Notes on "Computers and Democracy"

by Gisle Hannemyr (2002-10-16)

This book is based on a selection of contributions originally presented at the conference Development and use of Computer-based Systems and Tools in the context of democratization of work that took place at the Computer Science Department at Aarhus University (Denmark) August 19-23, 1985.

The book is organized around four themes: Systems Design and Industrial Democracy, Skills and Automation, Not Only Waged Men, and Future Perspectives.

Part One: Systems Design and Industrial Democracy

This part presents a number of different approaches to the question of system design and industrial democracy.

The first two contributions: The Collective Resource Approach to Systems Design (Ehn and Kyng) and Sociotechnical Systems Design (Mumford), describes two different traditions and strategies for democratization of the systems design process. Ehn and Kyngs contribution discusses the trade union-based «new Scandinavian model», while Mumford gives an overview of the sociotechnical approach that originated from the London-based Tavistock Institute of Human relations.

The next three articles in this section: Democratizing Systems Development (Williams), Information Systems in the Hotel Industry (Klein and Alvarez), and Computerization as an Ongoing Social and Political Process (Kling), discusses this theme by focusing on the constraints and possibilities for improving workers' control, relating different strategies to their concrete experiences from various projects. Williams discusses technological and organizational constraints and opportunities for influence into computer systems design by trade unions. While related to the Scandinavian approach in its emphasis on trade unions, Williams is also critical of the “narrow and elitist” orientation of that follows from the “craft” model of British trade unions. This, argues Williams, results in a fragmented strategy where the interests of different groups of workers are counterposed, in particular when a division of labour established under one technology is replaced by another technology embodying a different division of labour. Klein and Alvarez analyze the hotel information systems in the U.S. with emphasis on the problem of poor performance resulting from alienation of the work force. They rule out Scandinavian style democratic participation as this would be perceived by socialist interference neither accepted by U.S. businesses, nor expected by U.S. workers, and instead advocate an approach of enlightened management as a remedy. Kling discusses how computer systems (Computer-based packages) can be socially attractive for the people that interact with them. Kling argues that this may be improved by focusing on the social architecture of the system and by drawing on ideas from urban planning.

Managerial strategies and users' control is the main issue in the next two contributions: Strategies for Meeting User Demands (Friedman and Cornford) and a group report titled Management of Systems Development and Use. Friedman and Cornford give an international overview, and argue that user involvement can be seen not only as an indication of democratization, but also as a management strategy for meeting “sophisticated user demands”. In the group, the focus is on user-designer relations and management problems. A need for a strategy is suggested, where “self-management” and “professionalisation” are key-words.

The last two articles in this section both emphasise the need for change in systems design. In Feminist Perspectives on Computer-Based Systems and Democracy at the Work Place (Hacker), this is substantiated from a feminist perspective. In Outline of a Paradigm Change in Software Engineering (Floyd), there is a call for a paradigmatic change from a product and towards a process-oriented perspective.

Part Two: Skills and Automation

The dominant theme of the papers in part two is the impact of computerization on the skills and quality of work of the various occupations in question. It contains articles that analyze the impact of computers on workers' skills, and case studies in which criteria such as the preservation and development of workers' skills have been used as design objectives.

Five areas of work are presented, covering areas as different as meteorologists: Computerization and the Skills in Local Weather Forecasting (Perby); clerical jobs in insurance companies: Dance Macabre: The Fortunes of Integration and Segmentation (Dooreward et al.); graphic workers in newspapers: A Utopian Experience: On Design of Powerful Computer-Based Tools for Skilled Graphic Workers (Bødker et al.); nurses: Florence in Wonderland: System Development with Nurses (Bjerknes and Bratteteig) and finally office work in a town and country planning department in a municipality: Development of Common Systems by Prototyping (Pape and Thoresen).

Part Three: Not Only Waged Men

Part three focuses on the impact of computerization on areas mainly outside working life. It discusses the need to develop strategies to provide unwaged groups, consumers and clients with opportunities to influence technology, together with possible conflicts between these groups on the one hand, and professionals on the other.

Developing Information Technology in the Community with Unwaged Groups (Darwin et al), is based on a case study and here the attention is drawn to the wageless (i.e. retired, unemployed, permanently sick and/or disabled).

A group report titled Consumers and Clients deals with the relations and sometimes conflicting interests between professionals and their clients concerning the development and provision of service.

A comparative study of the effects of new technology in two areas traditionally dominated by females, the unwaged house workers and waged office workers, is the central issue in An Analysis of Women's Role under the Impacts of New Technology in Home and Office (Bruce and Kirkup).

Part Four: Future Perspectives

The final part of the book contains three different approaches to, and presentations of, future perspectives.

The Perspective Concept in informatics (Nygaard and Sørgaard) is a theoretical discussion of the concept of perspective and how it applies to the research object informatics (Nygaards preferred term for computer science.) The article first introduces basic concepts and definitions underlying the discipline of informatics and object oriented programming. It then proceeds to discuss the political dimension of technology projects through perspectives of harmony and conflict (as introduced by Åke Sandberg).

Systems Development and Use: A science of truth or a theory of lies (Mathiassen and Andersen) is presented in the form of a “restored” manuscript, complete with end notes pointing to relevant scientific literature. The manuscript is supposed to be (a part of) an autobiography left behind by a former computer scientist and lecturer conducting trade union courses on computer system development and use, that – after experiencing some sort of crisis – has left computer science and instead has become a rose grower. The narrative records some events that takes place at a leading producer of computer based systems and tools during a visit by the author and some shop stewards that is attending one of his courses. During the visit, two conflicting views on computers systems and their use is presented to the visiting party by two managers. The first manager, named H.W. Bull, is projecting a “positivist” perspective where system descriptions are supposed to reflect an objective reality. In contrast, his colleague Carl McIntosh adopts a “sociological” perspective where systems consist of communications and actions, and where descriptions are one expression among others of the production and reproduction of a social reality. Other implications of computer systems use are also explored in the narrative, such as “expert systems” replacing human skills, and the use of computers to monitor workers' attendance and productivity. In an epilogue Mathiassen and Andersen suggests that it what he learnt during the visit resulted in some sort of crisis that made the (fictitious) author of the manuscript abandon computer science.

The final chapter in the book is a group report titled SAFE Expert Systems. It uses a fictitious expert system (SAFE — Swift And Fair Evaluation) for evaluation loans applications in a particular bank. The system is thought up by the working group to illustrate future trends in artificial intelligence and related social and organizational problems. The first section of the report introduces the work in the group, the second outlines the organizational setting for the system, the third outlines the expert system, the fourth deals with knowledge acquisition, the fifth contains an evaluation of the system, the sixth discusses social aspects, the seventh is an example of how rule-based expert systems may lead to unsocial behaviour. The eight and final section contains conclusions. The group finds that centrally governed expert systems where embedded rules cannot be modified will strengthen hierarchical power structures instead of democratizating decisions. The group therefore recommends that expert systems should be of an advisory nature, as opposed to automatic decision making systems.