We’ve heard a lot about how scary the industrial revolution was — the dislocations it wrought on the agrarian population of the early 19th century were wrenching and terrible, and the revolution was a bloody one. From that time, we have the word Luddite, referring to uprisings against the machines that were undoing ancient ways of living and working.
But the troubles of the 1810s were only the beginning. By the end of the century, the workplace was changing again. Workers who’d adapted over three generations to working in factories at machines, rather than tilling the land and working in small cottage workshops, once again found their lives being dramatically remade by the forces of capital, through a process called “scientific management.”
Scientific management (which was also called Taylorism, for its most prominent advocate, Frederick Winslow Taylor) was built around the idea of reducing a manufacturing process to a series of optimized simple steps, creating an assembly line where workers were just part of the machine. Each worker’s movements were as scripted as those of a cog or piston, defined by outside observers who sought to make the work go as smoothly as possible, with as few interruptions as possible.
Taylor, Henry Ford, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth used time-motion studies, written logbooks, high-speed photography, and other empirical techniques to find wasted motions, wasted time, and potential logjams in manufacturing processes. Practically every industry saw massive increases in productivity thanks to their work. The Gilbreths’ research gave us modern surgical procedures, touch-typing, and a host of other advances to human endeavour.
But all this gain was not without cost. The “unscientific” worker personally worked on several tricky stages of manufacture, often seeing a project through from raw materials to finished product. He or she could choose how to sit, which tool to use when, and in what order to complete the steps. If it was a sunny day with a fine autumn breeze, the worker could choose to plane the joints and keep the smell of the leaves in the air, saving the lacquer for the next day. Workers who were having a bad day could take it easy without holding up a production line. On good days, the work could fly past without creating traffic jams farther down the line.
For every gain in efficiency, scientific management exacted a cost in self-determination, personal dignity, and a worker’s connection with what he or she produced.
For me, the biggest appeal of steampunk is that it exalts the machine and disparages the mechanization of human creativity (the motto of the excellent and free SteamPunk Magazine is “Love the Machine, Hate the Factory”). It celebrates the elaborate inventions of the scientifically managed enterprise, but imagines those machines coming from individuals who are their own masters. Steampunk doesn’t rail against efficiency — but it never puts efficiency ahead of self-determination. If you’re going to raise your workbench to spare your back, that’s your decision, not something imposed on you from the top down.
Here in the 21st century, this kind of manufacture finally seems in reach: a world of desktop fabbers, low-cost workshops, and communities of helpful, like-minded makers puts utopia in our grasp. Finally, we’ll be able to work like artisans and produce like an assembly line.