Whose Brave New World?:
The Information Highway & the New Economy

200 pages,
ISBN: 1896357024

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Just in Time for Lean & Mean
by Henry Lackner

"The rich are getting richer and more powerful-the poor and the middle class are being flattened...not since the depression of the thirties have so many young families been at such risk for economic security.... By 1993 only half of Canadian breadwinners had a full-time job.... When jobs do emerge, most of them are part-time, term, temporary, or contract."
So writes Menzies, in her most recent book. As root cause she fingers the new silicon technology: the new synthesis of computer hardware, computer software, and high-bandwidth data communication.
In 1949, Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, warned of a second industrial revolution, where thinking machinery would replace thinking workers. The pundits sneered at him, insisting that the new machinery would create more jobs than it would destroy. As is now obvious, Wiener was right, the pundits were wrong. No amount of technological retraining will bring back the jobs when the work can be done more cheaply by machines. The first industrial revolution did indeed expand employment, but only after about fifty years.
Unlike the modern Luddites, Menzies seeks not to eliminate automation and the information highway. Rather she calls for a radical restructuring, for ordinary people and their communities to take control of the technology. Under such conditions automation would provide a better life for us all, rather than enhanced power and privilege for the few. Can genuine democracy demand less?
She details how the computer/information-highway complex has now integrated the formerly distinct processes of production, marketing, and consumption, and "how the new economy is extending the scale of monopoly organization to the fullest, while hiding under the virtual corporation": a temporary joint venture co-ordinated through the information highway.
This global "restructuring" requires people to be replaced by machinery, full-time jobs to be replaced by part-time ones, skilled workers to be replaced by unskilled workers, unionized workers to be replaced by casual workers. The work force is polarized. A small, credentialled managerial elite manages the computer system, which controls an army of de-skilled lower-class workers. F. W. Taylor's turn-of-the-century "scientific management" is back, squeezing out a worker's maximum productivity while disregarding occupational health and safety, and paying the minimum.
Menzies points out how engineered high unemployment rates, the gutting of social benefits, and "just-in-time" labour enable enterprises to hire and discard workers to custom-fit their computer-determined production schedules.
She points to a computer-integrated "corporate systems economy driven by global stock and bond markets and their constant appetite for profit margins...an international financial market, wired and digitized to become a perpetual motion machine."
She explains how this new world order protects itself with a "Newspeak": a self-serving "discourse" that permits minor debate but prevents any challenge to the new economic framework. Human suffering is covered up, trivialized with abstract verbiage like "downsizing", "re-engineering", and "just-in-time" labour. Cruder protection, she explains, comes from the ever more monopolistic media, controlled by the very business interests who make up the new world order; and from the prestigious right-wing thinktanks. Pundits love to quote the Fraser and the C. D. Howe institutes, while avoiding the more left-wing Canadian Coalition on Policy Alternatives.
The raw facts themselves are not controversial. The right may celebrate, and the left may be horrified, yet both factions document the same processes of cybernation and economic concentration in their popular books and their technical papers. Both sides point to the same effects on working people and the less well-off. In The Spirit of Enterprise, George Gilder waxes enthusiastic about the new poverty, thrilled that it goads people to work for less, and forces people to be creative in starting their own businesses. The Great Reckoning, by Davidson and Rees-Mogg, boasts the most comprehensive, the most thoroughly documented, the most historically grounded, and the most logically thought-out account of the austere new order. Brutally objective but lucidly written, the book claims that workers have long been overpaid. Both of these works are completely free of Newspeak.
Where Menzies excels is in demonstrating how the various informational innovations evolved to produce today's computer-integrated and worldwide exploitation of people and resources.
Hardware inventions make possible the advances in software, without which today's business restructuring would be impossible. RAM (computer memory) capacity doubles every two years ("Moore's Law"). Mass storage capacity (hard disk), processing speed, resolution of VDT (display), and other component capacities keep pace. Modems connecting computer to computer squeeze more and more channel capacity out of existing telephone lines. These lines are increasingly replaced by ultra-high-speed optical fibre and other high-bandwidth technologies. Instant transmission of the most complex information becomes possible from department to department, from branch to branch, from business to business.
In the office, typing, filing, accounting, information retrieval, and much else have long been computerized, making much of the work force redundant. On the factory floor as well, computerized machinery replaces machinists. Minimally skilled workers now tend programmed machines. Robots replace people moving workpieces from one "numerically controlled" machine to another.
Next comes "computer integrated manufacturing", combining office automation with factory automation: software examines the manufacturers' incoming orders, determining what to manufacture, at what time, in what way. The software maintains the inventory of raw materials and programs the numerically controlled machines to match the computer-calculated production schedule. Human managerial work is eliminated.
High-bandwidth business-to-business computer links encourage manufacturers to establish intimate relationships with their suppliers. With "electronic data interchange" (EDI), the manufacturer injects his orders for raw materials directly and immediately into the supplier's software. Bypassed are paperwork bottlenecks and paperwork jobs. Many large companies will now do business with suppliers only via EDI.
This intimacy enables the supplier to deliver raw materials directly to the manufacturer's factory floor, daily or more often, just as the inputs are needed. With this just-in-time inventory, gone is the need for storage space; money is no longer tied up in maintaining large inventories.
If one gets rid of not yet needed raw materials, why not get rid of not yet needed workers as well? A superbly skilled machinist is a valuable asset. Numerically controlled machines can make do with minimally trained workpiece feeders, a dime a dozen under today's conditions of high unemployment. With just-in-time labour, workers are hired as needed, discarded when the job is finished.
Lars Osberg and others, writing in their book Vanishing Jobs, point out-unlike Menzies-that high unemployment is essential to just-in-time labour; lower interest rates would raise full-time employment enough to deplete the supply of potential temporaries. Large-scale just-in-time labour would become impossible.
Menzies, on the other hand, makes technology the root cause of unemployment. We would then have to say that technology-induced business/government restructuring puts functionaries in power who keep interest rates high for a powerful technological elite. This elite profits from just-in-time labour and the other effects of high interest rates. The ruthless assault on inefficiency continues with "lean production", which cuts manufacturing inputs by as much as half. Workplace traditions are shattered as workers are cajoled, indoctrinated, and threatened to work with utmost efficiency-and to help set up work systems that do so. Computer monitoring threatens the recalcitrant and the ineffective workers. Wherever it's cheaper, work is "outsourced" rather than done in-house, and products are redesigned to be manufactured with minimal labour.
Meanwhile high-bandwidth data transmission costs crash through the floor, thanks to government-paid research handed out free to private industry. So it often becomes cheapest to export work like data entry thousands of miles away, where Third World women often work twelve hours a day in front of a terminal, for unbelievably low wages.
With such cheap and fast data communication, it becomes most efficient for manufacturers, their former competitors, their suppliers, their distributors, their bankers, and their customers to network together through EDI. Intercompany software, outsourcing, virtual corporations, and other joint ventures join the long-existing interlocking directorships to blur the boundaries of individual firms. Competition gives way to information age oligopoly: the "industrial ecosystem".
So the stage is set for "agile production". Instant retooling takes over the factory floor as standardized prefabricated lego-like machine components are instantly assembled in varying combinations to make whatever products the market demands. Toolmakers become redundant. With agile production, there is no longer a single factory floor. Manufacturing is distributed worldwide. Head office software determines where products can be made most cheaply: perhaps in a completely automated factory in the U.S., or by homeworkers in the Philippines, or perhaps in a child-labour sweatshop in Pakistan or Mexico, or maybe even a top secret sweatshop womaned by illegals back in the U.S. Software at the head office often programs machinery and monitors workers thousands of miles away.
Giant retailers are merging into the industrial ecosystem, closing the loop between consumption and manufacture. Scanners at checkout counters read bar codes, from which software predicts what will sell. The software decides where and how the popular products will be manufactured, advertised, and distributed. Other software scans the globe (via the information highway) for the cheapest sources for standard products. The retail world now also boasts just-in-time inventory and just-in-time labour, as full-time work gives way to "Macjobs".
Menzies assumes that a computer-integrated international financial system dominates the commercial-industrial system, though she does not discuss this. More money is to be made in trading pieces of companies than in manufacturing pieces of merchandise. The highest profits of all are to be made gambling on exchange rates. Far more dollars are spent on this currency speculation than on business investment. Banks buy the supercomputers and mathematicians that universities can no longer afford, to predict exchange rate changes from minute to minute. Money, now unregulated, changes denomination in such quantities and at such speeds that horse-and-buggy government regulators couldn't keep track even if they wanted to. Power shifts from elected governments to computer-integrated business systems. No wonder the prime minister has lamented to an audience of union leaders that the government can no longer control its currency, or its monetary policy. Yet there are those who claim the government can regain control of the economy but lacks the will to do so.
With the worldwide financial-business system and its beneficiaries so firmly entrenched, it's no wonder Menzies considers piecemeal economic tinkering futile. Instead she calls for bottom-up revolution, summoning grass-roots organizations-union locals, women's groups, anti-poverty advocates, environmental groups-to form coalitions. These must first debunk the Newspeak of the privileged, then force democratic change. The groups must act locally in the areas that they know best and where they are most powerful. She waxes enthusiastic about the Internet, the Freenets, and the community Nets that allow ordinary Canadians, and not just big business, to network across the world. She believes that virtual corporations can be countered with virtual unions, temporary joint ventures of activist groups, performing locally, but co-ordinated by way of the Internet to act in many locales at the same time. She points to organizations such as the Canadian Coalition on Policy Alternatives that are already implementing what she recommends.
Unfortunately, this valuable book is poorly written and organized. It seems to have been cobbled together out of previous publications with minimal editing. For example, "lean production" occurs as a section heading, but the term is missing from the index.
Menzies castigates big business Newspeak, but loads her discussions with the same jargon. To this she adds the fashionable Newspeak of poststructuralist feminism. Though she asks us to think the thoughts, to feel the feelings of suffering disenfranchised workers, she avoids their clear, simple, and incisive language. Workers' voices we have to find elsewhere, as in Garson's lucid The Electronic Sweatshop. In contrast, Menzies walks the walk and talks the talk of her fellow professionals, activist Canadian feminist academics. Her actual policy recommendations are weak and poorly thought-out. To save human work she suggests a kind of tax on high-tech machines. How much simpler and more workable simply to tax layoffs! Even today some American states raise the unemployment tax for firms who discard workers.
Menzies has written a revealing book, but pro-worker activists would do far better with the comprehensive strategy recommendations of Jane Kelsey. Her "Tips on How to Oppose Corporate Rule" are available free on the Internet.

Henry Lackner is a science and business writer who lives in Halifax.


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