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Machines, The Job, and Time
February 19, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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The Job by Sinclair Lewis

"She knew that the machines were supposed to save work. But she was aware that the girls worked just as hard and long and hopelessly after their introduction as before; and she suspected that there was something wrong with a social system in which time-saving devices didn't save time for anybody but the owners."

The Job by Sinclair Lewis was published in 1917 and takes place mostly in New York City in the first decade of the 20th century. These days asking anyone to read a book written by a male about women is considered suspect, so I won't. I will point out that some people are better at noticing things than other people, regardless of gender.

Because I learned about the outside world largely through the television shows of the 1960s and early 1970s, I tend to see The Job as a prelude to the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Of course books were written about women working before The Job, and certainly I am no expert on the history of women in literature. I will note only that I found the book quite interesting and readable. It showed just how crushing the male patriarchy was during that era, but it also was sharply insightful about the class structure in general. A few pages before the quote above there was a splendid section on what a bunch of asses the bosses at the top of a business hierarchy can be. That reminded me of how the Trump Organization must have run back when.

This essay, however, is not about gender. It is about machines. In the excerpt above the machines referred to are primitive office machines. They are recording devices, typewriters and carbon paper, pneumatic tubes, and early devices for opening or sealing large quantities of letters. Previously the Industrial Revolution, in addition to initiating the Slow Motion Apocalypse, had produced machines that had reduced skilled or physical labor. They replaced hand weaving of cloth, hand forging of nails, hand seeding of the soil, and the like.

By the 1970s, when I entered the work force, the office machines were nearing perfection, but computers were large machines in separate rooms that required specialty workers to get data in and out. There were dictaphones for taking dictation, Xerox copiers, and IBM Selectric typewriters, as well as teletype machines and specialty data input machines. At a law firm the important lawyers would have a personal secretary, but there would also be a typing pool. When PCs started filtering in, they often were prizes put on the desks of the most important people, then left unused. The accounting department typically already had a minicomputer and terminals for dealing with it. In the 1980s PCs, laser printers, and scanners started to become common.

But the work never ended. The machines always seemed to create more work than they reduced, just as the agricultural machinery of the late 19th century simply produced more people to feed. True, with a PC one worker could do the work of two or three workers with typewriters. The typing pools shrank before my eyes.

The Job is still there. They pundits almost never mention it when they mention Sinclair Lewis, who won a Nobel Prize in literature. The ruling class and its intellectuals never liked Sinclair. They are happy to consign him to the dustbin of white male literary history. But if you want a peek at the life of a working girl around 1910 in New York City, the good news is you can download a copy for free. It is out of copyright.

AI keeps evolving, but the rulers keep making up things for us to do in return for bread and circuses. Do not despair. You're going to make it, after all.

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