November 25, 2017

De-skilling society

Review of The New Technology: Social Impacts and Human Centred Alternatives, M.J. Cooley, Technology Policy Group, The Open University


This is only a short report of thirty pages or so, including references, but it is very well done. The subject is one about which a great deal has been written in recent times, much of it nonsense. Indeed, the author quotes J. Wiezenbaum who likens those who would automate everything that could possibly be automated to “children with a hammer who view the world as a nail”.

Among other things, such people have succeeded in persuading themselves, by an astonishing feat of mental acrobatics, that the introduction of micro-electronics will actually lead to the creation of new jobs rather than aggravate unemployment to the point where it threatens the very existence of industrial society.

Unfortunately, the trade unions, as the author points out, are “fragmented at both a national and international level, and often possessed of a simplistic technological optimism.” They are thus “ill-equipped organisationally or ideologically to cope with this increasingly threatening situation.” It is, as Professor Noble of Massachusetts’ Institute of Technology (MIT) puts it: “A War about new technology in which only one side is armed.”

The author does not regard it as conceivable that the microchip will provide anything like enough new jobs to compensate for those it will destroy. He refers to a report by A.D. Little which estimates that in a ten year period, in four major sectors producing micro-electronic based products, only one million jobs will be created in North America and Western Europe. Of these only 400,000 will be in Europe—“a mere drop in the ocean of the nine million estimated unemployed now, with a predicted twenty million by 1988, on EEC figures.”

Particularly interesting are the author’s comments on the quality of the new automated jobs. In the early sixties, there was a lot of optimistic discussion on the subject of ‘human-machine symbiosis’, the principle being that the machines would undertake boring work, freeing man for more stimulating functions. One field in which this was supposed to manifest itself was that of ‘computer-aided design’ (CAD). On the (as yet) comparatively small experience of the working of CAD installations, that optimism appears singularly misplaced. Indeed, H.A. Rosenbrock suggests that the design of such systems reflects “a loss of nerve, a loss of belief in human abilities and a further unthinking application of the division of human labour.”

In general, the micro-electronics ‘revolution’ is seen as leading to the further de-skilling of our labour force. “It has been reported recently,” the author notes,

“that in respect of certain forms of work on numerically controlled (NC) equipment the ideal workers would be mentally retarded and a mental age of twelve has been mentioned. If the objective was to create jobs for the mentally retarded, clearly the aim would be laudable. This, however, is not the aim. In fact, NC equipment is replacing some of the most highly skilled and satisfying work on the shop floor, such as jig-boring, milling, universal turning and highly skilled workshop practices.”

Professor Noble of MIT goes further, he says, “today designing for idiots is the highest expression of the engineering art.”

The problems are similar in the case of clerical work, and the author also points to the serious de-skilling of work traditionally done by women. In banking, a research programme on the effects of automation in Swedish banks concluded that “increased automation converted tellers who were in effect mini-bankers into automatons.”

Of course, one effect of the introduction of the new technologies is to increase centralised control. Harley Shaiken, a researcher for the United Auto Workers, describes it as ‘power masquerading as technology’.

To de-skill people is undoubtedly to make them the more easily controlled. Indeed, Margelin goes so far as to suggest that this is as much the object of introducing the new technology as is the resultant increase in productivity.

It may be that the skills of a few people are enhanced, but that those of the majority are unquestionably diminished. The author quotes Sand-berg, who notes;

“The conceptualisation and planning of work on a day-today basis, is taken away from the immediate producers and concentrated within departments of planning. Many planners have interesting, meaningful jobs demanding a high level of qualification. Some of these few qualified jobs were created as a result of on-going automation while at the same time many other jobs were degraded. One may talk of a polarisation of skills.”

Not surprisingly, many Trade Unions throughout the EEC are now beginning to realise that their early optimism regarding the introduction of the new technologies was—to say the least—premature.

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