1960s >> 1969 >> no-773-january-1969

The Computer, Karl Marx and the Battery Hens

Here in the computer room there was some relief. On the other side of the door the clerks and typists grew steadily moister as the temperature in the vast office, trapped and intensified by great areas of glass, climbed into the nineties. Clerks and typists were only human beings; not too expensive to employ, able and willing to adapt themselves to discomfort. The computer was different. It was excessively expensive to hire and it could not adapt to great changes in temperature.

“The air conditioning in here’s perfect,” said the guide. “It has to be or the box would simply pack up. When we put it in we even analysed the supervisor’s pipe smoke to make sure we got everything rights temperature wise. Now if you’ll just come this way we’ll show you an exercise in updating our product structure file. Very important; we’re putting the entire material control and production planning onto computer and updating the file’s a part of it.”

Around the computer, flashing and pulsing, two young men worked fast, changing magnetic discs and tapes. Another went to a console and punched at a keyboard. After a time the concertinaed sheets of paper began to leap through their guides, printing faster than the eye could follow.


The paper zipped through the machine until suddenly:


The man at the console frowned, tapped out a question on his keyboard and read off the computer’s answer. Then another.

“It’s a hard wait,” he said to the guide. “A hard wait,” he explained to the visitors, “means the box has stopped and right now we don’t know why. It may be something wrong with the hardware—with the computer itself. More likely the software’s up the pole—someone’s fed it some rubbish. We don’t like a hard wait because of the expense. This machine works in micro seconds and there are as many micro seconds in one second as there are seconds in three hundred hours.”

The guide’s face did not lose its smile.

“That’s a real pity,” he said, “But I guess it’s life computer-wise. Never mind, there’s still lots we can see. The card punch room, now. Everything in this computer starts life as a punched card—a card with holes in it. We’ve got a special department through here where girls punch the holes on machines. Some of them—the girls I mean, not the machines—are pretty attractive. This way.”

The visitors left the computer room, with its three operators trying desperately to save as many micro seconds as they could, and filed into a large, windowless area. Here, under harsh lighting, sat row upon row of young girls, heads bent over clacking machines.

“This girl”, the guide stopped at one of the machines, “is punching cards which will feed an order for spare parts into the computer where it will be processed—credit checked, stocks adjusted, delivery sheets made out.”

There was no response from the girl. Her fingers blurred across the keyboard.

‘They’re on an incentive scheme,” said the guide, “They get paid a bonus for every depression of the keys above their daily quota. If they make mistakes they lose that number of depressions to the verifiers—the girls who check every hole that’s punched. The verifiers get a bonus for every mistake they find. This is a good system. It works.”

One of the visitors asked the question which was running through most of their minds.

“How do the girls react to these conditions? They seem to be working at a hell of a pace—faster than anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else.”

“Well, there’s the bonus scheme,” smiled the guide, “And they’ve got all these indoor plants around to brighten up the place and they’re allowed to stop work completely for ten minutes every morning and afternoon for coffee or tea from the machines. In fact, when the computer really gets cracking we’ll have most of the office staff in this place organised like this. These girls don’t seem to mind; they can think of something else while they work and really they don’t want very much else. Just look at their bags beside their machines; every one’s reading the Mirror or Woman’s Own or Weekend.

“Oh—I nearly forgot. Every fifteen minutes we switch on some piped music. That had an effect on them. We vary the style and tempo with the time of day and the supervisor can also alter it according to how fast the work’s coming out. This is a nice, clean office and the girls like it. This way.”

As the visitors left the temple of the card punch room, where for every head bent in prayer for accuracy there was another praying for error, the music washed over and over them, smooth and sickly sweet. It was mid morning. The song was I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

That was probably an unlucky day for the computer; some of its work must go right because so far there have been no riots on the factory floor after some men have been paid twenty thousand pounds and others one and threepence. Perhaps, too, it is unfair to criticise the computer men for being so enthusiastic about their machines. Computers are capable of feats undreamt of only a short time ago and it is no new thing for workers to make a virtue out of the necessity of their inferior social standing and become dedicated to the particular job in which they are exploited.

The entire system of employment is one huge confidence trick in which, like all confidence tricks, the victim is deceived by promises of big gains in the future. How many times, for example, have we heard the promises about the benefits we are to get from intensified industry, advanced productive techniques, new scientific discoveries? Usually, the promises amount to little more than a recital of the abilities of a machine, leaving the listener to infer that these will automatically benefit him. For example, this was how Harold Wilson worked the computer confidence trick in his famous speech in the science debate at the Labour Party Conference in 1963:

   A modern computer in a fraction of a second can make calculations and can make decisions of judgement which all the mathematicians in Britain and America combined could not make by ordinary methods in the space of a year. You have computers at work now controlling a planned productive system of machine tools which have an impulse cycle of three millionths of a second. They do their calculations and take their decisions in a period of three millionths of a second. Yet already those machines are out of date. New mass controllers are in production now with a speed one thousand times as fast.

Wilson’s audience, all over the country, duly inferred that under a Labour government there would be a golden age of science and technology in which the computer would be mother to us all. They now know the truth.

At the time, of course, they were so bemused by the speech that they overlooked certain facts. There is no evidence that they are any readier now to accept these facts, but it is always a good idea to spell them out. To begin with, computers are not installed because they are marvellous machines which can make light of a worker’s load. A firm will only get a computer if it is convinced that there is profit in doing so. This means that only the larger companies can afford to have their own machine—and that, having got it they must work it flat out, twenty four hours a day for every micro second possible. This does not make work any less monotonous or arduous—more often it has the opposite effect.

The reason so many firms have recently been convinced that computers are an economical proposition (and having once installed one a company is virtually compelled to keep in the game and to progress into each of its refinements) is to be found in the shortage of labour which has persistently affected British industry since the war. Apart from anything else, this shortage has often given the workers the edge in some important wage battle and has provoked the irritation of, for example, The Economist which is always advising the government of the day to ignore the economic facts and stand up to the unions.

That is one way in which the capitalist class might have approached their problem. Another was the way of Bank of England chief Leslie O’Brien, who thinks that higher unemployment is the answer. Another is the Labour government’s way—an attempt at putting legal restraints upon wages. And yet another way is to increase mechanisation, by automating production lines, installing computers and so on.

This last course—a classic way out for the capitalist class—has one great snag. Stepping up investment in constant capital tends to lower the rate of profit and unless there is some compensating return on the investment this can be a disastrous business. (A lot of the political history of Britain since 1945 can be explained in these terms—but that is another story). This means a more intense exploitation of the workers affected by the investment, a faster and more constant working of the machines, a pressure on production costs and a ruthless search for redundant workers.

So a firm which takes on a computer does not stop there. It must also build up a comprehensive Organisation and Methods department, whose job is to organise production and administration into a whole to fit in with the computer. The O & M workers will do the dirty work which was once done by managers; they reorganise, cut back, fire, and increase the work load of the people who are left on the payroll. And as they do this work they surround it with their own mystique—their own language, their own obeisance to the flashing god in the precisely controlled temperature, their own hard-skinned indifference to the fate of their fellow workers.

Karl Marx, who has been much criticised for pointing out that capitalism always increases the misery of the working class, once wrote that “. . .  if capital grows more rapidly, competition among the workers grows incomparably more rapidly.” And that, in a society which is incapable of usefully employing human abilities, is what the computers are all about. When it comes down to it, it means the scurrying operators trying to save the micro seconds. It means the clerks and the typists outside, waiting for the axe to fall. It means those girls in the punch card room, who sit through their days like battery hens—except that even the battery hens aren’t encouraged to fight each other for bonus rations.