Alec Perkins Phelan Seminar Weekly Paper 3.25.


The main theme of Noble's writings seems to be control, specifically the relationships between the hierarchy of elements within manufacturing, what Noble calls the "relations of power" (p75). He also questions assumptions that technological progress automatically results in social progress, that technology in "regular and widespread industrial use" is the best history has to offer, and that automation is economically sensible. This questioning shows a systemic bias toward machinery, resulting from the control advantages of automated machinery. Those in charge favor automation as it preserves their position of power. As is typical with most technologies, the primary user shaped the technology. Being effectively unlimited by budget resulted in a complex system designed only for large companies that contracted for the Air Force and could afford to devote extensive time and resources to adoption of NC machines. Had it been developed initially as a commercial tool for a multitude of users with much smaller budgets, it likely would have been more accessible and less expensive. Computers, mentioned by Noble, also underwent a similar trajectory, starting with massive, expensive units for government projects. However, I am curious as to what would Noble say about more modern CNC technology, given that such technology is much more commercialized and relatively inexpensive in part due to the ‘computer revolution,’ available even to individual hobbyists? It even achieves the opposite, allowing smaller companies to compete with larger ones. People without machining skill can still produce complex pieces on the tools. However, this has the effect of devaluing the skill of machining.

The idea that engineers have almost a disdain for actual users is visible in technologies such as autopilots and automated landing systems for airplanes, which, like CNC to machining, have technified piloting and made the skill of the human pilot irrelevant. The claimed goal is to eliminate human error, and perhaps this is an admirable goal, especially when lives are at stake. However, the attitude of always needing to 'idiot proof' technology only results in a lack of human skill, leading to problems when the technology fails. The example of the engineer being told to design for himself also has its drawbacks, as the engineer's own extreme familiarity with the project means they will not necessarily make it easy or obvious how to do something. Good interface design requires a balance of intuitiveness, but also giving the users control instead of doing everything for them, again going back to the issue of control. This is a common dilemma in game design, with the question of how much control to give the user being the primary challenge and requiring a balance between user control and automation. Of course, giving users too much control was not the goal of management in their decision to implement automation. While being justified as economically necessary and a boon to productivity, a major factor in the appeal of automation was the placing of greater control in the hands of management, taking it out of the hands of workers. The strength of this part of Noble’s argument does not seem so clear, as Noble himself mentions the benefits of automation, such as the ability to repeatedly fabricate complex parts that are not even doable manually. This somewhat contradicts his emphasis on the issue of control. However, the overall picture he presents seems to be that while economics and productivity were mostly valid justifications for the automation, the political side that takes into account the placement of control is generally ignored. This is most likely due to the fact that

generally the people who need to be convinced of a technology’s benefit are the managers, and not the workers. As Noble says, the management can force workers to adopt a technology, whether or not it has benefit to them. The concept of technological progress, "the domination of the present by the future" (p6), arose in response to Luddism, with the goal of preventing any recurrence. And, it succeeded. Luddite is typically used as a pejorative, which is perhaps why Noble called his book a defense of Luddism, instead of a support. The widespread bias toward technology over humanity, according to Noble, has its roots in automation and the resulting struggle over control.

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