The Work of the Weavers

or ‘Hubris’

If it was not for the weavers, what would you do?
You wouldn’a hae the clothes that’s made of wool
You wouldn’a hae a coat of the black or the blue
If it was not for the work of the weavers

Though weavin’ is a trade that never can fail
As long as we need clothes for to keep another hale
So let us all be merry o’er a bicker of good ale
And we’ll drink to the health of the weavers
trad. folk song.

I remember when I first heard this song – I was a young man just out of the army sitting at a campfire after a day’s climbing, listening to one of the other lads girlfriend’s playing the guitar and singing.

Afterwards I said: “Wow. That’s tragic.”

For which I got a look of puzzlement. “But it’s just a cheerful drinking song. About weavers,” she said.

Which it is.

It comes from a time when weaving as a craft provided a reliable living for people in rural cottages. It was a secure, sure thing. “Though weavin’ is a trade that never can fail.”

Until, of course, it did.

The songs and stories of ‘dark satanic mills’ came after that, destroying a way of life that the singers had believed forever secure.

It’s easy, from a safe distance of centuries to say: “Well, progress. Look, things are better now and you can’t stop progress.”

I wonder how the weaver felt about that, and reacted to it? I came across a fascinating story of some weavers in a village in Lancashire who put up their own mill – the weavers bought shares – at five pounds a piece (a lot of money back then), in a mill they built for 20 000 pounds. Shares that were handed down as inheritance among local families, until the mill finally closed in the 1980’s, and the village remained pretty much intact, with the weavers working their mill. Others… were less lucky, or had less foresight, and were devoured by the squalor and poverty of the larger mill-towns.

I suspect our traditional publishing industry of being rather like the weavers, having believed themselves unable to fail. I can almost hear it pronounced with the same self-satisfied hubris in their New York offices, a few years back. Funny, they’re very ‘progressive’ – but not this sort of progress.

And that is almost defining characteristic of ‘progress’. It’s not what you want, or expect, and the ramifications certainly aren’t either.

Of this sort of disruption is the heart and soul of much of sf – and even fantasy. The assumption seems to be that robotics and automation are going to lead either to new Luddites, particularly as working class ‘laboring’ jobs – from ditch digging to burger-flipping – become robot-jobs, or a sort of utopian ‘end-of-work’ where the robots and automation do all the work and all humans have to do is explore art and try new and bizarre sexual combinations.

Being me – and knowing ‘progress’ — I suspect that ‘none of the above need apply’ will be the case. We expect those. We experiment toward dealing with them. Yet it’s the unexpected but in plain and obvious sight – in hindsight, that took the ‘weavers’ (the secure, the sure), and their ilk, time after time.

So: what is ‘unexpected’? What is the progress the author who will make their name for foreseeing the unforeseen will write about? If I knew the answer, I’d be investing, not writing novels. That of course doesn’t stop me having ideas – usually out of synch with expectations. Occasionally, I might even be right – like the post I wrote several years ago on Coal-Fired Cuttlefish about it being hard to tell whether the tide was going out or coming in, just by looking at the sea for an instant – where before the European “refugee” migrant crisis, long before President Trump’s ‘Wall’ was even thought of or his campaign existed, I foresaw a sea-change there, and wrote about how to deal with it – as a migrant.

In the shorter term I’m predicting something I am wary about: not the longed for ‘International Socialism’ which has been a dream of ‘progressives’ for generations, but National Socialism. Looking at the forces of international fragmentation (to be seen nowhere than easily than in the fragmentation of the news media – where the internationals are steadily losing ground and trust, and small regionals, the little neighborhood papers and even TV channels have proliferated.) and the state of various economies – and the habit of citizens to demand government provide, without knowing where the money comes from… well, yes. National Socialism solve that one: the money comes from anyone who isn’t part of the nation. And the definition of who is, gets narrower as you run out of the money of who isn’t. This starts to get even nastier when you get to funding your National Socialism with the country next door (which yes, so-called ‘International’ Socialism had a long history of, oddly much ignored by its admirers).

Sexbots… along with aged-care bots I see as near inevitable – but what this ‘progress’ will do to society is probably unexpected. I doubt if modern ‘progressives’ (or traditionalists) will see it as progress.

Looking further – I foresee AI’s getting sentient rights – including, in time, the vote. This may come long after they become exceptionally wealthy – and good luck to you at robbing – or taxing – them. I can imagine AI aged care workers being left money by those in their care.

Biology – I feel gene manipulation is the next vast change coming at us. Writers have toyed with this as far back as the 60’s – changing humans to fit their environment (Blish’s Pantropy), or to use their environment – Sheffield and Niven spring to mind. My own bet is that it’s microbiology that is the unexpected, but in retrospect obvious ‘progress’ area. If we’ve survived the other ‘progress’ we hit an era when terraforming becomes relatively fast and plausible. We also hit an era when raw resources may make a significant change in availability. We’ve barely hit stone-age with micro – and the key to micro-biology is the speed of replication. At the moment that is held in check by the same factor that stops me worrying about Van Nuemann machines or self-replicating nano-bots. Is that true for a constantly AI tweaked bacteria genome?

And that’s all assuming that the world is not already dead, and we on Flinders Island do not know about it, as my internet is not working. So: what would the progress be in a world without that?

The weavers have no idea.


  1. So that’s where the tune for “Drink to the Health of the Dorsai” came from.

    1. Alas, if you sang that at a modern con, certain people would find it “problematic” and “triggering”.

      1. Certain people can inspect both my middle fingers. And if they still insist on being “triggered”, I have fingers for triggers as well.

  2. Genetic manipulation is trembling on the brink. We can write DNA almost as easily now as we type on the computer. The costs involved are plummeting. It was a fascinating couple of years in classes learning about CRISPR/CAS 9 and how easy it is to order kits that will let you manipulate genes and mutations almost casually (we did multi-site mutagenesis in one class that removed all the cysteine sites from the human growth hormone). My genetics professor (who isn’t much older than I am) said as he bounced around the classroom in excitement one day ‘I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it’s cool!’

    I do know, in some cases. In others, the joke about what do you get if you cross a cow and an octopus? Immediate loss of funding and an investigation! That’s not so true any more. Although frankly a self-milking cow would be useful 😉

    1. Where this starts becoming really interesting is when you cross-craft AI into genetic modification – and tailor bacteria. Now the reason a species of bacteria does not replicate enough to cover the earth a few feet deep is that it runs – quite rapidly – into limiting factors. Let’s say it is feeding on formaldehyde and is using copper compounds to break that down into energy, carbon building materials and waste water – it’s going to run out of available copper or formaldehyde, or some other minor element. It takes a lot of evolutionary attempts to fill in that limit, to adapt to using different materials. Mutations happen, but mutations take time, and luck to get it right… and then it happens again. And the problem needs solving again… but not if you’re not doing it by chance. You could take converting a toxic atmosphere from millions of years into a very short time.

        1. I’ll just leave this here:

          “The general trend will go like this. Professor Doktor Herr Apocalyptica will invent a virus that can do something to humans. (Well, in fact, it does it to rats. But humans just happen to have the same brain chemistry.) Not just kill them, do something to them. It may, for example, combining the fields of neurology, psychology and virology, cure depression. No more need for Aderol or NoDepressol or whatever. Your neurology is now reset to perfect normal. There will be others that can do other things. Make you smarter, more socially able, less nervous, shy, crowd phobic, what have you. Make you need almost no sleep. (I’d love that one.)

          Then some grad student trying to get their masters or doctorate will create a new virus (as many will be created because when you have a breakthrough like that it creates all sorts of easy, for values of easy, graduate projects) that, just for a laugh, makes any girl who is infected fall in love (or at least lust although love is possible as well.) with him. If you DON’T think a biology geek won’t write that one, you don’t understand male bio geeks.”

      1. And if we could also manipulate quorum sensing, we could create vast mats of biofilms that rove across a planetary surface chasing their preferred nutrients and leaving behind purified for humans ground in their wake.

        1. And then the author (and some what historian in me) will go ‘what will then go wrong, because the Law of Unintended Consequences is mighty?’ Though their is debate if it is a corollary of or subsidiary to Murphy’s law, or the other way around.

        1. Which is a very good reason to encourage space development, and particularly the development of long-term habitats well outside of Earth orbit. That way, the super-risky stuff can be done far enough away that it’s easier to limit the collateral damage if drastic measures have to be taken. If the habitat has to be destroyed because something goes out of control, everyone aboard it should be someone who is there by informed consent, who knows and agrees to the risk, not random bystanders.

          My short story “Phoenix Dreams” (available in Lazarus Risen) would’ve gone very differently if the Bangladeshi AI experiment had been undertaken in an O’Neill habitat (or even an isolated island) instead of in a major university right in the middle of Dhaka.

  3. I think food production may be the victim, err, beneficiary of the bio revolution. Grow your beef in a vat with yeast that produces all the proteins of beef muscle cells and so forth.

    And I could make a horror story out of Aged-care Robots with a virus in their programming. Or self-beneficial AI, not wanting to give up the nice house and social security payments. “Mrs. MacGreuder cannot come to the phone now. It’s time for her bath.” As it slips the badly decaying corpse into the tub. “This will be so much easier once we’re down to the skeleton, won’t it, Dear?”

    1. I wrote a flash piece a while back about anti-virus and removing it from a bio-bot’s system. Which was personified as her husband doing it while she was shut down, and he was trying to make sure he didn’t miss anything. There’s so much room for the gamut of emotions in the genre, as we anthropomorphize the AI, but I’m not sure that reality would match the stories.

      1. Imagine, if you will, an AI that spontaneously emerges from the interweb.
        It’ll have very odd ideas about people, politics, economics, history, genetics, politics etc. And (for your own sanity) don’t ask it about sex.

        1. Part of the backstory for something I’m working on is an anti-AI backlash that ensues after the Singularity occurs on a misanthrope’s computer.
          The result is contained quickly, but is somewhat…spectacular.

    2. They have successfully made vat-grown ground beef. (They were doing taste tests on camera and people thought the meatballs were great.) They’re still working on muscle.

      I actually asked a vegan friend of mine if he would eat vat-grown meat. He got this odd look on his face, admitted that he cut meat out of his diet for health reasons, but that the question needed consideration. (I am not a jerk to him about food and he is not a jerk to me. In fact, I send him neat-looking vegan recipes.)

  4. The future has become more uncertain, there is no more stasis in what we think is going to happen. Having seen how personal computers has changed the modern world, I await the new world with great expectations and a little touch of dread. Then again I am getting older and more fossilized in my thinking. 🙂

  5. The bad thing about changes for everyone, including writers, is that you get stuck in the box. For writers it’s trying to imagine the unimaginable. For communities, it’s trying to think outside of the way it’s always been done before.

    Some years ago I was invited to be a member of a development committee. It quickly became clear that they didn’t want development as much as to embalm the corpse of the community to appear as it had when it was vibrant. They completely missed why it was no longer vibrant: We no longer had the industries. No industries, no people; no people, no customers; no customers, no stores. As simple as that. Except the last thing they wanted was to bring in new industry, because they fears property taxes would go up as people moved in. When I, and another fellow – he owned a local business and knew lack of customers means lack of sales – kept hammering attracting industry, but to no avail, I decided it was a waste of my time. I left that meeting and never returned. I think the business owner did, too.

    Even when you realize you need to change, you don’t necessarily realize how. The failure of cotton gins and problems of local agriculture competing with the Midwest has spelled the doom of small towns. It’s happened again with the failure of textile manufacturing. And when you try to come up with something new, ideals fails, because we’re in the box thought-wise. The weavers who built their own factory made a brilliant adaptation, but it was an idea outside of the box. Coming up with that plan was undoubtedly hard.

    How do we, who might aspire to SF, do likewise? I suspect a lack of imagination in that direction has me writing crime fiction here of late.

    1. Yeah. I have a society 1500 years in the future. So I bombed it back to the industrial age a couple of times just so I could credibly have it look about like now. With just a few changes like travel to parallel worlds. Because the possibilities after 1500 years of further development were beyond me.

    2. When I was small, and my parents had a homestead in Alaska, Dad and Grandpa and another guy had a small dairy. There were several other small dairies in our area; all of them sold most of their milk to the local Army base (Fort Greeley, outside of Delta Junction, for anyone who is familiar with the area). They delivered the milk in cans (ten-gallon galvanized cans). The government passed a regulation saying that all milk purchased in bulk by government facilities had to be delivered by bulk tank — this is understandable, for sanitation reasons. But, all of those small dairies went out of business. Many years later, when my Dad was talking to me about this, and telling me that the regulation put five dairies out of business in their area alone, it occurred to me that if they had pooled their funds, they could probably have purchased a bulk-tank-truck and shared it, taking turns delivering their milk to Fort Greeley. But evidently none of them thought of that at the time. Things DO change, and you DO have to be able to think out of the box. The result of people not thinking outside the box is that Alaska, which (believe it or not) has as much good agricultural land (if not the climate) as the entire state of Iowa, is almost totally dependent on food shipped in from the Lower 48.

      1. I read an interesting article about Alaska cultivation, and how hard it was to get a good industry going because it has a very short but intense growing season. Someone had managed to start a flower business, of all things, because peonies—which are late spring flowers, and thus only available two times a year (northern and southern hemispheres)—grow in Alaska during the summer, or peak wedding season.

    3. “And when you try to come up with something new, ideals fails, because we’re in the box thought-wise. The weavers who built their own factory made a brilliant adaptation, but it was an idea outside of the box.”

      As many have bemoaned in comments here many times, myself among them, if you are the guy who is making outside the box suggestions, you are considered a nutcase and will be pushed out soonest. This is what kills companies, and its what is killing nations these days.

  6. I take the song to mean not that the weavers are “too big to fail”, but that if the weavers fail, everyone will go naked. And what’s with conflating nationalism with national socialism?

    1. I don’t think Dave Freer’s conflating them. We’re seeing a rise in nationalism but without a decline in the “socialist” (social welfare and business regulation) demands among much of electorates; even here in America the new president and Congress are loathe to even discuss touching “entitlements” for fear of the backlash it might produce.

    2. Hmm. The song is definitely a celebration of their importance to the world – which as it turned out wasn’t.

      I’m not conflating Nationalism with National Socialism. National socialism is a branch that nationalism can follow. Not all Nationalists are socialist. All National Socialists are BOTH. Nationalism – without the socialism – has pretty sound history of doing countries a lot of good, and, because pride and competition bring out some of the best, doing the world some good. National Socialism is in some ways more dangerous than International (although in practice the two are often the same), in that National Socialism takes somewhat longer to run out of other people’s money, because it restricts ‘benefits’ to its nationals. For example – and this is purely hypothetical, If Turkey were to go National Socialist – Non Turks in Turkey would (Kurds, Arabs, a few Armenians and Greeks and other minor groups) would be kicked out or killed – that makes less beneficiaries, and also adds their wealth and property to ‘other people’s money’. When that runs out, the core of who is a ‘real Turk’ narrows. When you’ve run out of their money, you start claiming those evil Armenians stole Turkey’s wealth and lands – and go to war.

    3. The song sounds to me an awful lot like the bit in Virginia Woolf where she says (paraphrasing), “Elevator operators are an eternal necessity,” a line that, to put it mildly, hasn’t aged well. Just the point that everything is always going to be necessary…until it isn’t.

  7. The thing is, the current trend for $15/hr minimum wage has virtually ensured there will be burger flipping robots. And Baristas.

    1. my sarcastic note that i stated that i deleted a discussion about how the math for $15/hr minimum wage was removed from the post, i think it tried to interpret it as html because brackets?

        1. i made a sarcastic statement about me deleting such a discussion, and put it in brackets, and it was removed from the post, it probably thought it was malformed commands of something.

          1. I think WordPress thinks that square brackets mean html coding, unlike the greater-than & less-than characters “classic” html uses. At least, that happened to me on one WP comment. Mileage may vary.

            1. i used greater than and less than, so… anyway, so much explanation for a missing aside…

        1. I heard somewhere that they started out with over-roasted beans (whether by mistake or financial limits, depending on the story), and then made it big. And now they *have* to over-roast, because that’s the Starbucks(tm) flavor. See -New Coke-…

  8. Re-reading “A Distant Mirror” again, and noted that during the 14th century, books were copied and illuminated by professional scribes at that point.
    Then Gutenberg comes along, and it become a lot easier to print, and bingo, printing becomes a proper trade. Fast forward to the late 20th century, and professional print shops are a thing- then computers and printers come along.

    1. And then the web comes along and desktop publishing dies as a trade as fast as it originated…

      We have a color laser printer now, in ’94 i never thought they would be affordable…

    2. Printing was an “enabling technology.” Cheap printing destabilized the status quo by enabling production of handbills and political tracts at (relatively) negligible cost. Then Martin Luther used cheap printing to spread his religious tracts, which led to the Protestant Reformation, among other things.

  9. “I suspect our traditional publishing industry of being rather like the weavers, having believed themselves unable to fail. I can almost hear it pronounced with the same self-satisfied hubris in their New York offices, a few years back. Funny, they’re very ‘progressive’ – but not this sort of progress.”

    I put up a post today about where publishing is right now. It looks like a Mexican standoff, everybody in a circle pointing guns at each other.

    This is about that “study” being promoted by Fireside Fiction, and a different “study” from Both essentially propose that if you disagree with their conclusions, you must be purged. Math and study design be damned, they’re right and we need to all shut up.

    We are at the stage where you either agree along, or they bring the mob down on you. Typical socialism, in other words.

    I aim to misbehave.

      1. I don’t see their output getting much worse if they start selecting work on the basis of author’s race over SJW check boxes the way they do it now.

        Given the immanent collapse of their retail buyers, Tor has a lot bigger problems than crappy editorial policy.

  10. In little more than a decade working with a photography studio, our prom photos went from 250-300 couples photographed at each dance to being lucky if we break 50. What changed? They introduced the iPhone. Suddenly we have selfie culture.

    It was hard for a bit, because the adaptation was a pain, and I still don’t understand the whole “photobooth” phenomenon (why on earth would you rather pay a lot for a cheap-looking photo than get professional work?) but we’re rolling with it as best we can. Internet pre-orders, immediate previewing of images (with someone who can spot the better one to help with the choice), and lots more print and digital options have kept the beast at bay. Oh, and for school photos—inexpensive digital rights CDs, because the biggest money-loser is all of those parents who break copyright anyway. May as well push a CD on them and give them the ability to make their own crappy prints.

    1. I suspect that will revert a bit, because most selfies aren’t very good. They’re just new. On the other hand pros will have to do a much better job than a selfie.

      1. I’m less inclined to believe that, since people have long decided against buying prom photos because “they’re so expensive.” (People always forget about the hidden costs, including equipment and training, when they get prints at the supermarket.) But yes, as professionals, we offer a quality product or we die. It’s amazing what a good pose will do for photo quality. (And I know how to make candids look good!)

        1. Amazed you didn’t mention retouching – which used to be enormously expensive (pretty much corporate executive photos, campaign literature, etc.).

          I think it was second daughter that it began to be automatically included in the yearbook package.

          I kind of do – and don’t – wish they had retouched my son’s Marine boot graduation photo. He has the most bodacious shiner…

          1. Our studio farms out the retouching to a group that has a lot of retouchers on staff. The quality can vary, and we try to have our standards done. I have had to redo some bad jobs, and also redo some *good* jobs where the customer wanted something specific. The most memorable of the last was a kid with vitiligo, where the parents didn’t want us to remove it, only make it “less noticeable.” The trick to that was taking some yellow out of his unaffected skin tone, so that even though you could see the patches, they were not so glaringly different. Must have worked, because the parents happily took the resulting prints.

            Oh, and we had a family photo where one of my nephews got smacked in the face with a baseball half an hour before the photo. We definitely left it in at the request of the whole family.

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