In the Age of the Smart Machine

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Shoshanna Zuboff’s topic in this book is the advent of the new technology and the profound social changes which are coming with it. It is not simply a book discussing computers and how they will change people’s lives, for it deals with the more general categories of information technology and shifting social relationships. The book’s content in many respects will remind readers of Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980), and other such works. Not a popularizer, however, Zuboff sets for herself, in her introduction, a task which is more similar to Fernand Braudel’s approach in The Structures of Everyday Life (1982). This approach has strengths as well as weaknesses, but it is certainly a monumental effort.

The fact that Zuboff is writing an academic book is given away not only by the length of the book (468 pages) but also by her vocabulary and style. She uses rather specialized language, full of rare, hyphenated, and invented forms. Some examples are “intellective” (for mental or intellectual), “informate” (to enhance the gathering and interpretation of information), “acting-on” and “acting-with” (for objectoriented versus person-oriented behavior), and “de-skilling” (the loss of what were formerly human skills to automation). It is questionable whether these stylistic peculiarities are particularly helpful, though they lend a certain impression of precision to the writing and give the reader a sense that he or she is acquiring genuinely new information and thinking in new ways.

Zuboff has done a doctoral dissertation on the history of work, with particular focus on the industrial revolution. In this book she is trying to apply the insights gained in that study to the twentieth century revolution in information management. The problem is twofold. First, if what is happening is really new, then there is no dependable paradigm for understanding it. This problem is common to all futurologists. The second problem is that there is no guarantee that one stage in social evolution will mimic another one. For example, what sociological and cultural insights would have been gained by comparing the changes occurring in the industrial revolution with the changes which came with the abandonment of hunting and gathering for agricultural communities? There may be no other choice, but comparisons are nevertheless risky.

Blue-collar workers are the focus of the first chapters of Zuboff’s work. She eloquently describes the automation of the factory workplace as the process of reducing skilled tasks to their machine-reproducible components and the empowering of those who are left in charge of the machines. These laborers-become-middle managers often find themselves in possession of information which can enhance both the process for which they have responsibility and their own jobs. Freed by automation from the definition of his or her task as the exertion and depletion of the body, the new blue-collar worker either finds meaning in the development of what Zuboff calls intellective skills or feels as if he or she is floundering in an unfamiliar world of mysterious data, data that are not amenable to dependable (that is, sentient) interpretation.

White-collar workers have had a slightly different response to the new technology than have their blue-collar counterparts. Zuboff begins by defining the essential difference between blue- and white-collar work as “acting-on” versus “acting-with.” Executive skills have always been considered personal and intuitive, having generally to do with decisions taken alone or in connection with other people and factors not easily reduced to components, as was the work of artisans and laborers. Regardless of whether this was the case, executives in the late twentieth century have the power to keep their own jobs from being “de-skilled.”

What has happened, however, is that the assistants to the executives have found their jobs converted: Clerks with major decision-making responsibilities have become secretaries, whose work has been reduced to those repetitive tasks which the executives, with the aid of technological advances, have increasingly been able to delegate. Thus, while blue-collar workers either lost their jobs or saw them converted from physical into mental tasks, white-collar workers saw their jobs stripped of their former responsibility and were given in their place those busy-work jobs in which the executive no longer had to be directly involved. To use Zuboff’s...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)