You Are Obsolete!

I don’t remember much about when I was five years old, but I do remember watching a particularly scary episode of the science fiction classic Twilight Zone.

In this episode, a man was on trial because in a world where the state had outlawed books, his role as a librarian was no longer necessary – at least according to the judge who pronounced in ringing tones “You are obsolete”! All these years, I’ve never been entirely certain why that scared me so much, and why it has stuck with me – until recently.

Consider these headlines Foxconn To Replace Workers with Robots  and Wireless Jobs Decline Even As Industry Booms.

On the surface, they may not seem all that unusual – but look a little deeper, and you will begin to see and feel the dilemma and tragedy of the modern worker – not just in America – but even in emerging economies where American jobs have been outsourced.

You see, Foxconn is the huge Chinese conglomerate that manufacturers Apple products like the iPhone. It’s also the same place where a number of workers have committed suicide over the past few years, with long hours and allegedly inhumane working conditions blamed for their self-inflicted deaths.

So now, the company is going to replace a so far unspecified number of human workers with over a million robots. Presumably, they can work the machines literally to death – with only spare parts being sacrificed in the process.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that despite an ever increasing demand for wireless products, the number of US jobs in the mobile industry has sunk to an all-time low – even lower now than at the height of the recession. Major wireless carriers including Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon have collectively laid off thousands of workers while at the same time experiencing record growth in both subscribers and profits.

What is obviously a boon for business owners comes at the expense of their employees. With US unemployment now running at an official rate 9% and an unofficial rate of 20% or more, displaced workers young and old are finding it increasingly difficult to find work in a world where the number of jobs continues to diminish.

I keep wondering how business owners and the government expect to have an orderly and productive society where people pay taxes for necessary services,when the number of ways people can make a decent living wage continue to diminish.

But more than that, I wonder how people will be able to cope emotionally and physically with the realization that like the doomed character in the Twilight Zone episode that I have never been able to forget – both they and their jobs have somehow become obsolete.

The sense of hopelessness and loss that envelops the human spirit when people are no longer able to support themselves and contribute in a meaningful way through their talents and efforts is not only crippling to the individual – but it can also destroy families and the very fabric of our society.

Maybe the way of the future is one of lowered expectations and fewer physical comforts. Maybe most of us will have to learn to live with less, while the very wealthy continue to amass more and more money and power at our expense. But even if that is true, how will we continue to hang on to our own sense of human dignity and worth when the outlets we have for our talents and creativity continue to decline?

When this happened during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s response was a vast public works program that capitalized on the untapped pool of talent that was literally dying for a chance to go back to work. But now, as government continues to shrink, will anyone with real power to change things for the better finally recognize that throwing away people and denying them the ability to support themselves is not just inhumane; it is sheer folly on an exponentially large scale?

It may be decades before the house of cards completely collapses – or it could be tomorrow.

Here is a passage from that Twilight Zone episode that I remember from so long ago. What was a nightmare fantasy in 1961 is a grim reality today.

Chancellor: You are obsolete, Mr. Wordsworth.
Wordsworth: A lie. No man is obsolete
Chancellor: You have no function, Mr. Wordsworth. You’re an anachronism. Like a ghost from another time.
Wordsworth: I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.
Chancellor: You’re a bug, Mr. Wordsworth. A crawling insect. An ugly misinformed little creature who has no purpose here, no meaning.
Wordsworth: I am a human being!
Does anyone care? Do you?

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