cj#414> (fwd) AR review: A NEW LOOK AT TECHNOLOGY

1996-01-17

Richard Moore

keywords: luddites, capitalism, profits

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BOOK REVIEW
+
by Anna Luca
American Reporter Correspondent
Toronto, Canada
1/15/96
technology
998/$9.98

                        A NEW LOOK AT TECHNOLOGY
                              by Anna Luca
                    American Reporter Correspondent

        (David Noble: Progress Without People - New Technology, Unemployment,
        and the Message of Resistance; Toronto: Between the Lines, 1995;
        184 pp., $17.95 Cdn paper, $ 32.95 Cdn cloth)

        TORONTO -- At first glance, you wouldn't think a guy who taught
for nine years at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology
would have a problem with technology.

        Especially since he also worked as the Curator of Industrial
Automation and Labor at the Smithsonian Institute.  But, rather than
become a leading technophile, his experiences led him to become a leading
critic of our obsession with technology, as well as an expert on the
historical events that led us to where we are today.

        I am a bit of a technophile myself, but when I read this book, I
was inevitably drawn to asking some pertinent questions about my own quest
for faster and more powerful computers and software.  The Luddites were
the first group credited with questioning the benefits of technology, and
the author begins his explorations with these brave people.

        I'd always regarded the Luddites as somewhat quaint, though
ignorant people, who sought to destroy machines to protect their own
well-being.  David Noble, however, sees the Luddites as "perhaps the last
people in the West to perceive technology in the present tense and to act
upon that perception."

        Noble writes that the Luddites clearly understood the negative
social implications of the new technology; breaking machines was part of a
wider strategy to halt the deterioration of their society.  In doing so,
they recognized machines not as the cause of problems, but rather as tools
reflecting and reinforcing the new capitalist attitudes towards
production.

        The list of work conditions at the beginning of the industrial
revolution have an eerie resonance with today's world:  unemployment,
reduced wages, elimination of skilled work, lower product quality and a
work environment which fosters discipline, loss of autonomy and control
over the laborer's own product.

        The similarities with today increase when the author points out
the new machines of the time were more expensive and less reliable than
the labor they replaced.  The real purpose of the new technology is
really an opportunity for management to directly exert control over
production, and minimize embezzlement opportunities.

        The expensive and intrusive security systems in today's stores
spring to mind as an analogy, which have replaced many of the staff
providing service to customers.  Seen in this light, the Luddites were
actually far more aware of the insiduous "progress" offered by technology,
and displayed far more daring and courage to control their own lives than
we do today.

        Noble makes a persuasive argument to examine technology's impact
on our current society, instead of merely planning and hoping for the
technological advances the future may offer.  The belief that technology
equals progress and that progress is beneficial to all is inexorably bound
together.  The development of technology is seen as not only inevitable,
but as "good in the long run."

        Noble poses the valid question: good for whom?  When we accept
technology as prerequisites for the future, he argues, we often lose the
ability to accurately and effectively consider the impact on our lives.
        Our obsessions with technological progress has become so pervasive
that even the "supposedly cautious, calculating businessmen" who routinely
couch their decisions in economic jargon are driven instead by the "more
human and familiar obsessions, enthusiasms, and compulsions."

        Decision makers are more interested in acquiring the most
sophisticated machines, instead of justifying the costs of technological
advance, Noble writes.  He views it as a status symbol to invest in
expensive technology, where keeping up with the competition is just part
of the game.

        Corporations argue that competition makes it necessary to
introduce and update machines and technology.  Noble argues in turn that
computers are viewed as something akin to the holy grail: they will
inevitably create improvements in productivity, and prices will go down.
Upon closer scrutiny of the facts, this assumption holds little weight.

        At best, the results are unclear; at worst, they indicate greater
costs, more problems with quality, and a deteriorating lifestyle for
workers.  About the only "accomplishment" is that competition for fewer
jobs with less pay intensifies.  In the U.S. metalworking industry of
1982, for example, reducing labor costs took up 75 percent of management
efforts, although direct labor only took up 10 percent of production
costs.
        "Progress Without People" doesn't just carefully examine the modern
rush into technology.  The book also chronicles many successful attempts
by labor unions to halt progress at all cost.

        In 1979, the Australian Council of Trade Unions voted to invite
labor unions of all affected countries to consider a five-year moratorium
on technological change.  The British firm Lucas Aerospace agreed to a one
-year moratorium in 1980, allowing union members to establish alternative
plans for technology.

        To honor the Luddites, Australian strikers in a 1982 dispute
handed out stickers that said "Smash this machine."  In 1983, a hilarious
act of technological sabotage occurred in the U.S. Justice Department,
where a malfunctioning PC screen and keyboard was discovered to be
saturated with urine.  Not to be outdone, management sent the offending
urine to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.  The results -- the
perpetrator was female and disease-free -- must have been of great comfort
to the politically correct.

        Multi-national corporations are leading us headlong into their
"paradise" of increasing profits and less social responsibility.  "Progress
Without People" comes as a welcome reprieve from the mindless pursuit of
'progress,' as it is defined by others.  It's a book that deserves quality
reading time, not only because it is written in true academic style.  The
information and historical perspectives David Noble provides are sure to
raise questions in your mind long after you've finished the book.

                                -30-

   (Anna Luca is a technical writer and consultant in Toronto.)

                             * * *

                      The American Reporter
          Copyright 1995 Joe Shea, The American Reporter
                       All Rights Reserved
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