Sunday, July 6, 2014

Appreciating the Value and Role of Work and Workers in Economic Development

At the Museum of Work trying a unicycle.
July 4, 2014 - Hamburg, Germany. By Zachary Riffell.

Walking into the Museum der Arbeit (Museum of Work), there is no doubt that the building is dedicated to the worker throughout the process of industrialization. Big Bertha looms over visitors and dares them to ask what the machine could possibly be. The machine is a large press that was used for pressing war medallions, and visitors can immediately imagine that operating the monstrous machine might include some of the very dangers of war. Sitting in the shadow of Big Bertha is perhaps the most intriguing specimen: a striking flask made of blue glass. It is quite beautiful, but its beauty hides the ugly truth of the process of industrialization. The flask was not a beautiful decoration; rather, the flask was carried by those with tuberculosis so that they could cough their sputum into the flask instead of onto the factory floor.

"Big Bertha" and the CWE crew.
The flask represents the factory owner’s unrelenting desire to maximize profit, the drive to maintain productivity, but it also demonstrates the undeniable value of every worker. Replacing workers is expensive because of lost production time. Every worker was essential. Two floors up from the sputum flask, there is an audio recording that says, “The wide-ranging list of human needs is matched only by the jobs needed to fulfill them.” This statement seems to echo in the small little sputum mask, an object that was not needed before the advent of factories and even gave birth to at least a few jobs charged with creating it.

This was the greatest message of the museum: every human need gives birth to a job that is indispensable until the need is met. The floor above the sputum flask makes this fact abundantly clear with a demonstration of the evolution of the printing press. The need for books drove the invention of the printing press. People were needed to maintain and operate the press, but these jobs changed as technology changed. The human need for books only grew as more people were able to read, and the process for creating books necessarily had to adjust to allow for greater production.

It is on this floor that scholars will realize the role of the daily laborer in realizing academic goals. The creation of the printing press, and the many workers who labored on them, allowed more potential scholars to place their hands on books. This floor also showcases an array of typewriters, and again the impact on academic work is clear. Producing manuscripts was incredibly fast with a typewriter. Even then, however, individuals had to be very thoughtful with their words as mistakes were difficult to cover. As I type this post on a computer and make edit after edit, I realize just how industrialized even the role of academic study has become.

There was work before the industrialization of society, and work will continue throughout the rest of the technological revolution and whatever might follow it. The nature of that work has changed. The one component that has not and will not change is the value of each individual worker in society. It is a sobering reminder to think of the scarred fingers that assembled my computer and the sore backs that loaded coal into a boiler at the power plant to provide my computer with electricity just so that I might type this blog like so many other papers. The list of human needs is vast, and we must be grateful that there are people who hear the calling to help meet them.