Viagra, Frankenstein, and Us

In June 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband were enjoying a dinner party with a group of friends. They talked of books and poetry and swapped German ghost stories. The dinner led Shelley to write a short story that she later turned into her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. The book was a cautionary tale of a research scientist who successfully assembled a living being from corpses, only to have his creation turn on him and wreak havoc on the community. The book asks us to be aware of the Frankensteins of unintended consequences all around us. Let’s consider one.

Viagara and Frankenstein

One day in 1991, researchers working in England for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, were taken by surprise. They had been toiling away to develop a chemical compound to treat heart problems. They had come up with Sildenafil. It looked promising but then, during clinical trials, older men who had been taking the compound reported rock-hard erections lasting more than an hour. Those in the placebo-taking control groups reported no such effects. The Pfizer heart research project took a quick turn. More tests were done, the discovery was deemed sound, and so a method of mass producing the compound as a pill in the proper dosage was quickly established. The research team had inadvertently invented Viagra.

Patents were obtained. Observers wryly noted the unusual lightning speed with which the predominately middle-aged men in charge of so many of the world’s government approval processes allowed the little blue pill to machete its way through red tape. Within six months of its American approval, in March 1998, 7 million prescriptions were written, rendering it the country’s most popular medication.

Viagara and Frankenstein2

Pfizer’s future changed and its stock and profits rose dramatically. Commercials changed acceptable public conversations by dragging discussions of impotence, or erectile dysfunction, as it was renamed, from the shadows. The research changed the lives of millions of men and couples for whom impotence had been a problem. All was well.

But then, retirement homes and senior-dominated communities began reporting skyrocketing numbers of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa counties, for instance, have unusually large senior populations. From 2005 to 2009 the number of people older than 55 who contracted syphilis and chlamydia for the first time in their lives rose by 87%. As is the case with most corporate, applied research, Pfizer never released the names of those who created Viagra so we don’t know their reaction to the good and bad changes their work brought about. But Mary Shelley would have smiled.

What other research and inventions bring about Frankenstein change? What small decisions have we made in our lives, that ended up big ones in disguise, put us on roads we had hoped to never travel? How many political decisions made for expedient or partisan reasons have helped some but hurt many? Can we rise up as the torch-bearing villagers did in Shelly’s novel and defeat our Frankensteins? Let’s first identify them in our lives and our communities. Then, let’s light the torches.

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The Future Arrived and We Missed It

In 1957, Stockholm hosted the St. Erik International Trade Fair on Automation. The fair was a dazzling display of inventions that included new gadgets called robots. They were essentially tools that could do simple, multi-step tasks. The word robot came from a 1921 Czechoslovakian dystopian play in which machines, called robota, replaced humans. Robata is Czech for labour.

Inventor George Devol Jr. met physicist Joseph Engleberger at a cocktail party. They discovered a shared interest in electronics and robotics and the potential of the recent invention of the integrated circuit. Shortly afterward, they formed a company, Unimation, and created a robotic arm that synthesized all the current work going on in university and government labs. By 1961, General Motors had purchased the robotic arm and it was hard at work on one of their New Jersey assembly lines. It took red-hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and placed them in neat piles. The robot saved money by improving the line’s efficiency and replacing expensive workers. GM then bought and employed several Unimation robot welders.

General Motors’ successful use of robots inspired others until, by the 1970s, nearly every thriving manufacturing company in the world had robots on their lines. Production increased and profits rose as labour costs fell. By the 1990s, robots had become so sophisticated that they were even doing jobs that required decision-making and complex thought. A giant leap was taken when robots began using algorithms to design better versions of themselves.

The Future Arrived and we Missed It

(Photo: Business Insider)

India, China, Mexico and others adapted robots to their assembly lines while also offering multinational corporations cheap labour, lax health and environmental regulations, and low taxes. Because corporations are beholden to shareholders, and not to workers or a particular country, they jumped. American, British, and Canadian factories that had provided employment for generations either shrank or closed. Empty, rusting factories and the shuttered businesses that once supplied them and provided services to haunted souls and hollowed cities stood as mocking monuments to broken dreams and an era’s end. The plants that survived did so by trading workers for robots who never erred, stopped to eat or pee, or went on strike.

Robots helped break capitalism’s cycle where production boosted wages, increased spending, which, in turn, demanded more production. It threatened the concept of consumer capitalism and, in fact, capitalism itself. In 2010, American permanent job losses were compared to new job creation and it was discovered that the 21st century’s first decade had created not a single new job. This was unprecedented and frightening.

The changes robots brought about gave rise to populist politicians who spoke to the frustration of those whose dreams of better for themselves and their children were as shattered as their once-gleaming but now disintegrating cities. People were told that others, and the “other”, were to blame. But apportioning blame is not the same as presenting a solution and anger and fear are not strategies. Those who asked the next question knew that India, Mexico, and China could close every one of their manufacturing plants and western countries could slam shut their borders to every immigrant and refugee, and it would change very little. The robots have the jobs and they are not giving them back.

In February 2017, Dominic Martin was the bearer of bad news. As the head of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Economic Growth Advisory Council, he had been studying the effects of robots and automation on the job market. He reported that due to the increasing automation of jobs in every sector of the Canadian economy, within ten years about 40% of all jobs currently in existence will be gone. Martin’s estimate was close to that of the American McKinsey and Company. It reported in 2016 that 45% of all jobs currently done by American workers will be automated with ten years.

The Canadian and American reports mirrored findings in other countries. Driverless vehicles will replace truck and taxi drivers. Automated check-in and check-out devices will continue to replace grocery store clerks, bank tellers, fast food order-takers, and hotel desk attendants. Automated and online purchasing will continue to replace independent store owners and retail sales staff. Automated robots will replace more agricultural workers as they plant seed, pick fruit, prune trees, and milk cows. Automated calculators will replace more accountants and automated tutors will replace more teachers while automated drones will replace couriers and on, and on, and on. If the Martin and the Kinsley reports are correct, by the year 2030, the unemployment rate in countries like Canada, the United States, Germany, and Britain will reach about 47%. That is a staggering number. Consider that at the height of the Great Depression, that catastrophic collapse that threatened capitalism and democracy and abetted the rise of tyrants like Adolf Hitler, the unemployment rate peaked 30%.

The changes brought about by the invention of robots will continue to change our world in ways that fundamentally change how we live and work and measure success. Capitalism and democracy will change. And the robots won’t care.

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Inventing Change: Why We Do the Things We Do

Consider when you showed up at work this morning and the consequences if you were late. How do you measure the power of your car and the light bulbs in your home? Consider your notions of a healthy environment, how your children are educated, and why most of us live where we do.

In that consideration, pay mind to the fact that at the Crofton Pump Station in Wiltshire, south of Birmingham, England, a steam-driven pump is pushing about twelve tons of water a minute to operate the locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. The same pump has been operating efficiently since it was installed in 1812. More than that, the pump’s core technology, and the notion that led to its invention, changed your world and is affecting you today in ways you seldom stop to think about. Change, you see, is sneaky.

inventing-changePhoto: feelgrafix.com

In 17th century Britain, coal had replaced wood as a source of energy. The need for more coal led to deeper mines which had a tendency to flood. At first, horses walked in endless circles to power the pumps that drained the mines. Then, using technology first developed by Hero in ancient Greece, Newcomen engines were developed. They burned coal to heat water to create steam which, when injected through big cylinders, caused a piston to move up and down to pump the water. In 1763, an enterprising young Scottish craftsman named James Watt was asked by the University of Glasgow to fix a broken Newcomen steam engine. He did more than that. He undertook a ten-year journey to solve the pump’s inadequacies. He even learned to read Italian and German to study current research.

Watt eventually invented a separate condenser that allowed cylinders to maintain a constant temperature and the pump to become enormously more efficient. He then formed a partnership with businessman Matthew Boulton. With Boulton’s financial backing and the use of his company’s precision tools and machinery, Watt invented an entirely new steam engine based on a rotary engine with separate gears and his separate condenser. It was powerful, efficient, reliable, and allowed an operator to control its heat and speed.

(For CBC TV fans, Watt’s brilliant assistant who ingeniously developed new tools and ways of doing things was named William Murdoch.)

To sell his engines, Watt calculated that a mill horse could pull about 33,000 pounds of grain one foot per minute. His engine, however, could push 200 times that amount of grain per minute. He boasted, therefore, that his engine had the equivalent power of 200 horses. A unit of measure was invented that could be easily understood. Watt’s company could barely meet the demand for his 200 horsepower engines.

Bouton-Watt steam engines were soon pumping water from every mine in the country. More coal was extracted than ever before. Brewers used the engine to grind ingredients. Steam engines were soon powering cotton-spinning textile factories and flint mills. Giant steam-powered bellows allowed manufacturers to smelt more refined iron than had been previously imaginable. Steam-powered rolling mills produced better quality steel which was used to make better machinery, tools, and buildings. Every industry that switched from water and horses to steam saw their productivity explode.

It was not long before another English inventor, Robert Trevithick, adapted the steam engine to move wheels and, in so doing, created the first locomotive. In 1830, George Stephenson announced the Rocket. The Rocket was the world’s fastest and most powerful locomotive and was soon moving what had been previously considered unbelievable amounts of freight at unfathomable speeds, up to 36 miles per hour. The world’s first railway linked Manchester mills to Liverpool’s docks. From there, newly developed steam -powered ocean going ships made with steel from steam-powered foundries linked those docks to the world.

Britain’s economy boomed. In the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, it became the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of steel, iron, textiles, and coal. Iron alone increased its production by an astounding 2,500%. A circle was created where colonies provided raw materials and then the markets for finished products. With its far-flung colonies and secure trade routes all protected by its enormous navy, the steam engine and the industrial revolution it had unleashed saw Britain become the richest and most powerful empire of all time.

Like in all revolutions, the industrial revolution had winners and losers. The few, the less than one percent, grew enormously wealthy through controlling the import of sugar, cotton, and more from the colonies. Others owned or invested in the railways and shipping lines. A few owned or controlled the mills or as Marx would call them, the means of production.

And those growing mills, factories, ports, trains, and ships needed workers. Thousands left farms and obsolete village cottage industries. Former farm workers made more of the tractors that replaced them in the first place. Rapid urbanization saw many cities grow. London became the economic and cultural capital of the world with its population doubling in only fifty years to 2.7 million. People left relatively independent self-sufficient lives to live in deplorable conditions and, at work, act like the cogs in the machines they serviced. Author Charlotte Bronte wrote in Shirley: A Tale, “Misery generates hate: these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them: they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”

People living in Africa, Asia, and the middle east, often against their own will, became under paid or sometimes unpaid workers that fed British wealth. The need for more textile material led southern American cotton plantation owners to buy more slaves and become so wealthy that, eventually, they thought they could split from the northern powers they never liked and create their own country. The ensuing Civil War killed 600,000 Americans.

Back in England, and in every other country that followed its lead into the industrial era, and for the first time, people cared about time. Farmers followed the sun and seasons. But factories didn’t obey nature, they conquered it. Nature’s time was defeated as workers had to show up at a particular time and were paid by the hour. There were regulated times for breaks, lunch, and going home. Trains had to run on time too and so schedules were created. The tallest feature in many cities and towns ceased to be church spires but the town clocks. For a long while, cities set clocks according to the sun, making schedules impossible to maintain until a Canadian, Sir Sanford Fleming, reworked the most fundamental part of our existence so that the new society that steam had created would work – he mapped out time zones and standardized time.

An education system was created to mimic factory hours and rules. The schools taught the factory mentality of rote learning and obedience to the boss. School was considered practical only if it rendered one better able to work. It was industrial revolution teaching for a determined purpose and not, as the Greeks had envisioned, learning to become a wiser person.

But most kids didn’t attend. Children had worked before but with the massive movement of people and the new, insatiable need for labour, more children than ever came to know 16 hours shifts in the harshest of conditions. The 1832 Sadler Committee Report described parents often being separated from their kids for months or even years at a time and children being denied education, suffering workplace physical and sexual abuse, and sustaining more injuries than adult colleagues due to chronic fatigue. The report said that it was impossible to accurately state the number of children under 10 who died every year on the job.

The burning of so much coal to operate the factories and heat the new homes in the growing cities blackened the sky. It filled lungs with soot and brought disease and death. The rich escaped to big estates outside the cities and far from what radical Christian William Blake called in his poem Jerusalem, “dark satanic mills.” Ironically, many schools, those relics of industrial age educational organization, still maintain Jerusalem as their school song.

The world’s first seismic change, the agrarian revolution, began about four thousand years ago when it was discovered that one could grow food instead of chasing it. Farming made land the world’s most valuable resource and so the world’s richest people were those with the most of the stuff. They were called different things in different societies but in Britain, Lords controlled the land and the King, who owned the most land, controlled the Lords. The industrial revolution meant that the richest people were suddenly those who didn’t own the land but controlled the factories. American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest people of the industrial age, in fact, one of the richest people ever, understood the change and how it had happened. He tipped his hat to James Watt by writing a biography of the Scottish inventor.

The world’s scientists understood too. Watt’s enduring influence in having created a new form of power is remembered each time you turn on a light or power-up nearly anything. A unit of power equal to one joule per second is called a watt.

A number of factors cause change and one of the most significant can be a single invention. Inventions are not discoveries. To discover something is impressive but is essentially noticing what already existed. To have noticed black holes in space was not to invent them. James Watt invented the steam engine and what that invention wrought changed the world. Although the industrial revolution is over, given way to the new information age, sparked by a new invention, its effects remain with us today in ways we seldom even think about.

I bet you showed up on time this morning. And meanwhile, in Compton, the pump keeps right on pumping.

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