(Reading Time: 4.5 mins)
Growing up, I lived outside of Flint, Michigan. Flint was like Detroit's little brother, an automotive town, filled with GM assembly plants and United Auto Workers. Friends in my neighborhood had dads who worked second or third shift and drove new pickup trucks.
Driving out to the mall with my parents, we would pass the Truck and Bus plant, a gray, 5-story warehouse surrounded by parking lots glinting with new cars.
Once when my grandparents visited, I skipped school, and we went to a Buick assembly plant nearby. We toured the plant under the bright fluorescent lights, walking behind shiny yellow lines, or watching through windows.
The workers heaved, snapped, bolted, and screwed parts into place. The cars crawled like rush-hour traffic through skeletal hallways, wall-less and ceiling-less. Instead of walls, car parts stood like troops of soldiers ready for action: door panels, steering columns, headlamp components, windshields, trunk lids.
When Henry Ford created the assembly line for his Model T, it was a breakthrough in mass production. Like a good sentence, each letter, each part, was installed sequentially, inserted at just the right place. Deconstructing the car and composing it in a linear process, Ford produced millions of vehicles, all virtually identical.
Cars and their assembly lines have grown more complex–with assembly and sub-assembly lines–but the worker's task hasn't. The assembly plants grew bigger, and the lines longer, but the process was divided again and again into narrowed tasks, into simple repetition.
More and more, computer-aided machines assist or replace human assembly work, using hydraulic arms and the like. The repetitive movements of the assembly line can be timed precisely and programmed to be flawless. Now, I don't really pity the worker who loses his job, or is relocated because a machine has replaced him. He's better off, in my opinion, doing the work a machine can't do—something that requires more of him than rote repetition.
But as computers and machines continue to replace workers, workers take on the jobs in between machines. The worker becomes a sort of buffer between one machine and another, making sure that the process continues smoothly, like grease between gears.
As more and more of his job is taken over by computers, the more specific his work becomes. He zooms in further and further on a single step in the process. Eventually, that step gets broken down into component steps. He understands each step more intimately and each step is subdivided and becomes more basic, repetitive. As a result it becomes mechanized—technical, efficient, and precise.
When a machine can do the job, the worker will either lose his job, or he will fit into some even smaller space between two even smaller gears where the process has not yet been neatly figured out. In this way, the worker constantly works on a narrower piece of the whole.
I see this in my own work as well, which is far from an assembly line but empowered daily by a computer. I sit working on a piece of writing, correcting errors and fixing mistakes. When a pattern of mistakes emerges, I use the computer to help me find every occurrence. The deeper I go, the more ways I see to divide the process into component parts. I find myself working in between computer programs and automatic scripts, getting them to work with each other.
I'm no longer using the computer to help me. I'm helping the computer do my job. Am I the only one who has experienced this?
I don't say all this to decry the use of computers and machines. Instead, I want to understand how they funnel users into narrower roles with more redundancy before eliminating us altogether. I want to understand how we continually break down our jobs into discrete steps that can be mechanized. Machines have created an environment for us where we're forced to do these repetitive tasks. Because we hate repetition (it creates calluses after all), we seek ways to eliminate it from our lives . . . by mechanizing it.
This reflex of relying on computers reduces our role into being the grease between ever small gears. It also forces us into managing computer-aided activities. Even more, for me at least, it causes me to feel frustrated at the things that cannot be programmatically resolved. I come to resent the computer for the tasks it leaves for me to do.
Is there an alternative to this assembly line model of work? Do we have a choice other than becoming grease between gears?
The assembly line is the solution we came up with based on a single value–efficiency. Ford created the assembly to increase production and reduce costs. That's efficiency. We adopt that value as our own every time we choose to assign our repetitive tasks to a computer or a machine. It's hard to see an alternative. This is because we can't see an alternative that doesn't sacrifice efficiency. And that sacrifice does not seem to be an option.
But what if it was?