A Bi-polar Population

I am fortunate to be on a mailing list that Mr Keith Hudson of Bath, England posts on. He is a Renaissance man and a polymath. I am privileged to call him a friend. I want to share this piece of his with you.

A Bi-polar Population
by Keith Hudson

What was the first assembly track in the world? This is perhaps not the most gripping question that can be asked but, in answering it, a fascinating glimpse is given of the past and important questions of the future are posed.

In the early 1980s I had the opportunity of leasing a large, empty Victorian building in Coventry in order to run some skill-training schemes for unemployed young people. Quite suddenly, starting in 1979, and for the first time since WWII, a whole tranche of school-leavers found themselves with no job to go to.

I had had my eye on this building for some time. It lay in an old industrial area which was destined for redevelopment, but the worsening economic conditions at the time had put this on ice. So it was available — and at a very low rent, too. Why I was so fascinated with it, however, was because it was the site of the most revolutionary development in manufacturing in the early 19th century. It had been Rotherham’s watch factory and the first assembly track in the world in which parts that had been manufactured elsewhere were finally assembled on one long belt-driven carousel. (It is now a watch museum and much to be recommended if you’re ever in Coventry.)

It had beaten Henry Ford’s car assembly track by at least a hundred years. However, I hadn’t realized then that assembly track methods had been perfected even earlier than Rotherham’s — by almost precisely two thousand years, in fact. Reading about the Terra Cotta Army in the Smithsonian Magazine last night, I discovered that Qin Shi Huangdi had done it long before Rotherham or Ford.

After declaring himself Emperor in BC221 (after defeating half-a-dozen disparate countries) Qin set about standardizing everything that could be standardized — weights and measures, currency, the written language and a great deal more. But what of the thousands of soldiers of the Terra Cotta army that populated Emperor Qin’s tomb? They’re all different aren’t they? Some have said that they were all unique and were fashioned on real individuals.

Yes, indeed they are all different. Each one is a permutation of different parts — ears, noses, eye brows, mouths, arms, fingers, feet, moustaches (or not), hairstyles and hats. They had all been made in specialized workshops. Is that enough? Probably. Permutate from all these, and stick the clay components on one armature and you have thousands of different figures — before they are clothed in body armour and weapons.

In fact, thinking about this further as I write, Emperor Qin had anticipated assembly track methods that have only been developed since the 1980s. This is of those now making customized cars or PCs, among others. A basic frame is placed on the track and different combinations of parts are then bolted on according to individual customer orders. It’s highly computerized, of course. Come to think of it, this even applies to family groceries. Not so very long ago, a housewife would go to her corner shop and buy pretty well the same package of basic foodstuffs that every other housewife was buying. Today, she goes to a supermarket where she can select from 30,000 different items — or even more.

This even applies to house mortgages. A house buyer can choose from thousands of different mortgages. If he selects well, or is advised well, he can choose exactly the right payment conditions to suit his income and future prospects, or what he thinks future interest rates and other matter might be. The list of such individualized choices is endless so I’ll stop here.

While all this seems to be a consumer paradise there is a much more serious side of the equation. While production methods are being increasingly routinized and automated, requiring more and more highly educated specialists and administrators at the top end, the jobs of the majority are being increasingly dumbed down. Whereas in the 1950s and 60s it seemed as though all levels of society were proceeding upwards in status and prosperity at a regular pace, since then a steadily yawning gap — in education, income, social status, culture — has been widening between the “do-ers” and the rest.

Given a continuation of present technological trends, it is difficult to see how the gap can be reversed, try as many developed governments have been doing in the last few decades, particularly in trying to upgrade education. Pretty well all social and educational research points to one basic problem — cultural poverty in the earliest months and years of a child’s life. By the age of about 5, intellectual development has already been blunted in an increasing number of children. By the age of about 11, clear divisions in aspirational and educational potential are so wide as to remain fixed in most cases for the rest of their lives.

To my knowledge only one attempt at a radical solution has ever been tried. This was the baby nursery system that was tried in the more socialist Israeli kibbutzim soon after the state was instituted in 1947 in order to release parents for almost full-time work (they were “allowed” to see their children for an hour or two every day). The children were given the best of care and educational stimulation but the experiments failed within a few years. The parents wanted their own children back in their own homes.

Thus it seems to me that a new sort of caste system is now emerging in developed countries and I can’t see how it can be reversed. One possible flaw in this argument is that the top-end “do-ers” will still need a reasonably prosperous mass market to sell to (or exploit, depending on one’s political viewpoint). But even this argument doesn’t add up. Competition is already so great that profit margins — however large the market — are being driven down to zero in an increasing number of goods and services. At the same time, automation and small run production methods (not to mention nano-technology) are growing such that mass markets will no longer be as important as they have been for the past 200 years or so.

I would suggest therefore that a permanent educational — and thus social — separation is already beginning to take place within advanced country populations. Modern biological research is clearly showing that human evolution has been, and still is, proceeding at a rate that has never been appreciated since Darwin’s time. In particular the male’s Y-chromosome is a hot bed of genetic mutation. It is the results of the more beneficial of these in terms of skilful behaviour from which the female selects when choosing a future lifetime partner and possible father for her children. Speciation seems to be inevitable to me.

One thought on “A Bi-polar Population

  1. doubleapple Sunday August 2, 2009 / 12:48 pm

    Very interesting article. So basically it seems that we are moving to a model where people have to think less during production and more during consumption. If consumption based thinking revolves around making decisions about oneself (groceries to buy, mortgage to use) and production based thinking involves making decisions about others (how to design / build a car for a certain market segment), does this mean society will become more selfish, because a majority of their brainpower will be spent thinking about themselves?


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