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Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans

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10:05am, March 31, 2014
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As scientists ponder whether the Internet is turning our brains to mush, technology and labor scholar Simon Head worries about the role ofcomputer business systems operating largely without notice from the public. These computer and software systems, often called enterprise systems, drive the decision-making apparatuses of large companies — and not necessarily with the workers’ best interests as a priority.

Made by IBM, Oracle and a few other giants, the systems guide day-to-day operations and provide data for strategic decisions. They can provide efficient guidelines for manufacturing and sparkling logistics for shipping goods.

But in the service sector, Head says, overreliance on business systems comes with a cost. He recalls phoning Microsoft with a computer problem. The call center employee clearly had flexibility in talking him through it, and the chat advanced rapidly toward a solution. But when a hardware issue emerged, Toshiba was brought into the call. Progress collapsed as the Toshiba agent, required to follow a business system’s script, had no agility to get to the heart of the problem.

Head argues that computer business systems leave middle managers and workers with little creative latitude. They acquire fewer skills and their wages stagnate, hurting their job quality and buying power.

A century ago Henry Ford paid his workers a living wage in part because he needed them to buy the cars they built, Head points out. But poor wages are slowing the current economic recovery, while the income gap grows. He argues that applied science has become a tool of this income inequality by putting short-term productivity ahead of worker flexibility and advancement. His conclusions may irk some readers, but his documentation is thorough. 

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