Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?
(George W. Bush, Inaugural Address, January 2001)

On Wall St., they call it churning. The purposeful ever-accelerating buying and selling of stocks, to increase broker commissions. Doesn’t matter whether the churn benefits their clients. Who cares. Just buy and sell – faster and faster! And, thanks to the marriage of technology and greed, that’s our workplace today. A churning whirlwind of constant change. And, with apologies to ex-President Bush, I don’t think there’s any angel up there running the art show, not this time around.

Can you imagine a working career where your tools never changed?

Not long ago, as time goes, there were people called ‘linotype operaters’ and ‘letterpress printers’. So many long-term, non-changing jobs, not long ago. ‘Paste-up artist’. ‘Stat camera operator.’ Tools like ‘drafting board’ and ‘Rapidograph’ and ‘french curve’. Back when, from roughly 1880 until 1980, anyone who learned how to do most any art job could count on having that same job for life. Not in the same company, of course, but in a succession of workplaces with the same tools.

Because the tools people used were physical, made of metal, wood, glass, plastic, the rate of tool change was very, very slow. That’s history. Today, software changes as rapidly as Adobe can get large corporations to buy into the new Photoshop AI release. Whether you need the new features or not misses the point. To stay employed, you have to keep learning new software, even though you use the new version to do exactly the same work as you did with the old.

As a manager, I ran into the churn buzzsaw from both ends. Decided to buy an art program, Xara Designer, for my high-tech workgroup. One-tenth the cost of Photoshop and Illustrator, much easier and faster to use. But on the one hand, the corporate purchasing department didn’t have Xara on the ‘approved’ list. On the other hand, my workers freaked out. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We lose our employability if you move us off Adobe products. What if we get laid off?’ Well, I lost that one. We ended up with Adobe-whatever, and everyone had to take a time-out to learn the new features, which we didn’t need in the first place. Churn.

To be fair, this software-marketplace whirlwind does have benefits. It can be fun learning new art techniques. And, if you are looking for work, once you’ve downloaded that trial copy of Photoshop AI with game-changing tools like Generative Fill and Generative Expand, and practiced with it for a week or so, you are – suddenly – much more employable than you were before.

Slow down the rate of change?

Won’t happen. Don’t bet on it. This new internet century marks the start of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Each brought huge societal changes, and this one will too. Like it or not, capitalism and national competition success always depends on increased profits. From selling more, or cutting costs. Or both.

Back around 1800, British textile workers, led by a mythical General Ned Ludd, an apocryphal apprentice who allegedly smashed two mechanical stocking frames, revolted against the ‘satanic’ steam-powered industrial cloth spinning mills. Even though the Luddites were protesting the new working conditions rather than the new machinery itself, their movement was rapidly put down by the government.

In my working career from 1965 to 2009, we went through three sea changes in graphics. in the mid-1960s, from linotype to offset printing, which made possible widespread use of photos. From the 1980s, small-computer desktop publishing with graphic WYSIWYG interfaces. Suddenly, you could design onscreen. No more sending out for typeset galleys... the artist had a zillion of their own fonts. No more rubber cement pasteup artboards... you could now go digitally from PC to the printer’s press plate. And then, around 2000, graphic art and the internet. JPGs, PNGs, and PDFS. Ads, brochures, catalogs transmitted instantly across the world via graphically-rich web pages. But as the new technology became easier to use, with a myriad of cheap design templates, pay rates for graphic artists declined. Everyone could be an ad creator, on a race to the bottom.

Today, you could become a Neo-Luddite, drive over to Half Moon Bay with an axe, and chop the Global Crossing cable as it goes into the sea from California to India, and – zap! – crash the 24-7 New World Order in a microsecond. But not for long, what with all the other cables, and satellite data transmission.

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