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Heather Menzies: New World Disorder

Menzies is an Ottawa writer, teacher, activist, and mother. She teaches "Canada in the Global Village" at Carleton and has published several books about technology and social restructuring. In Whose Brave New World she describes the social consequences of workplace restructuring created by information technology:

The corporate restructuring that accompanied the integration phase of computerization established a consistent trend to consolidate tasks that had been brought into the orbit of computer systems and simplified by their software. A large portion of the new jobs created in this process were so structured as to be entirely defined by the computer. They could then be controlled by the computer too, which made it easier to monitor performance and to manage the work with a part-time "contingent" staff. Equally important, these choices also set the stage for work to be de-institutionalized further, to a global post-it-note workforce conscripted via the information highway. Not only can work be distributed to any places that feature plug-ins and technical accessibility, but it can also be controlled to an unprecedented degree of detail through remote management systems. Still, even in this otherwise deterministic story of restructuring for globalization, there remains, as always, an element of choice. (pp. 59-60)
Heather Menzies

She describes the technological transformation in offices, in the insurance field, in hospitals, and in retail services.

When debating the impact of technology on jobs, there's little agreement on how those affected ought best respond to change. In the following excerpt from Whose Brave New World Menzies examines the impact of Bell Canada's corporate and technological restructuring in the small town of Midland, Ont. She looks at how Bell workers and members of the community pulled together in an attempt to maintain and improve the telephone system, and the telephone jobs, that had served them so well for so long:

The official discourse on technological restructuring won't help us come to terms with what is happening, or help us deal with it as the urgent social issue it is. It won't help us because it's centered not on the needs and priorities of most people, but on the priorities of the global corporate economy.

People enter into the discourse only in terms of that economy -- as new skill-sets needed, or as redundancies to be adjusted into retraining or workfare programs on the margins. Furthermore, the discussion has focused almost exclusively on the state as the agent to manage the social-adjustment aspects of the restructuring agenda and to mitigate any untoward effects. Government bureaucrats, in consultation with experts from business and labour, are qualified to script what's to be done, and to do it. The rest of us are bystanders.

This must change on both counts.

Things aren't going to get better simply by having governments felicitously ease up on the social-spending cuts before the next election. Nor will they improve when the economic indicators clear us from the next recessionary downturn. Things will get better only when we realize that it is possible to resist, to restructure the corporate economy to involve people, and to hold corporate restructuring accountable for its effects on local communities.

It's worth visiting the story of the Midland telephone operators to understand how this can be done, and to realize that it can be done. The telephone operators in Midland, Ont., didn't resist corporate restructuring as such. When Bell Canada announced that it was closing the Midland telephone exchange in January, 1984, the employees there simply saw this as impossible. They had nothing against the automated call-switching system (TOPS) that would centralize all Ontario long-distance calls outside Toronto into a massively efficient integrated data-processing system and make local switchboards redundant. Nor was their quarrel with closing local exchanges as such, or even having to commute to work at the TOPS call centre in Orillia.

They just kept thinking that Bell simply didn't get it. Bell management didn't understand the full meaning of telephone service. Certainly the new system didn't compute with the type of service they had routinely provided out of the Midland telephone exchange ­ some of them for 30 years and more. While, for instance, some of them had carefully taken calls from the old lady who had forgotten that the hairdresser was just around the corner from the IGA, or from the cottager who needed boat repairs, or from someone who'd forgotten the closing time at Bank of Montreal, other women along the switchboard fielded the rest of the incoming calls quickly enough so that they could all still run the exchange at the best call-processing rate in the region. It was a community information service housed in a building not far from downtown, and it dated back to 1886, when a Miss Lillian White ran Midland's first telephone exchange out of her father's grocery and confectionery store on King Street. You couldn't just shut off that service line like a tap.

Yet that's what they worried might happen. As they learned about the centralized dispatching software driving the new TOPS system, they sensed that the system would cut them off from the local telephone users, and the local community would be cut off from them. It didn't make sense, and that's why they resisted the company's restructuring plan.

With the help of the local and national office of the Communications Workers Union, they organized a public-information campaign and drafted a petition calling for a public hearing to negotiate and discuss the issue. With 10 per cent of the town's entire population of 15,000 signed up, they sent their petition to the federal Minister of Communications, who forwarded it to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), where it was forwarded to Bell for comment. Anticipating the hearing, they drafted their own plan to modify the TOPS conversion plan. Their idea was to computerize Midland, but in a way that would preserve local operational control so they could still run it as a community information and referral service ­ a bit like the community freenets of the 1990s.

Several months later, the women received a careful and courteous letter from the CRTC's director-general for regulatory matters, explaining that the commission had certain "judgmental thresholds" for determining whether a public inquiry was necessary, all of them involving technical standards of access to and treatment within the telephone service as system. The Midland situation did not fit any of these criteria, so a hearing was not in order.

In fact, the CRTC's job is not to mediate between different visions of telephone service -- for instance, communications as culture versus communications as a transmission system. Its job is to ensure that the overall operation is run efficiently as an information-transmission system. Equity and justice are defined accordingly, in strictly technical-systems terms. Adjudicating competing claims for designing and running telephone services and negotiating a compromise between different operating philosophies or logics are matters outside its jurisdiction. Those are parliamentary matters. But Parliament refused to act.

The issue did come up in Parliament, at least briefly. After lobbying the opposition parties as well as the Liberal government, the Midland women and their union representatives gained the support of David Orlikow, the New Democratic Party's communications critic of the day. A month before the exchange was closed, Orlikow filed a Standing Order 21 in the House of Commons, calling for legislation "to ensure workers some right of control... of new technology" and deploring the "human and economic suffering" resulting from a case like Midland's, where, he said, there was no opportunity for consultation and negotiation. But the government isn't obliged to respond to standing orders, and the media rarely report on them. Nothing came of the intervention, and the closure went ahead on schedule. The local newspaper covered it with a story headlined "The end of an era."

The Midland story contains several lessons. The first is that it is possible to collectively resist the restructuring agenda. But resistance doesn't emerge out of nowhere, nor does it involve simply refusing the given agenda. The women of Midland and their union mounted an impressive campaign of resistance to the corporate agenda because they believed in their own sense of how the technology could be organized differently from their own experience. Their approach was grounded in their own technological practice and tacit knowledge as well as a deep understanding of the context (the local community) in which they did their work. The women had always organized the technology of the switchboard to serve both the corporate logic of system efficiency and the community logic ­ and they did this not only to accommodate customers' various information needs but also this operator's bowling schedule and that one's Heart Fund meetings.

Their sense of what telephone service should be in the future emerged directly from what it had been in the past and what it was in the present. They defined the technology holistically, in the context of the living local community; they didn't define it prescriptively, according to remote systems plans and abstract service indicators. They judged it the same way, and in the same terms: through the voice of experience in the living oral culture of their work and the community they tried to serve.

In other words, they had their own discourse on technology -- one based on real life, not on an abstract model of life in which the future can always be fine-tuned to fit certain preplanned priorities. I'm convinced that this is an essential starting place for all of us who want to resist the adjustment-to-restructuring agenda, in which you either scramble up the retraining ladder and compete in the brave new world of digitized work or, as one techno-guru put it, "You're toast."

Chrétien Government’s Downsizing Fraud: No money for people, but billions for computers: by Heather Menzies.