At one point, Godspeed You! Black Emperor displayed this banner at their concerts:

celine dion sings love songs while our cities burn

So we should probably talk about it.

From as close to the beginning as I dare

Early humans formed tribal societies around gathering food, and also hunting. This eventually caused roles to form - hunter, gatherer, leader, childcare. And these positions were heavily gendered by necessity: mothers by definition must be female, anyone not old can gather, elders become leaders, and due to imbalance men become hunters.

Eventually, we stumbled across domestication and cultivation. The roles around food change: there is much less gathering, replaced instead with cultivation (sowing, harvesting, curating) and animal care. And with this comes something new: having enough food, or close to it, in order to survive. The hunters take on a dual role: that of the warrior. Somewhere along the line, at least one tribal society decided not to cooperate in this particular Prisoner's Dilemma. The leadership positions become more important, and we gain a more explicit power structure, including whatever spiritual leadership was believed necessary. Development increases and population grows, though nearly all the population is performing harsh labor.

When agricultural ability and dwelling construction have improved, the nomadic semi-tribes become permanent settlements. Here a substantial portion of the population is not involved in growing food or fighting most of the time, and so new roles emerge. Settlement upkeep, in service to those in leadership, emerges as a new role. Trades, essentially working to produce goods and services for those of the society (and for food), start to emerge as farm labor becomes more collectivized. (The clearest example of this is blacksmithing - one person smiths for all the neighboring farms.) And perhaps most importantly, the population starts to have real leisure time.

Though their roots lay earlier, trades only become prevalent when settlements start to interact, and need a liason role. Another layer of indirection is added: there are those making the food, those making things for those who make the food, and those who make things to trade for other things, to be fed back in to the system. All the other previous roles still exist, and farming surplus is itself fed into trading.

General well-being improves as research positions - those not directly producing anything at all, but rather enabling others to produce - appear. Together with them, in some parts of the world, medical roles become distinct from spiritual roles, and lifespans increase. By no means does this happen everywhere, but where medical tradition actually flourishes, the following period of death leaves the population mostly unscathed.

And then we industrialize. I expect this is the part of the narrative the most people will be familiar with: the migration of people off of the farms, where they could no longer work for food, and into the city. There were not enough jobs for everyone to have, and society had evolved such that having a job was the only way to get food. So people moved in to the city on hopes, and moved from the farmlands into the new slums.

The situation was improved in two ways. We gained large numbers of jobs around creating jobs. That is to say, the manufacture and advertising of luxury goods; non-necessary things for which there was no demand without the advertisers. Jobs where people moved money from one pile into another, and jobs to study the piles of money being moved around. And for those who could not or would not fit one of those positions, we modernized and often invoked the war machine. War is profitable; profit goes into luxury; piles of money move around. The world keeps turning.

And then industry, which had been making steady progress, moved ahead again. With the advent of computers, and mechanization, we are starting to rapidly replace jobs again. I think it foolish to call this "another industrial revolution", but I deem it equally foolish to dismiss the changes that have been brought about. We cannot put this Pandora back into its box, so to speak; we cannot replace the labor that machines now perform, even in purely agrarian terms. But why would we want to, when we can make (and distribute, if we wanted) enough food for everyone? So few people are needed in food production anymore.

And now we have a choice to make, though it will not be perceived as such.

This could mean a more pleasant life for everyone. More leisure time with less stress would mean we could all be happier. We could have more research, more thoughtful positions; we could maybe even forgo formal jobs altogether, since eventually critical services will only require a few overseers, and the curious researchers. There is no shortage of curiosity in our species, especially not in the scientific and engineering-types.

What it has meant is far from that. Societal pressures, such as the current dependence on money (specifically, on performing at least forty hours of labor per week), have forced most of us instead into worry. Job creation, and the extended state of the piles of money, have become ballot issues. Superfluous good production is off in its own world (hello, SF; I am over here explicitly not being there), and we have even grown out another industry under it: entertainment. Oh, and poverty is still a serious concern.

I harbor no particular hatred of Celine Dion, and I love music in general. But constant work and shoveled entertainment have lost us sight of the burning cities around us, the problems in our world.


I do not own the image at the start of this article, nor do I know who does. I doubt the band cares, and a photographer has not come forward. Some research has not revealed an original source, and my usage here is downsized from the original.