The city is on fire with talk about photonics, a new technology coming to Rochester in the kind of form that I must say I find difficult to envision in a positive way. Of late, Rochester has fallen on hard times following the demise of once prosperous corporations that employed large numbers of individuals at all levels. So, the opportunity to launch a new technology has great appeal.
Kodak corporation now has a workforce shrunk from 600,000 to 6,000. But it’s worse than that. When I was growing up in post WWII Rochester, Kodak looked after workers at all levels, from cooks in the cafeteria and grounds keepers to engineers and research scientists in the fields of optics and chemistry better than many unions. Workers bowled and played pool at the park, Kodak Park that is. We children took tennis lessons and learned to use a dark room at the park. My friend’s husband was hired fresh out of college as a grounds keeper, then promoted into the technical staff a year later. Now all of the structural jobs have been outsourced long ago. Today, technical workers have been through multiple layoffs and many work as contractors with no benefits. There is no promotional path between technician and engineer, much less grounds-keeper and physicist. Employment is categorized and tiered.
General Motors collapse and restoration broke the unions that once made workers at Rochester Products and Delco prosperous citizens with time for political engagement and money to send their children to college. Older workers were shoehorned into early retirement while new hires started at lower wages in jobs with maximum pay well below what the old workers earned. Benefits were slashed, and workers told that their loss was necessary for the survival of the company.
Xerox was still at the top when I was hired there in the early 90s, but I was hired as what is called a keyop, a temp employee paid out of a manager’s local budget rather than through human resources. But Xerox always worked with contractors of various sorts as well as their extremely well paid full time workers. Like Kodak, full time employees had to survive rolling layoffs as projects completed and new ones began, resulting in the worker mobility between the various classes of employment. Before I left 10 years later, ordinary workers were forced to buy their way into a fancy bonus program with pay cuts, leaving behind the routine bonus that provided Christmas or vacation funds every year. The following year, the stock price fell from $67 to $20. and our bonus turned into $67 stock options that were good for a Halloween gag.
Bausch and Lomb, founded in Rochester in the mid 19th century, has prospered through technological innovation for over 150 years, but now has it’s offices in Bridgewater, NJ and an international workforce. Xerox moved it’s headquarters to Connecticut before I started there and the building that once houses Kodak’s headquarters is now looking for tenants. Yes, Rochester has been a center for technological innovation, but the companies no longer produce the jobs that once formed the foundation for a prosperous society in the region. .
What did these companies contribute to society other than a seemingly endless stream of well paying jobs? Kodak put cameras in the hands of every family, and created ever more technically sophisticated film products for the wildly popular Hollywood film industry as well. Xerox put automated copy technology into the common sphere, making possible the economic distribution of information through schools, workplaces and special interest groups without high typesetting costs. Personal printing became ubiquitous in our society. General Motors, of course, carried on the Ford tradition of ordinary working class people making automobiles for ordinary working class people, and facilitated development of the social norm of personal transportation. Meanwhile, over the course of 150 years, Bausch and Lomb has increasingly effective lenses for personal eyeglasses including technical improvements in sunglasses, lenses for cameras including personal cameras, and lenses for research tools, telescopes and microscopes and all kinds of practical uses.
Now we find that Rochester has won the right to host the new Photonics business (dare I say ‘revolution’?) through some sort of competitive process. I’m not sure what the competition looked like but we are told that our good fortune is due to an excellent base of education in technology through RIT and the University of Rochester, and our long time associations with Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb and the like. So, what is Photonics? Well, it isn’t a corporation. It’s an opportunity for investment. It isn’t a new science, but it is a field of technology that encompasses optics, radio technologies and radar, wave based technologies I suppose. What will we develop with those technologies? Well, it depends on how the research goes.
So, who has gifted us with photonics? The Department of Defense is promoting photonics in Rochester.
If photonics development is not going to be under the control of a particular corporation, then how will it be fostered? We are told that the city will develop a site, then the DoD will offer (hopefully, profitable) contracts to small technology businesses who will work on them at that site. Various parties are already fighting over who will control the operation and where the site will be located. The companies operating at this site will be required to share information with one another. It’s really quite brilliant. The DoD will set the pay grade of the jobs through the terms of the contracts. This may seem fine to you, but I have seen documentation of an old lawsuit where the military sued Kodak for paying benefits to workers on a defense contract. The contract required that the workers be contracted and not paid any benefits. We don’t know what the DoD will offer today.
Meanwhile, if the small companies are required to share information, the possibility of patenting their developments the way big corporations do will be undermined. Large companies like Kodak and Xerox patent every conceivable tweak to their original patents, creating a small fortune worth of patented materials and also making it very difficult for any other company to get a free ride by improving one of their ideas. But patents are a slow process that would hinder real time sharing of information. The DoD would benefit from innovations not under patent because they could implement them for free, while the small companies engaged in the photonics research will not be able to collect long term profits from their research.
City Newspaper printed a general list of interests for photonics including better optical lenses for surveillance equipment, radio signalling and radar based technologies. All of these technologies are useful for the burgeoning market for armed military and surveillance drones. They did not mention lasers, but but lasers for drones is currently a big DoD project that is in the category of photonics. The University Of Rochester, currently the largest corporation in Rochester and already a significant beneficiary of DoD largess, just happens to have a state of the art laser research center. The technology has not been perfected but laser armed drones offer the possibility of a rechargeable weapon, and one that could be used with a greater or lesser payload depending on circumstances. This is a major area of research that is in its infancy.
We are told that photonics has the potential for a myriad of civilian uses. We are encouraged to ignore the weaponized drones used for targeted killing outside of war zones and surveillance drones that might allow the state to track individuals for any number of bad reasons, and instead think about having our Amazon purchases delivered to the door by noisy little helicopters. We are told about how useful it would be to have a drone to find missing persons in the desert or the ocean. Maybe it would be more efficient than using a helicopter. i don’t know. And then there are those gorgeous videos created with drones swooping over glorious waterfalls and through unexplored caverns and maybe catching your favorite idol sunbathing without a suit in his or her back yard.
But really, every day the US DoD identifies new people to be targeted and killed along with whomever else happens to be in the vicinity, by an armed drone. I think it probably is a good thing that they are trying to improve the technology. After all, it would be a good thing if they could track something more personal than a cell phone chip. Even so, targeted killings clearly violate the basic tenets of international humanitarian and human rights law. No matter how hard they try to convince us that the drones make these laws obsolete, they cannot avoid the fact that the world they are creating is a lawless world where might makes right. Innocence until proven guilt and the right to defend oneself in a court of law evaporate in the drone world. If you are in the way of the powerful, they can take you out. For now, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time or carrying the wrong cellphone, they can take you out.
But, I digress. The last question I would like to ask is, when was the last time that Rochester’s economy was dependent on military spending? When did the entire country devote all of it’s manufacturing capability to building weapons? As far as I know it was during the years leading to and during the Second World War. Ordinary people sacrificed for The War against evil. Men like the Prescotts (a Bush branch), Henry Ford and the Rockefellers all made fortunes selling raw materials to the Nazis and financing their wars of conquest up to and in some cases even after the US entry into the war. Today, once again, big financiers and weapons makers are profiting from international wars while ordinary Americans are losing economic ground. Once again the only profitable industry here is weapons manufacture. Once again, international confrontations are burning out of control around the globe.
Once Rochester was the home of the magical visions of Bausch and Lomb, Kodak and Xerox that enriched our collective imagination and brought prosperity to every individual. Now we have Photonics,a kind of jazzy, techie name for what we are told will be research in high tech optics related fields that will enhance the ability of our military to spy on and to target their designated enemies with death. Lately some public media have taken to the term ‘Roc’ instead of Rochester. Way cool! Roc for Photonics! Roc is also the name of a giant mythical bird of prey that it was necessary to placate with human sacrifices.. I never took to calling Rochester the Roc, but the term might not be so far off given the roots and intentions of the emerging photonics opportunity.