The Ultimate Video Game
What office worker hasn't thought of dousing the keyboard of her word processor
with a cup of steaming coffee, hurling her modular telephone handset through the
plate glass window of her supervisor's cubicle, or torching up the stack of input
forms waiting in her in-box with a "misplaced'' cigarette? The impulse to sabotage
the work environment is probably as old as wage-labor itself, perhaps older. Life
in an office often means having to endure nonsensical procedures, the childish
whims of supervisors and the humiliation of being someone's subordinate. It's
no wonder that many of us take out our frustrations on the surroundings that are
part of our working life.
The current upsurge in the use of computerized business machines has added fuel
to the fire, so to speak. Word processors, remote terminals, data phones, and
high speed printers are only a few of the new breakable gadgets that are coming
to dominate the modern office. Designed for control and surveillance, they often
appear as the immediate source of our frustration. Damaging them is a quick way
to vent anger or to gain a few extra minutes of "downtime.''
Sabotage is more than an inescapable desire to bash calculators. It is neither
a simple manifestation of machine-hatred nor is it a new phenomenon that has appeared
only with the introduction of computer technology. Its forms are largely shaped
by the setting in which they take place. The sabotage of new office technology
takes place within the larger context of the modern office, a context which includes
working conditions, conflict between management and workers, dramatic changes
in the work process itself and, finally, relationships between clerical workers
Power and Control in the Office
Once considered a career that required a good deal of skill, the clerical job
now closely resembles an assembly line station. Office management has consciously
applied the principles of scientific management to the growing flow of paper and
money, breaking the process down into components, routinizing and automating the
work, and reserving the more "mental'' tasks for managers or the new machines.
The growth and bureaucratization of the information-handling needs of modern corporations
and governments has changed the small "personal'' office into huge organizations
complete with complex hierarchies and explicitly defined work relationships. No
one is exempt from being situated in the organizational chart. The myriad of titles
and grades tends to inhibit a sense of common experience, since everyone else's
situation seems slightly different from one's own. Each spot on the hierarchy
has its privileges and implied power over those below it, and its requirements
of subordination to those above. This social fragmentation is all the more alienating
because it occurs within the context of a supposed social equality. There is a
pretense of friendliness among all office employees regardless of their rank.
This "nice'' atmosphere works conveniently to legitimate the hierarchy. If it
seems that everyone is equal and has an equal chance to climb the ladder, the
ladder itself appears as the emblem of this "equal opportunity.'' All this makes
for an extremely subtle set of power relations.
Rather than through raw confrontation, power is reinforced by imbuing the entire
office terrain with its symbols through things like dress, the size of one's desk
or workspace, and "perks.'' In such a setting, people may try to reduce their
powerlessness by playing the game of privilege or forming alliances with those
more powerful than themselves. Indeed, this type of behavior is almost required
for survival in a typical office.
In addition to these implicit power relations, many offices (especially the larger
corporations) have formalized procedures to handle open conflict when it occurs.
Most of these companies have personnel departments that try to mediate between
managers and their underlings. While most people recognize these substitutes for
unions as biased at best, there is often no alternative, especially when collective
action doesn't seem possible. This process of taking complaints up the hierarchy
is the reflection of power cliques and manipulation that hold sway on the more
informal level. As such, it indicates the conscious attempt on the part of management
to undermine any workers' initiatives to organize autonomously, reinforcing the
hierarchy as the only legitimate framework for work, conflict, in short, for all
aspects of social life.
Office Culture vs. Office Hierarchy
Given the stifling atmosphere of office life it is easy to see why white collar
workers have rarely developed organizational forms (like unions) but have relied
on different techniques and strategies to oppose both the reorganization of their
work and the introduction of new technology. Despite the constraints imposed by
bureaucracy, an informal office work culture subverts the "normal'' office order.
Activities common to this culture often encourage a feeling of comraderie and
collusion. For example, many clericals have become adept in manipulating the superficial
friendliness and can get away with what might otherwise be considered insubordination.
I recently worked with a woman who regularly called one of the managers "der Fuhrer.''
Since she was known around the offfice for her abrasive personality her behavior
was accepted. While this type of "joking'' does not really undermine the basis
of a manager's power it creates a potentially subversive community of those who
are amused at seeing a bureaucrat insulted to his face.
Other normal daily activities in the office also contribute to the subversion
of office order, e.g. making free use of xerox machines, telephones, word processors,
etc., for personal uses rather than company needs. "Time-theft,'' too, is a widespread
form of normal anti-productivity behavior--extended breaks and lunch hours, arriving
late, leaving early, reading the paper on the job, etc.
Pranks can also be disruptive to the normal routine. For example, at Blue Cross
of Northern California where I worked as a temp in 1974, there were a few hundred
VDT operators. Each operator had a set of procedures to follow to bring her terminal
"up,'' after which the words "Good morning, happiness is a sunny day!'' would
appear on the screen. No key entry clerk is in the mood to see that at 7:30 AM.
One morning someone in the notoriously weird claims input department figured out
how to change the program that ran the start-up procedure. When the 250 or so
terminal workers powered on their machines that morning they were greeted with
the more pleasing "Good morning, happiness is a good fuck!'' On top of being good
for a laugh, it caused management to shut the computer down until a systems analyst
came in and fixed the program.
White-collar Opposition: Theft, Sabotage and Strikes
Beyond the daily "fun and games,'' there are some serious forms of resistance
to the office routine. Theft is perhaps the most well known. However, it is often
not recognized as such, largely because the media dwell almost exclusively on
executive embezzlement schemes. Shaped by the nature of the work itself (the large
flows of money that many clericals deal with daily), the breakdown of the close
relationship between clerk and boss that formerly existed, and the rip-offs that
the use of computers has made possible, white collar pilfering is another response
office workers have developed to compensate themselves for lousy wages and bad
working conditions. It is responsible for an estimated $30 to $40 billion in losses
per year with computer crime amounting to about 10 percent of that total.
White collar crime is usually associated with a more highly skilled stratum but,
in fact, access to a firm's databases motivates even those who possess minimal
technical knowledge to dabble in "creative computing.'' A teller at a New York
savings bank was able to steal money from depositors' accounts and then cover
his tracks by shifting money among several other accounts with phony computer
entries. Perhaps what is most interesting about this example is that it demonstrates
the ease with which clerks and others who have access to on-line systems can destroy
or alter information. In fact, "info-vandalism,'' whether committed by disgruntled
employees, high school pranksters or left-wing direct action groups is increasing
at a rapid pace.
Computer industry journals are filled with articles and ads dealing with the stability
and security of information stored electronically. Legislation has recently been
introduced that would make tampering with such data a federal crime. And, in a
frantic scramble to protect their digital blips, businesses have come up with
a whole range of precautionary measures. They range from physically protecting
the hardware against magnet-waving maniacs to encoding devices and password functions
that shield the data.
So far, these efforts have not been adequate. There have been several cases of
employees vindictively erasing important accounting data. In one instance, an
overworked computer operator destroyed two million dollars of billing information
that he didn't have time to enter into the computer. In France, a programmer who
was irate about having been dismissed, wrote a "time-release'' program that erased
all the company's records two years after his dismissal date. Others who have
been terminated by their companies have entered information to give themselves
large severance or pension payments.
Perhaps more threatening than isolated instances of thievery and pranksterism
to companies using data processing equipment is the possibility of strikes or
occupations by office, communications and computer workers. While destruction
and theft are more common, the more classic forms of "labor problems'' do occur
among this sector of the workforce. In February of 1981 the workers of British
Columbia Telephone occupied their workplace in a unionizing drive. For six days
"Co-op'' Tel operated under no management. Technical workers and operators cross-trained
each other in order to maintain telephone service during the action. In England
last spring, computer programmers in the civil service struck for higher wages
and completely stopped the flow of the government bureaucracy's life-blood (i.e.
documents, memos, vouchers, data). While these acts of collective sabotage do
not take place very frequently, they demonstrate the possibility of using computers
against their intended function.
Business Priorities: Automated Irrationality
One might wonder why government and business are pursuing computerization with
such fervor, especially if the technology is so vulnerable. Speed and efficiency
(read: increased productivity) are some of the standard reasons given in response
to this question. Certainly more irrational elements also come into play. There
seems to be an absolute mania for this technology regardless of whether it pays
off in higher profits or productivity. Many business execs assume it will even
though there have been no thorough investigations into this question.
Whatever individual corporate execs think they're doing, on the level of society
as a whole it is clear that a vast restructuring is taking place. Whole segments
of the economy are being shifted from older unprofitable industries (i.g. auto,
steel) to the dazzling information sector. This necessarily changes the details
of our daily lives. Robots, word processors and communication networks are only
a few of the new machines that are part of the modern information-based society.
According to liberal businessmen, futurists and computer enthusiasts a new office
will emerge from the use of the new technology that will reduce regimentation
at work. Remote terminals, they argue, will allow people to do their work in their
own homes at their own speeds. While this vision has serious flaws in itself,
it is unlikely that management will relinquish control over the work process.
In fact, rather than freeing clerks from the gaze of their supervisors, the management
statistics programs that many new systems provide will allow the careful scrutiny
of each worker's output regardless of where the work is done. Decentralization,
assuming it happens at all, will more likely bring about the reintroduction of
piece work, while breaking down the type of work cultures discussed above that
contribute to the low productivity of office workers.
Outside the workplace, such things as video games, videotext, cable TV and automatic
tellers, seemingly benign objects in themselves, increasingly define our leisure
time activities (watching various types of television screens for the most part).
The individual "freedoms'' that are created by the technological wonders of tele-shopping
and home banking are illusory. At most they are conveniences that allow for the
more efficient ordering of modern life. The basis of social life is not touched
by the "revolution.'' As in the office it remains hierarchical. In fact, the power
of those in control is enhanced because there is an illusion of increased
freedom. The inhabitants of this electronic village may be allowed total autonomy
within their personal "user ID's,'' but they are systematically excluded from
taking part in "programming'' the "operating system.''
These visions of computer utopia have come about in response to the widespread
bad attitude that many people have toward the "smart'' machines. When computers
were first introduced for such things as billings and phone lists, people's immediate
response was one of resentment at what they perceived as a loss in power. Who
hasn't had the experience of battling an "infallible'' computer that kept charging
you for the same shirt, lost all your college records or disconnected your phone
call for the fourth time? The point here is not that computers don't work but
that this new technology provides authorities with a shield for their power. The
frustration and powerlessness that people feel can conveniently be blamed on computer
Computers used to automate social life have also been made the objects of sabotage.
Everyone has probably heard a version of the story about the irate housewife storming
into the nearest PG&E office to do summary justice to a guilty computer with a
shotgun. Incidents of sabotage that contain a "social critique'' have also taken
place. In 1970 an anti-war group calling itself BEAVER 55 "invaded'' a Hewlett
Packard installation in Minnesota and did extensive damage to hardware, tapes
and data. More recently (April, 1980), a group in France (CLODO--The
Committee to Liquidate or Divert Computers) raided a computer software firm in
Toulouse, destorying programs, tapes and punch cards.
In the first case attacking a centralizing source of information was a way to
both protest and sabotage U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. The French group,
which had many computer workers as members, went further, condemning computers
for warping cultural priorities as well as for being the preferred tools of the
police and other repressive institutions. The implications of the repressive and
socially negative ways in which computers are used need to be explored. However,
in their emphasis on massive destruction, groups such as the above direct themselves
too much against the technology itself (not to mention those groups' authoritarian
internal structure). They do not pursue the positive aim of subverting computers,
of exploring the relationship between a given technology and the use to which
it is put. In this sense, pranks and theft, often carried out spontaneously and
almost always individually, are more radical than the actions of those who group
themselves around a specific political ideology.
All of these tendencies, the pranks, stealing and destruction in offices, strikes
and occupations by computer workers, and spectacular bombing and arson attacks
by left-wing groups imply a common desire to resist changes that are being introduced
without our consent. The technology that has been developed to maintain profits
and existing institutions of social control is extremely vulnerable to sabotage
and subversion, especially in this transition period. If we are to avoid an alienated
electronic version of capitalism, in which control is subtle but absolute, we
will need to extend the subversion of machines and work process to an all out
attack on the social relations that make them possible.
by Gidget Digit