Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology

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Volume 61 Issue 1 (March 1988), Pages 1-112

A history of social psychological reactions to new technology (pages 67-77)

The historical development of new technology can be usefully viewed as a three‐phase process with a number of intermediate forms. For example, technology may be seen as having progressed from dependent machines (e.g. bucket elevators), to semi‐automatic machines (e.g. Jacquard loom) and, finally, to automatic machines (e.g. continuous process technologies). Dependent machines were labour‐saving technologies from the workers' point of view. They were generally positively regarded as they cased our physical burden and allowed our intellectual advancement. Semi‐automated devices only required that we tend to their needs. These machines were no longer assisting us. We were, and in many cases still are, assisting them. These labour‐enslaving devices require workers to perform semi‐automatic tasks demanding little more than reflexive attention. The third phase in this history of technology may be seen from the workers' point of view as the introduction of labour‐replacing processes. This technology totally replaces the human element in performing the actual work. It removes the worker from the production process, for example, into the processes of supervision, planning and/or maintenance of the equipment and systems. Unfortunately, this phase also has the potential to devalue workers, undermine their power and skills, and displace many workers from their jobs.

From this historical review of workers' reactions to technology, workers are found to react against two things: first, against exploitation or unsatisfactory working conditions (e.g. job fractionalization or oversimplification) and, second, against job displacement. Current academic concerns and innovative business practices (e.g. job redesign, sociotechnical systems theory, participative styles), although not completely satisfactory, address the first of the two problems traditionally associated with new technology by attempting to modify workers' and managers' jobs and environments to better suit their needs. The second problem, job displacement, has been too long ignored by Europe and America. Although we seem to have progressed in the last 200 years from Luddism to unionism, we are still within the same ‘mind set’ of management vs. the workers, the controlled fighting the controlling, that we were in 200 years ago. It is this ‘cultural conversation’ that we are in, which keeps management from seeing the long‐range benefits in treating workers as their most valuable partners. Management needs to see that it is wiser to devise production systems that make use of the flexibility and intelligence of people than it is to try and design all the ‘life’ out of production.

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