|Beginning of the French Revolution ... Storming the Bastille, Paris, July 14, 1789 ~ unknown artist|
“That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended — civilizations are built up — excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and the cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.” ~ C.S. Lewis
It occurred to me just this past week, as I stood in line at a local national retail chain store in Enid, as more self-checking devices were being installed, obviously supplanting the need for human checkers: At what point will the United States economy hit its tipping point?
By a tipping point, I mean at what point will machines and technology overtake our economy and our society, where fewer and fewer jobs mean fewer and fewer people able to actually afford items we now take for granted in our lives.
I mean, I don’t have to have a TV set in my house. What if I lost my job, or my job was reduced to the point I could no longer afford to replace an aging flat screen?
And, at what point will I be able to adequately feed myself, keep a roof over my head, afford my utilities and taxes and insurance and on and on and on?
If a machine or technology replaces me, that may all sound well and good for the people who developed that technology, who sell goods and services over and above basic human needs to sustain life, whose shareholders make bushel baskets of money on their investment. But, is that technology really good for the great masses of people, or just for the dwindling pool of people who can afford it?
Is there a point where we tip past the point of no return? Or, as in past civilizations and nations, at what point do people rebel and a revolution occurs?
There is an old saying that a few people starving and homeless in a society is pathetic, but tens of thousands of people starving and homeless can become a revolution.
I’m not saying the United States is headed for that tipping point, but then again, maybe we are and just don’t realize it — we can’t see the forest for immediate economic trees.
At what point in our history does the world of business and technology realize the sometimes human cost of advancements?
Interestingly, you can use the French Revolution in 1789 for some answers.
There were a number of reasons for the French people to take up arms and protest against their ruling class and governance, all complex at the time, and which would take volumes of space to explain.
But then, you get to the bottom line, the tipping point of French history, and it was the very simple fact that tens of thousands of peasants — the lowest working class in their society — were literally starving to death.
There was little money, weather had grown intemperate, crops had failed and food was quite a scarce commodity.
You see, life is quite simple when you boil it down to just a few absolute, basic needs.
Human beings need three essential things to stay alive: good air to breath and sustain bodily functions, food to fuel those functions, and water that is relatively free of bacteria, carcinogens or impurities that otherwise could contain disease or poisons that would kill you.
Take any of those three life essentials away and you have ... death.
Go back in human history to the caveman. They lived in caves to have a roof over their heads when it rained and snowed, to stay warm and dry so they could hunt and fish for food, be close to good water and just live and reproduce.
No iPhones, no internal combustion engines to drive cars and trucks, no electricity to run devices, no grocery or Target store to run to when the bread ran out, or you needed batteries for your flashlight.
They had food, water, air to breathe, fire to sustain warmth, and a place to stay in out of the elements — in this case the cave, which was provided by nature.
And … they had to rely on one another.
That was it.
They had to learn not to be killed by predators, be careful not to get too close to the fire, and figure out that the dead animal carcass in their water supply was making them sick or killing them.
Again, that was it for our earliest ancestors.
In 1789, women marched on the French royal palace at Versailles, begging for bread to feed their starving families.
Peasants eventually faced bayonets, bullets and cannon storming and taking the Bastille — and the French Revolution ignited.
I’m sure Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette thought that a revolution was unthinkable and could not happen in their opulent world — right up until the time their bloody heads rolled from the guillotine blade into a basket filled with straw.
Can we learn from history?
Maybe … maybe not.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to http://www.enidnews.com/opinion/columns/history-tipping-points/article_55231f17-0047-598a-914a-2db8c6e885f2.html