Did Laborers Fear the Wheel? Why New Tech Means New Skills

July 26, 2018

Throughout human history, advances in technology have often had a faceted impact: for every positive improvement it brings, someone, somewhere is (or feels) negatively affected. For example, consider the Industrial Revolution — a period that saw the advent of mechanized farming, assembly lines, automobiles, railroads, and much more.

On the one hand, there’s no denying the positive effect of these technological advances on the average person. Food, clothing, and much more became less expensive and easier to obtain, and travel became much faster. On the other hand, scientists can now trace a huge portion of the most serious ecological problems facing the planet to direct results of those same technological advances, including industrial waste and pollution.

Without a doubt, advancing technology can have both positive and negative effects.

It needs to be admitted, though, that some negative effects of new technology aren’t actually problems as much as they are changes that some people perceive as problems. One form this commonly takes is the belief that new technology steals jobs from people, leaving them with nowhere to go and nothing to do to compete.

A logical look at the claim, “machines stole my job”

Before the invention of the wheel, moving objects from one place to another generally involved picking them up and carrying them. The greater the number of items you needed to move, the more people or animals you needed to carry them. The larger and heavier the object was — like the huge stones used to build Stonehenge or the Pyramids — the more people and animals you needed to lug it around, and it was generally a very slow process. That’s one reason ancient construction projects often involved thousands of workers (or slaves) toiling for years or even decades.

Once the wheel was invented and began to be commonly used, moving things from one place to another became tremendously easier. At the local level, a farmer who wanted to sell his produce in the local marketplace no longer needed to load up several animals, himself, and four children with heavy bags and walk miles into town. He could build a wagon that sat on top of two or four wheels and pile it high with produce to make the trip faster, easier, and more profitable. And, adding a seat to the front of the wagon, he could attach it to a horse or ox to make the same trip less tiring. Plus, the kids could stay home, maybe even learn to read.

Back in the third millennium B.C., the wheel was new technology. And, without a doubt, it dramatically changed the world, both on a macro and a micro level. But, we need to ask: did the millions of laborers who became far more efficient — or, even unnecessary — as a result of its invention have reason to complain?

At this point in human history, this sounds comical. But, at the time when the wheel was first beginning to change the way we did just about everything, it’s actually very likely that a lot of people viewed it with suspicion. Some who had never known anything beyond picking up a load and carrying it may have resisted adopting the wheel because it was so foreign to them. Some who prided themselves on their ability to move heavy objects far or fast by hand may even have felt threatened by this encroaching technology that was taking the world by storm…

Does that sound familiar?

Yes, the same basic concern is alive and well nearly 20 years into the 21st century. The only difference today is the type of technology being feared.

Feedback from modern construction apprentices

Let’s bring this concept right up to modern times:

Matt Sawyer, VDC West Region Manager for Trimble MEP, recently sponsored an event in Van Nuys, California that gave him the chance to talk with a number of young, up-and-coming apprentices in the construction trades. For context, it’s important to understand two points:

  1. Trimble MEP provides hardware and software solutions on the cutting edge of construction technology.

  2. Every one of the apprentices in attendance was young enough to have never known the world prior to the Internet, mobile phones, and widespread digital automation.

Matt sponsored an Apprentice Contest event in May of this year and had the chance to talk with some of the apprentices. They voiced some of the following concerns with new construction technology, and it wasn’t his first time hearing this:

  • ‘Technology is eliminating jobs.’ They gave examples like the fact that the Trimble RTS (Robotic Total Station) speeds up layout and accuracy by five times, so work that used to take a crew of 5-10 guys is now done by 1-2 guys in half the time. In their mind, we just replaced 2-8 jobs.

  • ‘The use of one company’s technology is pigeon-holing workers.’ This thought comes from the perception that there are positions being created in firms across the country for the ‘Trimble Guy,’ meaning an employee who only knows how to do their job using one or more Trimble applications and nothing else. There’s an underlying fear that these workers will lose everything else they have learned, leaving them at a disadvantage if and when they start looking for employment elsewhere, or in a different part of the construction field.”

Matt offered his take on these and similar opinions, which are surprisingly common, even among Millenials who are just entering the trades:

“There's a misunderstanding within our industry when it comes to robotics and machine technology. A lot of workers — many with jobs completely unrelated to the Trimble Robotic Total Stations or other solutions like Scanning — spoke about fear and an antipathy towards the latest technology.”

“Technology is synonymous with opportunity. Robotic Total Stations and 3D Laser Scanning are not replacing jobs, but are instead substituting specific tasks that free up time. The evidence shows these improvements often lead to changing core skill sets thus creating an opportunity. For example, a construction worker doing layout using traditional methods would have an opportunity to learn and become a Trimble Operator providing the employee with a more advanced skill set highly attractive within the marketplace.”

Wrapping things up: Did laborers fear the wheel?

This brings our discussion full-circle (pun definitely intended) back to the wheel.

As a laborer who’d grown up knowing no other way to move things than to use brute force, and who recognized and accepted the limitations inherent to that reality, the appearance of the wheel may have caused similar fear and antipathy.

There was no possible way to deny that the wheel made the task of moving things around far easier, faster, and better in many other ways. Yet, there’s also no denying that it made many laborer positions unnecessary, and left workers scrambling for other tasks to accomplish.

But, what else did it do for these individuals?

Consider the opportunity afforded a laborer who learned how to drive a cart. Or how to build one? Or, consider that farmer heading to market. Is it reasonable to conclude that the invention of the wheel made those people and their families happy, healthier, and wealthier?

Consider the opportunity handed to a young laborer who was “downsized” when the wheel displaced the need for him to spend hours every day carrying rocks around a construction site. Was he now better able to steal bits of time to work on educating himself and adding more value in whatever job he took on next? Is it reasonable to conclude that the invention of the wheel gave this worker a chance at a completely different — and better — way of life?

Likewise, today, consider the opportunities afforded to a worker in a field like construction, where advancing technology is constantly creating change on many fronts. Does the new technology afford an opportunity to enhance and further their knowledge and their scope of expertise? Does it open doors to better-paying positions or brand new cottage industries that could lead to bigger paychecks and more fulfilling work? Does it even reduce repetitive and laborious activities, leaving workers more time and opportunity to focus on aspects of the job that no computer or machine could ever replace — those that require the human element?

Considering all this, it is reasonable to conclude that new technology promotes valuable new skills, even offering the modern construction worker a chance at a happier, healthier, and wealthier life.


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