Friday, April 15, 2016

The new technology (1979)

From the November 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

In1968 the bread and butter version of tire ICL 1901 series central processor, with a 32K core store and peripherals consisting of a teletype, line printer and paper tape reader/punch, occupied the volume of three large wardrobes. It cost about £200,000. The current PET personal microprocessor, with a similar store, calculating facility and input/ output rates, occupies the volume of a small suitcase. It costs £700.

This reduction in the size of computer hardware has been achieved by the use of solid state and silicone chip components for the manufacture of microprocessors. The size reduction over eleven years has been 300 times, while the price reduction has been 285 times. Were the rate of development to remain the same for the next eleven years, the equivalent microprocessor would not be risible to the naked eye and there would not exist a currency unit small enough to enable you to buy one.

Semiconductor crystals
How is it done? A silicon chip bears comparison with a mainframe computer, in which rows of shelves are slotted to take a set of circuit boards with their snap-in connections. Similar microcircuitry allows many miniature boards to be stacked together like tiny playing cards and the whole to be bonded onto a connecting chassis which looks like a centipede.

The raw material for these tiny boards is the abundantly available raw silica, which is ground up and from which pure silica crystals are grown in conditions of controlled temperature and humidity. From these blocks of crystal the chip bases are sawn off about 10,000ths of an inch thick, lapped, polished and passed through a diffusion oven which dopes them with gaseous impurities, raising them from conductors to semiconductors of electricity. These bases are then chemically sensitised to light, the microphotographically reduced circuits are exposed upon them and a chemical bath then develops those circuits and simulated components in them. Many are stacked together, sealed onto a connecting chassis with ceramic or plastic and are ready for dropping into standard holes in processors, pocket calculators or TV ball games. The whole of this process is one continuous flow automatic system, with computer control of chip specification by programmed variation. It is very big business indeed.

Profit power
What effects might these microprocessors have on capitalist society? Well, the RAIR black box is the size of a trunk, has double the capacity of the ICL 1901. a 64K memory facility and 2 million word diskette storage. It can handle 3 programming languages and costs £2,300. So for less than the price of a car a medium sized capitalist can make his wages department redundant. Or, with the PET personal computer above a small capitalist, with a payroll package at a total of £800, can dispense with one clerk and employ a programmer/operator for half a day a week or do it himself.

The likely results of all this are an increase of profits in the small non-computer production industries, the encouraging of mergers between firms engaged in microprocessor production from chips bought in, and a concentration of capital in the chip production combines.

Silicon Euphoria
But beware of the many half-baked descriptions of predicted futures which are appearing in popular science journals and books; where workers’ homes are to have everything from vacuum cleaners and cookers to washing machines, controlled and executed by chip-based technology. Capitalism always sells its new technology this way. In the aftermath of the atom bomb strike on Japan blathering pundits assured everyone that in the nuclear age which had just dawned, electricity would be free for all and abundant leisure time our natural heritage. The North Sea gas strikes of the early sixties were thought by some to have begun an age of free energy, as the cost of the raw gas would fall below that which made it economic to meter. As an antidote to all this the director of one of the firms which covers the microprocessor domestic market pointed out recently that that market has levelled off at around 2 per cent of the total. This might well be its final position.

The rest of the microprocessor market is split up into educational hardware, in the form of teaching aids, videos and so on. This is likely to remain a cautious market as a result of the cuts in government spending. A peculiar group of users are those in large companies who cannot get time on the mainframe computer at their head office and so are having microprocessors installed on their desks. But the largest part of the market is made up of the small or medium sized business concern —anything from small factories and larger shops to freelance accountants and lawyers.

Silicon hysteria
Beware also of half-baked predicted futures which have the whole of capitalist production under automated microprocessor control. Interestingly, the current sale of chip-based equipment in the USA has a theoretical capacity to displace 40,000 workers a month—equivalent to half a million new unemployed each year. Twenty years ago, when the introduction of mechanical and hydraulic transfer automation was at its height, the potential displacement of workers in the engineering industry was also put at 40,000 a month. Experts theorised before a Congressional committee that capitalism would develop a 4-tier workforce focussed around the automation process:
  • 10 per cent would be performing menial tasks which it was uneconomic to mechanise;
  • 10 per cent would be technicians or mechanics servicing the auto equipment;
  • 15 per cent would be highly trained personnel occupied with the design and policy formation for the automatic processes;
  • 65 per cent would be unable to assimilate training or find menial jobs and would be unemployed permanently. (This last includes 7 per cent who are the capitalist class). The target date for the achievement of this stable mechanised state was 1975.

Technological fatalism
What are we to make of all this? The lock-out at The Times printing works has been about staffing, changed working conditions and subsequent redundancies following the introduction of chip-based processor controlled typesetting and correcting equipment. Historically we might welcome the new technology as another example of capitalism’s abundant productive potential. which could be used to make free access easier in a socialist world, while attributing to capitalism the social conflicts arising.

Extending a remark of Marx, we may say that the hand mill and hoe give you slavery: the water wheel and mill give you feudalism: the steam engine gives you capitalism: and the computer gives you socialism. But beware of technological determinism; the last phrase means that computers establish the abundant information potential of capitalism's technology, making free access more feasible. Neither computers nor automation determine the direction which capitalism must take; only profitability does that and technological complexity can act to reduce profitability. But microprocessors may make more workers want to realise the potential through a political solution.

Technological freedom
This attitude has come under a lot of fire of recent years. David Dickson’s book Alternative Technology (Fontana 1976) is one long argument against the technicists who see social developments arising spontaneously out of technical change. In opposition to this Dickson argues that technology is not neutral and will not carry over from one society to another.

To take an example: at the beginning of this century the design and dimensions of the capstan lathe were various. When the followers of F. W. Taylor — of scientific management fame—came to extend his work to the more complex engineering tasks, they still favoured the short, heavily built and docile workers who had been most ready in the past to obey detailed instructions without question. The application of the principles of time and motion study, with detailed breaking down of jobs into operations, brought increased output to capstan work. Yet further productive increases came when new capstans were designed with an eye to such studies. The turret spokes were extended to fall to the grasp of the ideal worker; the handwheels were clustered around his left grasp, with the resistance favourable for speedy setting. Likewise with the speed and gear levers. Such has remained the design of the capstan today. The result is that if you are tall, have sensitive hands and are not strong, the capstan is a trial to operate; to retain mastery of the wheels and levers you have to stand back from the machine, putting the workface and the tool just beyond observation. So you have to lean forward all of the time.

The general point aimed at by Dickson is that machines are progressively refined for the purpose of producing commodities and the generation of surplus value. This suggests that a total redesigning of the machinery of production, greater in its scope than the complete metrication of all dimensions, would be necessary before these machines could produce only use values. Especially is this so if the population in a socialist society must be happy in its work. Dickson, like any other leftie, wants to see this “socialisation" of the means of production before socialism—hence his call for alternative technologies now.

Technical squints
How do we relate this material to the new technology? Continuous through-flow production of chips in Taiwan requires that the dies which preform the dual in-line packages are periodically inspected. As there are thousands of these and they are used thousands of times a day, lines of girls using microscopes form the inspection department. The throughput of dies is nicely adjusted to the point where the average girl suffers from myopia after 3 years, which is the average working life of a Taiwan girl between school and marriage. The argument now goes that mixed up with the production and use of silicon chips are numerous such examples, all equally destructive of human ability.

These human abuses accrue to technical innovations because they serve the purpose of maximising surplus value. Without the capitalist system there would be no such driving necessity—something which may be illustrated by examples which are obviously candidates for the administration technology of a socialist society.

There is a hand-held computer terminal on the market which is the size of a pocket calculator and can be used for recording stock levels and inputting new orders. The data is collected when each terminal is plugged into the central processor. Variations upon this system are the use of light pens in the reading of bar codes printed on stock, with automatic reordering according to preprogrammed instructions. Both systems may soon be available with on-line radio transmission of data, from terminal to processor, by means of a set the size of a handbag. This would give a socialist world the facility of instant knowledge of the world stock of any item. However. as Dickson and his like would point out, this would involve many people in walking past rows of shelves making what were to them meaningless movements with light pens, and the programming requirements would force millions to learn Boolean algebra, symbolic logic and the programming languages, poring for days over elaborate print-out material de-bugging the new programmes. Much of this would be tedious work at best.

Academic nostrums
For Dickson and his kind the function of high technology is to promote the interest of the capitalist class. In more high-flown terminology — technology acts to support and propagate the legitimating ideology of capitalism. Or simply — technology and social relations reinforce each other. The ways and means are legion and this links up with another academic debate, that over the establishment of factory discipline during the industrial revolution. Marx observed that it is pointless to introduce labour-saving machinery unless the workforce can be controlled in a way which ensures that they will operate it at maximum efficiency. Such technical arrangements as bring this about will reflect the hierarchical organisation and control of capitalist society. The charge of Dickson now becomes that those who welcome the new technology are just reflecting the ideology of capitalism for which bigger, more and most are desirable irrespective of who controls the production flow.

Conflict into harmony
The answer of the socialist is still the only one. For no amount of soft technology would make the nuclear rockets less explosive. Nor could state and charity subsidised cottage industries for the unemployed be a substitute for those who will grapple for a solution to the social problems of the world. Such technological conflicts as there will be in a socialist world will serve to ensure that social policies are kept under constant review. For only in a total democracy, run by socialists whose successful attempt to change the world had established the social interest as the ruling idea of the time, could effect be given to the constant review of policies.

When the effects of capitalist designed technology seemed too brutalising as with the capstan; or when production seemed too much regulated by microprocessors and beyond the understanding of all, then would be the time to scrap the technology—old or new. How much of such brutalising work or bewilderment the population will tolerate before retooling is not a question which can be decided theoretically; it must await a trial. For that socialist society must be established.
B.K. McNeeney

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