All too often, people conform their lives to the machines they use. This adaption increased as the Industrial Revolution helped integrate machines into daily life.
This development took a further step forward when the idea of robots first appeared in the early twentieth century. There were two visions of these new assistants. One was the robot helper, which would do routine or dangerous work. The other vision was a dark future of intelligent machines that would dominate humanity.
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Are Machines the Masters?
Both visions now co-exist. “Smart” appliances and devices abound that automate routine tasks. And then there are machines like those in a recent article on Vox.com. The title is Robots Aren’t Taking Warehouse Employees’ Jobs, They’re Making Their Work Harder. The article related the findings of a study by the UC Berkley Labor Center.
The study presents a troubling picture. These intelligent machines can lift, sort, and locate items in the warehouses far more quickly and accurately than people can. The minds and bodies of human warehouse workers are at the breaking point as they try to keep up.
The worker’s plight is made worse by the change in consumer habits. Increasing numbers of people are saving money by shopping online. With much less overhead, the internet also brings them a wider selection of goods at a lower price than traditional retailers.
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However, the disadvantage of online shopping is the wait for delivery. The buying impulse is far stronger in a retail store, and impulse buyers are less likely to compare prices. Internet retailers try to compete by offering rapid delivery.
This means warehouses must fulfill orders and get them shipped out fast, very fast. The burden of speed falls on the warehouse workers. Efficient machines help, but at a terrible price for those workers who must keep up.
A Very Old Situation
This problem has existed for at least a century. The best example is the development of assembly lines, pioneered by Henry Ford. He saw mechanization as a boon to humanity. Mr. Ford’s ghostwritten book, Today and Tomorrow, spelled out his thoughts, “The function of the machine is to liberate man from brute burdens, and release his energies to the building of his intellectual and spiritual powers for conquests in the fields of thought and higher action.”
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This hope for channeling human energy to higher purposes did not happen. Assembly-line work proves to be repetitive and mind-deadening. The effort to remain focused on simple (but not easy) tasks is complicated by the speed and repetitive nature of the work. The tired worker’s only reward comes on payday.
Little has changed, at least for warehouse workers, as the following quotation of the UC Berkley report illustrates:
“The increasing pace of work in warehouses may introduce new health and safety hazards, as well as increased employee turnover due…. Currently, warehouse workers experience work-related injuries at a rate nearly twice that of other private industry workers…. According to The New York Times, pregnant workers at a warehouse in Memphis… were denied requests for light duty and subsequently suffered miscarriages. Warehouse employees also often toil in facilities that are not climate controlled, which exacerbates the hazards created by work speed-up.”
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Where are Justice and Compassion?
The situation of the warehouse workers and intelligent machines creates a moral dilemma that requires much balance and commonsense. On one hand, the employers right to earn a profit on the services they provide. One must recognize the benefits they give to society in the form of prosperity and jobs. On the other hand, workers have the right to be treated in a dignified way and not be pushed beyond human endurance.
Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum
Pope Leo XIII laid out the proper balance in his encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum, in 1891. He summed up the situation saying “After the old trade guilds had been destroyed in the last century…, and when public institutions and legislation had cast off traditional religious teaching, … the present age handed over the workers, each alone and defenseless, to the inhumanity of employers and the unbridled greed of competitors.”
At the same time, the Holy Father rejected the socialist “solution” promoted by many modern progressives. Socialism, he said, “is so unsuited for terminating the conflict that it actually injures the workers themselves. Moreover, it is highly unjust, because it violates the rights of lawful owners, perverts the function of the State, and throws governments into utter confusion.”
The Pope appeals to all parties to work together in harmony. “Let those in charge of States make use of the provision afforded by laws and institutions; let the rich and employers be mindful of their duties; let the workers, whose cause is at stake, press their claims with reason.”
He also stresses the moral problem and the essential role of Holy Mother Church. “And since religion alone, as We said in the beginning, can remove the evil, root and branch, let all reflect upon this: First and foremost Christian morals must be reestablished, without which even the weapons of prudence, which are considered especially effective, will be of no avail….”
The Ultimate Cause and the Challenge
The plight of the postmodern warehouse worker is strikingly similar to that of workers described by Pope Leo in 1899. Even after more than a century, the balance still has not been struck.
Today, the situation is made much worse by the frenzied cult of consumerism and intemperance. In his book, Return to Order, author John Horvat denounces what he calls “frenetic intemperance.” This frenetic intemperance reflects the desire of postmodern man to be free of all moral restraint. People want everything now, instantly and effortlessly. This leads to an economy in which machines and people are pushed to ever greater speeds. Indeed, only a true Christian morality and an informed sense of temperance can bring an end to this conflict that afflicts today’s society.