The fundamental changes transforming industrial society are rooted in a technological revolution. The powerful impact of new technology has led to an economic revolution and in turn a social revolution. Led by such advanced industrial societies as the United States, the world is entering a new epoch of human history. Investigating this process in its early stages will help us understand what is going on and change it to benefit humanity. This is a critical task.
One of the basic needs of the industrial system is continuous innovation. This innovation is in the realms of hard technology (smart machines), soft technology (operational information), and organizational forms of management and administration. In other words, there is an insatiable need for new machines, new information, and new relationships. The motivating force has been the search for profit, how to get the competitive edge to sell the most goods at the highest price for the lowest investment.
New technology is giving us the best of times and the worst of times. Productivity is going up, and unprecedented wealth is being created. But an increasing number of people are experiencing a severe decline in quality of life. In general, this technological revolution is producing an economic transformation by polarizing society into extremes of wealth and poverty. Every aspect of society is impacted by this economic polarization, and society can no longer go on as usual.
Too many of us, while affected every day, have not yet seen the entire sweep of the technological revolution and its social consequences. We need to begin a dialogue to design a future worth living in. The scientists are in their laboratories, the educators are in the schools, and people are in their homes and on their jobs (if they aren't homeless and if they are employed). In each setting there is discussion, sometimes guided by scientific information and sometimes by the popular media but too often limited by the urgency of the situation: a workplace automating; budgets being cut; a company downsizing, and so on. What is not occurring is a broad and democratic dialogue to sum up what is going on and how we can direct things toward a future that maximizes freedom and economic well-being for everyone.
To begin such a dialogue, more than seven hundred people participated in either the MIT Technology and Employment Conference held in Boston in January 1994 or the March 1995 Midwest Conference on Technology, Employment and Community in Chicago. The three of us who edited this book were involved in one or both conferences.
To take the dialogue even further, we developed a "Technological Revolution and Its Impact on Society" course outline for college or community-based studies (see Appendix A, page 203). We have already begun to link instructors and students of that course together via the Internet and the World Wide Web (see page 253). For those planning or considering similar campus-community conferences, we have written up our experiences in the form of a history of the MIT and Midwest conferences (see Appendix B), and reprinted the programs of the two conferences (see Appendices C and D).
The opposing viewpoints on this within mainstream politics are deeply embedded in U.S. political history. On the one hand, there is the legacy of the Roosevelt New Deal and the Kennedy New Frontier, the tradition of governmental intervention to protect the minimum economic rights of working people. This was based on an expanding economy and government debt. On the other hand, the Nixon and Reagan administrations shifted support to the wealthy and their corporate holdings by lowering taxes, cutting government spending, and increasing government debt.
Within these polarities, the Clinton administration based its policy on the belief that as the economy grows into high technology, it will also produce livable middle-income jobs. Clinton argued that it is possible to put Americans back to work. Although he remained nominally committed to education and job training, Clinton accepted the conservative position that the national debt forces government to retreat from its welfare role, shrink its social "safety net," and keep taxes low.
Opposition to the Clinton administration emerged as a self-styled revolution from the right wing of the Republican party. The "Contract with America," as rammed through the House of Representatives by the new GOP majority, was the most Draconian slash-and-burn attack on social spending and protections for children, labor, the environment, and so on in the 20th century. The Republican party's operating principle is that society is better off when individuals and corporations proceed on the basis of competition unhampered by any government-guaranteed rights — except when it comes to government support for corporations.
Clinton and the new right-wing House of Representatives Republicans have common ground. They want to cut back the welfare state, keep taxes low for upper incomes, build prisons, expand police forces, and encourage privatization of everything from education to health care to the Internet.
It is important to see the relationship between cutting government programs and building prisons. A more hidden principle seems to be operating here: job creation will not bring prosperity, so more prisons will be needed. The job-tech conferences debated the thesis that we are witnessing the end of jobs, in which case both Clinton and Congress are making a false promise to displaced workers while preparing a police state to handle the inevitable unrest.
It is, in fact, painfully clear that as President Clinton and Congressman Gingrich shake hands, the American Dream is dying hard. Children born in the 1990s will have no experience of the promise of never-ending prosperity that propelled families since World War II. Youth born in the 1970s watched the United States transform from superpower to debtor nation. The debate over how the high-technology economy will benefit all of us is far from over. There are simply many people left voiceless and many people we have not yet heard from.
Opening up the debate with conferences and courses of study can lead to developing people's visions of the future. Once you have a vision, you can translate it into practical proposals and fight for them. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich translated their visions into policy initiatives, legislation, programs, and so on, which they advanced to take the country where they wanted to go.
The American Dream, a vision based on past realities, is no longer sustaining us. Until we understand current realities and envision our own futures, the visions of the dominant forces in society — in our case the corporate wealth behind the media, educational institutions, think tanks, publishing houses, and so on — carry us along. The development of a vision that represents and comes from the majority of people, working and poor people, is one of the most difficult and yet precious historical moments. We saw at the Midwest job-tech conference that presenting the facts and the issues of technology, employment, and community is a terrific starting point for people to envision their future and come together around practical proposals.
More study. The conference touched on many topics others have delved into and written about. You can use the "Technological Revolution and Its Impact on Society" course outline at college or in a labor, church, or community group. You can join others studying these issues by connecting via our Web pages and our Internet discussion list, where we will be posting more resources for teaching.
More research. This conference gives the general outline of the current situation, but more work needs to be done on each specific community, each industry, and each new year, because things are changing very rapidly. For students and faculty, this book itself should be a treasure chest of research ideas to follow up on. There are also many publications to monitor, including Technology Review, published by MIT; Wired, the major popular journal of the high-tech computer revolution and its new culture; the Tuesday science/technology section of The New York Times; the technology section of the London Financial Times, which is published the first Wednesday of every month; and the People's Tribune and other papers printing stories from the perspective of poor people. A monthly newsstand check can turn up major articles from a variety of sources. Get ahold of some zines, the many self-published magazines circulating today. Get from the Internet the news that doesn't even make it into print.
More conferences. A third job-tech conference is scheduled at California State University at Los Angeles, and we encourage every community and campus to join in conferences as they are able. The most important aspect of future conferences will be assembling diverse groups that include scholars and activists, middle- and working-class people and those already driven deep into poverty, and jumping barriers of color and nationality. We have compiled a handbook on organizing these conferences and would be glad to share this information and to participate in any new conference project.
This book is divided into three parts. Part one, the plenary sessions, takes you from the opening assertions to the final conclusions of the conference. Part two, the workshops, gives you 17 different close-up discussions of the issues debated in the five plenary sessions. The last third of the book, the appendices, are tools we offer to those many readers who will want to carry the debate forward and press for solutions.
It is exciting to be consciously involved in the dawn of a new age. We welcome you to share our thoughts as recorded in these conference proceedings. We hope you invite us to share yours.