Commentary Magazine


Men & Machines

To the Editor:

Ben B. Seligman’s article, “Automation and the State” [June] is a concise summary of the problem of structural unemployment caused by the automation of the mechanical processes hereto accomplished by unskilled workers. However, this problem has nothing to do with the genealogy of the ENIAC family. . . .The automation of logical processes via computers is bringing about a host of moral, ethical, and financial questions which ought to be widely discussed. But it is unfortunate that this newer development is used in a sensational way to introduce a much older, unrelated problem.

Steven J. Fenves
Champaign, Illinois

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To the Editor:

I read Ben B. Seligman’s article on automation with more than the general interest of the average reader. Not that I am an economist—merely an economizer for the last several months since having been bumped off my job. It surprises me that Mr. Seligman does not even suggest what I believe would be the most effective counterforce against the ravages of this latest moloch of industrial progress: commensurate reduction of working hours with increased production resulting from labor-saving processes. Retraining of workers and relocation of industries are at best stopgap measures. . . .Under the prevailing system, automation . . . renders the copious fruits of its cornucopia only more unattainable to a growing mass of job-seekers in a constantly increasing population.

J. S. Oestreicher
Bronx, New York

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Mr. Seligman writes:

I am rather puzzled by Mr. Fenves’s objections, for I hadn’t known that digital computers were restricted solely to the handling of “logical processes,” by which I take it he refers to the many experiments in artificial intelligence. One might ask Mr. Fenves what sort of computer it is that applies numerical controls to a huge turret lathe or drill press? And what of the digital machines employed to guide petrochemical operations (I know, analogs are also used), continuous casting in steel, the assembly line in autos, the bread in baking, the meat in abattoirs, the checks in banking, and the ciphers in a ledger? Does Mr. Fenves suggest that the hardware engaged in these tasks have no relation to ENIAC? Well, if he does think so, all I can say is that he has no sense of history and even less of a sense of technology. Another point—Mr. Fenves implies that only unskilled workers are affected by automation. I don’t know what Mr. Oestreicher does, or why he has been forced to “economize,” but it’s an even bet that the latter could tell Mr. Fenves a few things about the contemporary scene. I hadn’t known that machinists, steel-workers, auto-assemblers, bakers, meat-packers, bank tellers and bookkeepers were all unskilled workers. Perhaps Mr. Fenves would care to advise the several thousand engineers who have lost their jobs in the last eighteen to twenty-four months because of automation that they, too, are unskilled. Mr. Oestreicher’s point is well taken, but I had already discussed the shorter work week in an earlier article (“Man, Work, and the Automated Feast,” COMMENTARY, July 1962) and did not want to repeat myself.

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