Control of Technology

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I must admit that I have never shared the views of radical currents, neither right nor left political trends. But I also have to say that what I do not like of these waves is the way how they manipulate people to adhere to their points. Of course, one can choose one or other option depending on a particular life, a specific event lived and the lenses that the environment puts on us. In this essay I try to adhere to the factual information and data found and I made a realistic analysis using the criteria that the evidence gave to me.

In the first part I summarize what many authors of the past century believed about the influence of the technology in capitalist organizations, I write this part with the intention to show what my arguments against refer to. In the second part I try to visualize the situation and motivations of those writers that made them to focus their books in a deterministic way. Finally, I develop my points of view against these author´s statements, by using more recent and updated information presented in some publications.

1. What they believe and why

The development of the society based upon science and industry had led to some injustices that some authors recognize being a characteristic of the capitalism and its players.

Firstly, Braverman(1974) states that technical forces in the last century caused the shift in occupation of the working population. He shows figures and statistics which reflect the downsizing of the working class in a period of years since the beginning of the Industrialization. According to this author, any new technology incorporated in the production process is intended to diminish the workers´ skill and reduce it to simple labor. By doing this, managers can buy the labor power more cheaply as dissociated elements than as a capacity integrated in a single worker. The division of labor, he says, is done to separate the knowledge from the workers; and technology is used to increase the amount of managerial control over individual´s work and the product of this.

Over time and with the new technologies available, the work shop style was transferred to the office and also the control and deskilling of the clerical workers. But even ´collar-jobs´ received the same approach; he states, for example, that the number of employed engineers was reduced because there was an intense concentration of conceptual and design knowledge in the computers and numerical control instrumentation.

Another writer, Marglin(1974), supports this view and goes further, when he said  that the production was organized in such a way that the knowledge of the process rested with the capitalist. And Hobson (1926, p. 349) argued that the technologically imposed design of low-discretion jobs made the individuals easily replaceable by any other and so "all men are equal before the machine".

Then, according to Clegg and Dunkerley(1980) technology, job design and organizational structure are imposed to workers, creating high levels of disaffection and alienation, thus making them display a lack of commitment that managers interpreted as laziness and unreliability. Following these assumptions, consistent with McGregor´s "Theory X", managers rationally introduced technology forms of tougher control and a more extensive use of scientific management which creates a vicious circle. But, other authors such as Trist and Bamforth(1951) did experiments which demonstrated that an extensive division of labor was unsuitable and unnecessary with the introduction of more advanced technology; they also found that the hierarchy could be made more simple instead of complex when using technological innovations. This and other researches gave more basis to the deterministic view that the major aim of technology in industrial organizations is ´to gain, maintain and increase control over labour in such organizations´ (Clegg and Dunkerley, 1980, pag. 348).

2. What do these authors have in common? Why do they think in this radical way?

Most authors base their thoughts in the assumption that managers, capitalists and owners are motivated in their application of managerial principles by the concerns of profit, economic growth and efficiency. It is actually true in most cases, but this vision had prevented these writers to afford all real aspects that are involved when putting technology into practice.

These similar ideas came from authors that were born in the 19th or 20th century, when the industrializing wave reached its peak. They also refer their research to developed countries where there was a lot of pressure to get higher standard of richness in those times. Many of them were influenced by Marx´s ideas about the Capitalism and their studies mostly were intended to explain the working class conditions in factories and similar. And of course, some of these authors lived in conflicting times such as 1st or 2nd World War; they felt closely the current of Communism, Capitalist and maybe the Cold War. These and other factors made them to adopt a particular posture at the time they published their writings.

It was a surprise for me that these authors hardly explained about the conditions of workers in the public sector or the Communist countries (which also applied Taylor´s scientific management); this indicates that they had a clear intention when writing their books. However, even if doing a more complete research in all sectors and countries, it is obvious that these writers constructed many of their arguments with biased evidence.

For example, there are tables with data such as the one presented in page 238,240 chapter 10 and page 379, chapter 17 of Braverman´s book in which he states that "a necessary consequence of management and technology is a reduction in the demand of labor" and "the accelerated increase of other working groups has taken up the workers released from factory employment".

P.K.Whelpton 1926, Alba Edwards 1943 and Bureau of Labor Statistics 1970 cited in Braverman, 1974 ,pag. 238.

Alba Edwards 1943,David L. Kaplan, M. Claire Casey 1958 and U.S. Bureau of the Census 1964, 1973 cited in Braverman, 1974, pag. 379

Why does not Braverman see as a good thing the fact of more and new workers employed in the period mentioned? When presenting his analysis, Braverman never mentioned important details to understand well the whole situation. Why does not he present numbers about the demography in those years? As we can see in those periods, there is an overwhelmingly growth of population which had pressed industries to produce more goods to be consumed. That big mass of workers that migrated to cities was the consumers of most products and the graphics clearly show that more employment was created.  Why does not Braverman mention what was the real impact of the technology in the economy of those developed countries? Why does not Braverman mention the new skills acquired by the new generation of workers?  Many administrative workers or capitalists in the 70´s were surely the children of the labour workers in the 20`s which it means a rise in the level of those family´s life. Industrialized countries surely got benefit of this wave and enjoy now a better standard of living.

The answer to these questions might be that this author had his point of view but I also believe he did not have enough relevant data or research about what technology was at that time. Technology was treated as only having internal influence in organizations and it was never considered the external linking to environment because according to Moreton, R. and Chester, M.( 1997), Scientific Management focused only on internal efficiency.

3. Arguments against Marxist perspectives

In any sense, Marxists might be right:  the capitalist was someone who tried to get as much money from the resources using any available methodology. But it was not always possible, nowadays we know that any technology incorporated do not get often the desired results because there is an array of factors and key players inside and outside the organizations.

It was just in the latest stages of this era when society realized that Taylor´s concept of ´scientific management´ is not often valid. Moreton and Chester (1997) say that a major misleading premise behind this model is that the product of the work and the circumstances are stable and predictable. Another premise is that the deskilling of operatives´ work and the effect in their motivation will have little impact on the quality of the work done or the products. These authors say that despite of this fact, information technology was incorporated in organizations using the scientific model because it was supposed to fit well but the consequences were not precisely added value or productivity. They found that the rates of improvements fell during the 90´s because the scientific organizational approach does not relate to the external requirements or consider other aspects of organizational development. For example, Taylor and Katambwe (1988 cited in Moreton and Chester, 1997,pag. 11) asserts that "it is the distribution of power within the organization that determines the impact of technology on organization structure and the practice of it".

In the modern industry it can be seen an "advanced manufacturing technology" or AMT which incorporates the capabilities of computer and microprocessors to control machinery. For those who belong to the determinist group, this technology is shaped by the interests of the owners and directors to maximize their control of the production process and obviously to deskill workers (Scarborough, H., 1996).However, AMT jobs design is a decision-making process that involves social actors and interest groups who brings their expertise and knowledge during negotiations.

Corbett 1995, Francis and Grootings 1989, Scarborough and Corbett 1992 cited in Scarborough ed.1996, pag. 101

A research made by CAPIRN (International Research Network on Culture and Production), as cited in Corbett (1995),found that powerful actor in the process of job design seems to be the AMT producer who manages to get users the dependency on their knowledge and expertise. Because manufacturers do not always take users in the design and development phase, this dependency enables them to force the user companies into adopting systems that fits into manufacturers´ own production, development and financing conditions. However, the implementation process will reflect existing constraints and conflicts within the organization and the local and social realities will fragment management objectives. It is in this final use stage when different structures of knowledge become relevant and at this time the social and political choices taken in the technical design phase are rigidly constrained. Then, it is not always easy to incorporate management desires in the job design.

According to Orlikowski W. (1992) in her paper Structurational Model of Technology, "in many organizations, individuals may have little control over when or how to use technology, but these constraints are institutional, and are not inherent in the technological artifact itself. Users can always choose not to utilize a technology, or choose to modify their engagement with it. The notion that technology needs to be appropriated by humans retains the element of control that users always have (however slight) in interacting with technology". Thus, the issue of control is not determined by technology or the way it is used by users, but instead control it is determined by the social practices that might be conditioned by technology. Those social practices might be represented in roles, schedules, deadlines, feedbacks, supervision, electronic surveillance, quality control etc. 

A manager can set organizational control through goals and strategic plans for the organization and then translate them into performance measures but even doing things under control or with a plan it is not guaranteed an optimum performance. Because it all depends on human factor and one of the most difficult things is to monitor the behaviour of individuals, introducing the control trough technology does not mean to ensure the desired results. If human really acted like a "machine" then it would make sense to say that technology in factories or working place is a form of control for workers.


As we all know, capitalism is an economical model that tries to get the most possible profit from each available resource that exists, but this is not always possible and sometimes the ways to get that intention does not work. That is the case when capitalist in the last century used technology to produce more efficiently and to get control of their workers. And radical authors try to convince the readers that it was always possible to get anything through the use of technology.

  • References:

    Braverman , H. (1974). Labor and Monopoly Capital .New York: Monthly Review Press.Ch. 10 and 17.

    Geraghty, T. M. (2007), ´The factory system in the British industrial revolution: A complementary thesis´.  European Economic Review,  vol. 51(6),  pp.  1329-1350.

    Orlikowski, W. J. (1992), ´The Duality of technology, Rethinking the concept of technology in organisations´, Organization Science, vol. 3(3), pp. 398-427.

    Mokyr, J., (2000). ´The Rise and Fall of the Factory System: Technology, Firms and Households since the Industrial Revolution´. Carnegie-Rochester conferences series on Public Policy,55.

    Marglin, S.A. (1974),´What do Bosses Do?- the origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production´, Review of Radical Political Economics, 6, pp.60-112

    Hobson, J.A. (1926), The Evolution of Modern Capitalism, London: Walter Scott

    Clegg, S., Dunkerley, D., (1980), Organization, class and control, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Ch. 9

    Trist, E. L. and Bamforth, K.(1951), ´Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-Getting´, Human Relations, 4, pp.3-38

    Moreton, R. and Chester, M.( 1997), Transforming the Business: The IT contribution, London: McGraw Hill. Chapter 1-3

    Scarborough, H. ed. 1996, The management of expertise, Basingstoke : Macmillan Business. Chapter 6

    Corbett, J.M. , 1995. Designing jobs with advanced manufacturing technology: the negotiation of expertise. In: H. Scarborough, ed. 1996. The management of expertise. Basingstoke : Macmillan Business. Ch. 4.