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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                       Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #50       Copyright 1997 Bridge Communications          June 4, 1997
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** The Ultimate Worker (Stephen L. Talbott)
          What happens when everyone is looking down?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** The Ultimate Worker
    From Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Somewhere at this moment there is a computer sitting unattended on a desk in a small, bare room. It's screen is dark. It's apparent passivity is belied only by the occasional whirring of a disk, and its isolation only by a thin, gray cord running to a phone jack. Nothing much about the room changes from one day to the next.

    But this computer is no slacker. It happens to embody the entire working operation of a profitable business. Buying and selling financial instruments, it employs abstruse mathematical algorithms to wring a slim, but admirably certain gain from the "inefficiencies" of the market. Its capital requirement is almost nil, its overhead is low, it never suffers labor troubles, no time is lost in meetings, and the profit-making goes on around the clock. Here, courtesy of the computer, we see the modern business enterprise stripped to a kind of essence.

    What sort of essence is it? Most obviously a highly mathematical one. The work consists of a trafficking in numbers, and its result, the achievement of the corporation, can be wholly captured numerically as well. The operation is also automatic. Once the programmed algorithms are set in motion, there is no need for difficult judgment calls, delicate communications, disciplinary actions, or a periodic reassessment of values and goals. The only change required is the occasional, purely technical upgrading of the algorithms themselves. Everything is cut-and-dried, efficient as only a business of pure abstraction can be.

    The Corporation As Abstraction

    It is well to ask, for every act of abstraction, What have we lost? That is, what have we abstracted from? Historian Lewis Mumford draws this picture of the fuller possibilities of work:
    Wherever tools and muscle power were freely used, at the command of the workers themselves, their labors were varied, rhythmic, and often deeply satisfying, in the way that any purposeful ritual is satisfying. Increase of skill brought immediate subjective satisfaction, and this sense of mastery was confirmed by the created product. The main reward of the craftsman's working day was not wages but the work itself, performed in a social setting. In this archaic economy there was a time to toil and a time to relax; a time to fast and a time to feast; a time for disciplined effort, and a time for irresponsible play. In identifying himself with his work and seeking to make it perfect, the worker remolded his own c