I tend to read in little blocks of obsession, and my current obsession is trucks. Or more specifically, road trains—those giant, three-trailered beasts you see on Australian highways.
The other week I drove out to Noonamah, a far-outer suburb south of Darwin, to meet with some drivers who haul cattle in road trains. They live in portable caravans right next to the cattle yards and truck depot. They’d just knocked off work, so we had a beer, and they told me about what it’s like driving these huge machines. One driver, Roger, has been trucking around Australia for 50 years. He told me that if I wanted to understand road trains I had to read A Son of ‘The Red Centre’ by Kurt G. Johannsen.
I found the book at the Northern Territory Library. It’s a memoir that details Kurt’s life growing up in the outback. He was born in 1915 at a remote station called Deep Well, near Alice Springs. His earliest memories are about the tyranny of distances in the outback, or where the next lot of supplies were going to come from. He remembers Afghani cameleers coming over the horizon, loaded with flour, sugar and salt. When he was 14, his dad contracted polio, so Kurt became the primary breadwinner for the family. They moved to Alice, and Kurt used his dad’s truck to start the first rubbish collection service in town.
Despite having his schooling cut short, Kurt had natural mechanical intelligence and entrepreneurial instincts. After WWII, he had the idea to haul cows on trucks, instead of relying on overland droving. He purchased some decommissioned prime movers and trailers off the US military, and rigged up a machine that looked like a train but worked like a truck—a road train. He drove this machine to remote cattle stations, packed the cows on the trailers, and drove them to where they needed to be in a fraction of the time of what was previously possible. He completely transformed the cattle and logistics industries in Australia. Roger, the truck driver out at Noonamah, spoke about Kurt with a type of reverence—‘the greatest trucker of them all’.
The reason I’m writing about trucks is because it fits in with a book-length project that I’m working on for Scribe about automation. Actually, it’s not so much about automation as a technological, economic, or political process as it is about the psychology or emotion of being replaced by machines. There’s a famous article published in 2013 that lists over 700 professions, and how likely they are to be automated in the next three decades. Truck driving is very high up on that list, above 90% chance of being automated. There’s a lot being written about how the types of technology that are making this possible, and how this will ‘disrupt’ the trucking industry. But what I’m interested in is the emotional process that goes along with these technological changes; what is going to be lost and gained, in a psychological sense, in the transition from human drivers to computer drivers.
Part of my research, then, is thinking about the purpose that work plays in our lives, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading around this. One great book is Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. In writing this book, Terkel had long conversations with a diverse group of workers in America in the 1970s—factory workers, firemen, waitresses, office clerks—and then transcribed the interviews. The resulting book is made up of these oral accounts of work. It’s very moving. What I quickly learned, while reading the book, is that our emotions about work are complicated, contradictory, paradoxical. Work is about earning money to live, and suffering for it. But it’s also tied up in our search for daily meaning, for recognition, for a sense of value.
Another book I’m reading that interrogates the feelings we have about work, from a critical perspective, is The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks. Weeks asks the reader to question why work has become central to our sense of purpose and meaning. Drawing on Marxist and feminist theory, Weeks demonstrates how the ‘work ethic’ can be used as a mechanism to limit our vision for a better future. She makes the case for imagining post-work societies to formulate a type of emancipatory politics.
Finally, I’m also reading a book called Feeling Jewish by Devorah Baum. The central idea is that the negative emotions associated with ‘jewishness’—guilt, paranoia, self-loathing, neurosis—are emotions that everyone suffers from in a modern world. Baum argues that by reading Jewish literature, predominantly from the 20th century, we can come to know these emotions, and ourselves, a bit better. While not directly related to my research on work and automation, Baum’s insightful and funny analysis of emotion has been really useful for me in thinking through the complicated, contradictory emotions associated with work and automation.
Oscar Schwartz is a writer based in Darwin. His book The Honeymoon Stage was published by Giramondo this year.