In the sixties, computers like we have now hadn’t been invented. They were a ‘futuristic’ concept. Some of us dreamed that eventually there would be a computer on every desk in schools. We thought computers would be used to create shorter work weeks, more leisure time. We were naïve.
That kind of thinking was part of a temporary period of generous and creative social attitudes. Wages were rising, unions were strong, benefits were increasing. We in the western world were richer than we had ever been and despite the cold war, there was a sense of optimism about the future. A young ‘counter-culture revolution’ espoused love, sharing, equal rights, and a kinder, gentler future.
The space program was producing new and exciting byproducts. New materials were changing the world – we could now throw sweaters in the washing machine – impossible with wool! We dreamed robots would do everything for us someday. Calculators would mean we’d no longer have to struggle with the ‘times-tables’. Research would produce new solutions to problems, conquer diseases, create a whole new world in which people would live happily ever after.
But I guess we had forgotten how “the profit motive” works – and our own increasing materialism. Reactionary conservatism came on strong.
Seems to me it was in the seventies that the right-wing reaction began in small ways, as movements do. They gradually spread the message that taxpayers should get to keep more of their tax dollars – that their money was being ‘wasted’ by bureaucrats. There was essentially a popular world-wide wave of “Hold on, enough of funding lazy louts and cheats and wacko research”. One by one most of the ‘socialistic’ governments were defeated, we had Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and so on – all essentially ‘anti-government’. Little by little social programs throughout the western world were cut back or thrown out; university research was increasingly funded by private enterprise instead of taxpayers; investments in the ‘military-industrial complex’ by governments were increased, CEO salaries inflated, shareholder rewards increased and the pressure continues to this day.
America – “leader of the free world” – went to the extreme of ‘deregulation’ for banking and finance, and other fields – to ‘encourage investment’, a classic right-wing argument which we are hearing still in the current presidential election campaign. It was easy to throw out the consumer protection of regulation, since most people don’t understand ‘money’ – or regulations, or consumer protection. So while corporate executives became fabulously wealthy, it became easier to sell things people couldn’t afford – like homes – on borrowed money that they couldn’t afford to pay back. Much of the west followed the U.S. example, not seeing that this was history repeating itself (The Great Depression). This is of course an oversimplification of what led to the notorious meltdown of 2008.
Instead of shorter work weeks and more leisure time, corporations opted to use computers to accomplish the same work with fewer workers: more profit, lower costs. Cutbacks of benefits became common, ‘unions’ became evil; “Corporate Greed” has become a byword with good reason.
Reflecting on this abysmal history, I think what I ‘take away’ from it is the realization that while dreams of a better world are pleasant, they come true only with enough determined action by ordinary people. For instance, perhaps the “occupy” movement will develop a more focused attack on corporate greed. I could easily imagine them becoming the “counter-culture revolution” of this new millennium.