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New Left Review I/160, November-December 1986

Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Capitalism in the Computer Age

Norbert Wiener, in the early 1960s, foresaw a parallel between the process of automation and the nature of magic as it has been depicted in countless fantasies, from Goethe’s tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice to W.W. Jacob’s Monkey’s Paw. The characteristic of magic in these stories is its literalmindedness. It grants to magic-users precisely what they ask, but this, in the end, is never what they intend or desire. The use of magic therefore brings ‘with it a host of unimagined dangers. ‘Automation,’ observed Wiener ‘. . . may be expected to be similarly literal-minded.’ [1] Norbert Wiener, God and Golem Inc., Cambridge, Mass. 1964, p. 59. In the mid-1980s that prediction seems particularly apt. For the past two decades, managers in advanced capitalist countries have regarded computer-based automation as the magical cure for two of their most pressing problems: the compulsion to reduce costs (particularly labour costs), and the need to increase the authority and control of the enterprise over its workforce. [2] See Raphael Kaplinsky, Automation: The Technology and Society, London 1984. In their pursuit of higher levels of automation, however, they have inadvertently initiated profound changes in the workings of the capitalist world economy itself: changes whose consequences were neither foreseen nor, for the most part, desired. On the one hand, the introduction of new technologies has contributed to rising levels of structural unemployment, and so to stagnant demand and worsening social crises in the industrialized world. On the other, the differing abilities of diverse societies to adapt to automation have aggravated international disparities in development and provoked increasing trade friction.

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