New Information Technology:
by Tom Athanisou
"The computerized control of work has become so pervasive
in Bell Telephone's clerical sector that management now has the capacity
to measure how many times a phone rings before it is answered, how long
a customer is put on hold, how long it takes a clerk to complete a call.
. . Each morning, workers receive computer printouts listing their break
and lunch times based on the anticipated traffic patterns of the day. .
. Before computerization, a worker's morning break normally came about two
hours after the beginning of the shift; now, it can come as early as fifteen
minutes into the working day. Workers cannot go to the bathroom unless they
find someone to take their place. "If you close your terminal, right
away the computer starts clacking away and starts ringing a bell."
-from "Brave New Workplace" by Robert Howard
Working Papers For A New Society
Between the lines of the publicity for the office of the future" we
can catch glimpses of the treatment in store for office workers. Bell Telephone
may be the furthest along in automating office work, but this "future"
is in store for hundreds of thousands of clerical workers as new technology
In manufacturing, automation is well advanced, though nothing like what's
coming when the new robot technology gets installed. This makes blue collar
workers a lot more "productive" than office workers. As the salesmen
from Xerox and IBM never tire of telling corporate managers, the average
industrial worker is backed by $25,000 worth of equipment, compared to only
$3,000 for the average secretary and next to nothing for low-to-middle level
With modern word processing equipment, one typist can do the work that previously
took three. And in today's increasingly internationalized and conglomerated
world, there is a lot of information to be handled. Everyday, millions of
economic transactions are tracked by the corporations and the banks, and
with each one comes the interminable complexities of a world choked by MONEY
and its logic: billing, accounting, insuring, financing, advertising, researching
what people can be made to buy. No wonder there has been a tremendous increase
in the number of office workers. It is they who file, sort, type, track,
process, duplicate and triplicate the ever expanding mass of "information"
necessary to operate the global corporate economy.
As office employment has increased so has the cost of pushing around the
continually growing body of bureaucratic detail. It has become high priority
for management to reduce costs at the office by eliminating as many clerical
jobs as possible, and to gain as much control as possible over the ones
In the office of the future, even middle managers and computer programmers
will become unthinking drones. Since they make their living by pushing information,
they are prime candidates for "job redesign" -- in other words,
job elimination for many, tighter controls and more boredom and repetitiveness
for those that remain.
As markets stagnate around the world, international competition sharpens.
Faced with soaring prices for energy and raw materials, businesses of every
variety are struggling to cut costs in order to maintain or expand their
slice of a shrinking pie.
Between 1976 and 1980 companies that wanted to step up production were likely
to hire more workers rather than buy more equipment. They were afraid to
invest in new machines because they didn't want to be caught with excess
production capacity in a time of economic slowdown. Unlike new plants and
equipment, workers can always be fired, or, better still, they can be hired
Meanwhile, the cost of electronic control and data processing technology
has been steadily dropping. Today they are "economical" on a larger
scale than ever before and intensified competition gives wavering firms
the necessary push toward automation. If your company doesn't use the new
technologies it will be driven under by one that does, and if your country
doesn't use them, perhaps because of union pressure to preserve jobs, it
will be blown out of the market by Japan-or whoever else does.
Unemployment, Automation, Revolt
Some computer industry mouthpieces still persist in proclaiming that the
new systems will "create" as many jobs as they destroy. But this
is a self-serving lie. The "business machine" and automation industries
are rare islands of prosperity in an otherwise crisis-ridden economic picture,
and they are, if anything, more automated than other sectors. In reality,
large-scale unemployment unlike anything we've known since the last depression
is just around the corner.
Automation isn't new. and neither is the unemployment it creates. During
the fifties, workers in auto, steel and mining waged bitter fights against
the mechanical "job killers." But the unions bargained away jobs
and skills for improved wages and benefits. The result was a permanent pool
of between twelve and fourteen million skill-less, jobless people, culturally,
geographically and often racially segregated from the employed population.
Through the last two decades, this segregated "underclass" has
provided management with a ready answer to unskilled and semi-skilled workers
who resist speedups and takeaways. If you won't do twice as much work for
half the real wage there's always someone out there hungry enough to do
it instead of you. Added to this threat and the other well-known classic,
the runaway shop, the new automation gives management a blackmail "triple
whammy." Once powerful and militant groups of employees are bullied
into accepting brutal cuts in wages, benefits and conditions, with their
unions lending a hand. The current plight of auto and steel workers is example
As unemployment grows and real wages fall distrust and competitiveness between
employed and unemployed may prevail. But there are other possibilities.
People who thought of themselves as "middle class" may realize
that they can be dispensed with just as easily as the janitor, the busboy
or the nurse's aide who live "on the other side of the trucks."
The newly unemployed, who have been taught to expect opportunities for career
and salary advancement that the system can no longer provide, may not passively
accept being thrown aside like garbage.
During the last depression, unemployed people joined employed ones on the
picket tines, while the employed helped the unemployed fight for better
relief or against evictions. The new wave of unemployment may help to recreate
such unity by minimizing differences of sex, race, skill and culture.
There are various ways to try to counteract the impact of the new technology
and the economic forces behind it. Unions and workers' support organizations
have proposed reduction of the work week with no cut in pay, demanded better
working conditions and more control over the work process, and resisted
management-imposed job redesign. The methods of unions, however, are limited
to the traditional end of-contract strikes, interminable grievance procedures,
or lobbying government for better labor legislation. (In the article on
the Blue Shield strike, we discuss the need to transcend these methods with
more aggressive, on-the-job action coordinated between workplaces.)
Successful actions on any of these issues are always subject to renewed
attacks by management. While workers in a given office or factory may prevent
implementation of a particularly loathsome technology, the pressures of
survival will eventually force the company to take a harder stand. Even
if massive social unrest succeeded in winning a four-day work week the wage
gains would rapidly be taken back by inflation. Though it is certainly desirable
to reduce time on the job and improve working conditions, no amount of "job
humanization" will change the basically wasteful and useless nature
of most work.
As long as the existing set-up endures there will be no end to the problems
created by automation. In the short run, successful actions on particular
issues will gain some breathing space and provide people with concrete experience
in overcoming their separation and passivity. But in the long run the system
itself will have to be challenged. A world where technological progress
doesn't mean ever more suffering and loss of freedom will never be created
by a system so paralyzed by its need for fast profit and centralized control.
Computers, What Are They Good For!
Though automation threatened livelihoods by eliminating d degrading jobs,
there is nothing inherently bad about computer technology, in a different
society, it could be used to improve our lives in all kinds of ways.
Consider how hard it is for blind people to live independently. Microprocessor-based
technology can ease their isolation considerably by simulating the lost
sense of sight. Already there is a reading machine built on a voice synthesizer
and a powerful microcomputer which can read any clearly printed text at
a rapid clip. The problem is that it costs $30,000 -- the only individual
who owns one is singer Stevie Wonder.
"Vision" systems are also in development. They work by converting
a TV image produced by a small camera worn on the side of the head into
a pattern of tiny painless needle pricks on the back. With a little practice,
a blind person can learn to "see" that pattern well enough to
walk around in crowds and manipulate small objects. These devices could
be made available to millions for only part of the cost of the MX missile
system, or for the equivalent of Exxon's annual advertising budget.
It is easy to question the warped priorities of modern society, but harder
to see the deeper reasons for them. At root is what is most taken for granted-that
in order to have things we must buy them; that in fact they are made only
to be sold; that we can get things we need and enjoy only if we have money;
that "advances" in technology arc, governed by competition for
profit, markets, and credits; that decisions about how we spend our time
and use our talents are dominated by concerns for "making a living";
that only officially sanctioned authorities have the power and capacitv
to niake important decisions that effect our lives. In tliis system -- which
rules in the "socialist" countries just as it does here, though
in a mutant, state-run form -- everything counts first and foremost as a
quantity of money, including our skills and time.
The result is that resources are allocated and products distributed according
to power and wealth, rather than according to human need or desire. 'The
fragmentation of the world into rival businesses, nations, social groups
and individuals creates permanent irrationality-war, starvation, catastrophic
wastes of time, energy and materials, misery of every description.
Suppose, though, that all sorts of people throughout the world decided to
stop following the rules and priorities that govern society today. Their
first actions would probably take the form of massive strikes and occupations
something like what has been going on in Poland, or among squatters in Europe.
But suppose people went beyond this and organized themselves into groups
according to what they thought needed changing, and according to their skills
and willingness to make those changes. These groups could begin to supply
themselves and each other by direct communication about their needs for
goods and resources, When they needed something they could contact the people
who had information about it, or who worked in factories that produced it.
Suppose, too, that the workers at these factories had enough information
to make informed decisions about where to send their products. Life would
turn more and more on the conscious decisions of groups of people; the market
would be circumvented, and money would become superfluous as a means of
Suppose this activity spread throughout society. Suppose the vicious forces
deployed against it by those in power were successfully defeated, and the
military, governmental, and corporate structures that control our lives
were thoroughly dismantled. From now on, people would work, study, create,
travel and share their lives because they wanted to, for themselves and
A movement capable of transforming society in this way would have immense
problems to tackle. Two thirds of the world population is seriously malnourished
or starving. Hundreds of millions are without decent housing, clothing,
sanitation, medical care. Most are illiterate. Cities are desperately overcrowded,
while huge tracts of land are rapidly becoming deserts. "water, air
and soil are badly polluted.
Some of the work necessary to set things right will be dangerous, and some
tedious. When the glaring problems are solved, new ones will arise. If people
were free to do what they wanted and not forced to work, how would everything
Part of the answer is that a great deal of work that is today required to
keep the system going could be immediately done away with, Whole sectors
like banking, insurance, and marketing the three largest clerical employers-would
be unnecessary. Jobs designed merely to supervise and control the population
would be eliminated. Millions would be freed to learn and share other tasks,
along with the formerly unemployed.
Products would be made to last instead of to fall apart in a few years so
that the owner has to buy a new one. Very quickly, this would reduce the
amount of work that has to be done. Meanwhile, as many jobs as possible
would be transformed to make them interesting, pleasant and safe. The unpleasant
work that remained would be shared around, so that before long no one would
have to do them more than a few hours a month.
But how would all this be organized? Who would decide how much time and
resources should be spent on a particular project, and how scarce resources
should be allocated? How can the rise of a new structure of power and hierarchy
Obviously we can't foresee all the problems that might arise, nor propose
definite solutions. However, it's reasonable to assume that the more people
participate in decision making, the less chance there is of power concentrating
in the hands of any particular group or groups.
This is where the new information technologies come in. At present, at least
a third of all computer time in the U.S. is used for military and "national
security" purposes-monitoring telephone, radio and TV signals, tracking
U.S. and foreign military forces, industries and raw materials, planning
for present and future wars. Much of the rest is used in the electronic
transfer of funds from one corporate account to another. And all this information
is tightly guarded, placed under coded "locks," and made accessible
only through an elaborate hierarchy of classifications and clearances.
However, in the context of a growing movement such as the one described
above, operators and programmers could begin sorting through the immense
computerized files. A lot of information, like cash flow accounts and secret
dossiers, could be simply wiped. The computers used for spying can be put
to other uses or dismantled. Inventories of actual goods, equipment and
raw materials, along with any other useful or interesting data. could be
kept, made public, and reorganized. With the design of the proper systems
and the installation of easy-to-use terminals in accessible places, work
groups, communities and individuals could continually update, index and
tap into the growing pool of information.
Most production would be planned at the local level. Work groups could organize
their tasks as they see fit. The amount of milk or bread needed in a region
could be produced locally right there, eliminating fancy packaging and long
But for other purposes elaborate plans would be required. Many projects
would have to be coordinated at an inter-regional level. Computers can help
here because they can digest enormous amounts of data into summaries that
enable participating communities to set up the broad outlines of a plan:
what products they need and how much, and what resources and skills they
have available. Computers could match needs to resources and pinpoint potential
surpluses and shortfalls.
Once plans were agreed upon, communications systems could facilitate their
smooth follow through. When conflicts and shortages arise many of those
affected could be brought together "on line" to discuss strategies
for their resolution. Potential suppliers could respond to shortages with
information about available stocks and perhaps negotiate to expand production.
Final discussions could be handled by phone or in person.
Of course, it's not the computers that are actually doing the planning,
it's people. And no one really wanted to spend a lot of time in front of
a Video Display Unit or sitting through dreary meetings. So "planning
committees" would probably be designated by communities to make analyses
and suggestions that they would bring back for approval. The "planners"
could be delegated on a rotating and recallable basis to ensure both that
they do a good job and that their temporary responsibilities don't "go
to their heads."
Decision making would be decentralized to the maximum extent, and everyone
would have a chance to participate. Gradually, every area and community
in the world that wants t) join in could be linked together. The right mix
of autonomy and interdependence could be approached in the context of a
massive public discussion about the best ways of doing things.
In such a world automation, like computers in general, would mean something
entirely different than they do today. Instead of being used to throw millions
out of their jobs and squeeze more and more work out of the rest, it would
be applied to eliminating necessary but repetitive and boring tasks, and
to reduce the amount of less-than-enjoyable activity required of everyone.
The time freed could be spent learning, playing, socializing, traveling...
Prototypes: Nonhierarchal Information Systems
These may seem like totally unrealizable fantasies but they are as much
part of the potential of the new information technology as the unemployment
and degradation it engenders today. There have already been several attempts
to demonstrate the hidden social potential of information technology by
creating systems that take some first halting steps towards public access
and community control.
One such system, named Cybersyn, was being developed in Chile until the
1973 (U.S.-backed) coup put the present military dictatorship into power.
The idea of Cybersyn was simple: to install a computerized information gathering
system that could be used to observe the Chilean economy in process, and
to help predict the effects of various decisions upon it. Cybersyn was to
be capable of producing detailed output, or of boiling down large masses
of data into easily comprehended graphs and tables. In experiments done
just before the 1973 coup, it was found that workers were able to use the
system as easily as professional managers.
Cybersyn is not presented here as a model to be adopted. On the contrary,
this system was built on request by a central government and was implemented
in the context of a national economy intricately bound up in the world market,
which functions on the basis of profit, wage-labor and military force. In
its very conception, therefore, it was meant to accommodate centralized
power and the money economy. These institutions (which eventually put a
bloody end to the Chilean experiment are precisely what must be abolished
for any attempts to change society to succeed. Cybersyn does, however, demonstrate
the simple logistical feasibility of the widespread installation of easy-to-use
computer communication facilities.
Today in the Bay Area, a related kind of system is being developed. "Community
Memory" is being designed to facilitate the decentralized, non-hierarchical
sharing of information, needs, skills and resources, or anything else that
can be typed into a keyboard: philosophical or political opinions, recipes,
personal advertisements. According to a Community Memory publication,
"Community Memory is ... an open channel for community communications
and information exchange, and a way for people with common interests to
find each other. It is a tool for collective thinking, planning, organizing,
fantasizing and decision-making.
"By being open and interactive, Community Memory seeks to present an
alternative to broadcast media such as TV. It makes room for the exchange
of people-to-people information, recognizing and legitimating the ability
of people to decide for themselves what information they want.
The projected incarnation of Community Memory is a broad dispersion of computer
terminals in public places, such as community center, libraries, stores
and bus stations. ..
"The designers of Community Memory would like to see a world not broken
up into nation states, but one built upon overlapping regions of concern,
from household to neighborhood to interest group to work group, from geographical
region to globe where decisions are made by all those affected. This would
be a world where power is distriputed and governance is the process of collectively
trving to determine the best action to be taken, via general discussion
and complete dissemination of inforination. With this vision, the Community
Memory system has been designed to be a communications tool for a working
What Kind of World Do You Want to Live In?
In a world where everything and everyone is treated as an object to be bought
and sold, the new technologies-and most of the old ones for that matter-will
inevitably create hardship and human misery. Whether it's the office workers
at Bell Telephone or the women in Malaysia going blind assembling the integrated circuits for our new, self-tuning, giant screen, stereo color TV's, someone always pays.
The new information machines are bringing changes that call for more than
simple opposition. We must have some idea of what we want to do, and not
sink completely into the politics of unemployment and workplace drudgery.
The ease with which computers are used as instruments of social control
cannot be allowed to obscure their liberatory potential.