Workers are paying a high price for increased automation

COMPUTER CRISIS

June 17, 1991|By Bob Baker | Bob Baker,Los Angeles Times

Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard University business professor, once asked a group of office clerks whose jobs had recently been computerized to draw pictures of themselves at work.

The clerks variously portrayed themselves as chained to desks, clothed in prison stripes, trapped by walls, deprived of sunlight and food, wearing blinders, surrounded by bottles of aspirin, bleary-eyed with fatigue and frowning.

The stark, solitary stick figures spoke vividly about changes that computerization is making in the office -- changes that represent a fundamental and potentially harmful shift in the nature of work.

Computerization without proper social and psychological safeguards is subjecting millions of office employees to a harsher, more isolated and more dangerous workplace, a growing number of researchers maintain.

Too often, clerical-level workers are forced to spend too much time glued to computer screens performing rote activities, or required to work at a pace dictated or monitored by a computer, experts say.

As a result, they lose "social support" -- normal office chatter anphysical movement -- and a sense of control over their jobs.

Those feelings and experiences may seem vague, but they are regarded by psychologists as a crucial buffer against stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and depression. They can often spell the difference between a deadening job and a bearable one.

Business and government are being called upon to rethink basic automation decisions of the past decade. Researchers believe employers should relinquish their sole authority to decide how work is organized. They believe short-term productivity should be sacrificed in favor of employees' long-term health.

"If we have an enlightened future, the final solution to all this will be [a maximum of] four hours a day at a VDT," or video display terminal, says Louis Slesin, editor of VDT News, a computer-safety publication. Mentally and physically, "eight hours is simply more than anybody can stand."

Such thinking amounts to the most serious re-evaluation of the relationship between people and machines since the Industrial Revolution. It demands, in effect, that office workers be protected against the most enticing quality of the computer -- its ability to drastically speed up the number of transactions a worker can perform.

"It's the question of whether the computer is an appendage of the person or the person is an appendage of the computer," said Harley Shaiken, professor of work and technology at University of California, San Diego.

Finding a way to reduce the damage of computerized office work "is going to be a harder fix than asbestos," said Dr. Linda Morse, a San Jose, Calif., occupational-medicine specialist who runs the nation's first institute devoted to repetitive-strain illness -- problems resulting from making the same muscle movements hundreds or thousands of times a day. "Asbestos seems like a big nightmare problem, but you either take it out or encapsulate it. Here you're talking about how work is organized."

The debate over how machines should be used to measure work and make it more efficient has been raging since the turn of thecentury.

When contemporary critics allude to efficiency run amok, they still use an obscure buzzword: "Taylorism," a reference to Frederick Taylor, the dean of "scientific management," who introduced a system of time-and-motion study in the early 1900s.

The role that computers have played in this timeline has yet to receive deep public attention. Since the late 1970s, computers have been installed too quickly in offices to pin down their social, medical or even business impact. The proportion of Americans who use computers at work increased from 24 percent of the work force in 1984 to 37 percent in 1989.

An estimated 50 million Americans now work on computers, and millions more work in systems paced or propelled by computers. They range far beyond offices. More than a third of men in manufacturing jobs now use computers. Conventional wisdom holds that the computer revolution hasbeen a liberating experience for workers. Millions of professional-level workers ranging from engineers to architects to writers to accountants swear to it. The speed and power of the computer allows them to work more quickly, more creatively and with more flexibility -- as easily from home or a hotel room as the office.

However, for an even larger number of everyday office workers -- many of them women working as clerks or bookkeepers in places like insurance companies, hospitals, phone companies and airline reservation systems -- the opposite often appears true.

Sometimes the cause was job redesign. To increase efficiency, and to gather a greater amount of data on each step of a transaction, some companies broke jobs into simpler, less challenging tasks requiring less decision-making. Elements of blue-collar assembly-line work crept into white-collar clerical positions.

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