Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Your Tax Dollars at Work: American Manufacturing: Command Performance

Understand, I love computers.  I'm still reading David F. Noble's Forces of Production, and it contains this passage:
In the mid-1960s, the Air Force produced a promotional film on numerical control, to push the use of the newer technologies within industry.  Entitled Modern Manufacturing: A Command Performance, the film was targeted at top managers in the metalworking firms.  A technocratic version of Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, it opens with a dream sequence of a manager seated at his oak desk.  The manager idly sketches a new part, then abruptly leans over and barks into desk microphone: “Orders to the plant!”  The verbal commands are automatically translated into computer commands and from that point on all manufacturing, assembling, and shipping processes are automatic, requiring no human intervention – the automatic factory.  The film concentrates on the machinery rather than people; the “modern” manufacturing establishment has N/C machine tools galore, plus automatic molding, forming, welding, testing, punching, handling, plotting, and drafting equipment – all “elements of our plan of the future.”  (As contrasted with “conventional” manufacturing, illustrated by a group of half-clad black “natives” running a conventional engine lathe in a thatched hut!)  [219]
My first reaction to that last bit was to wish I could see the film. Then I realized it was entirely possible that I could; and sure enough, it was available on YouTube.  The scene Noble described occurs nearly at the end of the film, at about the 32-minute mark.  It turns out that he didn't remember or describe it quite accurately: first there is a scene, probably using stock footage, of actual Africans working metal without machines, with pre-industrial technology, and then a probably staged scene of a single black man in a kind of sarong, manipulating a machine tool under a thatched canopy.  See for yourself.  (Notice too that one of the few floor-level factory workers shown is black; no doubt the filmmakers thought they were very enlightened to include that touch.  The only woman depicted is, of course, a keypunch operator.)  This is one of the true benefits of the digital age, being able to access material that only a decade or two ago would be very hard to track down.  I didn't have to look in university archives, I didn't even have to leave my apartment: there it was, in all its fifty-year-old glory, proclaiming the triumph of Modern Science, available to you at a surprisingly low price when the taxpayer subsidies are taken into account.  The time is fulfilled, and the day of "emancipation from human workers" (235) is at hand!
The film stresses the importance of total integration of manufacturing processes, reproducibility, and interchangeability (“tapes can be sent anywhere in the world and produce interchangeable identical parts”) and epitomizes the ideology of automation in action.  “Modern manufacturing,” the narrator repeatedly points out, “shortens the chain of command,” “eliminates human error,” and “greatly reduces the opportunities for a breakdown in communications.”  “Instructions are fixed,” not subject to human intervention or “human emotion”; management commands cannot change.  Modern manufacturing is indeed a command performance, where the commands come from the top.  We must automate, the film concludes, we must eliminate human interventions and uncertainty and reduce the time required to move “from design concept to finished product as soon as possible.”  Such command performance is vital “for the survival of industry and our country” [219].
There are a lot of fascinating details in this primitive infomercial.  One theme that recurs, as Noble shows, is the idea that managers are scientifically competent.  Maybe some in smaller companies there were engineers who'd moved up to management, but American Manufacturing: Command Performance was made to appeal to big contractors in the aerospace and weapons sectors.  And really, how many managers even there could have produced detailed specifications for new machine parts off the top of their heads, or polished drawings like the one we see early on?  I'm pretty sure it would have taken more than an hour even for a fulltime, experienced draftsman to come up with that, to say nothing of the time needed to design the part in the first place.  There's a lot of fantasy going on here.  “As of now,” the salesman/narrator intones, “conventional computers do not accept oral commands; so the instructions are put on punched cards, or tape.”  That's quite an understatement for 1963, or for decades to come.

More pertinent for the hard-nosed businessman's interests, Noble reports that the claims made by the film are over-optimistic at best:
“Complexity degrades reliability,” industrial economist Seymour Melman has observed.  Such was certainly the case with numerical control, without doubt the most complex, and unreliable, equipment ever installed in a machine shop environment.  Jack Rosenberg of ECS described the experience in 1958 when the first Air Force-sponsored systems were placed in the factories of prime contractors as “the year of shock for all parties involved, the point at which exposure to reality began.”  The factory environment was hot, electrically noisy, the floors shook, the air was full of physical and chemical contaminants, machine operators mishandled control tapes, maintenance staff was not prepared to deal with electronic controls, servo systems, or computers.  “None of the numerical control designs or designers was prepared for this acutely hostile environment,” Rosenberg recalled.  Anticipating that the machinery would perform as promised, production managers attempted immediately to assign the new equipment to normal multi-shift schedules. The result, in Rosenberg’s assessment, was “chaos.”  “Several machine tools were torn apart by improper programming, operation, maintenance, or servo design.  Several others were damaged.”  Machine downtime in 1959 hovered around 80 percent, owing both to maintenance problems and to the great difficulty of “keeping them loaded” with program tapes. (And without tapes, N/C machines became merely very expensive furniture.)  Programming errors, moreover, proved extremely likely, troublesome, and expensive, prompting Western Electric’s Edward E. Miller to observe that “N/C makes errors with greater authority than anything we are accustomed to.”  When the systems did not function as desired, the problem was compounded by the ambiguity about who or what was responsible.  Machine tool builders convinced the problems were caused by the electronics, and blamed the control manufacturers, while the latter charged the builders with poor machine design or construction.  Diagnosing a malfunction was thus more than a technical task, which was difficult enough in itself; it also entailed its own particular form of politics.
The first decade of actual production experience with N/C made it plain that industry was not prepared for the second Industrial Revolution, and neither was the technology that was supposed to usher it in [220-1].
In the real world, then, programming numerical-controlled machine tools wasn't as simple and quick as American Manufacturing: Command Performance wanted prospective customers to believe.  It was effective (if not efficient, let alone economical) primarily in advanced aerospace and weapons manufacturing, where cost was no object, thanks to taxpayer subsidies.  Smaller companies making simpler parts simply couldn't afford this kind of equipment, nor did they need its capacities even if they bought it.  The perceived need to compete drove a lot of smaller manufacturers out of business, according to Noble, a reminder that the degradation of American manufacturing long predates NAFTA and the offshoring that became so prominent in the 1980s and after.  Though Forces of Production is nearly thirty years old, it is still relevant, which is no doubt why it's still in print despite its unfashionable -- indeed, counter-fashionable -- message.

I imagine some people will deny that the African scenes are racist; they're just meant to inject a little humor into the production.  If so, it's a false antithesis: this is racist humor, and a glimpse into the mindset both of the American military and of American manufacturing in the early 1960s.  (Remember, this film was made on the taxpayer's dime.)  And the attitudes expressed in American Manufacturing: Command Performance are still with us, as shown by the persistence of scientific racism if nothing else.  The use of African tribesmen to symbolize machine-tool technology that didn't use computer-driven numerical control -- a bit old-fashioned, true, but hardly primitive -- is familiar too: similar tropes turn up in a lot of secularist derogation of religion.  One ongoing theme in Forces of Production is the technocratic hatred for humanity, accompanied by an apparent belief that the technocrats themselves are not human, not emotional, just pure disembodied rationality, entitled to command their brutelike inferiors.

As I said, I like computers.  But they need to be kept in their place.  Even more important, the people who inflate their capabilities, pushing them as panaceas -- let alone the next step in evolution -- need to be kept in theirs.