Saturday 16 February 2013

Amazon and Big Brother

It was almost exactly 110 years ago, 23 June 1903, in the United States Hotel in Saratoga, New York, that Frederick Winslow Taylor rose to address a meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on the subject of 'Shop Management'.

By 'shop', Taylor meant 'shop floor'. As far as he was already known to the meeting, it was as a controversial industrial manager who was supposed to have worked miracles of productivity at the giant Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, churning out iron plating for the world's battleships, from where he had recently been dismissed.  His ideas were known then as 'scientific management'.

That meant breaking every task down into units, measuring how long they take and setting targets for workers to meet. These techniques have long since broken out of factories, and you can see them working in the new call-centres, and in the NHS targets, school league tables, sustainability indicators and the battery of statistics by which public services are now run all over the Western world.  And in the fearsome warehouses of the new IT world.

Taylorism is the philosophy behind the whiff of slavery described by Zoe Williams in the Guardian last week, when she lifted the lid on the warehouses run by Amazon and Tesco, which time their miserable employees in everything they do, even going to the toilet (though Tesco assures her that they turn off the electronic tags while they are actually in there).

The information was in a fascinating article in the Financial Times about Amazon's new Rugeley warehouse, which describes the tags like this:

"Others found the pressure intense. Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much. Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. “People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting,” one former worker added."

The vision of these people, jogging between tasks to desperately earn the elusive permanent employee status (which gives them a pension as well as 1p an hour more than the minimum wage), reminds me overwhelmingly of Big Brother.  The tele-screens, the thought crimes, not to mention the blow up doll at the Amazon reception desk with a speech bubble which says 'this is the best job I ever had'.  Meeting the targets set by the machines is a tough and sweaty business.

We haven't quite grasped that, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it still hadn’t come down in our own world.  Even the management pioneer Tom Peters described working in Siemens, which was the inspiration for his first book, as “the closest thing to working for a communist state”.  Those great marble edifices, the corporate fear, the mindless maxims, and the management consultants measuring measuring measuring.  It is more like North Korea than North Europe.

We are minor victims of this Big Brother world, the continuation of Soviet government, nearly every day, when we deal with call centres who can’t grasp what we need because their software doesn’t recognise it.   But there are bigger victims too, whether they are call centre staff measured for the minutes they take going to the lavatory, or the employees of Amazon told by their Big Brother electronic tag to stop talking to each other.

This is one of the tragedies of Taylorism.  When we work for the system, it demands that we re-organise our lives and beliefs around an illusion of efficiency.  When we deal with it, it demands that we reshape ourselves into the rational one-dimension that is easy to process.  That was the insight of the poet David Whyte, who was among the first to make the link between the Soviet system and modern work:

"The old corporate world now passing away had become for us a form of ritual, almost religious life… It asked us to give up our own desires.  To pay no heed to our bodily experience.  To think abstractly, to put organisational goals above home and family, and, like many institutional religions, it asked us not to be too troubled by any questionable activity.”

More about this in my book The Human Element.  But Whyte was wrong about it passing away.  To anyone listening to the Radio 4 dramatisation of Orwell's 1984 this weekend, the parallels with Amazon and Tesco and the future of work for all of us if we're not careful, are too overwhelming to ignore. 


juliandobson said...

Good piece, David. But there's another aspect of this, which was picked up in the FT piece, which is about the casualisation of work and the marginalization of workers. To see that in its rawest form, check out Amazon's Mechanical Turk. I've blogged about it here:

David Boyle said...

Isn't the resemblance between Frederick Winslow Taylor ad Big Brother extraordinary? Are they by any chance related?