REBUILDING CORPORATIONS ONLINE
When Big Brother arrives, don't be surprised if he looks like a grocery clerk.
Charlie Chaplin hardly seems like a credible expert on the impact of computer technology on the workplace. For most folks, the most enduring memory of the “little tramp” is a bumbling, although well-meaning, goof. In fact, Chaplin was an astute social observer who used humor to make serious points about U. S. culture. In one of his most memorable movies, Modern Times, Chaplin (1936) offers a vivid depiction of the social impact of mechanization on workers (Fig. 7.1).
At one point in the film, representatives of an automatic feeding machine visit the boss of a plant whose employees make some sort of widget. Why waste hours of productivity as workers idle their time eating their lunches when the feeding machine can serve a hot bowl of soup right on the assembly line? Previously isolated activities like eating and working merge in Chaplin's vision of the modern factory. Even private activities in the restroom are subject to the all-seeing gaze of the boss, who can view his workers through a wall-sized telescreen. At one point, Chaplin's overworked, overstressed character gets sucked into the gears and cogs of the machine—blurring, ultimately, the distinction between people and their tools.
Is contemporary corporate life so far removed from Chaplin's nightmarish comedy? You might think so. Increasingly, scholars of the “information economy” report that knowledge work is replacing industrial work. The assembly line of old cannot churn out original ideas as quickly as it can turn out durable goods. However, in our increasingly computer-mediated society, corporate technology serves many of the functions described in Modern Times.
Think about how the machinery of today's workplace alters your habits and expectations. Formerly sharp divisions between home and office—illustrated by the vast differences built between suburban “bedroom communities” and urban corporate centers—are hard to differentiate as millions of Americans learn the art of telecommuting. Dining rooms and bedrooms make way for home offices filled with computers, scanners, and fax machines.
One way to understand this significant shift in how we live and work can be attributed to the emergence of the information economy. There was a time when the economic power of the United States was measured by its ability to build automobiles and sell washing machines. This was the age of the industrial economy, after Americans moved away from farms and filled the cities and factories in the 19th century. However, after World War II and the zenith of America's industrial might, the