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Nonfiction in Brief

THE ELECTRONIC SWEATSHOP : How Computers Are Turning the Office of the Future Into the Factory of the Past by Barbara Garson (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)

April 24, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

The promise was that computers would stand at the forefront of a golden "Information Age," taking over society's dull, repetitive tasks and leaving humans free to pursue their metier --creative thinking. But as the subtitle indicates, Barbara Garson sees nothing of the sort on the horizon. In reality, computers are moving decision-making higher up in organizations, she writes, turning professionals into less skilled and less expensive clerks. It is unlikely that Barbara Garson began writing "The Electronic Sweatshop" with an open mind; she's the author of "All the Livelong Day," an earlier book condemning the repetitiousness of blue-collar jobs. So not surprisingly, she is sometimes indiscriminate (faulting McDonalds, for instance, for its rote jobs and irregular work hours) and injudicious (not considering the rote chores which are being eliminated by computers, such as retyping). Nevertheless, through dozens of interviews with "professional clerks"--from airline reservation agents whose "talk time" and "conversion rate" are monitored second-by-second to "automated social workers"--Garson convincingly argues that our current definition of productivity is inadequate: "Any system that spends so much money on limiting instead of using human creativity," she writes, "has got to be inefficient." "The Electronic Sweatshop" is thus an important book. Its contention that corporate leaders have deliberately dehumanized jobs can be dismissed, but not its compelling warning that in the computer age, big business could become like Big Brother.

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