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Nonfiction in Brief

May 08, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

IN THE AGE OF THE SMART MACHINE by Shoshana Zuboff (Basic Books: $19.95)

Will the growing role of computer technology in the workplace help society become more egalitarian and democratic or will it merely give managers and owners one more tool to keep employees in their place? Social scientists have long been polarized on this issue, but in this sharply written book, the most thorough and coherent sociology of the computer age, Shoshana Zuboff suggests that both scenarios are probable. After five years of research into computer applications, from sensor monitoring at paper mills to data entry in automated back offices, Zuboff concludes that in the short-term, managers are likely to use new computer technology to scrutinize workers. Zuboff compares this closely monitored office environment to Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon," a polygon-shaped, glass-sheathed prison in which guards could observe all prisoners simultaneously through a system of mirrors--without actually being seen themselves. "Hence the major effect of the Panopticon," wrote Michel Foucault: "to induce on the inmate the state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power."

In the long term, however, Zuboff believes that the need to maximize efficiency will motivate most companies to involve employees in a collective process of discussion and problem-solving. Distinctions between managerial and "blue collar jobs" should fade in the efficient company of the future, Zuboff writes, as "action-centered work"--based on physical cues and the social patterns of oral culture--is superseded by "intellective work," in which employees spend most of their day translating raw computer data on video display terminals into meaningful information and useful knowledge. Zuboff calls this change "the textualization of work" because "the electronic text becomes a vast symbolic surrogate for the vital detail of an organization's daily life. . . ."

Zuboff's vision of the social impact of computers, while the most far-reaching yet, is not omniscient. Her suggestion that intellective office environments should replace action-centered ones underestimates the basic human need for face-to-face interaction and the value of implicit, personal forms of knowledge over the "systemic, procedural thinking" that characterizes intellective work. Zuboff's notion that companies stand to profit from encouraging critical judgment in employees also will find its detractors in those who see a danger to the corporate hierarchy, if not to the class system itself.

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