Economic losers of the world unite! When work becomes robotic

Amazon Warehouse. Swansea, Wales
Amazon Warehouse. Swansea, Wales
Back in 1759, just as the Industrial Revolution was about to begin, Adam Smith published his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There he observed that while the division of labor in a pin factory would greatly increase worker output, it would also make workers as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become.”

And how are things today? An undercover worker in an Amazon warehouse describes his experience:

“We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves”, he said.

“We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know.”


Robert Skidelsky begins his review of Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (by Simon Head) with a reminder of Adam Smith’s observation. Skidelsky is a scholar of Keynesian economics and the author (with his son Edward) of last year’s How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. The review goes on to discuss the various ways in which smarter machines are indeed making us dumber humans. (emphasis added in the following quotations)

It’s no longer just assembly lines that are automated

In his latest book [Head] claims that computer programming is now applied to all the principal sectors of the manufacturing and service economy.

The upshot is that networked computers, with monitoring software attached, have hugely expanded “the power to manage the affairs of giant global corporations andmicromanage the work of their single employees or teams of employees.” Their possibilities have spawned “Computer Business Systems” (CBS) which have colonized much of the service sector.

The tendency of CBS, Head argues, is to discourage intuition and judgment in a large population, except for a tiny class of highly paid engineers and managers, who are needed to activate and control the automated systems. What Head calls “digital managerialism” achieves this by transforming the objects of management into “electronic representations” of human beings,” the numbers, coded words, cones, squares, and triangles that represent us on [the] digital screens [of managers].” Such electronic representations have been applied increasingly to middle management, who, deprived of their traditional oversight functions, are themselves subject to the intrusive monitoring of time and performance they had exercised over their subordinates.

Controlling behavior by controlling the mind

The great strength of Head’s approach is that he deconstructs and demystifies for the nonexpert reader the pseudoscientific, abstract, jargonized language of management studies, in order to reveal the dispiriting reality it obscures. The aim of all control systems is to control human behavior, including the way we think. Priests and political leaders have long used religion and ideology for this purpose, since it economizes on the use of force and terror. But it is only in the last hundred years or so that the attempt to control behavior by controlling the mind has achieved scientific status, largely through the explosion of calculating power that computers have made possible.

There is now very little work that cannot be automated

What [Head] does show convincingly is that these control systems have permeated deeply into the service sector, increasing productivity in activities that were assumed to be relatively immune to them. He does not mention the thesis of the economist William Baumol, who argued that there exists a class of goods whose production cannot be automated, and whose cost therefore is bound to rise relative to those goods that can. The examples Baumol gave were from the performing arts, but his idea was generalized to include all those goods and services whose value depends on person-to-person contact. What Head shows is that the class of such ‘”Baumol goods” may be shrinking. Since the service sector now makes up 70 to 80 percent of Western economies, it is right for us to take notice.

Digital control of cognitive and emotional work

Digital control systems have now penetrated even into those parts of the service sector that require “cognitive functions,” i.e., where the objects of production are not consumables, but “the treatment of sick patients, the transactions between teachers and pupils, or the decisions to hire and fire employees.” More and more important for such production are engineers of the mind and the emotions in the form of “human resources” and “customer relations” experts. For example, it can be calculated how much smiling flight attendants need to do to make passengers feel they are being sufficiently pampered.

Economic losers of the world unite

So it is not technology as such, Head argues, that springs the Orwellian trap, but the “business culture.” To show that such culture can be both humane and efficient he cites codetermination and labor-management partnerships in Germany, employee participation in software design in Norway and Denmark …. In each case business practices enhance, not degrade, workers’ skills and pay. But from the perspective of global capitalism, generally, such practices have become rarities. So what is to be done? Politics, Head insists, needs to create a “dominant coalition” of economic losers to overcome the “new authoritarianism of the digital age.”

Automating academics

Head’s indictments are impressive, but at heart his book is a lament for a vanished world, that of the 1950s and 1960s, when gentlemen were still gentlemen … and when academics were paid to think, and not to produce useless papers to meet Key Performance Indicators.

Related posts:
The dismal future of unemployment
Suicide in Japan (part 1): The recession
Do what you love: The obligation to find one’s true calling

Image source: Huffington Post


Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’, BBC News, November 23, 2013

Simon Head, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life

Robert Skidelsky, The Programmed Prospect Before Us, The New York Review of Books, April 3, 2014 (paywall)


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