Rationalized Production

story © Michael Betancourt, December 7, 2015 all rights reserved.


The “rationalization” of industrial processes known as “Taylorism,” appears as the fragmentation of production on the assembly line. This theory initially functions to enable mass production, but finds continued application in the algorythmic translation of agency into digital automation. This approach to how factories organized their processes, codified by engineer and theorist Frederick W. Taylor as “scientific management,” enables the particular type of mass production that defined American industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Links between Modernist art theory and industrial protocols inform the development of the digital. The transformation of machine labor from an extension of human action—as the mechanical amplification of human labor—into the digital, where the machine does not augment but supplant.

Taylor’s book, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), approached manufacturing as an engineering problem where the human element (in the form of the individual worker’s agency) was the factor to be eliminated. Taylor’s approach elides the individual’s expertise in performing their work, replacing it with decisions made by maganement—in the process eliminating their agency. This transformation renders human labor an appendage to the production process, necessary but incidental to the activity being performed—actions that are prescribed and fully delimited in advance of the work being done. It transforms the labor into an unitelligent rendering of managerial agency as the thinking required in production is no longer the domain of labor:

The work of every workman is fully planned out ... describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish as well as the means to be used in doing the work. [Taylor, Frederick. The Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper, 1911) p. 39.]
Taylor’s definition of the goals for “scientific management” contain a rhizomatic automation, immanently emergent in the transformation of labor that begins with the implementation of machinery and continues through the fragmentation of the assembly line. This breaking of production into discrete, unintelligent stages increasingly resembles activity performed by autonomous, unintelligent digital machines—the transition from the use of human labor to machine labor is thus a shift of means rather than of degree. By removing the worker’s engagement in how to do a task, and replacing those choices with a methodology produced through an empirical study—most apparent in the fragmentation of production into singular repetitive actions—Taylorism increased efficiency enormously: the translation of this approach into an algorithm enables the elimination of human labor entirely and its replacement by digital technology. It is a formal analysis of the methods being employed to isolate the essential ones and eliminate everything else. Taylorism involves an active suppression of the individual’s engagement with they do in favor of a disinterested viewpoint that provides no opportunity for feedback—the implementation of this process as the automated digital system reveals the direct link between industrialization and autonomous machines reflects how Taylorism removes the “human intermediary” from production, revealing an underlying continuity between the fragmentation of the assembly-line where tasks are organized around the repetitive action of masses of human labor (itself an organization that implies semiotic disassembly and standardization) to digital automation where digital machines leave only a limited role for humans.

The dislocations of human labor by autonomous machineries emerge from capitalism’s attempts to reify agency: the limited behavior of automation developed at the end of the nineteenth century imposes a clock-work conception on the relationship of instruction to output that structures the understanding of digital processes as well. The restrictions imposed by digital rights management (DRM) is typical of all digitally-produced security. It is an all-or-nothing framework that enacts its instructions in a uniformly unintelligent fashion, one where any alternative not already anticipated by the system is either disallowed, or unacknowledged: the machine will not respond unless it receives appropriate responses. The automated phone system that hangs up on uncooperative human respondents demonstrates the logical outcome of these systems inflexibility. Being unintelligent, any response that does not match the a priori expectations of the designers construction them thus cannot be acknowledged by the automation itself—this inflexibility is their unintelligent nature.

The intransigence of unintelligent automation offers an illusion of objective, disinterested action: it masks the assumptions that take shape as the system itself, a reflection of the separation of agency and action that organizes autonomous systems generally. The gulf between the implementation of system protocols and the creation of those protocols emerges as this presumptively “objective” autonomous performance in which the machine does only what it has been constructed to do, and nothing more. The collateral results of these machines activity mirror their limiting protocols, since only those potentials that were anticipated (or planned) during the design and construction of the autonomous system find any place within it once built. For human labor, this separation is the foundational moment for the alienation of human labor from its agency, a division that becomes explicit in the Taylorist rationalization and organization of (human) labor into precisely regimented activities, each isolated and independent of each other: the fragmentation of the assembly line.

The same compartmentalization and isolation of industrial production as/into a sequence of discrete, disconnected actions not requiring any conception of the totality in the performance of each action removes intelligence from the productive process; this elimination of conscious control and understanding is a prerequisite for both automation and the conversion of intelligent processes into algorithmic functions. This initial conversion from a production process based in a necessary, intelligent conception of the result—what would be produced—to an unintelligent component task (assembly line) where the final result is irrelevant to the individual action performed in its creation. The elimination of this concern with result from the action of labor anticipates automation by eliding the intelligent aspects of agency. Assembly line labor is not engaged with the results, only the repetition of a specific set of tasks; in effect, human labor working on an assembly line is performing as machine.

Unlike the historical alienation of nineteenth century labor whose agency, while traded as a commodity, that continued to rely on the intelligent aspects of human agency, the assembly line transformed the innate intelligence of its labor from a valuable asset into a hindrance to production. This negation of human intelligence, inherent to the industrial production of the twentieth century assembly line (the dominant feature of Taylorist protocols), inaugurates a reconception of futurity and change as detrimental to the generation of value.

Futurity, a concern with potentials that are as yet undeveloped or nascent, reveals the underlying contradiction contained by these Taylorist processes: the organization of an assembly line is the form created through a process of analysis, rationalization and compartmentalization whose purpose is the realization of maximal efficiency. Thus, once constructed, these systems become inflexible: the internal logic of this system is one that does not enable change or development. The optimization of process and protocol that is the purpose of Taylorist methods cannot allow further development since once configured, it is (theoretically) already optimally deployed. Once an ideal arrangement is achieved, further development is no longer necessary or desirable.

Taylorist assembly protocols reiterate one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism: the contradiction between the preservation of past labor as produced-value and the need to continuously generate new values: the idealized production that emerges via maximal efficiency is at the same time a closing off that eliminates the capacity to generate more values through greater efficiencies. This contradiction between the underlying capitalist pursuit of profit and the structural enabler for profit-generation (automation) that is at the foundation of Taylorism, becomes manifest as a denial of futurity.

Change and variability reveal themselves as antipathies within digital capitalism: the production of variations within a limited set of potentials denies all possibilities that lie outside the limited scope of the specification. As variation is readily contained by the database as the configuration of permutations of that set, change implies the extension beyond these parameters—and thus proposes the possibility of organization and structure outside the range of potentials already enumerated by the database. This distinction becomes apparent in the limited optimization of Taylorist protocols and their necessarily regimented configuration of capitalism, especially apparent in the inflexible, unintelligent and autonomous action of digital technology. The invariant action of digital machines transforms their invariant rigidity into a structural feature of digital capitalism itself. Change is rendered external to this structure a priori since it challenges the structural framework itself; the elimination of “futurity” in the contemporary period is the most apparent aspect of this negation.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  December 7, 2015  all rights reserved.

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