10 December

Revolution in Work

A current exhibition at Tate Britain brings together major works from across the career of Edward Burne-Jones. The exhibition includes stained glass, tapestries, sketches and some of his widely-admired paintings. Firmly in the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Burne-Jones sought inspiration from medieval and classical ideals and forms. In this project, Burne-Jones was committed to an ideal of beauty as an antidote to the crude ugliness and rampant materialism of the late-Victorian age. Examples of his stained glass may be found right across the country, often in Victorian urban areas.

Many of the intellectual roots of Pre-Raphaelite reactions to the Industrial Revolutions lie with the writer and art critic John Ruskin who had been an early champion of Pre-Raphaelite expressions of a world before the harsh realities of factory work and urban slums. From his various writings, Ruskin is often credited with anticipating contemporary concern for environmentalism, sustainability, and the nature of work. Ruskin’s thought admittedly languished in popularity during the Twentieth Century, but with a bicentenary coming up next year, his writing is receiving renewed attention.

Developed economies are now undergoing what is termed a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Unlike the Industrial Revolution of Burne-Jones’s and Ruskin’s day, the Fourth is not at all defined by a move from rural and cottage-crafts. Nevertheless, there are parallels in that both eras feature a process of mechanisation apparently challenging the very nature of work. Numerous professions are currently trying to face up to the onset of technological advance in the shape of Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’).

Many ideas now being widely discussed on the meaning of work are not new. With AI encroaching on the roles of humans, industry and policy makers are concerned with redefining work in particular awareness of wellbeing, meaning, and creativity. For Ruskin, mechanisation meant the individual worker was reduced to a mere asset, part of a bigger industrial machine. Priority was given to technological advance as the country’s infrastructure modernised. Progress was measured by miles of railway, rivers spanned by steel bridges, and quantities of goods exported. In this process little thought was given to the dignity of work. In his magnum opus, The Stones of Venice, Ruskin lamented:

‘that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.’

Just as the gains of mechanisation were eagerly pursued and reaped during the nineteenth century with but limited concern for repercussions, so now, too, politicians are keen to capitalise on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There are risks for the way we work in implementation of AI, robotics, quantum computing, and biotech. On one side, technology-optimists believe that those replaced by AI will eventually adapt. But the experience of like change has hardly proven smooth. Policymakers keen to avoid gloomy predictions about the end of work might start by choosing to use technology in ways that play to human strengths at work. Ruskin argued that in order to ‘manufacture souls of good quality’, work must enable human capabilities of curiosity, imagination, intuition, creativity and empathy.

Ruskin’s argument need not necessarily be Luddite in opposing outright mechanisation. Rather, mechanisation would take place when productivity is not measured by concern for costs alone, but by the very meaningfulness of work. Rather than rejecting it outright, today’s worried might look to AI to free time and enhance the capacities of employees to be more productive and more fulfilled in work that is uniquely suited to the human condition. Although our age faces seemingly unique challenges, lessons can surely be learned from Britain’s past experiences.  

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