Smarter Machines Make Dumber Humans, Wal-Mart Bots
The sooty urchins of Dickens’ day have given way to pale adults moving packages at increasing speeds and lower wages.
Modern-day shackles connect them to productivity monitors while their bosses deliver self-adoring lectures to agog business-school students.
“Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans,” written by Simon Head, deconstructs the “computer business systems,” or CBSs, that manage so much of modern lives and eliminate so many jobs in the process.
Pushed by business-school academics, management consultants and the business world, CBSs manage and monitor employees working in finance, government agencies, retail and health care.
Head, a Senior Member of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, spoke to me at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York. His previous book was “The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age.”
Hoelterhoff: So we have the military to thank?
Head: Which I didn’t realize until I wrote the book. These elaborate systems came partly out of World War II and the Cold War -- managing gigantic military formations and also the U.S. strategic nuclear forces.
Hoelterhoff: These were tracking systems. Meaning?
Head: The commander of the U.S. strategic nuclear American forces could have a panoptic view of the whole sector he was responsible for in real time.
Hoelterhoff: How did they migrate to the civilian sector?
Head: American Airlines’ reservation system was the first in 1962. They started to take the data coming in from all the travel agents and all the ticket offices, expressed it in digital form and put it into a central computer.
Hoelterhoff: If smarter machines are making people dumber, they sure are also making them poorer. The chapters on Wal-Mart and Amazon are nauseating. Workers shackled by devices that monitor every move.
Head: Amazon’s systems of monitoring and time control are mind-boggling. If workers aren’t going to meet the time for taking the packages from the unloading zone to the shelves, then the machine starts beeping.
There’s something absolutely diabolical about this.
Then when they’ve completed the job -- and perhaps been 10 seconds over -- some kind of nerdy overseer guy says: “You didn’t make your time there. You want to be careful, you’ll get a demerit.”
You get enough demerits and you get fired.
Hoelterhoff: Isn’t the point to wear people out and get a new batch in?
Head: I think you can say that. If you’re 45 years old and you’ve been doing this for a while, you can’t do it. You begin to get injuries and your joints begin to suffer. You’re going down on your knees 200 times a day.
Hoelterhoff: The Amazon way! Yet the elite managers get invited to lecture at prominent schools. They get saluted for setting cruel speed standards. Why?
Head: The power of unions has radically declined. Political support for labor has declined. Academic support has declined. And with it, this idea of a working-class elite which can have a middle-class lifestyle is shrinking radically.
So an Amazon executive can go to the business school of the University of Virginia and talk about these systems without any reference at all to their oppressive nature and get away with it. No probing questions at all.
Hoelterhoff: Wasn’t a Wal-Mart unionized in Canada?
Head: Yes, one was, in Quebec, but Wal-Mart closed it down rather than have it unionized. Every Wal-Mart store manager has a hotline to Bentonville headquarters, which he must use if he sees symptoms of union organizing, if he sees employees whispering to one another.
There’s a corporate jet always ready at the Bentonville airport for the union busters.
Hoelterhoff: Of course, these control systems affect and depress just about everyone.
Head: The new disempowered middle class includes such professionals as doctors working for HMOs, adjunct academics in the lower reaches of the university system.
The technologies are moving so much faster than the ability of broader civic society to understand them. That’s very different from the situation in the first machine age and assembly lines. You could see images, see what was happening.
Hoelterhoff: What’s your hope?
Head: This has to become a great issue of politics as it did in the time of the New Deal.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)