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                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #50       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications          June 4, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** The Ultimate Worker (Stephen L. Talbott)
          What happens when everyone is looking down?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** The Ultimate Worker
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Somewhere at this moment there is a computer sitting unattended on a desk in a small, bare room. It's screen is dark. It's apparent passivity is belied only by the occasional whirring of a disk, and its isolation only by a thin, gray cord running to a phone jack. Nothing much about the room changes from one day to the next.

    But this computer is no slacker. It happens to embody the entire working operation of a profitable business. Buying and selling financial instruments, it employs abstruse mathematical algorithms to wring a slim, but admirably certain gain from the "inefficiencies" of the market. Its capital requirement is almost nil, its overhead is low, it never suffers labor troubles, no time is lost in meetings, and the profit-making goes on around the clock. Here, courtesy of the computer, we see the modern business enterprise stripped to a kind of essence.

    What sort of essence is it? Most obviously a highly mathematical one. The work consists of a trafficking in numbers, and its result, the achievement of the corporation, can be wholly captured numerically as well. The operation is also automatic. Once the programmed algorithms are set in motion, there is no need for difficult judgment calls, delicate communications, disciplinary actions, or a periodic reassessment of values and goals. The only change required is the occasional, purely technical upgrading of the algorithms themselves. Everything is cut-and-dried, efficient as only a business of pure abstraction can be.

    The Corporation As Abstraction

    It is well to ask, for every act of abstraction, What have we lost? That is, what have we abstracted from? Historian Lewis Mumford draws this picture of the fuller possibilities of work:
    Wherever tools and muscle power were freely used, at the command of the workers themselves, their labors were varied, rhythmic, and often deeply satisfying, in the way that any purposeful ritual is satisfying. Increase of skill brought immediate subjective satisfaction, and this sense of mastery was confirmed by the created product. The main reward of the craftsman's working day was not wages but the work itself, performed in a social setting. In this archaic economy there was a time to toil and a time to relax; a time to fast and a time to feast; a time for disciplined effort, and a time for irresponsible play. In identifying himself with his work and seeking to make it perfect, the worker remolded his own character (Mumford, p. 238).
    To get from Mumford's picture to the computer-as-corporation, a number of things had to happen, among which are these:

    Working Precedes Consuming

    All of these developments -- bookkeeping, time and motion studies, systems analysis -- were remarkable achievements of abstraction. They are all prerequisites for organizational efficiency, and there can be no objection to the exercise of any of the analytical skills involved.

    And yet, we are given pause by the corporation-on-a-desk. Here, after all, is the most exquisite bookkeeping, kept up-to-date moment by moment and transaction by transaction. Here, too, is a precise disposition of time and motion beyond anything Taylor could have dreamed: time crisply allotted in nanosecond increments, and motion conserved all the way to the vanishing point. And here are the most perfectly articulated processes and systems, driven by the frictionless gearwheels of digital logic.

    There is only one thing missing from this perfected abstraction of work: the human being. Our work, after all, is not merely an external fact about the transformation of material, nor is it the numerical abstraction of the economist. We work above all to express our creative potentials. We need to work -- not just for the economic "output," but for the work itself. We would be lost without work -- which is always, in the end, work upon ourselves.

    This is forgotten by those who, focusing solely upon output, and upon the efficiency and productivity that gives us the output, celebrate every improvement in our status as consumers. We do not gain our most essential human fulfillment by consuming; we gain it by working creatively upon the stuff of the world, upon society, and upon ourselves. That is why we need to create corporations.

    The economist's abstractions may serve well when our concern is some measure of consummable output -- and even when we are interested in job creation in the abstract. But they do not help at all when the question is, "Why am I doing this particular work -- what is worthwhile about it, what is the value of the effort itself, and what is the social gain of the result?"

    The profound thing about that computer on the desk is that it has quite naturally and speedily found its place as the embodiment, the culmination, of a view of work in which these human questions have no place. This is a remarkable development, and an example of how the computer can reflect back to us what we look like becoming.

    Erasing the Human Being

    The Emmy award-winning writer and producer, Norman Lear, tells about his meeting in the early 1980s with Professor William Abernathy of the Harvard Business School. Abernathy had just published an article arguing (as Lear puts it) that "business leaders' obsession with quarterly profits and numerical abstractions was blinding them to their real long-term interests -- and would lead them inevitably to ruin." Lear describes a lunch-time conversation with Abernathy:
    He told me how investors would soon be moving billions of dollars in capital from Tokyo to London to New York in seconds, that number systems would become the new currency of public values, and that the economic future of millions would be determined by people hunched over computer screens, peering at a collective simulation of reality.

    "They're all going to be looking down, Norman," he said. "No one is going to have to look up anymore!" The implications in his prediction were clear. And they have become reality. The number-crazed world he foresaw was a world with no sanction for vision, no view of the long term, no sense of anything but that which can be quantified. As we define our values by SAT scores, Nielsen ratings, box office grosses, public opinion polling, throw weights, cost benefit analyses, quarterly reports, bottom lines, we can see the iron grip that these numbers have on our sense of the possible -- our sense of our inner selves.

    Numerical surrogates for reality do not begin to take account of the rhythms of life or the rich dynamics of the human spirit, so that values, human values, begin to seem like relics of a simpler, more naive time. (Lear, p. 10)

    I am convinced that if we were fully attuned to the challenge of the computer, then that self-contained financial trading machine would make our hair stand on end. It represents the final erasure of the human being. Represents, I say; the erasure itself occurs not just in the trading machine, but in the entire reconceptualization of work and business within which the machine so readily finds its natural place. Our superb skills of abstraction have led us to abstract ourselves right out of the picture.

    I wonder how long it will be before the technical excitements of the computer industry -- for example, the drug-like rush provided by breakthrough programming achievements -- will give way to a quiet assessment of the human significance of the achievements. One thing is sure: if the assessment is to happen at all, it will have to happen where it looks least likely -- in the corporation. For we are now a society of organizations. "Can there be any doubt," asks Lear, "that business, however unwittingly, has become the fountainhead of values in our society? ... Where we drift as a culture is determined more by the decisions of corporate managers -- and the values that dictate their decisions -- than by any other single influence."

    Judging from the blind, technically determined onrush of the computer industry, this does not leave us with an awful lot of hope. But still, I suppose, with slightly more hope than is held out by that corporation-on-a-desk.


    Drucker, Peter F. Post-Capitalist Society. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

    Lear, Norman. "The Cathedral of Business: The Fountainhead of Values in America Today." New Oxford Review, April, 1993, pp. 6-13.

    Mumford, Lewis, Technics and Human Development New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966.

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