Taylorism on Digital Steroids

Here are reminders, if we needed them, that the role of technology in our world transcends artifacts, tools, and devices. It also entails, as Jacques Ellul well understood, a particular way of looking at the world and its problems (and, as Morozov has suggested, it constitutes certain conditions and phenomenon as problems).

From Salon:

“Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.

Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.”

From Business Insider:

“There’s a fine line between micromanaging and house arrest, and British grocery store chain Tesco […] seems determined to cross it. According to the Irish Independent, employees at the company’s Dublin distribution center are forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take a bathroom break.

The armbands, officially known as Motorola arm-mounted terminals, look like something between a Game Boy and Garmin GPS device. The terminals keep track of how quickly and competently employees unload and scan goods in the warehouse and gives them a grade. It also sets benchmarks for loading and unloading speed, which workers are expected to meet. The monitors can be turned off during workers’ lunch breaks, but anything else—bathroom trips, visits to a water fountain—reportedly lowers their productivity score.”

These folks would’ve been in trouble. They might also have had the good sense to revolt, being peasants and all.

Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1565)
Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1565)

7 thoughts on “Taylorism on Digital Steroids

  1. absolutely horrifying. I worked as a cashier at Target in high school, and if you didn’t scan items fast enough, you were given a “red” score. It made me incredibly anxious, and often led to careless mistakes in an effort to “work faster.”

  2. Interesting post! I don’t think this type of monitoring can (yet?) be found in the Netherlands. I am not sure if employees would buy it … and I wonder if have found ways to circumvent the system. There are always lines of resistence, I guess.

  3. That is really creepy. I’ve noticed a lot more control and technology coming into every aspect of my life and I don’t like it one bit. Soon we’ll probably all wear shock collars and they can just zap us when we start to do anything remotely resembling…human.

  4. I read a fascinating and terrifying article relating a young woman’s working experience at one of the European Amazon’s warehouses in the French paper Le Monde. Exactly what Salon is reporting. There were additional mentions of workers telling of each other in order to get promoted. Scary.
    The painting you chose used to be in my parents’ kitchen in France. I find it perfect to illustrate your post.

  5. The first example doesn’t bother me all that much. Best practices can be tough to develop and enforce, but they should be a goal. I’d prefer to use the least amount of energy possible to accomplish a task. But this should lead at least partially to a more comfortable work day, not just more activity faster faster faster. That’s where unions can help.

    The second thing, with the armbands, can be helped by unions too, but the quickest way to get rid of them is for everyone to trade off armbands, every day, and if possible every hour.

  6. ernestwhile, I would respectfuly submit that the example “doesn’t bother you all that much” because you’re exempt from it; you don’t have anyone poking you with a cattle prod if you’re not blogging fast enough. Not yet, anyway.

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