Clare Williams

Image (c) Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Object: Wedgwoodn’t tureen
Location: Discovery Museum Newcastle

This tureen, made by a process called “rapid manufacture”, is a 2008 replica of an original by Wedgwood, made possible by the massive advances in digital technology and 3D printing over recent decades.

Similarly, Wedgwood (1730-1795) found fame for the quality of his pottery, stemming from his ability to regulate kiln temperatures effectively. This technology allowed him to standardise the process of pottery making, and is characteristic of the new technology transforming Britain throughout the Industrial Revolution. As such, both the original tureen and its modern replica are products of new technology and the massive social upheaval that went with it. The impact of these in both cases had significant and far reaching effects on the society of the time.

The Industrial Revolution saw mass migration to the cities where factory-based employment was piecemeal, exploitative and dangerous. Karl Polanyi identified the social upheaval in the shift from a market economy to a market society, the result of which was huge social dislocation and the disembedding of the economic from the social. The intervening decades of the 19th and 20th centuries saw the State respond with the introduction of workers’ rights to temper the worst excesses of the disembedded market in the form of a counter movement.

The advent of the internet and the Digital Revolution, and its rapid expansion into all aspects of life, has arguably had an even greater impact on society than the Industrial Revolution. The Digital Revolution has changed the manner of our interactions in terms of who, where, when and why we now interact. Brought about by the ubiquity of the smartphone, this has also had a dramatic impact on the labour market. Using similar technology to that which created the Wedgwoodn’t Tureen, the workplace has been transformed into the “gig economy”. With a smartphone, anyone can become an Uber driver, or a Deliveroo courier. But they are consequently self-employed, and not only bear 100% of the start-up costs and risks, but forego any of the hard-won employment rights that characterised the last century and protected workers from the worst excesses of the self-regulating market. There is little separating this new class of workers – this precariat – from factory workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the words piecemeal, exploitative and dangerous once again apply.

The Digital Revolution is continuing to change the way we work. In some senses, we could see a subtle re-embedding of the economy within society. Proponents of the gig economy argue that we can choose how, when and where we want to work. However, seen from a different angle, the gig economy is reminiscent of a deeper dis-embedding of the economy. Not only have the labour rights been stripped back under the banner of “self-employment”, but workers reliant on the gig economy for their total income are left to compete for every hour of work, every shift, on a day by day basis with no guarantee of income from one week to the next. The inability to plan one’s life can be seen as the epitome of the total subjugation of the social to the economic, and relates not just to the gig economy, but the prevalence of zero- hour contracts and rolling contracts.

Interestingly, while Wedgwood was attempting to develop a technology that would allow him to mass produce items, Michael Eden deliberately employs mass production-based technology to produce single items of artistic value. Thinking more broadly about the tureen brings into question the role of technology within society, and its impact on the labour market. Both revolutions, industrial and digital, brought about social upheaval and dislocation, along with the most brutal excesses of the disembedded self-regulating market. This time, how might technology be brought to internationally re-embed the economic within the social, or bring about a spontaneous counter movement, in an effective and timely way?