Review: The Electronic Sweatshop

I don’t recall how Barbara Garson’s The Electronic Sweatshop (1988) got onto my reading list—I certainly wasn’t reading such things back in 1988— but it’s interesting to read what people were thinking in the past about issues that still affect us today.

The book’s subtitle is How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factory of the Past but seems to me to be less about computers as such than about what present-day academics frequently deride as “managerialism”—the setting of performance targets by central management together with rigourous monitoring of the same. Computers, then as now, happen to be a handy tool for measuring and recording progress towards these targets. The “factory of the past” then refers to so-called scientific management practices famously advocated by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early twentieth century and famously parodied by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

Garson describes how these practices played out in companies ranging from McDonald’s to American Air and Proctor & Gamble, with the general effect of shifting skill and creative control from individual workers to a central body of managers armed with computers. Garson observes that computers were supposed to eliminate boring and repetitive tasks, but in many of her case studies seem to have turned workers into drones following procedures set by central management.

There are a small number of happier stories as well, such as engineers able to write their own documents rather than outsource them to a typing pool thanks to word processors, and disruptive behaviour being brought to account by evidence collected by monitoring systems. The typing engineer is perhaps an illustration of what computers were supposed to do: replace routine dictation and typing work while empowering the engineer to write documents as he or she saw fit (albeit, in Garson’s telling, consigning typists to depersonalised sweatshops at the same time).

There is probably some inevitable tension between creativity and autonomy on one hand, and consistency and accountability on the other. We all like to think of ourselves as creative, autonomous and competent individuals who can be trusted to do our jobs; on the other hand we also want to be sure that everyone else is doing their jobs to what we consider to be an acceptable standard, and office folklore is full of stories about so-and-so who wasn’t pulling their weight. We furthermore appreciate increasing productivity when it results in things we want to buy becoming cheaper and more plentiful (Richard and Daniel Susskind, for example, make an enthusiastic case for automating professional work in The Future of the Professions (2015), though their vision lacks concrete detail of what it would mean for any particular profession).

Garson doesn’t address what happens with the increase in productivity afforded by systematisation, if it exists (which has a whole body of literature of its own). Perhaps if automating parts of work allowed us more free time to pursue projects of our choosing, or really did enable is to focus on the more creative aspects of our work, we wouldn’t be worried so much about automating away the regular parts. But, as far as I can tell, almost everyone in Garson’s case studies ends up doing just as much work as they did before, and that seems to have been the general outcome of increasing productivity since the time the book was written.

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