Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans

Article excerpt

Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans Simon Head. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 230 pp. $26.99

Some young girls [at Foxconn] did not know how to deal with this kind of abuse and they just took it all inside themselves. ... At some point they could take it no more and lost their minds [and were committed to asylums].-Ching Kwan Lee quoting a line supervisor

Mindless is a book not so much about how (information) technological implementation results in stupidity (though it does), but rather how corporations are creating a new form of industrialization, one so oppressive that it is harmful to everyone except wealthy owners and some customers who may save money and time, though this may be an illusion. As the reader rolls through the horrors of current scientific management practices, which have come a long way since Frederick Taylor theorized, he or she is shocked by the harms done, the evils perpetrated, and the fact that government regulatory agencies (such as OSHA) that have been created to protect, either collude with the oppressors or simply do not bother to inhibit. It sometimes appears that government, which libertarians and survivalists so despise, is powerless in the face of practices instituted by Walmart or Amazon or other powerful commercial entities that absorb multimillion dollar fines (when levied) as a necessary part of doing business. This is compounded by the increase in inequity that is so rampant not just in wealthier countries, but almost everywhere one cares to look.

For Simon Head, the primary driver of this misery is the Computer Business System (CBS), which not only controls the enormous corporation but additionally micromanages each employee. Both manual floor workers (in factories, retail outlets, and distribution centers) as well as white collar professionals are affected. The most pernicious example of this technological interference is the expert system employed by HMOs, which may rule that a doctor's treatment should not be compensated.

Head's study examines the use of IT by corporations to "increase the output of labor, and to deskill labor, diminish its role, and so weaken its earning power." It is a disheartening and evil business. The author begins by analyzing CBS product manuals through which people are dehumanized, objectified, and transformed into numbers, codes, and symbols on computer screens, and thus become easier to control. Head exemplifies just how repugnant regimented management has become by describing practices at Walmart and Amazon. Matters have degenerated a great deal since Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed, her ground-breaking exposé of Walmart oppression. Things are not going well at this emporium: Managers cut costs by precisely controlling what each employee does, how she does it, and how long it takes. Goals are impossible to meet and both the employees and the stores suffer. Failure results in penalties. The company constantly diminishes human dignity and violates the law by firing those interested in unionizing, failing to pay overtime, not offering paid breaks, and employing illegal immigrants (who have been confined overnight in their stores). Walmart has paid almost one billion dollars in 67 wage class-action suits. It is such an unpleasant work environment that 84 percent of polled employees said that they would leave if it were financially possible.

If Walmart is "egregiously ruthless," Amazon is worse. And the fault lies with those who prefer convenience and low prices over workplace practice and independent book stores, although now Amazon sells and/or produces almost everything. Its dispute with the Hachette Book Group is an excellent example of its power in both publishing and sales. I recall my strong emotional reaction when, almost 20 years ago, in Amazon's infancy, a colleague (a sociologist, ironically) mentioned that she bought books on Amazon. …

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