The Double Helix of Learning and Work

3.2. The Man-And-Tool Symbiosis
We have gotten so used to the writings on the “impact of technology upon work” that we have reintroduced the loop of mutual dependency with certain reservations about the ascertained one-way determinism. Machines were born of the pressures of work. They are ingenious mechanical imitations of human gestures, substitutes for manual work. Special homage is owed to the human hand, which comes next to the human brain as nature’s own creation. At first, industry was manufacturing, i.e., making by hand. Before the advent of industry, there was the self-sufficient household, in which food and its storage, animal breeding, building the house and the stables, and weaving the cloth were all accomplished by hand, assisted by simple manual tools.

The symbiosis between man and machine goes back quite far. It probably began with the spinning wheel, which fascinated Plato. Tools have always inspired metaphors in the minds of philosophers. After Plato’s spindle and shuttle, the clock was the philosophical metaphor for cosmogony. More recently, the computer became the point of reference and inspiration for brain researchers, while computer science was assimilated to the “nerves of the governance” (Deutsch, 1963).

A genuine affective bond was established between man and his tools, and that special intimacy is quite visible at the level of a handicraft workshop or in rural households.

In the age of mechanization, the human-machine symbiosis firmly established humankind in a position of unprecedented power, a fact that should have enhanced the dignity of work. At that point, the physical force required for the accomplishment of a task was amplified, and even manual technical operations became more effective. The worker acquired more hands than Shiva, the Hindu god. But the history of the man-machine symbiosis was an agitated one, filled with controversies and disputes. At an early stage, it was marked by worker uprisings against machines. The introduction of the mechanical loom in England caused a revolt of the workers who were afraid of losing their jobs. The Luddite movement became violent; its leaders were eventually hanged. Ever since that time, that destructive reaction has been remembered whenever highly efficient technology has improved human productivity, while rendering certain of the older tools useless.

During the industrial revolution, the first generations of machines required the frequent intervention of a supervisor who had to perform a sequence of operations before handing over to the machine. Who assisted whom? The fact that the man-machine linkage, whereby human work combined with that of the machine in a series of mechanical gestures, had to keep to a certain pace diminished the claim to dignity of the machine-ennobled work.

Things became more serious once the production line was introduced. A conveyor moved a part of an assemblage in front of workers who were expected to perform certain operations on it within a short period of time. The image of Charlie Chaplin driven to exasperation and madness, as he was compelled to perform the same simple operation at an increasing speed, was a most merciless criticism of intensive mechanization as an attack on human dignity. Sociologists promptly denounced “le travail en miettes” (Friedman, 1956). The economic crisis of the 1930s and the Second World War that followed were not able to bring any remedies.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the file on the dehumanization of work was eventually re-opened. When automation enabled the machine to take over repetitive operations, the worker acquired an ability to see the whole picture of the process, to understand the significance of various operations, and to establish a co-operative relationship with his or her colleagues. The “team” formula suggested by the so-called Scandinavian experiment began to gain acceptance. IBM was one of the first large companies that applied it. The workplace was freed of the stress of mechanical motions. It became the site of team formation and collective responsibility. The rapid pace of technological change prompted managers to introduce refresher programmes or additional training. Many of them adopted the “learning corporation” formula in response to the perceived need to consider the work process as a learning process involving the workers as conscious participants.

After 1950, the new trend of cybernetics began to identify common processes in machines and in living organisms. This development was paralleled, at a practical level, by the progress of automation and the advent of the era of robots.

While the deeper division of labour, coupled with an enhanced use of energy and mechanization, significantly altered the nature, position, and functions of work in production processes by continuously reducing the number of people required to perform a given job and increasing qualification requirements, automation also began to threaten the very existence of traditional jobs. It brought along the menace of a complete substitution of the person by enabling the machine to perform as well as him or her and even better.

Technology took a step forward in imitating and surpassing human work. In the first stage, it focused on the muscles, the arms, and on sheer strength. In the next stage, it addressed dexterities through the use of fine mechanics. Finally, technology began to replicate human senses: it was able to see, hear, feel, and even smell. Ultrasensitive sensors and ultraprecise measurements allowed control over all the thresholds between operations, no matter how minute, calling for more sophisticated technical interventions, beyond the level of discrimination of the human senses and human observation.

Automation confronted the notion of work with new problems. On the one hand, man was empowered to control, supervise, and monitor the work performed by machines. On the other hand, automation threatened to reduce the employment possibilities of humans. In terms of qualification, the requirements remained unclear. Some managers claimed that such requirements could be minimal (supervising the machines amounted to pushing buttons without necessarily understanding the complex underlying processes). In the phase of computerization, new jobs began to be created, which demanded precise qualifications (e.g., programmers and system analysts) for the maintenance of complex systems that covered and unified the entire activity of a company.

When referring to technologies, it is necessary to include scientific research. Various analyses of the industrial revolution seemed to indicate that technological advances were more indebted to the experience and competencies of the practitioners than they were to scientific laboratories and universities. Today, the boundaries between science and technology have grown fuzzy. The two occur together in organizational charts (Research and Development) or in great strategy debates (Science/Technology and development (see UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development, Vienna, 20-31 August 1979)).

“Technology does not eliminate jobs; it simply moves them.”

All the branches of science, not only the more spectacular ones such as physics and biology, made notable progress with significant practical applications. It would seem that, once the mechanics of solids and fluids had said everything that had to be said to industry, aviation, and navigation, new branches tended to emerge such as the mechanics of wheels, of dust, of sand, or of mud. All these had important applications ranging from the mechanics of derricks to the chemical and the food industries.

The tandem, S/T, contributed to the development of electronics, which produced the microprocessor, the basis of automation. It also ushered in the computer and the explosive development of the telecommunication industries. It all started from the observation that diodes and electrical circuits functioned according to a Boolean, linear logic. That was the case with the early computing machines and with arithmetic calculus. The advantage was decisive: enhancing computation speeds. Miniaturization, owing to the use of transistors and to program storing on microchips, brought about the most rapid and sweeping changes of which any technology could ever dream. The binary calculus of computers spanned all analogical technologies. We are now in the era of digitalization, of representing information through binary calculus (image, sound, text).

3.3. The Service Economy
The new activities and jobs follow a principle deriving from the experience of the past decades: technology does not eliminate jobs; it simply moves them. Jobs disappear from or decrease numerically in the “classical” sectors (agriculture, manufacturing, and services), and they appear in fields that did not exist before in that form. Nothing is more relevant for the transformations that occurred in the nature of work than the shifting proportions of the active population employed in the three classical sectors. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Germany was an industrial country with a population distribution of 40/35/25 (percentages of the active population in the three sectors). At the end of the Twentieth Century, the figures were 5/45/40. In all the developed countries, mechanized, chemicalized, and irrigated agriculture employs a maximum of 5 percent of the active population. The manufacturing industries now represent 45 percent or even less in some developed countries. The greatest leap forward was taken by the service industries, which moved up to first place, employing more than 50 percent of the active population.

The progress of civilization thus appears to be a constant process pursuing precise trends: the proportion of the employed population active in agriculture and the primary resources has gone down from 90 percent to less than 10 percent today. The manufacturing industries remained in second place, employing about one-third of the active population. Services absorbed over half of the workforce. We have entered a new phase, that of the service economy. In the course of a century, we have seen how the visible hand of technology dislocated humans from one sector and moved them into another, as machines made raw or less qualified work unnecessary or useless.

Table 1. Employment trends from agriculture to services

Primary → Secondary → Tertiary
Over 90% Less than 5% ↑ Less than 10 %
Around 50% ↓ ↑ Around 33%
Less than 5% Around 33% ↑ Around 66%

Note: Historical trend: workforce in the three sectors.

This table provides the key to the unemployment problem, which is nothing but a bottleneck. The labour force in the primary sector is not prepared to work in either the secondary or the tertiary sectors, nor are the tertiary or the secondary sectors open to workers who do not have the necessary qualifications. The sectors that are tending to reduce their labour force (always the primary sector and, more recently, the secondary sector) have only one outlet, i.e., services. Still, it is very difficult to move from cattle-breeding to programming the holidays of other people on a computer inside an office!

The key to inter-sectoral mobility lies in education. We may accept the explanation that high unemployment, in many developing countries, is linked to the fact that the educational system does not function properly. Why then does this phenomenon persist in countries with strong educational systems, such as the European countries? It is because those systems were designed as splendid instruments for a time of slow and incremental change. In our world, these are no longer adequate.

There is no distinct and clear-cut delimitation among the three sectors. A mechanized and automated farm poses the same operational problems as any industrial unit. The secondary sector itself is now quite different from the old manufacturing industry. We are talking here about production systems in which services absorb up to 80 percent of all manpower and financial resources in such fields as R&D, storage, maintenance, control of vulnerabilities, financial activities, repair systems, monitoring, distribution, customer service, and waste management.

The advance of services has highlighted another alteration in the nature of work: a vastly increased hunger for increased monetary remuneration. When money is the main form of remuneration, the system is monetarized. During the Industrial Revolution, money became the essential key for organizing the production system. Before the Industrial Revolution, most of the resources, which were mainly produced and consumed in the agricultural sector, were related to a system of self-production and self-consumption in a non-monetized system.

In the monetarized part of the economy based on exchange, the money may appear explicitly as the value of the goods exchanged (monetized) or implicitly, when there is a potential value attached to them that could be calculated in monetary terms, but is not.

In light of the distinction between monetized, non-monetized, and non-monetarized activities, the essentially agricultural society can be defined as predominantly non-monetized. When commercial exchanges take place, we are in the realm of monetized activities. An example of non-monetized but monetarized (reference to money) was the type of exchanges performed by the ancient Greeks around the Black Sea (oil and weapons in exchange for grain and honey).

Now, the methods used in the classical industrial period, which associated productive employment with remunerated (monetized) work, have become a subject of debate. Early in the Twentieth Century, Arthur Pigou (1908) revealed the paradox according to which a bachelor employing a woman as a housekeeper caused the aggregate national income to fall when he married her. Work that previously had been remunerated would now be unremunerated.

The case of the kindergarten is also relevant. The education it provides can be supplied either through an organized (paid) system or through grandmothers, grandfathers, or other relatives who can do the equivalent job free of charge. In the first case, the work done by specialized teachers in kindergartens counts as productive work, which adds to the GNP, while in the second case, the work is not viewed as such.

The Service Economy has changed the manner in which this kind of work is analyzed. A growing part of the non-monetized activities is viewed as a form of productive work, which contributes to the wealth of nations. The optimum equilibrium of the monetized and non-monetized activities is still to be explored in order to arrive at new synergies and mutual integration.

There is another new trend: producers of goods and services try to pass part of the work on to the consumer. The production system includes not only distribution or disbursement, but also utilization. The consumer is actively involved in the utilization phase by putting up a non-negligible quantity of work. The introduction of self-service restaurants that transfer the ordering and serving process to the individual consumer instead of employing a waiter, or the substitution of a bank attendant by automated teller machines – expecting a higher usage knowledge at the level of clients – are just two examples. The consumer is transformed, according to Alvin Toffler (1985), into a “prosumer”. It is now quite common for most citizens or families to drive cars themselves, without hiring drivers, to repair electrical or water connections without calling the electrician or the plumber, to tend the garden without a gardener, or to cut the children’s hair without going to the barber. Those are all instances of non-monetized activities.

This overall picture leads to several conclusions that are pertinent for the Learning and Work analysis.

The first one of these is that all of society is working, even though one is used to thinking that such a description applies only to the active and remunerated part of the population. Beyond the established categories of paid work, beyond the low and the high age limits, beyond the legally assigned work hours, people are working and producing goods and providing services.

Second, the three identified forms of work (i.e., monetized, non-monetized, non-monetarized), which broadly match the three forms of education (i.e., formal, non-formal, and informal) add up to a lifelong working system with recurrent phases that operate according to the same prerequisites that apply in the case of lifelong learning.

Third, the human-machine relationship should not be reduced to the substitution of the work of a person by the work of the machine; it should be viewed as a new type of work: a person’s symbiotic work with the machine. Surrounded by the artificial environment of their tools and machines, humans work in order to use them. They train and qualify with this aim in mind; they continue to produce those special goods and to supervise them during the phase of utilization.

Fourth, the service economy introduces a new perspective on the value of a product or a service (i.e., its performance value) measured in terms of its functioning over a period of time. The cost-benefit ratio is no longer estimated by comparing the production costs to the selling price. The costs comprise the design, the manufacturing, the distribution, the utilization, and the disposal or recycling. The benefits are now measured by the performance during the period of utilization. Therefore, should consumer training not be included in the cost? Should we not recognize that this argument supports the Double Helix project?

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