Our Perennial War, Part III

Charlie Chaplin in the movie Modern Times

Scientific Management in the Workplace

In the last couple of posts I took a look at the history of labor struggles, at home and abroad, and how propaganda has been used as a tool by the bosses. Today I’m considering how so-called scientific management has been, and is, used to control the labor force.

Monitoring workers was once the sole responsibility of an overseer with a whip. The Bible tells us that Moses killed an Egyptian foreman who was beating a Hebrew slave. (Exodus 2:11-12) White overseers inflicted similar beatings and torture on Black prisoners in chain gangs (and evidently continue to do so). But with industrialization and the migration of labor to factories and offices, supervisors are now assisted by modern technology.

I first encountered these updated forms of domination in 1982 when, after deciding against a teaching career, I took a clerical job with a company that offered rehabilitation services to injured workers. (More about that company in a future post.) My duties consisted of transcribing dictation on an electric typewriter. When word processors arrived on the scene, they were given to the other two secretaries, who had seniority.

One day Gene, the boss, was showing a colleague around the office. He bragged that his word processors used a program that counted every keystroke and every deletion, so he could monitor the secretaries’ efficiency. Until then my feelings toward Gene had been neutral. Now I actively disliked him.

Modern scientific management, however, didn’t come in with the computer. According to the Guardian it was first introduced in 1915, with the publication of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s work on the subject. Taylor believed that “every worker should be trained into new working habits ‘until he continually and habitually works in accordance with scientific laws’…The formula could be boiled down to this: stopwatch plus coercion minus trade unions.”

Taylor’s formula was satirized by Charlie Chaplin in the movie Modern Times. Today it is also applied to employees in Amazon warehouses and myriads of other warehouses and factories around the world.

Stopwatches, of course, are passé. Twenty-first century bosses can use the latest, the most sophisticated equipment to spy on both blue and white collar workers. This includes software installed on a quarter of new computers used in the workplace. These electronic tools monitor keystrokes, listen to conversations, and track employees’ movements. Other programs perform a variety of tasks once handled by the overseer with the whip. Again, according to the Guardian, since 2021 the use of location tracking software has increased 45%, video/camera monitoring has risen 42%, document scanning has increased 26%, and attendance tracking is up 20%.

But it’s not just the large corporations and governments buying spyware. A couple of neighbors make part of their living as pet sitters. Recently the woman went to a house to care for a couple of cats, and there was a video camera staring at her in every room. “In the bathroom too?” I asked. “I didn’t see it,” she replied, “but you know, some of those cameras are pretty small. And those people aren’t the only ones—other customers have cameras, too.”

Isn’t modern technology grand? Poor old George Orwell couldn’t foresee the half of it. Nowadays any householder with a little spare cash can play Big Brother. I’m reminded of the song by a rock band that aptly called themselves “The Police”:

Every move you make
…Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.

To be continued…

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