The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Opinion: Technology changing work, world


December 12, 2018

“Now the captain, he said to John Henry,

‘I’m gonna bring that steam drill around.

I’m gonna bring that steam drill out on these tracks,

I’m gonna knock that steel on down, God, God.

I’m gonna knock that steel on down.’

“John Henry told his captain,

‘Lord, a man ain’t nothin’ but a man,

But before I let that steam drill beat me down,

I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,

I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.’”

— Lyrics from the folk song “The Ballad of John Henry” as performed by Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” released 2006

The story is legendary as well as fact-based. It’s about a strong and powerful African-American laborer, John Henry, and his 30-pound hammer, going up against a new mechanical invention of his time, the steam drill.

It’s also a tale of pride in work, and the power of the human spirit.

“… John Henry said to his shaker,

‘Shaker, why don’t you sing?

Cause I’m swinging 30 pounds from my hips on down,

Listen to my cold steel ring, Lord, Lord.

Listen to my cold steel ring.’”

People need meaning in life. Sometimes it’s through our work that we are provided with a sense of purpose. And when a machine — or modern technology — takes that away, we can feel lost, defeated, like the world is passing us by.

We must adapt, or die. Like when John Henry took on that steam drill …

“… John Henry, he hammered in the mountains,

His hammer was striking fire,

But he worked so hard, it broke his heart,

John Henry laid his hammer down and died, Lord, Lord.

John Henry laid his hammer down and died.”

If you’ve ever done physical, manual work, maybe you get it. There’s a certain pride, and a feeling of power, that comes with working until you’re bone tired, and then working some more. And to know you’re good at what you do makes all the difference in the world.

Nowadays, the working world is far more mental than physical. Robotics is taking over manual jobs, while the workplace has progressed (or digressed) from face-to-face interactions to email and text exchanges. We are now glued to our most modern machine, the computer, as if we’re beholden to it. Life has become simpler and more complex at the same time, and we have to work even harder just to keep up.

But there’s one good thing our machines have done for us: By reducing the time-consuming demands of physical labor, we’ve been freed up to explore the abstract side of life. The creation of works of art, searches for our own spirituality, the expansion of intellectual thinking and more have come out of our evolving ability to step away from the drudgeries of life and look inward for deeper meanings. We’re free to explore as never before.

Still, someday, when food technology outgrows the family farm and we’re manufacturing everything we need with 3-D printers, we’ll look back to the old days, when men and women were the real producers, as legendary times.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at:


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