A friend of mine grew up in communist dictatorship. I have learned a lot listening to their stories about what it was like to come of age in a centrally planned economy only to have the country collapse into war and corruption.
They recently shared an insight that floored me. As I mentioned recently, I’ve been rewatching a science fiction show “Man in the High Castle” based on a Philip K. Dick novel about an alternate history in which the Nazis won WW2 and split control of America with the Japanese. My friend decided to watch the show based on my recommendation.
In discussing the show, my friend was most interested in the socioeconomic differences between the technologically superior Reich and the Japanese Empire. It is 1962 the alternative history for context.
“Did you notice that in Japanese territory the doors are always opened by people but in the Reich they have automatic doors?
There are no doormen in richer Reich. I had not noticed this detail. They thought it was telling that the Japanese had so many of their people working as unskilled labor. Meanwhile those jobs had been entirely eliminated by automation because of the technological development of the Reich.
Their theory is that this one detail symbolizes precisely why the Nazis had developed the atomic bomb but the Japanese had not in this alternative history.
Perhaps if the soldier had his time freed up by having his technically unnecessary doorman job eliminated by automation their history would have turned out differently. Perhaps the doorman would have found work in a physics lab instead of doing make-work for bureaucrats. If the Japanese had invested more into their technology in this universe perhaps they would have nuclear power too.
They pointed out to me that in America we’ve had automatic doors for decades while in their communist country this very simple technology only arrived when the regime fell.
Being a doorman was a good job after all. The kind of job you can put almost anyone into with little training. Putting people out of work isn’t politically popular for a reason. Automation has a cost. The doormen must find new work.
My friend’s observation was simple. It was potent symbolism. A government can choose what advances are made and what technology is changed or throttled for the greater good. Whether it’s a luxury like automatic doors we shrug it off. The doorman has a job so that’s got to be good right? When the progress being stymied is nuclear energy or artificial intelligence it’s a little more complicated.