A dark, revealing view of computerized control and monitoring of the workplace.
Head (Senior Fellow/Institute for Public Knowledge, New York Univ.; The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age, 2003) argues that Computer Business Systems—computerized management programs that Amazon and other large organizations use to measure everything that happens in factories, warehouses and depots—are turning workers into “digital chain gang” members who work harder and earn less. Once limited to tracking blue-collar productivity, CBSs now engulf much of the white-collar world, where they control the complex work of physicians, teachers and others in the professional and administrative middle class. By combining scientific management with IT systems, writes Head, they are recreating the “harsh, driven capitalism of the pre-New Deal era.” The author describes the hidden world of CBSs in several outstanding case studies. Walmart, for instance, achieves spectacular results with a targeting and monitoring system that tells employees what to do, how long they have to do it and whether they have met target times. Similarly, Amazon drives employee productivity while keeping a lid on low wages. At Goldman Sachs, such systems were a critical factor in manipulating subprime mortgages, a major component of the 2008 economic crisis. Other organizations using networked computers with monitoring software attached include Toyota, FedEx, UPS and Dell, as well as the military and academia, where scholars’ research outputs are measured and targeted. To a degree undreamed of in the past, the computerized systems are now monitoring nuanced human interactions in health care, financial services, human resources and customer relations. While this simplifies and accelerates processes like tracking loans and managing hospitals, it also has the effect of deskilling labor, diminishing its role and weakening its earning power.
A sobering, important book.