The Work of the Weavers
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.