Ergonomics is not just about how comfortable our chairs are…it’s about how we feel everyday at work and how our work affects our lives. The Industrial Age (followed by the Information Age) has brought us many things that would never have been possible without highly organized labor and methods of production. But has it really brought us happiness, or is ‘progress’ dependent on (at least for some), dehumanizing work devoid of personal fulfillment?
In his study of society during the Industrial Revolution, Marx observed the trajectory of economic forces facilitating the rise of capitalism, a system evoking images from Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, in which organized production reduces workers to mere cogs in the wheel of the machine, estranging them from their own destinies.
Unfortunately, the complex organization, depersonalization and alienation in society of which Marx wrote is still a reality in contemporary society. Most people today accept direction from authority and hierarchical divisions of labor and power, even though it causes frustration, miscommunication and inefficiency.
On the other hand, formal rules, hierarchy and specialized labor were the main management tools that enabled the enormous amount of technological progress made from the Industrial Revolution through the first half of the 20th century. Transnational railroads and highways were made possible by central planning and standardized procedures carried out by specialized labor delegated by hierarchy of authority.
Although these management tools enabled humans to produce more than they ever had before, ‘progress’ came at a price. Marx warned about people becoming alienated from their labor because they would no longer be producing what they consume, or consuming what they produce. Max Weber warned of people entering an “iron cage of serfdom”, meaning that human qualities and needs would be compromised by this new type of labor.
A product of the ideals of the Industrial Age, Frederick Taylor was obsessed with speed and efficiency; he feverishly adopted the management concepts of specialized labor and highly controlled, centralized hierarchy. Taylor also developed a strategy known as the “one best way.” He devised methods of timing each step in the production process of an organization, from shoveling manure to screwing in parts, in order to find the fastest way of doing each individual task.
Taylor’s vision of an organization was a well-oiled machine in which each part functions flawlessly and efficiently, even though these parts were humans. Taylor believed it was best to pay workers as little as possible while still maintaining their cooperation in the organization. Unfortunately, this is still practiced in many cases today.
More information can be found in Organization Theory and Public Management by Jonathan R. Tompkins: