Book Review: ‘Architect or Bee?’

Shape of things to come

‘Architect or Bee?’ by Mike Cooley, (Langley Technical Services, 1980)

This is a tantalizing, awkward but informative little book. The question that Cooley does not answer is whether and in what way a socialist society could use the new technology—that is, automation, chips, computer aided design, computer-linked robotic production and so on. But he skirts around it and answers a hundred other related questions, so that all may find something useful here.

Cooley was a design engineer with Lucas Aerospace (he was sacked quite recently for taking time off work to propagandise the views in this book). His own attitude to modern technology shows an interesting evolution; he began by assuming that technology was neutral—that computers were inherently useful but that their use was perverted by what capitalist society demanded; he now thinks that the technology of any society is an integral part of its politics. The last point is worth labouring. Cooley holds that with a change in the politics of capitalism the uses of technology could change. Correspondingly, he holds that with a change in society the shape of technology must change. Consecutively, he holds that the drive to change society is linked with the drive to find socially harmonious uses for the new technology. For him these sum up the human/technology relationship. Such a position has led him to champion the Lucas Aerospace Corporate plan—a trade union-backed series of alternative production projects that are offered to industry, like vehicles for spina bifida cases in place of nuclear weapons.

Cooley thinks that something has been lacking in the socialist analysis of science and technology. We concentrate too much on the contradictions of distribution (poverty amid plenty) and neglect the contradictions of production (technological systems that produce an abundance of products by degrading skilled work). As a corrective he suggests that we should question the assumptions embodied in science and technology and find out whether the ideology of capitalism has helped to determine the experimental designs and theories upon which they are based. This balanced analysis would help us to determine the types of technology that would be compatible with a socialist society.

Computer aids to production have become very sophisticated over the last decade and a wide range of engineering components can be produced, inspected and delivered under continuous data processing control—including the design and planning of the product. It is important not to miss the last point. Gone are the days when a master craftsman suggested a new idea to a draughtsman and worked in conjunction with him to develop its design, materials, process treatments, properties and conditions of use. With data processing engineering there is only the draughtsman who draws the original design on a digitally coordinated board, translates this spatial information into numerical terms and types it into a central processor; the computer then specifies the entire sequence of movements required by all the machines under its control that are used in the making of the product. The other point not to miss is that this system works only for the range of product types and production operations that are given in the control programme, innovation outside this range is impossible; for that the system has to be re-programmed, rebuilt or even replaced. The outcome is not merely that creative and co-operative work among craftsmen and designers is redundant, but that in factories with engineering data processing it becomes impossible.

The problem for a socialist society using this equipment would be to recognise when the process was destroying the potential for creative labour, or impeding technological innovation, or both. On this matter there can be no other guide than the tacit knowledge, skills and expertise of individuals; but on the face of it these may not be acceptable, because when this computer-controlled equipment produces a design for a component at the limit of its control programme, a craftsman may see it and only be able to say “it doesn’t look right to me”. Whereas the writer of the control programme and the system designers can produce masses of technical argument to prove that it will work, just by pressing the read-out buttons. Moreover the new components may function for several years before they fail and justify the craftsman’s intuition. The problem resolves into a social question—how much influence respectively do you allow the technical expert and the practical craftsman over production decisions when they are in dispute? In simple terms—who has the power to decide and how? If socialist society were to use present technology then its democracy could be tested by controversies about technics versus skill.

Computer aided design presents more problems still. There are now systems where a designer works with a light pen directly onto a video display unit, linked to a computer programmed with a design package. The designer has a basic idea for a building, he draws the rough outline on the screen and then gets the computer to manipulate this basic material with the set of subroutines in the programme. Effectively the computer can turn a few lines into a fully drawn Greek temple, or turn the basic specification for a tower block into a picture and project it on the screen in dramatic perspective. It can construct and display a picture of a non-existent structure in an architectural setting so that you can judge whether the proposed building will harmonise with the environment and will even give you a picture of what the outside world would look like from inside a building that was only an idea in your head a few minutes before.

“Terrific!” may be your first response to all this. Cooley suggests that “ugh!” may be your second. It hardly needs saying that the use of this equipment to capitalist society is to reduce reliance upon a range of architectural, draughting and civil engineering workers; resulting in redundancies, cutting of costs, increasing output and so on; bringing the design process under the “scientific management” of capital.

But what use would this equipment be to a socialist society? Once again there could be clashes between those who felt that architectural aesthetics were being obliterated in computer simulations and, however good it seemed on the screen, it wouldn’t be right to build a Centre Point on the Acropolis—or a Centre Point anywhere for that matter. Such disputes might be the stuff of life for a socialist society. Imagine two sets of protagonists flinging themselves into such architectural discussions with the zeal of William Morris in his crusade against industrial architecture, and the propagandist power of the Futurists for modern architecture. When they had exhausted themselves, a socialist society could count heads and do what the majority wanted.

But would the battle over ideas in such cases be an equal one if computer aided design takes over? It’s an interesting question and provides the core of Cooley’s book, although he doesn’t answer it.

The trouble with computer aided design is that on a large scale it will replace intuition, creativity and the sheer tactility that goes with the craftsman’s approach to the physical nature of production. As it does so the popular notion of good design becomes just a completed decision sequence in machine code. In one way computer aided designs can always be justified, because the programmes work with a simplified model of reality that raises no decision problems. While in the sophisticated reality of the craftsman all decisions arc reached in the face of bewildering complexity. The craftsman can rarely explain how he is able to identify and locate faults in a complicated machine just by listening to it running. But the programmer can explain in a million steps how his impoverished model of reality will yet deliver the goods. As victories for computer aided design go up, says Cooley, so does our hold on reality go down and with it the direct interaction between production systems and the real world. If this technology is utilised unchanged in a socialist society then the development of production will be out of control in fact, even with the purest form of democratic control being exercised over it.

Information and understanding are the obvious keys in solving this problem. Provided that the population of a socialist world are aware of the situation then that society can provide self-adjustment processes and if they don’t work then it must abandon the technology. We must take the craftsman’s approach—suck it and see!

Cooley takes the leftist approach and strives to construct a theory of socialist development based upon current popular reactions against unemployment, nuclear power, the degradation of the natural environment and so on. The Lucas Aerospace Corporate Plan above mentioned is an example. Socialist society, says Cooley, becomes possible as the workers can conceive of an entire range of socially useful products to replace the destructive garbage that capitalism turns out. This would be an interesting point to discuss, but Cooley ruins it by describing the Russian revolution as a socialist transformation that went wrong, because Lenin introduced F. W. Taylor’s work measurement and control techniques after 1920; socialist production was thus supposed to have been converted back into capitalist toil. Howlers like this make you doubt whether he’s been talking about the same things as you all along. Particularly when he says that other countries are striving towards socialism.

How useful would computers be to a socialist world? The current crop of machines and programmes are laughably inadequate to represent even the noddy view of the capitalist system professed by bourgeois theorists. The original simulation of capitalism on a computer programme, written by Forrester in the late 1960s, was developed by Meadows, et al, in their doom-laden prophecy called Limits to Growth. Even in later sophisticated forms—Mesarovic and Pestel, Mankind at the Turning Point—it still does little other than predict that what is happening now is going to continue.

Cooley may well be right in a way he doesn’t realise. Computers are electronic aids in the production of surplus value. The design and languages of electronic processors stem from and are geared to quantitative assessments of production in units of currency-business languages. Can the current range of machines be used with programmes designed to sense human needs? Can the current-programming skills of computer personnel encompass the idea of production for use and free access? Let’s all become socialists and find out.

B. K. McNeeney

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