Long Live Creative Destruction

Slate has an interesting article up about the demise of film projectionists.  The piece describes the process by which traditional films are projected at movie theatres and some of the technology involved (I didn’t realize that film reels had to be turned into “platters” by individual projectionists at the theatre).  The bottom line, though, is that digital films (following platters and better bulbs) will kill off the projectionist occupation. 

Sounds like an ordinary story about innovative and superior technology replacing expensive labor, making the world more efficient one step at a time – and in the process making all of us better off as a result.  But the odd thing about the piece is the tone of the article which seems to suggest that this is a bad thing.  For example, here is one line that seems a bit over the top: “With projectionists gone, another part of our lives will lose the human touch.”  My guess is that most of us haven’t and won’t feel any loss at all – except maybe the loss of annoying breaks in movies due to projectionist error! 

Of course, it is a bad thing for the small group of individuals in that particular occupation today.  But this limited negative effect of innovation and efficiency is swamped by the benefits of these changes – what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction.  There are numerous examples of this occurring.  Here is a neat slide show by Sven’s favorite government entity describing some of them.  For example, people who used to work as lamplighters were replaced by the automatically lighting gas lamp and then the electric streetlight we all know and love.*  This has freed up this pool of labor for other activities – so for the rest of time, would-be lamplighters are working in other occupations or professions.  And we are all better off. 

So why the negative tone?  Long live creative destruction – except in my field, of course 😉

* I actually bemoan the overuse of outdoor lighting.  I’m not against it in all cases.  However, the assumed positive effects of streetlights in deterring crime are very much overstated.  And all of this light comes at a huge loss in terms of energy and the creation of light pollution/loss of dark skies.  My HOA covenant actually has a short section in it dealing with this issue.  Perhaps a longer blog post on the politics of outdoor lighting might be of some value down the line.

9 thoughts on “Long Live Creative Destruction

  1. My father worked as a pinsetter in his youth, and my first stepfather worked as a milkman in his youth. (The latter used to tell me, when I was getting uppity, “I oughtta get your a** out on a milk route—that’ll straighten you out!)

    But at least one of those “obsolete” occupations is still in use today: elevator operators, in the New York subway system.

  2. When I was a boy I went to a talk, at the local U, given by Kurt Vonnegut. This was in the early eighties when word processors were coming to the fore. Vonnegut said that he would never buy or use a word processor because it would put his typist out of business. I thought to myself, “Dude, what if your typist is using a word processor!” Vonnegut is one of my all time favorite authors and I admire him but I am always amazed at how such a brilliant person could be so stupid.

    1. I wonder if he picked up his own milk at the store (thus putting a milk delivery man out of work), cooked his own food (thus putting a potential cook out of work), shaved his own face with a razor (thus putting a barber out of work), washed his own clothes using one of those fancy washing machines (thus putting a clothes washer or dry cleaner out of work), etc, etc, etc.

  3. I am a backyard star watcher and I too hate outdoor lighting. I live in Houston and after Hurricanes Ike and Rita there was no electricity and no outdoor lighting. You know what, you could see everything just fine outdoors without the lighting. In fact, you could see details better because outdoor lighting creates shadows and blindspots. The moon and stars produce quite a bit of light. Strapped municipalities could save money by turning off the lights.

  4. I’ve read that night-time lighting in cities can be very harmful to migrating birds & such, but I’m not an expert on the issue by any means.

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