Sabotage: The Ultimate Video Game

Gidget Digit on workplace sabotage in the age of computers.

Submitted by ludd on January 23, 2010

What office worker hasn't thought of dousing the keyboard of her word processor with a cup of steaming coffee, hurling her modular telephone handset through the plate glass window of her supervisor's cubicle, or torching up the stack of input forms waiting in her in-box with a "misplaced'' cigarette? The impulse to sabotage the work environment is probably as old as wage-labor itself, perhaps older. Life in an office often means having to endure nonsensical procedures, the childish whims of supervisors and the humiliation of being someone's subordinate. It's no wonder that many of us take out our frustrations on the surroundings that are part of our working life.

The current upsurge in the use of computerized business machines has added fuel to the fire, so to speak. Word processors, remote terminals, data phones, and high speed printers are only a few of the new breakable gadgets that are coming to dominate the modern office. Designed for control and surveillance, they often appear as the immediate source of our frustration. Damaging them is a quick way to vent anger or to gain a few extra minutes of "downtime.''

Sabotage is more than an inescapable desire to bash calculators. It is neither a simple manifestation of machine-hatred nor is it a new phenomenon that has appeared only with the introduction of computer technology. Its forms are largely shaped by the setting in which they take place. The sabotage of new office technology takes place within the larger context of the modern office, a context which includes working conditions, conflict between management and workers, dramatic changes in the work process itself and, finally, relationships between clerical workers themselves.

Power and Control in the Office

Once considered a career that required a good deal of skill, the clerical job now closely resembles an assembly line station. Office management has consciously applied the principles of scientific management to the growing flow of paper and money, breaking the process down into components, routinizing and automating the work, and reserving the more "mental'' tasks for managers or the new machines.

The growth and bureaucratization of the information-handling needs of modern corporations and governments has changed the small "personal'' office into huge organizations complete with complex hierarchies and explicitly defined work relationships. No one is exempt from being situated in the organizational chart. The myriad of titles and grades tends to inhibit a sense of common experience, since everyone else's situation seems slightly different from one's own. Each spot on the hierarchy has its privileges and implied power over those below it, and its requirements of subordination to those above. This social fragmentation is all the more alienating because it occurs within the context of a supposed social equality. There is a pretense of friendliness among all office employees regardless of their rank. This "nice'' atmosphere works conveniently to legitimate the hierarchy. If it seems that everyone is equal and has an equal chance to climb the ladder, the ladder itself appears as the emblem of this "equal opportunity.'' All this makes for an extremely subtle set of power relations.

Rather than through raw confrontation, power is reinforced by imbuing the entire office terrain with its symbols through things like dress, the size of one's desk or workspace, and "perks.'' In such a setting, people may try to reduce their powerlessness by playing the game of privilege or forming alliances with those more powerful than themselves. Indeed, this type of behavior is almost required for survival in a typical office.

In addition to these implicit power relations, many offices (especially the larger corporations) have formalized procedures to handle open conflict when it occurs. Most of these companies have personnel departments that try to mediate between managers and their underlings. While most people recognize these substitutes for unions as biased at best, there is often no alternative, especially when collective action doesn't seem possible. This process of taking complaints up the hierarchy is the reflection of power cliques and manipulation that hold sway on the more informal level. As such, it indicates the conscious attempt on the part of management to undermine any workers' initiatives to organize autonomously, reinforcing the hierarchy as the only legitimate framework for work, conflict, in short, for all aspects of social life.

Office Culture vs. Office Hierarchy

Given the stifling atmosphere of office life it is easy to see why white collar workers have rarely developed organizational forms (like unions) but have relied on different techniques and strategies to oppose both the reorganization of their work and the introduction of new technology. Despite the constraints imposed by bureaucracy, an informal office work culture subverts the "normal'' office order. Activities common to this culture often encourage a feeling of comraderie and collusion. For example, many clericals have become adept in manipulating the superficial friendliness and can get away with what might otherwise be considered insubordination. I recently worked with a woman who regularly called one of the managers "der Fuhrer.'' Since she was known around the offfice for her abrasive personality her behavior was accepted. While this type of "joking'' does not really undermine the basis of a manager's power it creates a potentially subversive community of those who are amused at seeing a bureaucrat insulted to his face.

Other normal daily activities in the office also contribute to the subversion of office order, e.g. making free use of xerox machines, telephones, word processors, etc., for personal uses rather than company needs. "Time-theft,'' too, is a widespread form of normal anti-productivity behavior--extended breaks and lunch hours, arriving late, leaving early, reading the paper on the job, etc.

Pranks can also be disruptive to the normal routine. For example, at Blue Cross of Northern California where I worked as a temp in 1974, there were a few hundred VDT operators. Each operator had a set of procedures to follow to bring her terminal "up,'' after which the words "Good morning, happiness is a sunny day!'' would appear on the screen. No key entry clerk is in the mood to see that at 7:30 AM. One morning someone in the notoriously weird claims input department figured out how to change the program that ran the start-up procedure. When the 250 or so terminal workers powered on their machines that morning they were greeted with the more pleasing "Good morning, happiness is a good fuck!'' On top of being good for a laugh, it caused management to shut the computer down until a systems analyst came in and fixed the program.

White-collar Opposition: Theft, Sabotage and Strikes

Beyond the daily "fun and games,'' there are some serious forms of resistance to the office routine. Theft is perhaps the most well known. However, it is often not recognized as such, largely because the media dwell almost exclusively on executive embezzlement schemes. Shaped by the nature of the work itself (the large flows of money that many clericals deal with daily), the breakdown of the close relationship between clerk and boss that formerly existed, and the rip-offs that the use of computers has made possible, white collar pilfering is another response office workers have developed to compensate themselves for lousy wages and bad working conditions. It is responsible for an estimated $30 to $40 billion in losses per year with computer crime amounting to about 10 percent of that total.

White collar crime is usually associated with a more highly skilled stratum but, in fact, access to a firm's databases motivates even those who possess minimal technical knowledge to dabble in "creative computing.'' A teller at a New York savings bank was able to steal money from depositors' accounts and then cover his tracks by shifting money among several other accounts with phony computer entries. Perhaps what is most interesting about this example is that it demonstrates the ease with which clerks and others who have access to on-line systems can destroy or alter information. In fact, "info-vandalism,'' whether committed by disgruntled employees, high school pranksters or left-wing direct action groups is increasing at a rapid pace.

Computer industry journals are filled with articles and ads dealing with the stability and security of information stored electronically. Legislation has recently been introduced that would make tampering with such data a federal crime. And, in a frantic scramble to protect their digital blips, businesses have come up with a whole range of precautionary measures. They range from physically protecting the hardware against magnet-waving maniacs to encoding devices and password functions that shield the data.

So far, these efforts have not been adequate. There have been several cases of employees vindictively erasing important accounting data. In one instance, an overworked computer operator destroyed two million dollars of billing information that he didn't have time to enter into the computer. In France, a programmer who was irate about having been dismissed, wrote a "time-release'' program that erased all the company's records two years after his dismissal date. Others who have been terminated by their companies have entered information to give themselves large severance or pension payments.

Perhaps more threatening than isolated instances of thievery and pranksterism to companies using data processing equipment is the possibility of strikes or occupations by office, communications and computer workers. While destruction and theft are more common, the more classic forms of "labor problems'' do occur among this sector of the workforce. In February of 1981 the workers of British Columbia Telephone occupied their workplace in a unionizing drive. For six days "Co-op'' Tel operated under no management. Technical workers and operators cross-trained each other in order to maintain telephone service during the action. In England last spring, computer programmers in the civil service struck for higher wages and completely stopped the flow of the government bureaucracy's life-blood (i.e. documents, memos, vouchers, data). While these acts of collective sabotage do not take place very frequently, they demonstrate the possibility of using computers against their intended function.

Business Priorities: Automated Irrationality

One might wonder why government and business are pursuing computerization with such fervor, especially if the technology is so vulnerable. Speed and efficiency (read: increased productivity) are some of the standard reasons given in response to this question. Certainly more irrational elements also come into play. There seems to be an absolute mania for this technology regardless of whether it pays off in higher profits or productivity. Many business execs assume it will even though there have been no thorough investigations into this question.

Whatever individual corporate execs think they're doing, on the level of society as a whole it is clear that a vast restructuring is taking place. Whole segments of the economy are being shifted from older unprofitable industries (i.g. auto, steel) to the dazzling information sector. This necessarily changes the details of our daily lives. Robots, word processors and communication networks are only a few of the new machines that are part of the modern information-based society.

According to liberal businessmen, futurists and computer enthusiasts a new office will emerge from the use of the new technology that will reduce regimentation at work. Remote terminals, they argue, will allow people to do their work in their own homes at their own speeds. While this vision has serious flaws in itself, it is unlikely that management will relinquish control over the work process. In fact, rather than freeing clerks from the gaze of their supervisors, the management statistics programs that many new systems provide will allow the careful scrutiny of each worker's output regardless of where the work is done. Decentralization, assuming it happens at all, will more likely bring about the reintroduction of piece work, while breaking down the type of work cultures discussed above that contribute to the low productivity of office workers.

Outside the workplace, such things as video games, videotext, cable TV and automatic tellers, seemingly benign objects in themselves, increasingly define our leisure time activities (watching various types of television screens for the most part). The individual "freedoms'' that are created by the technological wonders of tele-shopping and home banking are illusory. At most they are conveniences that allow for the more efficient ordering of modern life. The basis of social life is not touched by the "revolution.'' As in the office it remains hierarchical. In fact, the power of those in control is enhanced because there is an illusion of increased freedom. The inhabitants of this electronic village may be allowed total autonomy within their personal "user ID's,'' but they are systematically excluded from taking part in "programming'' the "operating system.''

These visions of computer utopia have come about in response to the widespread bad attitude that many people have toward the "smart'' machines. When computers were first introduced for such things as billings and phone lists, people's immediate response was one of resentment at what they perceived as a loss in power. Who hasn't had the experience of battling an "infallible'' computer that kept charging you for the same shirt, lost all your college records or disconnected your phone call for the fourth time? The point here is not that computers don't work but that this new technology provides authorities with a shield for their power. The frustration and powerlessness that people feel can conveniently be blamed on computer error.

Computers used to automate social life have also been made the objects of sabotage. Everyone has probably heard a version of the story about the irate housewife storming into the nearest PG&E office to do summary justice to a guilty computer with a shotgun. Incidents of sabotage that contain a "social critique'' have also taken place. In 1970 an anti-war group calling itself BEAVER 55 "invaded'' a Hewlett Packard installation in Minnesota and did extensive damage to hardware, tapes and data. More recently (April, 1980), a group in France (CLODO--The Committee to Liquidate or Divert Computers) raided a computer software firm in Toulouse, destorying programs, tapes and punch cards.

In the first case attacking a centralizing source of information was a way to both protest and sabotage U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. The French group, which had many computer workers as members, went further, condemning computers for warping cultural priorities as well as for being the preferred tools of the police and other repressive institutions. The implications of the repressive and socially negative ways in which computers are used need to be explored. However, in their emphasis on massive destruction, groups such as the above direct themselves too much against the technology itself (not to mention those groups' authoritarian internal structure). They do not pursue the positive aim of subverting computers, of exploring the relationship between a given technology and the use to which it is put. In this sense, pranks and theft, often carried out spontaneously and almost always individually, are more radical than the actions of those who group themselves around a specific political ideology.

All of these tendencies, the pranks, stealing and destruction in offices, strikes and occupations by computer workers, and spectacular bombing and arson attacks by left-wing groups imply a common desire to resist changes that are being introduced without our consent. The technology that has been developed to maintain profits and existing institutions of social control is extremely vulnerable to sabotage and subversion, especially in this transition period. If we are to avoid an alienated electronic version of capitalism, in which control is subtle but absolute, we will need to extend the subversion of machines and work process to an all out attack on the social relations that make them possible.

by Gidget Digit