On Obsolescence

We must rethink the nature of work, technology, leisure, and government in such a way that wealth is abundant, and that gift, care, and service are our most important occupations

I.

Cicero’s famous essay “On Old Age—De Senectute”—is based on the fact that it is normal for human beings to grow old and die. This essay also recalls the passage in Ecclesiastes 3:4, about a “time to weep and a time to laugh.” Cicero wanted to teach us that we could still do valuable things in old age, things we could not do when we were younger and lacked experience. As we age, we should not expect to have the same strength, eyesight, or hearing that we had when we were younger. But few are wise when they are young. Civilization is a relationship of human beings of different ages and origins, talents and needs, which allows for the normal changes of life. Hence, we take care of infants and elderly not as if they are aliens but as if they also belonged because they do belong.

An antique or classic automobile is usually defined as any car over twenty-five years old. Such machines, if they are kept up, can still run and be used for transportation or for show. But they are obsolete. Twenty-five years ago, we would not have wished for a practice or law that prohibited, in the name of human good, any improved or new automobile manufacturing. In that hypothesis, all that we would be allowed to do is to reproduce 1990 or previous models. Everything would be frozen at the models and mechanics of, say, 1990. Most such cars of that vintage, however, should be junked and kept off the roads as menaces. A few still work.

Moreover, we were once much aware of the United Autoworkers Union. Today, more and more of the automobiles are assembled by robots, though not without human technical help and design. I do not think there is a United Robots’ Union or even a Robots’ Makers’ Union. The point is that the jobs once provided by the manufacture of automobiles now are either done by machines or sent overseas, where they are still more and more produced by machines. The automobiles of today are much safer, more efficient, reliable, and available than those of 1990 or 1950, even though cars of those periods worked. Overall, they were pretty good for getting around; I learned to drive in a 1939 Dodge.

The question is: Do we want to guarantee jobs by preventing improvement and innovation? Do we want the same things re-produced over and over again for their own sake? Should we keep old jobs by keeping old machines?

The increased use of robots and such technology means a new kind of economy, one that requires more technical education and probably less physical work. But as Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, the growth of human care and other kinds of human needs will undoubtedly be the direction of society. We have many thinkers now advocating killing not only unwanted babies, but various forms of the handicapped, disabled, and elderly precisely because no one will take care of them. There is nothing wrong with a society that can drastically reduce the need of physical and mental work by employing technology. This means shorter work weeks and working years. It portends a more leisurely society in which the more absorbing interests of thought and art become central.

These reflections arise from Pope Francis’ oft-used reference to a “throw-away” society, as he has characterized our present system. He deplores two things: the lack of jobs, especially for youth, and the creation of useless gadgets, which are said to replace production of “necessary” things. The questions this view brings up are: 1) “What creates jobs?”, and 2) “Who decides which gadgets are ‘useless’—the consumer, the government, the church, some committee, or the market?”

The Pope then, by analogy, uses this concept to deplore the “throw-away” mentality for human beings, beginning with abortion and ending with euthanasia. It is, of course, one thing to throw an old refrigerator or hat away to replace it with a new one, and another thing to “throw away” a human being. No doubt, abortion and euthanasia require the reduction of some human beings to a utility status in the name of population control, women’s rights, cost, or mere inconvenience.

All of this “throw-away” concern is an aspect of ecology, of supposedly saving the planet and its resources without harming jobs or without increased populating. Abortion and euthanasia supposedly prevent a drain on natural resources. A major argument of the anti-population growth mentality is precisely that the abortion movement has eliminated some one billion, three hundred million human infants since 1980. Thus, we are saving the planet since those many millions are not here to consume resources.

But the loss of brain power and labor that these figures also entail are not mentioned. We may well have eliminated the very people we need to provide for everyone’s well-being. Much of the immigration issues, for instance, are the result of the lack of present manpower caused by abortion.

II.

What are we to make of these considerations? Is the fact that many items become obsolete such bad thing? Ought not many things simply be tossed out once their usefulness ceases? Do we want to preserve jobs by preserving technology and methods that do not improve our condition? Is it good to have “make work” jobs that depend on stagnation or static levels of society rather than innovations that create new kinds of products and jobs?

Many kinds of jobs have been both eliminated and created by technology. The case of Henry Ford’s Model-T destroying the buggy whip industry is an amusing example. Toll bridges and toll roads, for example, once had collectors at both ends of a bridge or road. These (usually government) employees turned out to be enormously expensive. Such toll collection not only created huge costs in terms of pensions and insurance but caused considerable slowdown of traffic waiting to get through the toll booths. These tolls, assuming that they themselves are a good idea, are now mostly taken automatically by electronic devices. Of course, these devices had to be invented, perfected, installed, and kept in operation. This initiative created another kind of industry.

The point is that obsolescence is not such a bad thing. In an indirect way, it is responsible for new patents, inventions, skills, and jobs. Take another look at the automobile. Not everyone can afford a new car. But a two-year-old car still runs. So does a five-year-old car. There are used car dealers and purchasers. The same is true of clothing, bicycles, houses, furniture, and almost anything. The Salvation Army and the Vincent de Paul Societies deal with these materials. “Flea markets” are places of ultimate resort. In some ways, they are proofs that even obsolete things are wanted by someone. In this sense, almost nothing goes to waste in a market society until it is really useless, and even there we find uses for rags and waste. “Waste management” is big business, even a kind of auxiliary natural resource. All this happens because people can use such second- and third-hand items. Figuring out what to do with waste to make it again useful is itself a major industry, productive of otherwise “wasted” wealth.

It is often pointed out, even by such writers as Locke, that America was overpopulated before anyone was here but the Indians. Why was this? Basically, the Indians for the most part were not farming societies. The riches of the land with no improvements added by human work and mind is very minimal. Today, the earth easily feeds its seven billion population with a farming sector that is a very minimal percentage of any population. There are some who advocate a return to small-scale farming. While this return is not a bad thing in principle for some few, it will never be able to support the large populations that now exist. And where there are large populations and less efficient agriculture, there is still large migration to cities as agriculture improves. Again, what causes this improvement? It is almost always a combination of a government that does not insist on doing all the work itself, markets, technology, profit, and innovation.

One of the most remarkable thing about the world today is the rapid decrease in poverty throughout the planet. It is not wrong to pay attention to what remains to be done, but it is wrong not to know how such poverty elimination is accomplished. One thing that always needs to happen is to allow obsolete things to be obsolete, to allow things that should be thrown away to be thrown away. But this latter can only happen when something better comes along. We think of how quickly computers and cell phones become obsolete in our society due to high-grade improvements in these items. No doubt space exploration and defense technology eventually, often quickly, bring into existence many useful and needed things for everyone. There is no doubt that world poverty is being eliminated. The only thing that can prevent it is bad policy, not lack of know-how.

John Mueller, in his Redeeming Economics (ISI, 2014), has pointed out that there are four basic economic questions: 1) What do we want or need?, 2) How do we make or produce it?, 3) How do we distribute it?, and 4) What do we do after we get it? He points out that the latter question is the one most often unattended to in modern economics. When we finally purchase or come by goods, we can use them, save them, give them away, sell them, or improve them or, yes, throw them away. In this latter consideration—in what we do with what we acquire, whether it be a society or individual—man most clearly reveals his character. We need a society that not only enables us to earn a living, but one that allows us to give things away. Aristotle had already noted that the wealthy man shows his nobility by using his riches for truth, good, and beauty. In other words, wealth can be used for hospitals, schools, and works of beauty. It is in this sense that our education ought not just to be technical or pragmatic. We need to know what is worth doing for its own sake when we have what we need.

Basically, society’s good requires that people do different things. A common good means that many goods are allowed and encouraged to flourish, not that some uniform good is imposed on everyone. The diversity of talent, energy, generosity, or diligence that we find are rewarded in different ways. If everyone gets the same recompense no matter what he does, things will quickly stagnate. To be avoided at all costs is a command economy that is not presupposed to one where the desires and demands of the consumers and buyers are not at the center of all economic activity.

III.

Earlier, I mentioned the robot. The robot is essentially a non-human slave, as are all machines. Aristotle postulated that slavery would disappear if we could invent self-moving instruments to do the work of a human slave. Many writers think that human slavery disappeared not because of political manifestos but because machines replaced the need of forced labor. When someone got into an elevator in a building a century ago an elevator operator—who spent his day going up and down an elevator shaft—closed the door and pushed the buttons. Today the same task is performed by a button, with the floor number on it that one pushes himself. Is it a bad thing that we do not have a job for an elevator operator? If we say “yes” to this question, we put some technical inventor at Otis Elevator out of work. We like to relate jobs to human worth, to supporting a family, but also to doing something worthwhile. Not a few economists today think that not everyone needs a “job” in the classical sense. This condition may not be all bad.

Our task is to rethink the nature of work, technology, leisure, and government in such a way that wealth is abundant, that gift, care, and service are our most important occupations. In the meantime, our “machines”—our robots and technology—will be improving thanks again to the human genius that is allowed to assist us. What we cannot forget is that questions of tyranny, selfishness, envy, greed, and injustice will remain. These do not arise simply from our material side, from technology or structures. We forget that no one—not technologists, not politicians, not scholar, not the businessman—can forget that virtue has to do with themselves, with their self-rule.

It is the Christian experience that this self-rule in practice needs the gift of grace to be what it is. If this is true, all the “development” in the world will not make the “just” society that so many have longed for.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.