Cybernation: the Trauma that Awaits Us

Cybernation: the Trauma that Awaits Us

It is hard to imagine that anything written these last few months could cast so harsh a light on the future of our society as Cybernation, a pamphlet written by Donald Michael and published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. This pamphlet not only brings together authoritative data concerning automation and related developments; it makes clear that changes of enormous scope are now occurring in our economy. When President Kennedy recently became indignant because electrical workers had won a 25-hour week, he was being not merely reactionary but also naive and irrelevant. For very soon the real question will be whether industrial workers will have any hours of work. Or if that be too extreme, the question is: How many millions of workers in how many industries will find themselves jobless because of the persistent advance of automated devices?

The term cybernation is used by Mr. Michael to refer to:
a) automation, “devices that automatically perform sensing and motor tasks, replacing or improving on human capacities for performing these functions” and
b) computers, “devices that perform, very rapidly, routine or complex logical and decision-making tasks, replacing or improving on human capacities … etc.”

What Mr. Michael proceeds to show is that the blend of automation and computers involves “potentialities . . that are unlimited,” with “extraordinary implications for the emancipation or enslavement of mankind.” Given the planlessness and incoherence of American society, there seems little reason to suppose that cybernation will in the near future lead to our “emancipation.”

Whole areas of employment will soon be wiped out by cybernation, and not merely in the way most of us imagine. “If the building trades were to be automated, it would not mean inventing machines to do the various tasks now done by men; rather buildings would be redesigned so that they could be built by machines.” Cybernated systems “perform with a precision and a rapidity unmatched in humans.” They can make judgments based on instructions programmed into them; they can remember and search their memories for appropriate data; they can detect and correct errors in their own performance; and they are beginning to perceive and to recognize.