The Programmed Prospect Before Us

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Ben Cawthra/eyevine/Redux
Staff members at an Amazon warehouse preparing orders ahead of ‘Cyber Monday,’ the year’s busiest online shopping day, Peterborough, England, November 28, 2013

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The entire thesis of Simon Head’s arresting new book is contained in the subtitle. It goes all the way back to Adam Smith’s telling observation that the division of labor in a pin factory, while doing wonders for productivity (output per worker), would make workers as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”1 This was because no worker needed to know how to make a pin, only how to do his part in the process of making a pin. Artisan production was on the point of becoming industrial production; industrial production would destroy work skills.

By the start of the twentieth century, and after the Industrial Revolution, Smith’s pin factory had become Henry Ford’s Rouge plant. “What was worked out at Ford,” wrote Charles Sorensen in his memoir on his years with the car manufacturer, “was the practice of moving the work from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product.”2 The finished product was of course the Ford motor car. It took 1.33 man hours (as against the previous time of 12.5 hours) to produce a Model T Ford, and they came off the assembly line every three minutes.

With fewer workers needed to produce each car, wages per worker could go up and hours of work could be reduced. But because each car was cheaper to produce, the volume of sales could be hugely expanded, so the number of workers newly employed in manufacturing motor cars far exceeded those displaced. Contrary to the fear of the Luddites, machinery was adding to employment, not subtracting from it. But the Luddites—originally skilled workers in the Midlands and North of England who smashed textile machinery between 1811 and 1817—protested not just against loss of jobs and wages, but of skills and communities.

The point of the assembly line was that it must be kept moving, the faster the better. Any breakdown brought the production process to a juddering halt. Continuity of production required a high level of managerial control over work practices, in other words, “scientific management.” This was the invention of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Fordism grew up with Taylorism. As Simon Head writes, “in political and sociological terms, Taylorism can be seen as the division of labor pushed to its logical extreme, with a consequent de-skilling of the worker and dehumanisation of the workers and the workplace.” Taylor’s disciple, William Henry Leffingwell, began applying the methods of scientific management to the service sector from the 1920s onward, and today it is almost ubiquitous.

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