De–skilling through Technology: friend and foe

Once, and for a mercifully short time, I lived on the very western edge of Bournemouth. You might recall that Ford considered his article for the Guide describing how to have a good time in Bournemouth to be one of his finest pieces of fiction. So, I was often wanting to go away, farther away than I could sensibly go on my pseudo-vintage motorcycle in what time was available. That meant going from the County Gates to Bournemouth railway station. This could be done on the cramped, slow local bus or at great expense by taxi.

But I noticed that the long–distance coaches coming in from the even further south and west of England made one last stop before Bournemouth Coach Station (adjacent to the railway station) in Westbourne, just around the corner from me. These coaches are large, have luggage space and go fast on major roads. And the on–line booking system did not blink an electronic eye at me buying and downloading to print out a 90 pence ticket to ride from Westbourne to Bournemouth. The drivers of the coaches did blink when I got on there, but I had a ticket so they shrugged and went about their business. That's nice. Imagine the counter–arguments that would likely come from a human ticket agent who knows only too well the various alternatives to doing so preposterous a thing as riding a long–haul coach half–way across the town where you live.

Now, much more recently I was on the very edge of the very agreeable city of Charlotte, North Carolina. I had been down–town to check out the excellent Mint Museum. Being a citizen of the Socialist People's Republic of Europe I naturally tried to do the journey by public transport. Charlotte has a pretty good public transport system, C.A.T.S. However, it turned out that the bus service that would otherwise run from exactly the last stop of the light rail system (the "Lynx") to exactly my hotel was not running that day. Nice try, but I have to do the last few miles by cab. Now, I am a stranger to the city and am in any case in a fairly obscure part of it. I call a cab company and while I can explain with a certain degree of accuracy where I want to go, I don't know where I am.

And that's a problem.

The cabs are guided by GPS, so they need an exact street address for pickup and set down. This is so that the drivers do not need to know their way around. That's a pretty shocking concept for a resident of London, where cab drivers know their way around so well it changes their brains. Troublesome de–skill #1.

All I know is that I'm at the last stop of the Blue Line, but I don't know where that is. And neither does the dispatcher at the cab company—after all, all they do is pass on the co–ordinates of two places they don't know the location of to drivers who don't know the route between them. De–skill #2. Luckily for me, the dispatcher thought that they knew someone who might be able to figure out where this Lynx station was. I should call back in a few minutes. I do so, and by virtue of the elevated situation of the station I can call off enough landmarks (that is, names of shopping malls) for this person at the other end to work out where I am. My hotel, for some reason, they can look up very easily.

Some time later a cab rolls up. And it turns out that all this marvellous de–skilling has been wasted because the guy is a veteran driver and knows the district like the back of his hand.

Also, once I'm seated and strapped in, his first question is: so, where are we going?


Skene said...

Hi Keith,

This is the classic argument on division of labour that Adam Smith considered in 'An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations'. On the one hand, Smith was quite keen on division of labour, as exemplified by his Pin Factory example, in which he observed that one man, charged with the tasks of cutting the wire to make a pin, sharpening the point, affixing the head of the pin etc, might only make 20 or so pins a day. But, if each of these tasks were assigned to a different labourer, the total output of the factory might be of the order of several tens of thousands of pins a day, despite the fact that each labourer in consequence required a much reduced skill set.

Smith mentions several advantages of division of labour, in addition to the obvious increase in efficiency. On the other hand, Smith also knew the disadvantages of deskilling, as illustrated by this stark passage: 'The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.' (Characteristics that we might well ascribe to London Taxi drivers, actually, who in the course of 'Doing the Knowledge' lose the ability to go south of the river...)

I think that we are very lucky as computer scientists in this day and age that our industry is not so well understood that labour can be easily divided, and moreover I regard computer programs to be objects of direct philosophical inquiry, interaction with which is (usually) satisfactory in its own right. That said, much of what we attempt to achieve when we develop methodological advice is to limit our own freedoms in this respect.

However, this is not so much our fault as that of the economists. The present capitalist system, for all its advantages, is based on theories such as the division of labour that strike me as still having 'open issues', such as their tendency to deskill and dehumanise, or promote financial instability, corruption, and inequity and its attendant problems. I'm not by any means suggesting that a socialist system is preferable. But, it would be nice to hope that economists are busy at work designing new incentive systems without these flaws.


keithb said...

Hi James,
I often think that Smith was more of a naturalist of free market economics than an advocate—he tells us how it is, pro and con. Something apparently lost on many of those who quote him more selectively than you have done.

Alienation is a big issue for the worker in a system with division of labour. I have a feeling that many of the folks who come to work as commercial programmers are perhaps more at risk from being taken advantage of in that way than some others. We do like to disappear down our rat holes of specialisation a little bit too much. Whereas assembly line workers who have had enough of being scientifically managed tend to go on strike, or otherwise kick up a fuss.

Meanwhile, the majority of our methodological efforts have had more or less explicit divisions of labour as a strong thread within them. To our detriment. And also, it turns out, to the detriment of our customers—programs are not pins.

mfeathers said...

You'd be at home in Miami where I have never seen a GPS in a cab (ever). And, the bus drivers do know their way around. On the other hand, they only accept cash and that makes the service more like Germany's than any place I've been in Europe.

The best cab service in the world (in my opinion) is in Finland. They all have GPS (yet know where things are), accept debit and credit cards, and are -extremely- polite.

Sorry I don't have any insights into division of labor this morning, but I am in a very literal mood.