Fast Forward and Out of Control: Heather Menzies Discusses the Dehumanizing Influence of Technology in the Workplace
Interview by Zel Zuvela
Fast forward and out of control may describe the daily pace of your lifestyle. But for Heather Menzies, it is also a symptom of a much larger problem, that is, society’s uncritical embracement of technology. Especially in the workplace, technology has been embraced with a fervour and rapidity that is boggling. It is not only changing the nature of the workplace, but also, in turn, the nature of our economic and social development.
In her latest book, Fast Forward and Out of Control, Heather Menzies presents an in-depth analysis of the effects of economic and technological changes since the Free Trade Agreement came into effect. She believes that people are no longer mere cogs in the industrial wheels. We have now internalized the logic of computerization to the extent that we ourselves are just connections in that instantaneous flow of information.
Heather Menzies is an adjunct professor at Carleton University in the Department of Canadian Studies. One of her previous books, Computers on the Job is one of the texts used in Athabasca University’s course The Sociology of Work.
Aurora: You ended your last book, Computers on the Job, on an optimistic note while your new book Fast Forward and Out of Control seems fairly pessimistic. What has happened in the interim?
Menzies: The main difference is that in the late seventies, when I was researching Women and the Chip and Computers on the Job, everything was new, and patterns were not yet established. At that time we were still dealing with an open-ended system. That is, we were still at the ad hoc installation stage of a lot of technology, not yet at the stage where the separate pieces of equipment were integrated and fixed into a fairly closed system.
In the interim of the 1980s, there was the opportunity for intervention, for changing the rules of the game. In the late seventies and early eighties I was arguing for just such a change in the rules so that everybody who was using technology could have meaningful input into the design of technological systems and how they would be put to use. However, the pattern that has unfolded is that only a few people have the key decision-making power, and many who are users have not only ended up not having meaningful input into the use of technology in their work, but have also been dead-ended in boring deskilling jobs.
We have moved from the ad hoc installation phase, which had the potential for positive changes for working people, to the integration phase. Now we have complete technological systems in place, and you can see that they are designed to be good for people at the top, or for those who control an office or company, and not so good for people at the bottom.
Aurora:You have identified a number of social impacts of technological change. What do you see as some of the dehumanizing effects of technology?
Menzies: When people control technology—be it a lathe, a word processor, or a whole information or manufacturing system—the technology is empowering. The dehumanizing aspect comes when the organization of technology and its use limits and controls what people can do with the word processor, the lathe, or some other part of the system.
The whole context for defining the work to be done suddenly changes when technology moves from operating at a level of tool to operating at the level of system. Before, people had a certain relative degree of autonomy in defining the work to be done because the work was defined in context, in the office or the factory. The orders came in and workers articulated how they would do the work, right there on the factory floor or in the office. The context of the work was the actual site itself. Now, the site is suddenly the computer operating system.
For example, in some hospitals which use the patient care classification system, nurses don’t have to go into the ward anymore to see what needs to be done for the day. Instead of going into the ward, and seeing that a patient’s dressing needs changing, they simply call up on a screen the patient care orders that have been assigned to them for that shift. So the work is defined for them.
If people don’t have a decision-making involvement in their work, then they are reduced to being functionaries of the system. I use Marshal McCluhen’s term “servo-mechanism” to illustrate the degree to which people are reduced to being the adjusting mechanism of the computer system instead of the computer being the adjusting mechanism, the tool, and the extension of people’s decision making.
This is happening in supermarkets where cashiers work with a very automated information processing system, and they are just an instrument of that system. That’s the essence of the MacJob, as in the MacDonald hamburger place, where workers are just extensions of a vast, very sophisticated information— and food-management system. The system is not an extension of their own work, their own creativity, their own judgement.
Aurora: You see us becoming “techno-servants,” that is, servants to technology. How can we gain control over technology so that it meets our needs?
Menzies: The key thing which has remained unaddressed is the whole issue of managerial prerogative around technological change. The chief recommendation of the Samuel Freedman Commission [a federal inquiry into the effects of technological change on railways] was that the distribution of powers between management and labour regarding technology be changed. Technology could not be exclusively a managerial prerogative because it impinged too much on the social relations of work. His recommendation was that the design and use of technology become a negotiable issue in labour-management relations. The existing powers are insufficient. Ten years ago everyone thought it was enough to have retraining programs, but now they ask, retraining for what?
A lot of the jobs that are emerging are MacJobs, and I mean that in the most generic sense of the word, where people are not in control of the technology; they are not using the technology as a tool for creative work, doing something new and different. They themselves are tools of the technological system.
Aurora: The loss of many jobs in Canada is due to technological change and to the globalization of the economy. Many argue that new technology will open new opportunities and therefore new jobs to replace the old ones.
Menzies: Usually the people who are so optimistic about these new jobs emerging in the long run are people who have secure jobs to guarantee them a livelihood, a sense of fulfillment between present time and the long run. What I’m really concerned about is the present, because people have to survive in the present and because the only thing that really exists is the present.
Historically, we have seen waves of technological change where decision making was concentrated in the hands of those who had continuous security of jobs and income. They did not have a great deal of regard for the rest. For example, during the initial mechanization of agricultural, which was the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, people were turfed off the land because we didn’t need as much manual labour in the field or as many people shearing sheep, spinning, and weaving. As a result, there was an incredible social dislocation.
Of course, one of the effects of this social dislocation was physical dislocation with the immigration to North America of people who were displaced by technological change. For the people who willingly embraced coming to a new, country, giving up their old community ties and all the rest of it, that was fine, and in the long run things worked out. But there were an awful lot of never-addressed questions around social justice and equity for many people, for whom there really was no choice. It was either starvation and humiliation in the poor houses, or dehumanizing work in the mechanized weaving establishments in the first Industrial Age factories that were set up, or come to North America and try to seek out a living by carving a farm out of the bush.
After each wave of technological change you can see a downturn in the economy. It takes a long time before a new technology begins to really give rise to new work. In large part, I think this is because of the restrictive control of technology which has been the historical pattern. Furthermore, the controlling inner circle tend to use their control first for the generally conservative purpose of transforming existing work to increase its productivity.
It takes a long time before the new technological infrastructure permeates to the point where innovations can be profitably brought in from the margins and incorporated into the economic mainstream to create much new employment there. In the meantime, it creates employment for some, but a lot of their work involves eliminating and reducing the scope of employment for a lot of others.
So that is a long answer to what really could have been left as a very short answer to your question. We need to look at the differences between people who talk about the light at the end of the tunnel and those who are in the tunnel and feeling the dark of that transition period.
Aurora: That really connects with the emergence of a dual society comprising the haves and the have-nots. Could you identify who are in these two groups and the factors leading to this duality?
Menzies: Society is becoming polarized. The middle class is in decline right now. Since the 1960s, the percentage of Canadians with middle-class incomes has dropped from 30 to 24 per cent. One-third of that shift has been upward into the working rich or the upper class, and two-thirds of the movement is to the working poor. If you look at the restructuring that goes on in organizations as they reach the integration stage of automation, you can see why jobs are decreasing at the middle—income level. Companies are cutting the number of levels of middle management about in half. The big multinational companies are eliminating the powers of the middle managers. Related to that is the fact that a lot of junior-professional ranks are being eliminated.
For instance, there’s less employment available for junior engineers—people with a bachelor level of education—because so much of the work that they used to do was very simple and has been taken over by automated drafting equipment and by simulators. I might note in passing, however, that in the process of doing an introductory level of work, people learned to do more creative, more analytic work.
Another example is insurance underwriters who are being replaced by expert systems which can compute a client’s fire or health risk and slot someone into an insurance premium category automatically.
You can go from occupation to occupation and note the continuing trend of the erosion of work by ever-more sophisticated expert-level software. We even have computer-assisted systems engineering, so the very people who are in the vanguard of designing these systems are working with systems that are snapping at their heels.
That’s the white-collar area of work. But the same erosion of skills occurs in the blue-collar area. Welding is being taken over by robots. Machine-shop lathe work is being taken over by numerical control machines.
So you’re getting the same kind of elimination of work that used to be quite skilled and quite highly paid.
One of the staggering shifts in job patterns occurring in manufacturing and in white-collar work is a growth of jobs at the very lowest wage levels. This is where the work is becoming the MacJob, where someone basically is there to feed a robot, or in an office to feed information into the system, or in a supermarket to just pass merchandise over the laser so that the bar code is read. As a result, there is a tremendous concentration of new job growth at the very lowest wage levels and a growing number of the new working poor.
Job growth is also occurring at the more senior levels. Instead of a middle manager, the type of person now being hired is someone who has a masters degree in administration with maybe some systems engineering knowledge. These people are basically executives. They orchestrate work to be done by sending electronic mail around a corporation. They use expert-level software to produce reports that middle managers used to produce for them, and they do simulations that accounting managers used to do for them. So, you’ve got this concentration at the most senior and at the most junior levels.
Aurora: There is the question whether technology leads to deskilling or to reskilling of work.
Menzies: If you take a look, for instance, at clerical work, there is some evidence of reskilling of work, but then when you look at individual cases, as I did in Fastforward, you discover that some of the reskilling is in fact a trickling down of work that has been deskilled from a more professional level.
If we go back to the example of insurance companies which have automated the calculation of risk and the computing of the premiums people pay, we see that clerical workers are now able to take on this underwriting-type work because the expert-level software does the professional work. But overall this is a small reversal within the large, overall trend toward deskilling. The bulk of cases that I’ve looked at, the majority of workers are ending up as functionaries of computerized systems with much less challenge on the job, much less scope for personal decision making and figuring things out for themselves. As one woman put it: “You’re working for the machine, the machine’s not working for you.”
One would think that there would be a lot of reskilling going on because there’s a lot of retraining going on. But in the auto industry, for example, a lot of retraining time is given to getting people to embrace the notion of “team excellence.” Instead of somebody working individually on one machine, people are being put into new workstations where the machines are pretty well self-driving and so people are responsible for several machines at once. They are all automated so the worker just has to make sure that there are no glitches. A lot of the supposed retraining is attitudinal adjustment; it isn’t learning new knowledge and skills.
Now, at the beginning when the technology is first introduced, there’s often an increase in the skills needed because people have to program it themselves or use it as a tool. But after the bugs have been worked out, when the dust settles, and the system is running smoothly, then does the work get boring! Then people realize that they have been deskilled. All in all, my sense is that the larger pattern is toward deskilling.
Aurora: Due to economic restructuring, many middle-management jobs have been eliminated. Has this resulted in more authority for workers?
Menzies: I think a lot of that is illusory. Once you have workers where they are functioning parts of a system, the parameters for decision-making control are so predefined for you that you don’t need to have a boss there saying: “Oh, but you can’t talk about that, that’s not within your area of authority.” The system itself does that and only lets you do so much.
In programs of so-called participatory management associated with slogans like “team excellence,” workers help management find ways to make the system go faster, producing fewer parts per million, and so on. Management is delighted to have this, but it is illusory to call this participatory management. At best, workers are managing technical details. They are not defining the social relations of work, nor what the work should involve.
We have to examine the scope of what is being managed and ask if it is meaningful compared to when people brought to their work place an element of craft-related professionalism and a larger sense of the work place as a social community. People have to have the opportunity to decide what work they are going to do, when they are going to do it, and the values they are going to bring to the job. The capacity to be involved in the conceptualization of the work, the articulation of the job to be done, that to me is critical.
Aurora: What strategies do you think Canada should adopt to deal with the social consequences of technological change?
Menzies: I interpret a culture in the largest sense of the word, not in terms of cultural commodities such as works of art or literature. Culture is the way we go about living our lives, the way we articulate ourselves as social beings in a community.
How we approach health care is one example of how we articulate ourselves in our community. When we introduce American models of patient-care management into our hospitals, we are introducing a bias toward health care as a series of commercial goods and services. We are also introducing the terrible fear of malpractice suits which exists in the private-practice environment of the U.S. and which is addressed by a high degree of centralized control for accountability. It’s already happening, the erosion of the public health—care culture, the re-socialization, are already on their way.
As for what strategies we could adopt to deal with the social consequences of technological change, my sense is that we’re in a post-nation-state era. We’re in a time of emerging global political economies, and in response, we need to think of local social ecologies within them. I think there needs to be a first ministers conference on restructuring and there needs to be more conversation between provincial premiers and governors of various states to work towards economic union, as is being done in Europe from the base of different social and cultural goals, not just common pragmatic ones.
We need joint ventures where Canadians are able to say “These are values that we hold dear. These are our values. We value equity. We value universal access and participation.” We need to be able to state in universal terms the goals that have characterized us as a nation, so that they can be expressed in new forms. This is where unions need to work with all kinds of other groups to push forward this larger public discussion of the design of the technological society that we’re moving into and the negotiation of the social relations within it.
Article originally published Winter 1990
Heather Menzies is a writer, mother, gardener, teacher, peace and social-justice activist. She is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. Over the years she has lectured at McGill, Simon Fraser, Wilfred Laurier and University of Victoria. She is the author of seven books, including the 1996 bestseller, Whose Brave New World? She also teaches Canada in the Global Village which is now delivered via a distance education, complete with an electronic discussion group at Carleton University.
Heather Menzies - Website
Updated February 2002
Zuvela, Zel (1990). Fast Forward and Out of Control: Heather Menzies Discusses the Dehumanizing Influence of Technology in the Workplace.. Aurora Online: