‘Mindless’ charts how our economic progress is managed by huge corporations

08/03/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 2:40 PM

“Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans” by Simon Head (Basic Books, 230 pages, $26.99)

Eighty years ago the English economist John Maynard Keynes authored a brief essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he took a long and rosy view of capitalist progress. Keynes’ crystal ball unveiled a future world in which wealth would increase sevenfold over its 1928 levels, and in which “technical improvements” would create a 15-hour work week. The most pressing need of citizens in the Western world of the future would be what to do with all their leisure.

Keynes was twice wrong. The U.S. gross domestic product has grown by a real factor of 16 since Keynes penned his essay, and per capita by a factor of six. We’re much, much richer than Keynes imagined we would be. But we’re also swamped, demoralized and spiritually impoverished, denuded of meaningful work, with large hunks of the middle and working classes de-skilled and losing ground. How all this progress is managed by huge (one might say gigantic) corporations devoted to scientific efficiency and profit is the subject of Simon Head’s new and energetic book, “Mindless.”

Head is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, and a Senior Member of St. Anthony’s College at Oxford. His basic subject is the New Industrial State, corporate business systems and process management, each of which constitutes a critical element in the largely anonymous yet highly effective process controls exerted by large business concerns over worker output and consumer behavior. Head argues that business controls, management “drill down” (micromanagement of worker space and time), and information technology have combined to create and nurture the class inequalities and dissatisfaction in the workplace that characterize massive organizations like Amazon and Wal-Mart.

The premise is simple yet not obvious. “There now exist in the U.S. economy … very powerful agents of industrialization known as Computer Business Systems (CBSs), that bring the disciplines of industrialism to an economic space that extends far beyond the factories and construction sites of the industrial economy of the machine age: to wholesale and retail, financial services, secondary and higher education, health care, ‘ customer relations management’ and ‘ human resources management,’ public administration, corporate management at all levels save the highest, and even the fighting of America’s wars.”

In the first Industrial Revolution, much of labor’s struggle was not only about wages and benefits, but also about the speed and pace of machine work. Now, with the invention of business systems (computer networks, IT, surveillance, tracking, etc.), managers at the highest level pursue relentless targeting of white-collar workers like shop-floor workers at Wal-Mart and Amazon, with goals, time frames and motion studies. A second or two difference (slower or faster) in placing a product in a box by an Amazon minion (isolated, un-unionized, paid minimum wage, overworked), times several millions a day, equals large differences in profit.

Head is meticulous in examining the origins of this Orwellian typology, the beginnings of which sprang from America’s management of the Atlantic War in 1942-3, and continued on through Vietnam. Equally interesting (even scary) are the Cold War origins of management systems springing from game theory and mutually assured destruction overseen by computer systems. The Chinese have their own model of process control designed to manage peasants brought in to factory systems from the countryside and subjected to a regime of thought and behavior slavery. Even emotional labor of the kind practiced by airline employees or customer relations call centers are subject to business systems – remember the last time an anonymous voice read a script when your phone went haywire and you dialed that fatal 800 number.

Head’s last chapter is titled “Any Way Out?” It could have easily been titled “No Easy Way Out.” Crushed by data, unprotected by unions or government, de-classed and de-skilled by mechanization, outsourcing and financial speculation, the American labor force is almost naked. Standing in the way of empowerment for labor are unfettered oligarchs who dominate the political landscape, and corporations with enough influence in the Supreme Court to convince five judges that legislatively created and immortal legal entities have speech and religious rights just like human beings.

The ability and willingness of the NSA to monitor our daily personal lives was made doable by corporate business systems thinking. A number of European and Scandinavian democracies have opted for a more human and humane model of industrial production and service provision, and the book dutifully articulates these polities (most of which are demonized by the American Right). Head’s book does indicate a serviceable alternative to the present state of affairs. But it won’t be easy to defeat the corporations and their systems of control, given that so many eligible voters don’t vote, while those who do, vote against their own interests.

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