Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Robot Music

The above picture is taken from a Musicians Union campaign from the 1930s against the use of recorded music in movie theaters (cinemas). This particular dispute is covered in detail in this interesting post from the Smithsonian's stable of bloggers.

I'm always fascinated by conflicts like this, by incidents of people being made redundant by new technology. On the one hand, it's never good to see people put out of work, to see skills that have been honed over many years rendered useless, but on the other hand it seems absurd to 'uninvent' or ignore something to protect the income of a particular group.

When it comes to cases like this, people tend to come down strongly in favour of the group being pushed aside, but there are plenty of others where people would be fine with it. I think very few people realise just how labour intensive pretty everything was until the last few hundred years or so.There are thousands of jobs -- occupations that people once devoted their lives to -- that have faded completely into obscurity, in many cases the idea that you could have a job doing one of these things strikes people as weird, even funny.

The first time I was really struck by this was while studying Herman Melville at university. One of his short stories (which are generally much better than any of his novels), the wonderfully titled Bartleby, the Scrivener, describes in intimate detail, the daily life and work of a once common class of clerk -- the Scrivener. These men were essentially human photocopiers -- they spent hours, sometimes days, painstakingly copying legal documents or writing them out in a professionally presentable form. The work required perfect penmanship and a proofreader's eye for detail (mistakes could end with someone getting sued). It sounded, to me, like a close approximation of hell. There are no scriveners anymore (at least, not as far as I know) but that doesn't seem like a loss that anyone should mourn.

I suppose the reason why I'm so interested in stuff like that is that I work in an industry that has recently experienced a similar technological shock. Back in the 1970s my job (I'm an editor for a reference publisher, in case you didn't know) would have been done by several different people and would have taken a lot more of everyone's time. Computers changed all that. I now do the job of both an editor and a typesetter, and frequently do the work of a designer or a proofreader. In a few seconds I can make changes to a layout that would, just 25 years ago, have required a lengthy discussion with a designer, a few minutes fiddling with a pasteboard and scissors, a trip to the typesetter and a time-consuming period of re-fitting. There are still some in the publishing business who miss the old days, but to me, having not lived through them, it seems like an absurdly convoluted and frustrating way of making a book.