Identify this half remembered parable
May 7, 2014 8:25 PM   Subscribe

I have a half remembered parable about the outcomes of automation of work, that is as stated, half remembered. I'd like to make that memory whole and know the source.

As I remember it the parable goes something like this:

Two workers work at a factory producing matchsticks. Between the two of them, they produce all the matchsticks that are demanded. One day an improved method of production is invented, and they can produce the needed matchsticks in half the time. But rather than both workers splitting the new free time and both becoming happier, one worker still works full time and the other becomes unemployed, leaving both unhappy.

When I posed the question to my wife, she suggested that maybe they made toothpicks instead. In either case I've found it impossible to google for a source.

On one hand I feel like it's a very Vonnegutesque piece, but my remembered sense of the language feels more formal than how Vonnegut would write, but I haven't found anything in that vein, so it could be misleading.
posted by borkencode to Writing & Language (2 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked.
- Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness
posted by eruonna at 10:59 PM on May 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

Well now I'm saying "duh" to myself. Of course it would be Bertrand Russell. I think I got too hung up on the misleading Vonnegut thought.
posted by borkencode at 5:49 AM on May 8, 2014

« Older Help me fix my penis. Or at least help me leave it...   |   Was your fitbit a game changer...or not? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.