Computer transformations in the world of workers

In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, by Shoshana Zuboff. New York: Basic Books. 468 pp. $19.95. ``With the change to the computer it's like driving down the highway with your lights out and someone else pushing the accelerator.''

``It is like you are riding a big, powerful horse, but someone is sitting behind you on the saddle holding the reins ... You see what is coming but you can't do anything to control it....''

``If I do what the computer tells me to do, then the computer is responsible, not me ....''

``... You need to see patterns in relation to the whole.''

How are computers changing the workplace? These are just a few of the reactions that Shoshana Zuboff elicited from her in-depth interviews with people whose jobs are being enhanced or diminished, simplified or monotonized by the advent of the ``smart machine.''

Now an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, Zuboff got the idea for this book some 10 years ago, when she was writing her doctoral dissertation on the experiences of 19th-century workers whose lives were radically and irreversibly altered by the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to a consulting job she had at the time, Zuboff also had the opportunity to observe firsthand people who are facing a change almost as radical.

Her primary concern is with the affects of computerization rather than its effects: She is less interested in what the computer produces in the way of goods and services than in how it feels to work with the computer. She examined both manufacturing and service industries, including three paper mills, a pharmaceutical company, a bank, an insurance company, and a telecommunications company. Her study ranges from blue- and white-collar workers to supervisors and middle-level managers. Almost everywhere she looks, computerization has been a kind of double-edged sword.

Among blue-collar workers like the pulp mill operators, skills developed over years of hands-on experience were suddenly made to seem superfluous. Operators had to learn to substitute the abstract work of monitoring a computer for the concrete task of checking the pulp firsthand. Computerization meant cleaner, safer work, but it also left some workers dependent on a machine they didn't trust. Others, who learned to rely completely on the computer, were unable to recognize a real-life problem on the floor unless it showed up on their screens.

While blue-collar work became less physical, white-collar workers often experienced the opposite effect. Many found that computers made their work more mechanical, with less scope for personal judgment and thought. Many complained of feeling ``chained'' to their work stations, no longer free to get up and chat with a co-worker or consult about ways to handle a problem.

Yet for other workers, white- and blue-collar, computerization brought more interesting work. In several cases, people using computers learned to collaborate rather than compete in their approach to problem solving. People gained a better understanding of what they - and their companies - were actually doing.

The central point of Zuboff's thesis is that computers can function in two ways: They automate - take over tasks previously performed by people; and they ``informate'' - transform the many activities of a company into a comprehensible text potentially accessible to everyone who works there.

While many companies have concentrated on the automation potential of computers, Zuboff believes that the ``informating'' potential may well be the more valuable resource. But the benefits, as she warns us, do not flow automatically from the mere act of computerizing a workplace. Systems with such potential must be chosen, workers must be prepared to learn, and managers willing to teach.

But managers, as Zuboff's research indicates, are more often concerned with defending their own authority. Insofar as computers can democratize the workplace by making information available to all, most managers tend to restrict that capacity. But insofar as computers also give managers more opportunities to observe and control workers, most managers are likely to embrace the chance to play ``Big Brother.''

The character and tone of this book are more upbeat than might be guessed from the tenor of the evidence presented in it. The research is thorough and thoughtful. Zuboff draws on a wide range of approaches - economic, social, and technical history; education theory; sociology; psychology; even phenomenology - all of which are fully integrated into the fabric of her argument, not just paraded to impress readers.

The trouble with writing about computers is that you may start sounding like one. ``In the Age of the Smart Machine'' contains some jargon-choked passages. But for the most part, it is well written - lucid, even passionate at times. The strength of the author's feeling comes from the intricate knowledge she has gained about her subject and from her hope that when it comes time to computerize, companies will choose to think creatively and humanely rather than merely seize on ``smart machines'' as a way of eliminating people's jobs and limiting choices.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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