by Lenny Siegel
Lenny Siegel, director of the Pacific Studies Center in Mountain View, California, is the author of Where the Chips May Fall: The Social Impact of High Technology.
A cursory review of modern electronics technology might indicate that computers are equalizing the American work force. A closer look, however, shows that while computers have opened some new opportunities for those near the top of the occupational ladder, they are routinizing the work of many others and throwing the skilled middle stratum back down toward the bottom rung.
Historically, both private business and public institutions in this country have practiced what has come to be called "scientific management": the division of labor into distinct tasks, reorganizing the work process to minimize costs. Until recently, for instance, phone companies employed large numbers of skilled technicians who kept the switching networks operating. The introduction of solid-state electronic switching systems, essentially telephone-switching computers, opened up some positions for programmers at the upper end of the occupational hierarchy. However, the automated, self-trouble-shooting switching systems have "surplused" a large number of experienced skilled technicians.
That the video displays on our computers are called "monitors" is ironic, as though the basic human-machine interaction is of people monitoring micros. This may be the case for many professionals and managers, but the average worker in a computerized workplace is much more likely to be monitored by machine.
It is a simple matter for a computer to record, analyze and transmit immediately to supervisors data on the pace of workers, whether they be typists, salesclerks or assembly-line operatives. The technology is new, but the concept is old: speed-up. One Silicon Valley firm markets a module called the Performance Achievement Monitor, which, says the manufacturer, makes employees happier by providing a standard against which to measure their efficiency. But anyone who has ever worked under such pressure knows that fancy electronic devices, like pushy supervisors, tend to make workers less happy. Faster rates of production, in the absence of new techniques and equipment, merely increase the level of exploitation. How odd that IBM has adopted as its personal computer spokesman a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, when Chaplin's Little Tramp character so graphically enacted the effects of speed-up in Modern Times.
In the long run, speed-up can increase productivity only marginally and at the same time threatens to disrupt work patterns. Sped-up employees may be motivated to cut corners-damaging not only the product, but their machines or themselves. Quality, which often is not measured by the machines, frequently suffers as quantity increases. For instance, telephone installers who are dispatched and monitored by computers tend to hang lines along the shortest path, abandoning their old, slower techniques of skillfully concealing the wires.
According to one story, unconfirmed but probably true, a major supermarket chain programmed its cash registers to note the rate at which check-out clerks worked. Young clerks turned out to be much faster than the older employees, apparently because the latter group stopped to chat with familiar customers. The computer analysis made no provision for recognizing the quality of work, including the fact that the personal relationships may have been the reason for the customers' patronage of the store.
Computerized systems are also used to pace employees. On some assembly lines, workers are placed between robots and expected to work at the rate programmed into their computerized counterparts. Telephone operators, whether they work for phone, airline or catalog companies, spend less time than they once did waiting for the phone to ring. Sitting in centralized communications centers, they are fed a call from anywhere in a large area as soon as they complete the last one, doing away with pauses in their routine.
Raw speed-up is merely the simplest feature of a more general trend: the use of high technology to give "scientific" managers increased control over the producers of goods and services. Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Capital, summarizes the three principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of the school of scientific management:
Thus, if the first principle is the gathering and development of knowledge of labor processes, and the second is the concentration of this knowledge as the exclusive province of management-together with its essential converse, the absence of such knowledge among the workers-then the third is the use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labor process and its mode of execution.
Centralized word processing, numerically controlled machine tools, "point-of-sale" devices, financial data terminals and other computerized work stations are designed to provide management with timely, detailed data on the nature of the work process. In general, as management learns more, workers lose their autonomy. By centralizing their data on the flow of work, top managers can reorganize the workplace to increase productivity or lower costs-even over the objections of workers whose special skills were once valued highly.
Experienced workers whose jobs are being reshaped by the advent of computers tend to blame the technology itself. But this same technology could be used to decentralize information, give employees more control over quality and share the responsibility, skills and rewards of work. Unfortunately, few of these possibilities have been realized. Because they have entered the workplace so quickly and thoroughly, computers merely underscore problems inherent in the social relations that dominate the American workplace.
Return to Table of Contents | Previous Article | Next Article