The Smart Machine: Man, Machine, or Man-Machine?

In many cases, machinery was used to re­place humans in supplying the motive power for various subprocesses of production. In most trades, though, labor-saving machinery developed slowly, and many factors inhibited its progress. Sometimes the new machinery, in amplifying the capacity of the human body to perform a given operation and thus increasing output, could also intensify the human participation that was required and thus exacerbate the prob­lems of physical depletion” (39). I can recall tours and visits to my dad’s plant, huge loud machinery. But there were people alongside the machines at different stages of process, people working and repairing the machines, the machines as extensions of people to build.

Proponents of scientific management believed that observing and ex­plicating workers’ activity was nothing less than scientific research. Their goal was to slice to the core of an action, preserving what was necessary and discarding the rest as the sedimentation of tradition or, worse, artifice spawned by laziness” (42). The cushy position of the auto worker is something that is talked about with disdain by some outside of the auto industry; these unskilled laborers are given wages and benefits that their work doesn’t justify. Then I think of the layoffs, the forced shutdowns, the worrying of my mom and dad on and off again that they would be replaced or released in the name of efficiency, production, cost-effectiveness, and progress.

Reading Shoshana Zuboff this week I couldn’t help but think of my family – my mom, dad, and brother all work in auto factories back home in Michigan. My mom and brother work in warehouses and pick parts to be shipped to assembly plants, while my dad is a Tool and Process Engineer (by training in an apprenticeship) in an engine plant; he moves from the office working on the phone/computer to find machines and parts needed for production to the floor of the factory to work on machines and with the people who run the machines. They have each told me stories that illustrate the tension examined by Zuboff in the know-how of the body (implicit) vs. the scientification of work as logically constructed they are subjected to by supervisiors.

My mom and my brother’s work is done by their bodies mostly – that is they hand pick parts (from small washers to much larger components of a car) – they bend, twist, lift, pinch, grab, pull. Recently, my mom was chosen to try a new cart/container design (she drives a buggy with a container attached to the front to put parts she picks in) by supervision that was created to make picking more efficient and safe in the workplace. The cart/container was moved to the back of the machine so that the buggy was towing it like a trailer. She reported that she didn’t like the design because it changed the way that she picked parts, and added extra movement and strain to be turning behind herself all the time. Supervision implemented the new cart design because it, on paper/design, was more efficient for work. Productivity went down in the warehouse because of the change in how my mom and other pickers worked; this turned into a larger and more complicated exchange between workers and supervision that took Union involvement to reconcile.

My dad’s plant was one severely impacted by the auto industry crisis in Michigan/Metro Detroit. Because of this, the number of Tool and Process Engineers my dad used to work with/amongst was greatly reduced. Workers were brought in as replacements for the more skilled labor of the Engineers, but it wasn’t an equal exchange, even though on paper it was. While the workers know how to work with their machines well to do work, they do not know the machines.

I realize this are very specific examples and are limited to auto manufacturing. But I couldn’t ignore the connection Zuboff made not only to the auto industry, but to plants and factories I know well (they’re by my house, my friends and family and neighbors have worked in them, they form the landscape/the architecture of the city(s)) because of growing up around them and through them with my family’s work and the absolute prevalence of the auto manufacturing industry in and around the Motor City. Reading Zuboff sparked a curiosity to find old film footage from around the time automation was becoming the standard in manufacturing. I’m sure there are better examples, but I found two old films that depict automation in ways that echo Zuboff’s argument and the experience of the workers in her research.

(particularly first 1:40 and last 1:00)

(particularly first 1:25 and last 30 seconds)

I’m left questioning automation. It is obvious to me the ways in which it can remove human agency that used to be present in work as a means of translation, but it is equally obvious that machines function as extension. And again, with a personal example, my brother was (and I hope is soon again) going to school to design programs and systems that orchestrate manufacturing processes. Where is craft? What is craft? Is it, in this context, diminished? Translated? Extended? Invented?

And Latour! What of Latour? Is this a matter of either-or? Or can it be a matter of with?


2 thoughts on “The Smart Machine: Man, Machine, or Man-Machine?

  1. Haha, I guess so. I also blame my dad for my affinity for exploded diagrams. That’s a good (and difficult) question. We’ve (in Krista’s class) have talked about machines as extensions of human, allowing us to do things we could otherwise not do, and about nonhumans in relation to man (we talked about bacteria in cheese making, for example) in similar fashion. But then it gets complicated. I think of my brother, who was going to school for PLC and CNC programming for manufacturing/industry. While he is using computer software to create these programs, he has to have knowledge of systems and machines – materials and how they can and can’t work. It’s making something that can make other somethings…I keep getting stuck on scale, but not knowing where to go with it. Also, the line between extension and replacement (between machine and human) seems to be fuzzy at times.

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