New Internationalist

Electronic Sweatshop

Issue 212

new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990

Electronic sweatshop
Information is power and computers give both to ordinary people - or do they?
Barbara Garson peels back the truth about Apple computers and their ilk.

In 1976 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began selling Apple computers to ordinary humans - as opposed to businesses - for $666 a throw. It was like stealing fire to give to humans. 'We build a device that gives people the same power over information that large corporations and the Government have had over people,' proclaimed one promotional video made by Apple Computer Company.

But the computer did not extend my power when I first worked on one in 1980. In fact it seemed to siphon autonomy and information away from me and back to the people at the top.

I was working as a data clerk in the basement of a Wall Street bank. It was one of those windowless back offices where dozens of women sat spaced apart keying numbers with one hand while tuming little slips of paper with the other. Oddly enough there were apparently no supervisors: just a young man in a glass booth who occasionally changed the printer ribbons on the computers. Yet the women worked non-stop, their fingers flying in a blur. I wondered why they didn't pause to stretch or joke. But since I was new, I didn't either.

Then one night on a late shift, the young man in the booth came over and said, 'If you are going to stay, you'll have to get your productivity up'.

I asked what he meant. He led me to his booth and typed a few keys on the control panel. A welter of figures shot up telling him when I had started work, how often I took a break to scratch my nose or eat a mint and exactly how many key strokes I'd done all evening. I was well below my statutory 15,000 key strokes an hour.

Later an older woman called Dorothy tried to comfort me. She had seen through the glass booth how flustered I was. And she told me that, while working at another bank, she had once been summoned to an office four flights away. There 'a kid in a white leather blazer' had asked her 'Dorothy, do you have some problem at home?' 'No, I don't think so, she had replied, surprised. 'Well your key stroke count fell to under 9,000 an hour after lunch two days in a row,' he had said. 'Are you sure you haven't got any problems?'

Dorothy changed jobs. 'But,' she consoled me, 'that's how it is everywhere now. With computers they can always see what you are doing. You'll get used to it.'

That was my first experience of electronic monitoring. Work places have always had supervisors to measure output, so it is hard to explain why it was so much more painful to work plugged into the big brain. But it was. In 1981 the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found higher stress levels among electronically monitored clerks than among any other occupational group that they studied.

We clerks might have found comfort if we had known that many floors above us a few of the bank's more senior personnel were smuggling personal computers into the building in a bid to free themselves. This phenomenon happened regularly in the early stages of personal computers. And many companies banned the practice entirely in a way which seemed to justify Apple's claim that their machine was inherently revolutionary.

Computer invasion
Nevertheless by 1980 Apple was a $300 million company and personal computers had so successfully invaded the office that in 1981 IBM - which had originally scorned the little machine - introduced its first model called simply the IBM PC.

For clerical workers, secretaries and others the impact was devastating. In 1985 I received letters from several women who described themselves as 'former secretaries' for Proctor and Gamble. They invited me down to Cincinnati, Ohio, to observe networked computing - or personal computers which are linked together so that information can be transferred from one to another.

Proctor and Gamble had 60,000 employees and was known as a firm that almost never laid people off. Indeed when I arrived many of the 'former' secretaries were still working for the company. The women explained that they were 'former' in the sense that since computers had been installed, they used few of their old secretarial skills. Instead they had been separated from their 'bosses' and relegated to word-processing pools to type for 'dictators'.

This is a standard way to implement word processing: the 'pool' breaks secretarial work down into a few routine activities like typing, making travel reservations and answering the phone. I wasn't surprised when the supervisor of one new work centre said to me, 'Oh Barbara, it's such a waste - such a waste of people. The way they put in word processing there, a lot of smart women are getting dumb very fast.'

During my visit to Proctor and Gamble I expected to spend most of my time listening to smart women complain about having their key strokes counted. But surprisingly, most of the complaints about monitoring came not from secretaries but from their former bosses.

Many felt shocked and betrayed when confronted by computer-collected statistics on their productivity. 'But what is countable may not be what counts,' lamented one executive who had himself supervised a hundred engineers. Despite the liberating potential of the personal computer, information was flowing away from the person with the machine on their desk and up to the man - as it usually was who owned it. I decided to move up too.

Big brother
Back on Wall Street I talked about monitoring systems to a Senior Vice President of a prestigious brokerage. 'You see,' he said, tapping furiously at the terminal before him, 'they have a lot of information on me. With computers they can do all kinds of breakdowns: what I did last week, last month, last year. They can calculate not only how much business I'm doing but exactly how much money they will make on each piece of business. So now the pressure on the broker is not only to do more business but to do it in exactly their way.'

Moving even higher up the occupational ladder, I interviewed Admiral Thomas H Moorer - NATO's former Supreme Allied Commander in the Atlantic and Chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. He complained that with computers he didn't get to pick his own bombing targets any more.

Now frankly, an admiral who doesn't pick his own bombing targets and a broker who can't choose his own investments don't seem as oppressed to me as a clerk who isn't allowed to press her own return key. But, as men used to fighting for power, both were well placed to explain how the computer does or does not redistribute that power.

One thing was certain. Both men wanted computers when they controlled the direction in which the information flowed. The big broker even asked me, as I left his office, if I could recommend someone to design a programme that would let him keep track of his clients' accounts as he traded. 'But I don't think they would let me run it on the company's machine,' he added regretfully. 'It's a political matter.'

Admiral Moorer also liked computers. In the mid-1950s he had introduced them to the Naval College in Rhode Island. But he had experienced complications when using them for logistics in Vietnam. 'The problem is not the computers,' the Admiral emphasized. 'But our record- keeping system generates.., information that lets a lot of people ask me how I conduct my business.' He was referring to print-outs that had enabled the US Congress to discover that he had been secretly bombing Cambodia.

I may not sympathize with the bombing. But I certainly know how it feels to be called to a distant office where your bosses have been tracking your movements through your 'own' computer.

'But,' the Admiral repeated, 'let us not blame computers. It is not a technical question, it is a political question.' And he was right.

If it was merely a technical matter, personal computers would have meant increased autonomy for office workers just as Apple's founders predicted. Instead by 1984, when personal computers were abundant, the US Department of Labor estimated that nearly two-thirds of people who worked on Visual Display Terminals in the US were monitored by their employers.

It took a little time for employers to depersonalize personal computers. But in the end new technology was used to reinforce the old office relationships. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Barbara Garson is author of the play MacBird and the book The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factory of the Past (Penguin 1989).

Steve Jobs, who started the Apple Computer Company in California, named the company after his favourite fruit. The Macintosh computers which the company manufactures are called after a popular American apple.

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