IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - June 2016 - 16

Michigan earned 5 dollars a day at a
time when the average factory worker made $2.50. Nye explains that the
Model T of 1921 cost $397, just 80
days wages for a new car for someone making 5 dollars a day. In Nye's
words, "Henry Ford understood that
mass production required mass consumption." The workers at Ford were
more reliable and productive than
their less paid fellows on the outside,
and in the years following the introduction of the 5 dollar day, Ford's
profits increased while he reduced
the price of his car. Nye concludes
his book by observing that Ford's
greatest contribution to America was
not the assembly line but his creating a business that would increase
consumption - a model that would
spread to other industries. Indeed,
the assembly line by itself was a
mixed blessing, famous for its cruelty
and inhumanity.
Suppose, as the auto chassis
is being conveyed past you, that
you have an urge to go to the bathroom. Your foreman had to first find
a replacement and you were to be
back in three minutes. Nye effectively uses literary sources to convey the life of this worker. Here is
John Dos Passos: "...every ounce
of life was sucked off into production and at night the workmen went
home gray, shaking husks."
Ford's success was so spectacular that he had to be emulated -
by 1920 half the cars sold in the
world were his. In the decades following the introduction of the Ford
production line, it became known
simply as "mass production"; its
methods came to be used not only
by other auto makers but also by
builders of such household appliances as radios, bikes, and lawnmowers. The practices spread to
Europe and the Nazis embraced
them in the 1930s. Assembly line
production is now so widespread
that churches and charities use it

16

to put together gift baskets for the
poor and infirm. Nye's discussion of
the intellectual's negative reaction
to production-line labor is broad -
one finds Walter Benjamin, Jacques
Ellul, Vance Packard, Stuart Chase,
Theodore Roszak, etc. And of
course there is the great satire on
the subject: Charlie Chaplin's 1936
film Modern Times.
In describing the spread of mass
production to other industries, Nye
skips a business sector so vast
that it's easy to miss. A friend of
mine, call him R, with a stage 4
melanoma, spends a day visiting a
Boston hospital. R sees a primary
care doctor, dermatologist, oncologist, radiologist, neurologist, and
a surgeon. Each of these 6 men
or women is a specialist performing, like a Ford worker, a task with
specialized equipment. My friend
propels himself along from worker to worker, down the corridors.
Like the laborer on the line, each of
these well-paid doctors is expected
to perform his/her duties within a
specified time interval. This duration is dictated by the hospital, government, and insurance agencies.
It is not set by the practitioners, nor
do they dictate their compensation.
The present state of American
medicine was described by a remarkably prescient Karl Marx. From the
Communist Manifesto, whose English
edition dates from 1848, we have:

make heavy use of him - but Marx
is useful in this subject not only
because he was so far sighted but
also because he could be so wrong.
Ford's wage system is completely
contrary to Marx. While Marx's observation of 1867 that "the lightening
of the labor [due to machinery] ...
becomes a sort of torture, since the
machine does not free the laborer
from work, but deprives the work
of all interest" - describes much of
20th century mass production, while
his "the proletarian is without property," also from the Manifesto, is now
seen as nonsense - we might thank
Henry Ford.
Nye's book may be roughly divided into two epochs, one of 60 years
from 1913 to 1973, the other of 40
years from then to 2013. In 1973
American auto workers saw wages
reach an all time (inflation adjusted) high - a level to which it hasn't
ever returned. But it became evident by the early 1970s that Detroit
was losing market share to not only
European makers like Volkswagen
but most especially to the Japanese. By the mid-1980s Honda, Nissan, and Toyota were doing so well
in the U.S. that they set up plants
there. Why were the Japanese makers thriving while Detroit was suffering, and why were Japanese cars
better made than the American's?
Part of the answer - an ironic
one-is that the Japanese success
derives dramatically from the work
of W. Edwards Deming, an American, who was an expert on the use
of statistics in wartime quality control. After the war, he lectured to an
attentive Japanese business community. His role in Japanese manufacturing is so important that Nye might
have supplied us with some biographical material. The public thinks
they know who Henry Ford is but try
asking a stranger about Deming.
The Japanese built on Deming's
work and developed a system of car

"The bourgeoisie has stripped
of its halo every occupation
hitherto honored and looked
up to with reverent awe. It
has converted the physician,
the lawyer, the priest, the
poet, the man of science, into
its paid wage labourers."
The spectre of Marx haunts anyone who writes about the technology of production, labor, working
conditions, and capital. Nye doesn't
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

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june 2016



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