Thursday, 7 February 2013

WEIRD Industry

Is industry a good thing?

Or a bad?

For that matter, do you think the former photo represents anything better than the latter?

Does industry mean dark satanic mills? Sweatshops? Mass-production and mass-consumption? It certainly produces them. As ever, though, with this series, I'm more interested in the broad principle than the actual contemporary implementation. The ills produced by rampant industry are well-documented and well-understood.

What I'm interested in, though, is what it means to be industrialised. How and why do societies come to be industrialised? Given how ugly and repugnant the edifices of industry tend to be, both environmentally and culturally, why do we have so many of them? Why do people build them, and why do the builders and owners go on to become rich?

Let's look at two key aspects of industrialisation, economy of scale and specialisation. These aren't the be-all and end-all of industry, but any attempt to define 'industry' that goes beyond a simple dictionary definition is going to mention both.

Economies of scale are familiar to us all, of course. In essence, the idea is that the bigger a process is, the less wasteful and thus more efficient it will be. This is why bulk-buying works; products bought in bulk cost less per unit to package and distribute. It's also why you make muffins in batches; you have to heat the oven up to do any muffins at all, so you might as well do as many muffins as you can fit in the oven (I'm sure there's an innuendo in that sentence somewhere...), to make most use of all that energy.

Specialisation, in this case, means everyone you employ having one particular, well-defined job to do, making them a single cog in a much bigger machine. It's the underlying principle of the production line; rather than having each employee making a whole car by himself and thus having to know how every part of a car goes together with every other part, you have one employee for each step of the process, and every one of them does that step on every car. The key here is that you then don't need to train all your employees in all the jobs - each gets one piece of training. It's easier to replace an employee who leaves, too.

It's dehumanising, true, but it's efficient - it allows the production process to function with least lost time (at least, it does when implemented correctly). And that's what all the elements of industry ultimately come down to: efficiency. Making the most productive use of all available resources - money, time, skill, raw materials etc.

So, is efficiency a universalisable value, in the way that we saw education to be last week? Should we always want things to be more efficient? One of the easiest ways to define efficiency is as the reduction of waste, so yes, there is no circumstance in which greater efficiency is a bad thing.

Some of you are about to protest that sometimes it's nice to stop and smell the roses, take the road less travelled, or do things the hard way just for the challenge, but you're missing the point. If it's 'nice' - more technically, if there's some value in doing it that way - then the time isn't wasted (unless exactly the same value can be generated a more efficient way - so you might say that actually going for a walk in the country is a better way to experience the nature-appreciating value of stopping to smell the roses while trudging through suburbia, for example).

Efficiency, basically, means getting more of the things you value for less effort - less time spent doing things you don't value. So I think it's pretty clear that efficiency in general is always better. What about the specific subsets of efficiency which are captured as 'industry', though?

Well, the key here is that industrial efficiency is about reducing the amount of time we collectively spend on survival. Centralisation and organisation have saved a vast number of work-hours for most people over the last five hundred years or so. You might still work a 40-odd hour week, but most of the earning you do in that time isn't for the means to basic sustenance (okay, this depends on what your job is and how well it pays); you're not just eking out the means to survive, you're also affording TV, internet, all mod cons and so on.

Put more generally, the point is this: industry means more time and energy to be spent on the business of choosing and living out your own values. It's not as essential as education is, but it is still always a good thing. Yes, it can be dehumanising, it can create a materialist cultural bias - but it doesn't have to. Ultimately, it's as much a form of freedom as education.

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