the workers involved is more normal, rather than the higher level associated with concentrated labor at a seaport

3--containers can be transferred across transportation modes without reshuffling the contents...for example, ship>>rail>>truck

Tom said...

If 90% are not economically viable (which I assume means employable?), who will buy the products the remaining 10% make?

Also, assuming we don't do something like a universal basic income, how will they live? They will have an economy they participate in, even if it's barter, or subsistence farming, or something new. It's just a matter of what that economy looks like, isn't it?