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Mindlessly We Roll Along


There are no doubt many reasons for the PhD glut and the resulting insane academic job market. But one of them is surely that, dreary as academic life can be, most work in the real world sucks even worse. The life of a middle or senior manager, devoted to shaving fractions of a penny per unit off supply costs or squeezing a few tenths of a percent higher output from already overworked employees is—unless you are blessed with a near-total lack of imagination—boring beyond belief or endurance.

And they’re the lucky ones. Those of us they manage may as well be robots, and soon will be. A robot is not something made of metal, plastics, and transistors that mimics certain human behaviors—robots may soon enough be carbon-based, reasonable facsimiles of flesh and blood. A robot, whatever it’s made of, is something wholly programmed for someone else’s purposes. Increasingly, that’s most of us, as Simon Head explains in his short, devastating new book, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (Basic Books, 230 pages, $26.99).

You probably think CBS is the name of a television network. No, a CBS (Computerized Business System) is what runs your life from 9 to 5. CBSs are “vast networks of computers joined by software systems and the Internet, with the power to manage the affairs of global corporations and to drill down and micromanage the work of their single employees or teams of employees.” Taylorism for the Electronic Age, but with a twist. Advances in management science and computer hardware have succeeded in bringing “the disciplines of industrialism to an economic space that extends far beyond the factories and construction sites of the industrial economy of the machine age: to wholesale and retail, financial services, secondary and higher education, health care, customer relations management and human resources management, public administration, corporate management at all levels save the highest, and even the fighting of America’s wars.”

This system has completely programmed movements for the worker-helots in Amazon warehouses and Foxconn factories; completely programmed emotions (or at least facial expressions) for service personnel; completely programmed responses for cold-callers and “customer care” reps. This is the goal to which a vast hive of researcher-drones have dedicated themselves, turning out thousands of bulky manuals and journals aimed at preventing even the slightest outbreak of spontaneity, individuality, or creativity among the worker-robots.

Head, a journalist, reports on these ghastly developments briskly and informatively, without falling into theory-speak. He’s politically savvy, though, and understands perfectly well that the connection between de-skilling and income inequality is not fortuitous. It’s not only that robots need less money to live on and have no selves to express. Even more important, they are perfectly interchangeable and replaceable. They have no bargaining power. All the know-how and institutional memory resides at the top or in the manuals. The robots merely tend the machines or process the customers.

The idea that work should be free, creative activity and “life’s prime want” (Marx), not just for the exceptionally gifted (and then only if they eventually generate revenue) or for youthful fanatics willing to live on next to nothing (they’re mostly youthful, since you can’t live to a ripe old age on next to nothing), is gradually becoming unintelligible. A mindless global workforce is twenty-first-century capitalism’s agenda.

“It is not hard to see what needs to be done,” Head concludes: “the creation of higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs . . . backed by effective institutions of education and training.” No, that wasn’t hard. But how? “The political task is to create a dominant coalition . . . that would include low-income minorities and whites of the Walmart and Amazon world, middle managers and middle administrators whose incomes have been steadily eroding, and even non-elite professionals, who have been suffering the same fate.” That’s hard.