Why I am a Luddite in 2016

OUR bank is closing this week. So are the same bank’s branches in Sherborne and Glastonbury, which will be left with no bank. There was a demonstration there a couple of weeks ago, and because Michael Eavis was involved (of course he was, he is a Somerset man and he cares about the area) the media turned out to cover it.

It  won’t make the multinational bank change its mind, but it did at least show that rural communities do have a voice and that we are all angry at the way our services are being taken away, bit by bit, like some awful torture devised by the Inquisition.

Villages in north Dorset, including Sixpenny Handley, have heard that they are to lose their bus service and Dorset’s youth services and libraries will almost certainly be closed. This is because the government has savagely reduced (by 45 per cent!) its grant to the county council and the cuts have to go somewhere.

Some of these and the other disappearing services and functions will be lost. Some will be replaced, over time, by a combination of enterprise and voluntary commitment. Some can be done on-line – like banking. Of course that is easier and cheaper for the big banks and there are many people who are happy with on-line banking and have done it for years. A whole generation under 30 appears perfectly happy to do their banking and all their business and social activity on their smartphones.

There are many people – not only the poor and the very elderly – who can’t afford or aren’t comfortable with technology taking over their lives. We have friends of all ages who don’t and won’t do internet banking. We don’t. But from this week we lose the personal contact with bank staff we have come to know over the years, who know us and our various accounts and activities. We have enjoyed a high level of personal service and we are going to miss it.

It’s not just about the banks. It’s about the loss of connections and community, the replacement of people with machines. It is a sci-fi nightmare that is becoming reality and the vast majority of us have no control over it, although we can continue, if we have the time, the money, the energy (and the transport) to seek out some of the services that are still available, at a price.

My concerns about robots are not new, and it’s not the first time I have written about them, but with each closing of a branch or service and move on-line, I observe  how we lose a little more autonomy as communities and individuals. As robots steadily move not only along the factory floor, where they have been operating for years, and the virtual call-centres from where computer-generated voices cold-call your mobile, but even into the lives of the elderly in care homes or pre-school children, what we see developing is a triple whammy of loss of individual service, loss of personal contact and loss of jobs.

Increasingly, robots, computers and allied devices are replacing people. Obviously, this saves millions of pounds, dollars, yen or yuan for the  transnational corporations and organisations who recruit machines.

More than 150 years ago, journeymen bakers demonstrated against improved technology that would make their jobs redundant, just as a generation before mill workers had protested against the machines that took their jobs.

It is hard not to foresee that the rapid robotisation of the workplace will inevitably, inexorably, create a timebomb of unemployment, hopelessness and depression. Where will the jobs come from for the unskilled or semi-skilled workers who will be replaced by machines, which themselves will be made by machines, in a ghastly parody of the nursery rhyme about big fleas and little fleas.

Of course there will be opportunities for people with brilliant minds, scientists, engineers, thinkers and artists. But not everybody can be an entrepreneur or a creative freelance. Not everybody can rise to the top in management to manage an army of robots. Not everybody wants to work for themselves.

There will always be people who want steady jobs without too much responsibility, the company of others, regular routines to their lives, time to work, time for their families, days off, holidays and wages coming into the bank, wherever it is.

We may have a smartphone, an Airbook and an iPad, work on computers and be totally happy to book air travel, theatre tickets and meals online, order gifts for friends or family to be delivered to their homes and correspond with our friends by email or Skype. But emotionally I remain a Luddite because I do not want to live in a world where machines rule, under a technocracy of the super-rich in air-conditioned towers from where they never see or touch the ground.

Fanny Charles