The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age.

Author:Prasch, Robert E.
Position:Book review
 
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The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age, by Simon Head. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Cloth, ISBN 0195166019, $28.00. 189 pages.

Simon Head, the director of the Project on Technology and the Workplace at the Century Foundation, argues that a significant factor in the celebrated increase in American productivity over the last ten years was neither the wonders of "labor-saving" technology nor some quasi-mystical "New Economy." Drawing upon a clear understanding of the history of manufacturing technology, old-fashioned field work including several case studies, and a close reading of the popular and academic management literature, Simon argues that a substantial portion of the late 1990s improvement in productivity can be attributed to something characteristic of the "Old Economy"--the intensification of work or, more colloquially, "speed-up." In short, Fordism is alive and well and permeating the service sector of the American economy.

Head's core insight is that corporate "re-engineering" is just another name for bringing Taylorism to the service sector. He argues that what is actually new about the "New Economy" is the extension of the methods of mass production to services. Previously the constraint, from the perspective of management, was to find a cost-effective way to monitor and thereby control the performance of the service provider. In the factory this was accomplished when the logic and speed of the production process was built into an assembly line that could be controlled by management. Thanks to the computer, this assembly line experience can now be brought to the service sector as management is now able to more closely monitor their workforce. Today's computers can instantly identify deviations from authorized practices. Workplace autonomy, privacy, personal style, pace, and initiative are now increasingly under the direct supervision and control of management.

Head successfully demonstrates that over the last ten years the application of information technology (IT) to the service sector has been shaped by management's superior bargaining power: "The massed cubicles of the call center are digital assembly lines on which standardization, measurement, and control come together to create a workplace of relentless discipline and pressure" (p. 98). But he also stresses that it does not have to be this way:

 Agents do not have to be "simple conduits," their work governed by the digital script. Nor does
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