Dynamist Blog

The Fabric of Civilization: A Robot Roundup

My current book project, working title: The Fabric of Civilization, combines my interests in economic history, technology, culture, and aesthetics. (For something of the book's flavor, you can read my 2015 Aeon article, which eventually led to a proposal.) It's an ambitious undertaking and great fun, because it lets me learn about everything from cuneiform tablets to woven electric circuits. The book is heavy on history, which limits the potential for related articles along the way, but the research has inspired several columns on the always-popular question, Will the robots take all our jobs?

I've written for Bloomberg View on about how robots are replacing seamstresses and, more recently, on what laser-distressed jeans tell us about the future of computer-driven apparel manufacturing. The laser story prompted this online conversation with my colleague and friend Adam Minter, where we batted around thoughts on the future of apparel. (The author of the fantastic book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, Adam is working on a new book about the global trade in secondhand clothing and electronics.)

Combining history and reporting from the cotton fields of West Texas, where nowadays it takes just two people to harvest thousands of acres, I looked back at the mechanization of cotton picking. How did machines transform a task once so labor-intensive and unpleasant that planters assumed it could only be done with slaves? What might that experience tell us about future automation?

We tend to equate textiles with apparel but, throughout history, fabric has been equally essential to furnishings, from blankets and wall hangings to upholstery and rugs. So it shouldn't be surprising, but inevitably is, to find that the interiors market is quick to adopt the latest in textile technology. As I reported in a pair of trade magazine articles, that can mean digital manufacturing or incorporating electronics into fabric. The early markets may not be in clothes.

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