Thile civil rights leaders, as early as the 1960s, began to T T warn of the consequences of automation on the African American community, others began to draw broader implications for society as a whole. A national de-bate on the probable effects of automation on the economy and employment emerged in the early 1960s, fueled, in large part, by the increasing loss of jobs in the black community.
In March 1963 a group of distinguished scientists, economists, and academicians led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, published an open letter to the President in The New York Times, warning of the dangers of automation on the future of the American economy and calling for a national dialogue on the subject. The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution—whose name was derived from its analysis of three new revolutionary changes taking place in society—the Cybernation Revolution, the Wea-ponry Revolution, and the Human Rights Revolution—argued that the new cybernetic technologies were forcing a fundamental change in the relationship between income and work. The authors pointed out that until the present moment in history “economic resources had always been distributed on the basis of contributions to production.” That historic relationship was now being threatened by the new computer-based technologies. They warned that, ‘A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural. The cybernation revolution has been brought about by
the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine. This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor.”^
The Committee reiterated that ‘The Negroes are the hardest hit of the many groups being exiled from the econo-my by cybernation,” but predicted that, in time, the new^ computer revolution would take over more and more of the productive tasks in the economy, leaving millions of workers jobless.^ The Committee urged the President and Congress to consider guaranteeing every citizen “an adequate income as a matter of right” as a way of distributi-ng funds to the millions of people made redundant by the new laborsaving technologies.^
The warnings of the Ad Hoc Committee caught the attention of the White House. In July 1963 President Kennedy called for the establishment of a National Commission on Automation.”^ Six months later, in his State of the Union message, President L>Tidon Johnson proposed the creation of a Commission on Automation, Technology, and Ec-onomic Progress. That spring, public hearings were held in Congress and legislation enacted to set up the com-
The Government Steers a Middle Course
The Commission report, published in 1965, attempted to steer a middle course between those who argued that the cybernetic revolution required an immediate government response and those, especially in the business comm-unity, who argued that technology displacement was a normal outgrowth of economic progress and would eventu-ally be absorbed by a robust economy: “According to one extreme view, the world—or at least the United States-—is on the verge of a glut of productivity sufficient to make our economic institutions and the notion of gainful employment obsolete. We dissent from that view. . . . However, we also dissent from the other extreme view of complacency that denies the existence of serious social and economic problems related to the impact of technolo-gical change.”^
Curiously, although the authors of the government report attempted to draw distance between themselves and crit-ics and establish a centrist approach to the issue, many of their findings reinforced the arguments advanced by the Oppenheimer Committee on the Triple Revolution. For example, they acknowledged the destructive
impact of the new technology revolution on black America. The report stated:
Modern farm technology—ranging from the cotton picker and huge harvesting combines, to chemical fertilizers and insecticides—has resulted in rapid migration of workers to the cities and has contributed to serious urban problem-s.
The technological revolution in agriculture has compounded the difficulties of a large section of our Negro populati-on. Pushed out of rural areas, many of them have migrated to cities in search of livelihood. But many arrived just when . . . advancing technology has been reducing the numbers of the semi-skilled and unskilled manufacturing jobs for which they could qualify. Despite improvements in the past 2 years, there are 700,000 fewer factory prod-uction and maintenance jobs than at the close of the Korean War^
The government commission argued that “technology eliminates jobs, not work,” in effect making the same argum-ent that Oppen-heimer and the authors of the Triple Revolution had made. If the economy was producing work wi-thout workers, as both sides seemed to suggest, then some form of government intervention would be necessary to provide a source of income and purchasing power for the increasing numbers of workers displaced by laborsavi-ng technologies and increased productivity. The commission conceded the point: ‘Tt is the continuous obligation of economic policy to match increases in productive potential with increases in purchasing power and demand. Other-wise, the potential created by technical progress runs to waste in idle capacity, unemployment and deprivation.”^
In the end, the Presidential Commission backpedaled on the questions raised by automation, concluding that tech-nology displacement is a necessary and temporary condition engendered along the road to economic progress. Th-eir measured optimism was given a lift by a recent upturn in the economy and a lowering of the unemployment fi-gures brought on, in large measure, by the buildup for the Vietnam conflict. The commission admitted as much. “With the intensification of the war in Vietnam, the prospects are for still further cuts in unemployment.”^ In a pre-scient aside, the authors of the report warned that “The nation should not be lulled into forgetfulness b\ a short-r-un need for increased defense expenditures.”^” The warning was drowned out by the drums of war and a massive buildup of the military economy.


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