Wednesday, 23 February 2011 18:21

Globalizing Technologies and the Decimation/Transformation of Work

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The new technologies of computer-communications are no longer a set of tools and production methods within an industrial landscape. They have become the landscape, and they surround us, as Canadian communications scholar Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960s. The communications systems of the new economy constitute not only the new tools of production; they are also the new and fully programmed environment for work and economic activity, which changes everything, both quantitatively (in terms of jobs and skill sets) and qualitatively (in terms of control and domination). With the magnitude of the transformation, it is fitting to think of the changes as a paradigm shift from the industrial to the post-industrial era.

The paradigm shift began with computerization and its related automation of work in the 1970s and early 1980s. The shift continued with the integration of computers and communications, which created back-office production sub-systems and front-office management information systems in the white-collar environment. As the convergence improved, the integration was extended from small, local sub-systems to large national and multinational units, with “back-office” and “front-office” operations fully integrated. Gradually, the communications aspect became more central, and the “netware” for networking became as important as stand-alone hardware and software. By the early 1990s, perceptions about the systems also started to shift. Corporate and other networks were seen to be a means to achieving other ends, and the networks were regarded as ends in themselves. The global information superhighway, or autobahn, has emerged to become a new post-industrial networking infrastructure, and the paradigm has shifted completely. Networks have become the context of the new economy. Increasingly, they are the site where business deals are made, and the medium through which not only money but also goods and services, and work itself, are distributed. Networks are also the key to the re-engineering and restructuring of the industrial economy into a post-industrial economy—at least in that sector of the international economy which is dominated by monopoly-scale transnational corporations. The global information and production networks provide these companies with a distinct advantage over newly developed and developing countries on every measure of corporate performance from productivity to scale to speed. Networking can position these companies to launch a new wave of global “colonization” if they so desired.

Three technologies in particular highlight the scope of the transformation taking place:

  • the information superhighway
  • a planning tool called “quick response”
  • a production-organizing strategy called “agility”.


The superhighway represents the convergence of many technologies, including television, video games, interactive shopping and electronic publishing, with the core technologies of computers and communications. Computers and communications remain the bedrock technologies, enabling and extending the scope of all the others. That scope has been boosted significantly since the early 1990s through major public investment in the highway infrastructures in many industrialized countries. Furthermore, while media coverage boosting the highway among the general public has emphasized its potential in education and entertainment, its core use from the beginning has been for business. The forerunner to the US National Information Infrastructure Program launched in 1994 was the then Senator Al Gore’s High Performance Computing Act of 1988, which was directed exclusively at big business. In Canada, the first federal government publication on the information highway, in 1994, referred to it as a tool for business competitiveness.

Quick response (QR) might have remained simply an interesting marketing ploy by the Italian clothing chain Benetton, but for the new centrality of networks. The original idea was simply to create an on-line feedback link between stores selling Benetton clothing and the company head office where the work of actually making the clothes in different styles, colours and sizes was contracted out to local knitters. Since the early 1990s, QR has come to set a new standard for performance in every sector of the economy.

In the military, quick response was used to produce innovative weapons systems during the Persian Gulf War. In industry, it has been used in the production of semi-customized jeans and other retail products. In the service sector, it has been used to provide health care to the community, where cutbacks in public-service spending have closed hospitals and reduced or eliminated institutional services. Through QR techniques, what had proceeded as a series of stages or separate activities occurring within one or two institutional sites has become a fluid interplay of concurrent stages and disaggregated actions occurring within a host of disparate sites. Yet they are all coordinated through electronic networks and centralized management information systems. Where people and work groups had provided the necessary coordination and integration within different worksites, now systems software knits and manages the links.

Agility is the term used to describe that which delivers the necessary fluidity to actual sites on the ground. Agility is considered to be the final stage of re-engineering the production process through the use of computer communications. The restructuring began with the integration of automated sub-systems to create larger, semi-cybernetic operating systems. This was called computer-integrated manufacturing. As the systems involved in this stage were steadily expanded to include subcontractors and suppliers within corporations’ operating networks, computer-integrated manufacturing gave way to just-in-time manufacturing, which represents the “hinge” of the paradigm shift, wherein the re-engineered production system was transformed (or “morphed”) into a new time-sensitive conception of the production process. With lean production, as it is also described, the focus shifted from integrating the machines in this new process to integrating the people who were left operating the systems. Quality circles, total quality management and other “cultural training” programmes schooled workers to identify with the productivity and competitive goals of management and to assist in constantly fine-tuning the production process to achieve these goals. Increasingly in the early 1990s, that fine-tuning shifted towards the harmonization of operations around standardized norms and sub-systems. Increasingly, too, the focus shifted from flexibility and interchangeability within local production facilities to interchangeability across globally- networked facilities. The goal of agility, which had yet to be realized in the mid-1990s, was the flexible dispatch of work among a distributed array of worksites plugged into (and plug-compatible with) the information highway. The related goal was to create and tap a global pool of labour located everywhere, from automated factories, workshops, clinics and offices to private homes, basements, garages and trucks.

Such restructuring has had a profound impact on the extent and nature of employment, the dimensions of which include:

  • rising levels of structural unemployment as machines and machine intelligence take over what people and human intelligence used to do
  • increasing polarization in the labour force, characterized on the one hand by those who work too hard, with chronic overtime and full-time jobs, and, on the other hand, by those constituting a growing “contingent” labour force on the periphery, employed on a part-time, temporary or short-term contract basis only
  • a transformation of the labour process, particularly for many in the second group of workers as they become totally enclosed in a programmed work environment, with computers both defining the work to be done and monitoring and measuring its performance.


In essence, the working relationship is increasingly being transformed from an open system featuring labour, capital equipment and management to a closed cybernetic system of which the worker is a functioning part or, in the service sector, a personable human extension. Instead of people working with machines and tools, more and more people work for the machines, and even inside them in the sense of functioning as the human voice-boxes, fingers and arms of fully programmed production or information-processing systems. It could represent what Donna Haraway calls a new cybernetics of labour, with labour relations defined and negotiated entirely in systems operating terms (Haraway 1991).

There is little consensus on these trends. In fact, there is considerable controversy, sustained in part by lack of research in important areas, and by rigidities in the discourse. As one example the annual OECD Jobs Study for 1994 refused to draw a link between technological restructuring and the wretchedly high rates of unemployment which have prevailed through the industrialized and industrializing world since the 1980s. The report acknowledged that the new technologies have had some “labour-displacing” effects; however, it also assumed that firms “may be able to create compensating employment whenever they are successful in combining such processes of technological change with product innovation and sound marketing policies” (OECD 1994).

The discourse on technological change has been rigid in at least two ways, the results of which could now be to misinform and even disinform the debate on restructuring as much as they have intended to inform it. In the first instance, it pursues a narrowly abstract economic or “economistic” model of restructuring, and ignores not only the social but also the psychological and cultural dimensions involved. Secondly, this economistic model is seriously flawed. It assumes that as technology increases productivity through automation, innovative new economic activity and new employment will emerge to compensate (though perhaps not with the same skill requirements) for what was lost in the automation phase. Not only is new economic activity (and what new employment it does generate) emerging in globally remote sites, but much of the new economic growth since the late 1980s has been “jobless economic growth”. Sometimes it is fully automated production and processing facilities churning out double and triple what they put through previously, with no increase in staff. Or it is fully automated new services such as call-forwarding in telecommunications or multi-branch banking in finance, “produced” and “delivered” by software alone. Increasingly too, semi-automated work has been transferred from the paid hands of workers to the unpaid hands of consumers. Consumers using digital phones now “work” their way through a string of computerized voice clips to order goods and services, register for courses, negotiate for government services, and obtain customer service.

It is important to confront the rigidities permeating the discourse because, here, the separation of economistic “supply-side” issues from “labour market”, “demand-side” issues in the social and cultural context blocks the gathering of information essential for developing a consensus on what’s happening with the new technologies. For example, Statistics Canada has conducted some excellent macro-level studies exploring the increased polarization of the Canadian labour force. These emerged following a 1988 study on changing youth wages and the declining middle wage (Myles, Picot and Wannell 1988). The study documented a massive hollowing out of middle-ranking jobs (according to pay scale) in virtually every industrial sector and in every major occupation between 1981 and 1986. Furthermore, job growth was severely polarized between the lowest wage levels and the high end of the wage scale (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Net change in full-time equivalent jobs, 1981-1986, by occupation and wage level (in thousand US$).


The study seemed to provide a macro-level confirmation of the computerization, and related simplification and de-skilling, of work which the case studies of technological restructuring during that period had identified everywhere from resource industries through manufacturing to services (Menzies 1989). A follow-up study began by referring to literature arguing a link between widening wage differentials and technological change (Morissette, Myles and Picot 1993). However, it then confined itself to examining strictly “labour market” factors such as hours of work, gender, age and educational attainment. It concluded that a “growing polarization in both weekly and annual hours worked accounted for much of the rise in earnings inequality in the 1980s”. It sidestepped the possible link between the computer simplification of work and the rise of a contingent labour force of part-time, temporary workers employed at well below a standard week’s worth of hours and income. Instead, it ended lamely, saying that “If changing technologies and the associated changing skill mix required are a major part of the story, existing data sources are not up to the task.”

The existing data sources are case studies, many undertaken by unions or women’s groups. Their methodologies might not be of a uniform standard. Nevertheless, their findings suggest a decided pattern. In case after case through the late 1980s and early 1990s, computer systems were implemented not to enhance what people were doing but to replace them or diminish and control what they were doing (Menzies 1989). Not only did layoffs accompany large-scale computerization, but full-time staff were replaced by part-time or other temporary staff, in a wide array of industries and occupations. From the evidence, particularly of interview-based studies, it seems clear that it was the computer-simplification of work—particularly the takeover of administration, planning and management by software—which made it possible to replace full-time staff with part-time staff or to transfer it outside the labour force into the unpaid hands of consumers.

Often, the technological change was accompanied by organizational restructuring. This included a collapsing of job-classification levels and an integration of computer-simplified tasks. This has often resulted in a streamlining of jobs around computer systems so that the work can be entirely defined by the computer system, and its performance can be monitored and measured by it as well. Sometimes this has resulted in some re-skilling or skills upgrading. For instance, in the automobile, aerospace and electronics industries in Canada, reports repeatedly point to the creation of a fairly senior new multi-task, multi-skilled position. Sometimes it is called electronics technician, or ET. Here, the work often involves overseeing the operations of several automated machines or sub-systems, troubleshooting and even some planning and analysis. The people involved not only have to be familiar with a number of operating systems, but sometimes also have to do some simple programming to knit different sub-systems together. Often, too, however, these positions represent a trickling down of what had been highly skilled tools and trades jobs as computerization has turned the creative work over to engineers and salaried programmers. Nevertheless, for the people involved, it often represents a large and welcome step up in terms of job challenge and responsibility.

While there is evidence of re-skilling, this is the minority trend, generally affecting a more privileged core of full-time and fully unionized industrial-sector workers—most of them men. The larger trend is toward de-skilling and even the degradation of work as people become enclosed in computer-operating environments which rigorously programme, and monitor, everything they do. Essentially, the person works as the human extension of the computer operating system, while the system does all the essential thinking and decision making. This new form of work is becoming more and more prevalent in more and more lines of work, particularly where women are concentrated: in clerical, sales and service work.

The term McJob has become a popular epithet for this new form of work where the computer defines and controls the work to be done. By the 1990s, the term applied in a host of settings from fast-food restaurants to grocery check-out lines to accounting, insurance claims-processing and other types of offices, and even in the health-care field. By the mid-1990s, however, another trend had emerged from the computerization of work—at least of information-processing work. This trend has been called “telework”. Once work had come to be fully defined and controlled by computer systems, it could also be de-institutionalized and redeployed through electronic networks to remote call-processing centres or to teleworkers employed in their homes via computers and modem attachments. Telework was starting to emerge as a major labour issue in the mid-1990s, with the proliferation of call centres for handling airline and hotel reservations, remote banking and insurance service work, courier and other services. As well, the 1991 Canadian Census recorded a 40% rise in the “at-home” workforce, compared to a 16% rise in the labour force as a whole. It also found a high concentration of women in this growing at-home labour force. They were concentrated in clerical, sales and service work. They were working for incomes of less than Can$20,000 and often less than Can$10,000—not enough to support a life, let alone a family.

Depending on the trends, and on how the technological landscape for work and economic activity is structured and governed, telework could emerge as the post-Fordist work model—that is the successor to a high-wage full employment pattern—in place of the high-value-added model associated with Toyota and Suzuki and Japanese “lean production”. However, both models might prevail, with the precarious low wage telework model identified more with women, young workers and other less privileged groups, and the latter identified more with men holding the additional advantage of strong unions, seniority and full-time jobs in capital-intensive industries such as autos, aerospace and electronics.

The rise of telework surfaces a number of labour issues: the danger of sweatshop-like exploitation, highlighted by the rise in performance-related compensation as an adjunct to or replacement for a regular hourly wage; poor and debilitating working conditions as people rig up modems and computers in their basements or in the bedroom of one-bedroom apartments, often bearing overhead and maintenance costs themselves; stagnation, boredom and loneliness as people work in isolated silicon cells, without the camaraderie of others, and without the protection of collective organization. One of the most pressing labour issues, however, involves the new cybernetics of labour, and what happens as people’s work lives become totally controlled by computer systems. There has been little research into these more qualitative aspects of work. Perhaps, they require a more qualitative story-telling approach, rather than the more objectifying methods of social-science research. In Canada, two documentary films have shed valuable light on the personal experience of computer-defined, computer-controlled work. One film, “Quel Numéro/ What Number?” directed by Sophie Bissonette, features telephone operators talking about working in isolated work cubicles at long-distance call-processing centres. Not only does the computer control every aspect of their work but it also provides them with their only feedback on how well they’re performing at it. This is the computer’s feedback on the average time (AWT) they take processing each customer call. The women talk about becoming so well adjusted to “operating” as part of the computer-defined system that they get “hooked” on trying to beat their own AWT work-time score. It is a psychosocial process of adjustment when the only context and meaning for one’s activity is being dictated, here by the computer system.

Another film, “Working Lean”, directed by Laura Sky, documents a similar effect achieved through the cultural training programmes of Total Quality Management. In this film the workers are not totally enclosed and isolated inside a wholly computer-programmed work cell but are auto workers involved in TQM teams. Here the rhethoric of co-management and empowerment closed the horizon on workers’ perceptions. Training urges them to identify with management’s productivity goals built into the production systems, by finding ways to fine-tune them. (The Japanese prototype of this management programme defines quality in strictly systems terms, as “performance to requirements” (Davidow and Malone 1992).) Union officials refer to the programme as “management by stress”. Meanwhile, in many workplaces, repetitive-strain injury and other stress-related disease is on the rise as workers find themselves driven by fast-paced technology and its accompanying rhetoric.

A survey of Canadian workplace training found that at least half of the “training” companies are providing is in areas associated with TQM: corporate communications, leadership and other “cultural training”. “Training more closely linked to developing human capital was far less frequently reported.” On the other hand, within the category of computer-skills training, the study found a decided shift in who gets this training—a shift dramatically favouring managerial, professional and technical employees after 1985 (Betcherman 1994).

There are many contradictory trends. For example, there are some workplaces—some hotels, for instance—where co-management seems to be living up to its rhetoric. There are some worksites where workers are doing more with the new technologies than they were able or allowed to do with the old. But overall, the trends associated with restructuring in the new economy are towards the replacement of smart people with smart machines, and the use of machines to diminish and control what other people are doing, particularly at work. The central issue is not job creation or training in new computer skills. The issue is control: people are coming to be controlled by cybernetic computer systems. This needs to be turned around before both democratic rights and basic human rights are destroyed.



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