Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 42 (2017)
©2017 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Review

James Steinhoff
University of Western Ontario


BookMindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans. By Simon Head. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014. 230 pp. ISBN: 9780465018444.


In Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans (2014), Simon Head introduces the reader to the occult world of “Computer Business Systems” (p. 4) or CBSs. CBSs are defined as largely invisible “amalgams of different technologies that are pulled together to perform highly complex tasks in the control and monitoring of business, including their employees” (p. 6). Head shows how CBSs employ digital networks, large quantities of data, data visualizations, and artificial intelligence in the form of expert systems, towards ends teleologically isomorphic to those of another complex technological system: the Taylorist-Fordist mass production system. Head understands CBSs as tools of rationalization in the interests of profit-maximization and describes them as “essentially latter-day vehicles of Scientific Management, vastly empowered by information technology” (p. 186).

Head’s main objective is to show how with the proliferation of CBS technology, the principles of Scientific Management have spread from the industrial production of material commodities to the provision of services and even to the handling of human resources. It is when the logic of industrial production is applied to complex human social scenarios that Head asserts an egregious phenomenon called “misindustrialization” (p. 64) occurs. The apex of misindustrialization is explored in the book’s most compelling chapters (4 and 6), in which Head draws a disturbing and convincing parallel between CBSs and the rationalization of human cognitive and emotional processes in the fields of Human Resource Management (HRM) and emotional labour theory. These chapters are disturbing in that they reveal that CBS technology might be what the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari (2009) have called an abstract machine, or a set of techniques, broadly construed, that govern or control human and non-human action in diverse instantiations. Head shows how the doctrines of emotional labour theory repeat the rationalizing processes of CBS technology “in places where information technology itself is absent”—the minds of employees (p. 103).

Head explains CBS technology in the first chapter by referring to the only available source: product manuals provided by CBS producers. He then goes on to show how CBS technology now lies unseen at the centres of countless private and public enterprises, and how it has its origins in the military conflicts of World War II and the Cold War. He does this by presenting a wide-ranging series of case studies examining how CBSs and CBS logic have been deployed. Cases include Walmart and Amazon, Microsoft and Toshiba, Goldman Sachs, the Chinese Communist Party, and, surprisingly, the venerable University of Oxford.

Guiding these case studies is a simple yet effective model of the two means by which CBS technologies function: “Corporate Panoptics” (p. 167) or the “empowerment of top management with the electronic representation of the corporate organism in its entirety and in real time” (p. 167) and “Business Process Reengineering” (p. 25-26), which subjects all aspects of business to optimization based on the data gathered by Corporate Panoptics. These two processes are separated for analytic purposes only, for as Head notes, they are now “fused as a continuous activity” (p. 26). The data gathered by Corporate Panoptics are, however, necessarily reductive. They are abstractions of complex concrete situations, and thus CBSs operate in what, drawing on Paul Edwards (1997), Head calls a “closed world” (p. 152) or a “system of thought that, though seemingly systematic and coherent, excludes important segments of the reality it seeks to explain” (p. 152–153).

Head repeatedly emphasizes that this construction of an abstracted alternate digital reality is an inherently political act because CBSs do not follow a neutral technological logic but instead reflect the “expertise of the technical, managerial elite whose wisdom is baked into the system” (p. 185). Head argues that as work and leisure activities increasingly come to be structured around, instead of augmented by, the logic of CBSs, the fundamental goal of Scientific Management—the “separation of detailed planning of work from its execution,” so well documented by Harry Braverman (1998)—finds a new intensity of expression. It is of such severity that Head holds that we are witnessing “the emergence of a new white-collar working class, subject to all the regimentation and discipline of its factory predecessor, but lacking the latter’s solidarity, its willingness to organize and to fight its cause in the workplace” (p. 28). Just as factory workers of the past centuries were deskilled, so are today’s cognitive and affective labourers, Head argues. This is the dumbing-down mentioned in the book’s title, and it coincides with an enlightenment of management. Head writes that the “reverse side of the empowerment of experts is the complete disempowerment of nonexperts” (p. 27).

Head is, however, no technological determinist. He holds that CBSs are a potential arena of political contest. To demonstrate this, Chapter 3, “A Future for the Middle Class,” studies a German tool company whose horizontalist structure contrasts starkly with North American corporate hierarchies. Head thus asserts the need for labour unions to lever power against CBS-enabled “management hegemony” (p. 47). He not only only repeats this familiar position, he offers a specific line of argument. Head holds that “the case against the new digital industrialism needs in the first instance to be an economic case, because the ethical divorced from the economic lacks traction” (p. 189). Head’s economic argument is that while using CBS technology to diminish the role of labour in production, management has “overlooked the identity between producers and consumers, ignoring the wisdom of Henry Ford when he introduced the five-dollar day” (p. 190). By devaluing labour and replacing it with machinery, management reduces labour’s ability to consume—and thus to continue to labour.

While Head is certainly correct to assert this, he spends little time elaborating how this paradoxical situation is only a local manifestation of a systemic problem in capitalist economies. As Karl Marx pointed out in 1857–1858: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth” (Marx 1993, p. 706). Emphasizing the systematicity with which technologies are assimilated by the larger dynamics of capital could only enhance the focused analysis of a particular technology, such as that undertaken by Head. 

There are few other issues to take with Head’s lucid and accessible exposition. Though a minor detail, this reader thought that the first chapter, which explains the nature of CBSs, could have benefited from increased detail concerning the workings of CBSs, particularly in the form of diagrams or screenshots that show exactly how their closed world is represented to management.

Overall, Mindless is a worthy contribution to the critical literature on information technologies. It is a no-nonsense work that effectively explains to the reader a now-pervasive component of technological cultures. Students and scholars in Media Studies, Communications Studies, Labour Studies, and Science and Technology Studies, and anyone interested in automation technologies generally, will find this work of interest and use.

References

Braverman, Harry. (1998). Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York, NY: NYU Press. (Originally published in 1974)

Deleuze, Gilles, & Guattari, Félix. (2009). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London, UK: Penguin Books. (Originally published in 1972)

Edwards, Paul N. (1997). The closed world: Computers and the politics of discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marx, Karl. (1993). Grundrisse. London, UK: Penguin Books. (Originally published in 1973)




License URL: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5/ca/
  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

SSHRC LOGO