X Is Not About Y: Technological Improvements and Cognitive-Physical Demands

post by Gram_Stone · 2017-01-15T17:49:29.649Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 10 comments

(I, the author, no longer endorse this article. I find it naive in hindsight.)

 

Recall the following template:

In some cases, human beings have evolved in such fashion as to think that they are doing X for prosocial reason Y, but when human beings actually do X, other adaptations execute to promote self-benefiting consequence Z.

I work in the sign industry, and it's worth knowing that the sign industry mostly involves printing images on cast sheets of polyvinyl chloride with adhesive on the back of it. This allows you to stick a graphic just about anywhere. Good-old-fashioned signs are now just a special case of vinyl application where the surface is a quadrilateral.

But sometimes, it seems like you could cut out the vinyl installation process: if you just wanted a solid white sign with some black text, and the substrate you're going to apply the vinyl to is already white, wouldn't it be nice if you could just print some black text directly on the substrate?

That's what a flatbed printer is for, which you can imagine as your standard HP desktop printer at 100x magnification with an unusually long air hockey table where the paper slot should be.

Now, when the management was trying to get the workforce excited about this new technological artifact, they would say things like, "This new artifact will reduce the amount of time that you spend on vinyl application, leaving you less stressed and with a decreased workload."

But when we actually started to use the artifact, our jobs didn't actually become less stressful, and our workloads didn't actually decrease.

I mean, yeah, we could technically produce the same number of signs in less time, but a corollary of this statement is that we could produce more signs in the same amount of time, which is what we actually did.

So, I propose the subtemplate:

Employer proposes the introduction of technological artifact X, ostensibly to reduce physical or cognitive demands, but when the employer actually introduces technological artifact X, they realize it can be used to increase output and do that instead.

I wonder if anyone else has more examples?

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2017-01-16T01:46:08.443Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's been commented on before, once or twice!

Hitherto [1848] it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot.

— John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy

Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working-day in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist.

— Karl Marx, Capital

comment by Gram_Stone · 2017-01-16T01:51:48.669Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure if this should make me feel better or worse.

comment by TiffanyAching · 2017-01-15T18:43:01.328Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

'Twas ever thus. Bob at WidgetCorp says to his boss "You are demanding an unfair amount of labor from me for the wages you offer. You are demanding that I make 20 widgets a day. 15 widgets - or a raise - would be more fair." Management says "don't fret Bob! We've just installed the new Widgetron™. Making widgets will take half the time! By the way... we now need you to make 40 widgets a day. Hop to it."

I think you're giving the bosses here too much credit - or too little, I guess, depending on how you look at it, The main template describes how people may deceive themselves about their motivations for doing X. But surely in your example the employers never believed that reducing workload and stress were why they were getting the new big-ass printer? They got it because it was an investment in a new piece of equipment that would increase their profits by allowing their workers to make more signs in the same amount of time.

I mean, unless your employers are very different to mine, the "they realize" and "instead" parts of your subtemplate don't apply. There's no instead. They got the printer to maximize profits and then came up with something to tell their workforce about how it would reduce stress and workload. They lied - though the individuals involved might have described euphemistically it as "positive spin" or whatever.

Now, maybe your employers are nicer than mine - maybe your bosses only realized after they bought the BAP that they could use it to increase profits - but in my experience, top brass don't sign off on spending a bunch of money on new technology unless it has been thoroughly demonstrated that the new technology will help the bottom line. I would have said that usually it goes:

Employer realizes that technological artifact X can be used to increase productivity and decide to introduce it. In an attempt to maintain workplace morale as an added benefit, they bullshit their workers about how technological artifact X will reduce physical and/or cognitive demands.

Though this strategy can backfire when the workforce realize that T.A. X reduces physical demands while increasing cognitive demands, or reduces cognitive demands while increasing physical demands, or reduces neither, or worst of all, reduces the necessary workforce. Still, by the time they realize this it's often to late to do anything about it and T.A. X is the new normal.

Nobody ever tells Bob that his new target is, say, 35 widgets - an actual decrease in real workload - unless Bob has some leverage, whether it be labor laws or his union or his ability to take his skills and experience across the road to Widgets'R'Us.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2017-01-15T21:10:38.952Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, post hoc rationalization or deception makes more sense than what I said.

comment by TiffanyAching · 2017-01-16T02:34:26.371Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Now that I think of it you're not entirely wrong either though. There must, at some level, be a certain amount of rationalization in the minds of managers who implement changes that are not going to make anyone's lives easier, and then lie and say they will - because most people don't like to think of themselves as cynical bastards. Is it a doublethink thing? Do they tell the board that it'll increase profits by doubling widget production, and then go out on the floor and say it'll make life easier, and somehow hold both as true in their minds at the same time?

I've been a manager, but I don't recall ever doing that. I'm pretty sure I always told people "They're giving us a new widget thing. We'll be able to make twice as many widgets in a day. You get to spend Wednesday training on it instead of working." My people were generally fine with that. It made no difference to the X amount of work they were doing per day, and if X was acceptable to all parties and the coffee strong and plentiful, everyone was happy.

Until, of course, Widgetron™ turned out to be an overpriced pile of crap that kept breaking down, but that's another issue.

comment by Viliam · 2017-01-16T11:33:46.570Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You get to spend Wednesday training on it instead of working.

As soon as Widgetron™ becomes the industry standard, there will be no Wednesday trainings anymore. Knowing how to use Widgetron™ will be a job requirement.

comment by TiffanyAching · 2017-01-16T22:19:00.371Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And then every job applicant needs a WOC (Widget Operations Certificate) before they'll even be considered for the role, and then there's a whole quasi-academic professional body set up to provide training courses and administer the WOC test, and so that provides employment to a bunch of Widget Operations Instructors... Economics is weird.

comment by Viliam · 2017-01-16T11:28:04.027Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Here is my simplistic understanding of economy:

Imagine that Alice can create 100 utilons if she works alone. Bob can also create 100 utilons if he works alone. (They are doing different things.) But if Alice and Bob cooperate, they can create 500 utilons together. How will those 500 utilons be divided between them?

The answer depends on how easy it is for Alice to replace Bob in their partnership, and how easy it is for Bob to replace Alice. If there is only one Alice, but thousands of Bobs, we can expect that Alice will keep 399 utilons, and Bob will get 101 utilons. Because if he doesn't take the deal, some other Bob will.

Now imagine that Alice + Bob + Machine can make 1000 utilons if they all work together. What happens now?

Well, if there is still only one Alice and thousand Bobs, and if Alice owns the Machine... again, we can expect Bob to get the same 101 utilons, or get replaced by another Bob.

(Of course in real life there is usually more than literally one Alice, but the point is about how relatively easy it is for each side to replace the other side.)

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2017-01-15T21:28:50.058Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The new machine has nothing to do with anything. Your bosses will try to get as much productivity out of you as possible, just below the point at which you will quit and go somewhere else. So how hard you have to work isn't a function of the conditions at your workplace, but rather a function of the conditions at the other jobs you could possibly move to (and of how hard other potential workers are willing to work).

For example it could have been that there wasn't much demand for more signs, and so when you got the new machine your employers couldn't increase production. But this wouldn't have meant you had to work less hard. Instead they would have fired some of the workforce until the rest of you were working just as hard as before.

comment by CronoDAS · 2017-01-16T16:11:55.490Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

They could cut hours, which sometimes does happen in some industries, but then each worker gets paid less because they're paid by the hour, and individual hourly workers often prefer more hours and more money to fewer hours and less money. (Places like retail stores that hire a lot of part-time workers are notorious for this - people get scheduled for more hours at times of the year when they expect to be busier and fewer when they expect less, but they don't usually have outright layoffs.)