New Information Technology: For What?

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
November/December 1980

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 gets installed.

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 managers.

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 that remain.

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.

You Can't Lay Off Machines, But . . .

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 as temps.

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 enough.

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.

Holding Actions

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.

Future Features

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 exchange.

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 for others.

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 get done?

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 be prevented?

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 transportation efforts.

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 community."

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.