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An Argument for Automation in the Twenty-First Century
Some of you may have heard what Marx had to say about labor (especially the division of such) and alienation. Some of the more red among you might even know what he thought about technology. In case you're not a goddamned commie, he believed that the addition of technological development into the formula of the enslavement of labor exacerbated rather than relieved the oppression. For him, the machines simply become intermediary masters, and the workers an "appendage of the machine."
However, in light of the sheer magnitude of recent technological development, particularly in the area of computers and robotics, Marx's assertion is more difficult to accept. It doesn't take a futurist to appreciate the potential value of technology in America today. Though science fiction stories beyond count have depicted utopian futures cleaned, kept, and operated by a numberless force of robotic laborers, few realize how fully within reach this reality is, or how completely it could transform labor as we know it. Furthermore, there are few signs that indicate this transformation will exacerbate the condition of labor. Marx very carefully and deliberately stated that he accepted alienation as a "contemporary economic fact;" he did not deduce its existence, he asserted that it was as much an inherent property of the capitalist mode of production as the division of labor itself, that is to say they go hand in hand, which even Smith admitted. Despite Marx, technology has proven to improve the condition of labor, by alleviating exactly the type of alienation he decried.
Alienation, according to Marx
According to Marx, the simplification of labor is responsible for the greatest part of labor's misery.
...as the division of labour increases, labour is simplified. The special skill of the worker becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple, monotonous productive force that does not have to use intense bodily or intellectual faculties. His labour becomes a labour that anyone can perform.1
This can be thought of as the 'assembly line problem.' In the continuous quest to maximize production and minimize time, the task of each laborer becomes more and more restricted until their entire day (which is also increasing in hours) is spent performing one robotic movement. On the most obvious level, it is no stretch to label this sort of work demeaning. Even from a modern perspective (or maybe especially from one) such work is no source of pride; the word soulless comes to mind. To speak in Marxian terms, "life activity, productive life," and for Marx what differentiated man from animal, "now appear to man only as a means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to maintain his physical existence."2
To complete the dismal picture of divided labor, Marx cites Smith's prediction that the composition of organic capital will increase, given its significant influence on efficiency. And for him, the logical conclusion of the prediction is added misery for the worker. Or as he quotes Wilhelm Schulz's Die Bewegung Der Produktion in "Wages of Labour,"
"The transition from complicated craftsmanship presupposes that the work is divided into simple operations. But only a part of the uniform, repetitive operations is performed by the machines, another part by men. Such continued, uniform work, by its nature (and this is confirmed by investigation), harmful to the spirit no less than to the body; and when the use of machinery is associated with the division of labour among large numbers of men all the disadvantages of the latter make their appearance. These disadvantages are revealed, for example, by the high mortality of factory workers..." 3
Marx's complete analysis of the alienation of labour is threefold. First, the alienation from what Marx calls "species-life," or the concept that by making his life activity only a means for his existence man lowers himself to the animal. Secondly and directly related to this, the laborer becomes alienated from himself, insofar as "the more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects he creates in face of himself..."4 And finally, man becomes alienated from the natural substance of his existence: plants, animals, earth and air. Instead he is locked within a factory or buried inside a coal mine, obsessed with bending some piece of metal or digging up some rock, neither of which has any direct relation to his own physical existence.
Perhaps your imagination is confronted by a scene as dismal as my own: a textile mill dark dirty and loud, filled with shouts and sweat and dominated by dangerous looming machinery, wherein a mass of bodies is pressing towards one of the tiny stations where the cries of a young boy who has gotten his leg caught in the one of the straps of the machine has called their attention. Laborers, particularly children, rarely survived such accidents.5 It's hardly surprising that Marx arrived at a condemnation of machines. But the technological world has changed since Marx's time in ways he could not have foreseen.
Alienation, a more detailed analysis
Modern sociologists have since expanded on Marx's general concept. They tend to recognize several different types of alienation, such as those as defined by Melvin Seeman:
The first variant of alienation, powerlessness, comes directly out of Marx's "concern with the expropriation of the means of production by the entrepreneurs. In the change from guild handicraft production to manufacturing in large factories, freedom and control were wrested from the workers."6 Job specification and general division of labor tends to foster this perception among workers in so far as each worker becomes a smaller and smaller part of the process of production, thereby retaining lesser importance in their role. Secondly, meaninglessness indicates a loss of identification on the part of the worker with his own activity at the workplace. In terms of mechanization, this arises in a large part from the increasing complexity and technicality of the integration of machines, an intuitive conclusion. Again, division of labor exacerbates this variety of alienation. A self-respecting individual tends to reject the identification of him-/herself with such vapid work as selecting the bad tomatoes from an endless stream coming down an assembly line. Marxian language labels this the pernicious objectification of labor, wherein the laborer must surrender work as his "conscious life-activity" to the pursuit of some alien goal far removed from his personal life. For the sake of contrast, one might consider the greater potential for identification inherent in the labor of a farmer, who is devoted to creating food, than in the tomato watcher's task.
The tomato watcher also brings to mind the problems of instrumental work orientation and self-evaluative involvement. The former, very Marxian at heart, considers the tendency of work to be an instrumental rather than consummatory activity in "modern society," namely, capitalist society.7 It is through this tendency that the laborer willingly enslaves himself to the simple act of self-preservation, rather than engaging in a life-fulfilling activity. This is the root of Marxian self-estrangement, as discussed earlier. The counterpart to self-estrangement, self-evaluative involvement, is an attempt to measure a polar aspect of this problem: the degree with which a given laborer identifies himself or his personality in the work he performs. Shepard says that the survey questions related to this particular measurement, compared work activity to extra work activity, i.e. whether the surveyed identified more with their work or with activity done apart from the job.
The last remaining variant is the only one that cannot be largely traced back to Marx's philosophy of alienation. It was in fact, introduced by Emile Durkhiem in his criticism of the degradation of moral order. As specialization of labor increases, Durkheim argued, people are increasingly separated; values and interests become different, and most importantly, norms become varied. This shifts the moral foundation from one of human relations to one of human interdependence. Obviously, this implies a different set of values, and normlessless measures the "expectation that the achievement of culturally prescribed goals requires illegitimate means." Or as Shepard phrases the survey question: "to what extent do you feel that it is pull and connection that gets a person ahead in the plant (company)?" 8
Stages of Production
Jon M. Shepard prepared a report for the Office of Manpower Research on the effects of automation in the late 60's. He conducted interviews with and formed separate indexes for a set of blue-collar workers and white-collar workers. Furthermore, he analyzed data from parts of these industries classified by three phases of production.9 The first stage of mechanization, which has its roots in the dawn of labor itself, is characterized by a very low level of the integration. That is, man provides his own strength and skill, using tools and simple machines under manual control for greater ease. Shepard classifies this as the craft stage, exemplified in earlier times by skilled artisans and craftspeople, and by clerical workers in the modern office.10 Besides the fact that this mode of production is the only one to have existed as long as the history of labor, it is interesting to note that although the level of technological involvement is somewhat constant, levels of alienation have the potential to very wildly. Take for instance, a goldsmith and an office mail boy. Both use a combination of their own skill, manpower and a restricted use of simple tools to do their respective jobs. In strictly Marxian terms both are clearly alienated for reasons having very little to do with technology, but on the other hand the mail boy is clearly the more despondent. I will focus more on the reason for this after a brief description of the two remaining technological stages of production.
The second stage is what we can safely call mechanized production as such, in that it involves greater use of machinery both as a power source and as a processing tool. That is a greater part of each process and the process as a whole is taken over by mechanical tools, typified of course, by a revolution-era factory "where electrically driven tools and machines are applied by special purpose machine operators in the completion of small parts of the total production process."11 The unfortunate textile worker from our earlier illustration was the unfortunate participant in the evils of the primitive application of this stage, whereas a GM assembly line worker would be the modern equivalent. Marx's criticism of technology makes itself very apparent here, and it was perhaps the detrimental speed by which machinery was outpacing human rights that prompted his unqualified attack.
However, automation, as the most recent stage, has not proved to be a worsening of the assembly-line effect. Automation, properly described, indicates a state of almost complete technological integration in the form of handling, processing, and so-called "feedback" mechanisms. This means that, by varying degrees, the human role on the body of the assembly line has changed from that of the appendage to that of the brain, in so far as that worker is now responsible for maintaining and monitoring technological systems. At first this promises only a small alteration in the effects of division on labor. To put it somewhat simply, instead of pulling a level the laborer is now assigned a particular dial to watch. But in fact, the greater responsibility and general efficacy of such a position does in fact allay a type of alienation. And Shepard maintains that job enlargement does occur, in that the monitor must have a greater knowledge of the overall process, and thus play a larger part. But Shepard can barely begin to foresee the level of potential integration of computers as artificial intelligence. That investigation is substantially distant from his own perspective, from which he must refer to computer "memory" in quotes. After all, although an 'ordinary man' (or even a monkey, really) can be trained to watch a dial, computers can be designed to watch the machines, and other computers to watch them.
A Conclusion in Favor of Progess
After compiling the data, Shepard feels justified in putting forward the thesis that there is a curvilinear relationship between the three phases of technological development, and the effects on work specification and all five variants of alienation discussed. Craftsmen work in a state of low division of labor and experience a relatively low degree of alienation in terms of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, instrumental work orientation, and self-evaluative involvement. Assemblers, those working at the mechanized level of production, had very highly specified jobs and felt correspondingly high degrees of alienation in all five variants. But in industries undergoing automation such as the oil plant, some jobs were becoming enlarged and more generalized, and the laborers reported lower levels of alienation, again, in all five variants discussed.12
An example of the extent to which factory laborers of the three types are differentiated is the index of their perceived powerlessness at work. Among craftsmen, 81 percent ranked low, and among monitors, 52 percent. On mechanized jobs, however, only 6 percent ranked as low. Variations in degree of differentiation vary for each of the five types of alienation, but all have graphs of a similar curvilinear shape. Clearly, in an industrial context, where hands-on materials processing is the general object of labor, automation has a positive influence on alienation. Whatever the merit of Marx's analysis; his condemnation of mechanization was somewhat shortsighted. Shepard's data suggests what is intuitively very obvious: Handing over dangerous, repetitious and generally menial labor to machinery in fact alleviates much of the harmful influence of the industrial revolution on the worker.
The question is, then, why hasn't automation been implemented on a wide scale, decades after sociological work such as Shepard's investigation has proved that it's a beneficial to the industrial worker? Even further than that, it is becoming increasingly apparent that automation is also beneficial to industry. Automation increases efficiency and output by a far greater degree than simple division of labor has in the last two hundred years. It is true that the development and implication of the necessary technology would represent a significant initial investment, but long-term returns on wage savings would quickly materialize. In many cases, Unions stand in the way of mechanization, ironically, in the name of the worker. The answer should be, simply, that although job loss would also represent an initial investment, these workers would eventually be reabsorbed into the economy due to the enlargement resulting from increasing efficiency and decreasing costs. Thus, Say's Law applies in a very real sense, and policymakers interested in mechanization can safely ignore transition costs.
Take the hypothetical example of waste management. This type of career is typically associated with high levels of instrumental work orientation (I would venture to say that there are few attractors beyond the fiscal that draw individuals to this particular line of work) and correspondingly low self-evaluative involvement. To speak plainly, it's a dirty job, and nobody has to do it. At least, no should have to do it now that we have developed computer-integrated technology capable enough to monitor nuclear reactions that unfold at exponential rates and small enough to be mistaken for bookshelf stereos. I think its safe enough to say that a system could be constructed relatively cheaply that could haul our garbage. In fact, it's quite possible that someone already has. The specs for fully developed computerized waste disposal system could quite possibly be stored on a shelf within the bowels of MIT on an old homework assignments shelf. Such is the lag between technological progress and practical implementation.
This is not to say that it's a short step to robot operated dump trucks mechanically roaming the streets, claiming our garbage. The transition costs, while self-correcting over the long term, call for gradual plans of systemization. Firms are best aware of the potentials for cost saving automation steps, and should be allowed to implement them on an unrestricted scale. Thus, automation will gradually become realized at a natural rate as labor becomes more expensive than technology (or technology becomes less expensive). This is general policy that applies to any industry where a robotic hand can do the job as well as a human one. Especially in heavy industrial and menial labor type jobs, automation is recommendable. However, it is a modern fact that more and more of America's industry is becoming service oriented, and services generally demand a large percentage of human involvement. Thus, although many of these jobs are arguably some of the most alienating, technology has no remedy. However, the imperative remains for the removal of automation inhibitive laws, and the fuller amelioration of the menial laborer in modern day industry.
1 Karl Marx, "Wage-Labour and Capital," in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 265.
2 Karl Marx, "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)," in Karl Marx: Early Writings, trans. & ed. T.B. Bottomore, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 127.
3 Marx , "Manuscripts," 79-80.
4 Ibid. 122.
5 See online interview with John Allet by British House of Commons committee available at http://intranet.qe.dorset.sch.uk/britishhistory/IRallett.htm, accessed 23 February, 2003.
6 Jon Shepard. The Impact of Mechanization and Automation on Alienation in the Factory and Office, (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1969), II, 3.
7 Ibid. 6.
8 Ibid. 5.
9 A more detailed analysis of Shepard's methodology can be found in his report, but suffice it to say that he took pains to get an accurate a result as possible in a method somewhat similar to the inner quartile mean.
10 Shepard I, 8. Shepard attributes this particular three stage division to an article by William A Faunce: "Automation and the Division of Labor," Social Problems, 13 (Fall 1965).
11 Ibid. 9.
12 Ibid. 15-17.