The year I began teaching literature at the University of Minnesota in 1964, Leo Marx published his important book, The Machine in the Garden. Though Marx was teaching literature in the newly minted department of American Studies, I never met him. Because everyone spoke about him in hushed and reverential tones, however, I figured I should read this critical examination of the effects of machine technologies on the pastoral ideal that surrounded 19th century American literature. What Marx wanted to show was the loss of national innocence many critics decried. After all, when our Puritan fathers (and mothers, don’t forget) landed on the eastern shores of what would become North America, they believed they were coming to a virgin land, a “city on the hill” sort of place, even a paradise regained since many were fleeing repressive and corrupt systems across the Atlantic Ocean. Scholars studying those early settlers report that in many of their chests and bags, only two books were found: the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Reality along that Eastern Seaboard probably looked a lot different from the idealized myth of unsullied and innocent nature, but by the 19th century the myth had taken hold in imaginations if not on the actual farms and in the emerging cities of this country. Yet Marx and many others after him insisted on a story in which an essentially agricultural country was being infected and sullied by rapidly developing technologies that began cutting people off from their natural settings. In England, a similar malaise developed around the Industrial Revolution. Poets like Oliver Goldsmith (“The Deserted Village”) and William Wordsworth (“London, 1802” or “The World Is Too Much With Us”) told us of how factories and noisy farm machines were destroying the tranquility of the country side even as they were alienating humans from their work. Well, in 2018, we’re a long way from any such bucolic ideal. Assembly lines have existed for over a century now, becoming more and more mechanized until today robots are doing more and more in many factories turning out cars and other necessities of today’s ultra-urbanized culture. And it is those very robots about which I want to speak briefly. A few days ago, I heard a long program on National Public Radio (NPR) about a recent decision in Los Vegas to begin using robots to do the work in some of the giant casinos and their accompanying hotels/restaurants. Already, a few mega-restaurants are using robotic salad choppers that can supply all the lettuce/cabbage/tomatoes and other ingredients for the thousands and thousands of salads served each day. The program described in great detail a robotic device that could make a perfect daikari or whiskey sour. This involves a large arm connected to supply sources holding the proper ingredients. A patron clicks on the drink of choice and the arm begins putting into the right kind of glass exactly the right amount of alcohol to produce that cocktail. The reporter involved interviewed some patrons who had used this arm and tasted the results. One woman was quite eloquent when she said “Well, yes, it tasted like what I ordered, but it was no fun. A big part of being at a bar is talking to the bar tender.” I suppose the industries involved will now have to find a version of Watson who can “talk” to the patron while it’s cranking out the drink punched into a computer grid.
Like so much of current technological advances that seem to be exploding into our consciences and environments, it seems to me no one is asking much about the human consequences of our increasing reliance on robotic devices to perform routine tasks. In the case of Los Vegas’ move toward using such machines to clean hotel rooms and allow restaurants to turn out food faster and more cheaply than is possible using human workers, what’s not being taken into serious account is the effects on a work force. The NPR investigative reporter made abundantly clear just who will be impacted by this move into robotics. He told us what we would would know if we thought about it for a few minutes: the two groups that will be affected immediately are women and Hispanics. Women and men from these populations currently perform the great bulk of this work in the casinos, so they will be the first to get pink slips as large metallic “arms” replace them in kitchens and bars and bedrooms. The same reporter was equally clear that no re-education or re-training programs are being mandated that might allow such displaced workers to apply for other jobs in order to provide them with the means to live with a modicum of self respect and to support families if they have them.
So, though few would call The Strip a “garden” of any kind, the new “machines” certainly will further alienate hard-working individuals from any serious guarantee of financial security. That denial will in turn exacerbate the already-present worries and fears surrounding the groups of low-income workers directly involved. And, not to be too pessimistic, already in place in some quarters, greedy corporations have their eyes on using appropriately designed robots to harvest this country’s dominant crops. We all know whom that mechanical advantage will permanently disadvantage. Leo Marx would be a lot sadder if he were breathing today.