Today’s Automation Anxiety Was Alive and Well in 1960

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

A fantastic bit of history about how much the earliest computer automation was hated:

Hoos studied 19 San Francisco Bay Area-based organizations across industry types and sizes for two years, beginning in 1957. All had recently introduced EDP into their daily work. She focused on “the changing structure of organizations, shifting lines of authority and communications, effects on decision-making processes, and a variety of other administrative and industrial related questions.” Ultimately, she aimed to “promote a better understanding of the real effects of automation on the office.”


What’s most evident in her findings is that large-scale strategic changes not only changed the nature of work; they also changed how people felt about their work, and how they interacted with colleagues and customers. And it didn’t exactly bring out the best in people, for good reason.

Broadly, EDM seemed to reverse the trend of a decentralized company and office. Prior, growth was associated with “a certain amount of dispersion of function and authority.” Now that data could be processed quickly, records could be kept centrally, reducing the need for branch-level paperwork. As a result, workers were often transferred, downgraded, or ultimately dismissed.

This consolidation of power disrupted the higher reaches of the org chart. “EDP executives display a strong tendency toward empire building,” writes Hoos, undercutting other departments and making independent decisions. Older vice presidents, not wanting to seem like “old fogies” or “opposed to progress,” rarely voiced dissent. But it hardly mattered: “‘Vice presidents in charge of’ find their official functions atrophied; there is little for them to be in charge of.”

Middle management wasn’t free from trouble, either. Jobs that had been used as a training ground to groom the next generation of leaders were transformed by the introduction of EDP. Eager professionals found themselves checking data for errors before it was processed, rather than taking initiative or proving shrewd judgment. “Such work is neither challenging nor rewarding, nor does it have the prestige which must compensate ambitious young men in their upward climb.” As a result, top talent left rather than risk stalling their careers.

Lower down on the rungs, the choice often seemed to be being replaced by a computer or being a servant to it. At one company with over 3,000 clerical workers, the introduction of EDP to replace two accounting functions left 286 people out of a job, with 982 others affected in some day-to-day way.

…These are some of the specifics. When you step back, what’s most striking is that people at all stages of their careers noted that their raison d’etre disappeared with the introduction of the computer. When you train for one job your entire career, and then that job is suddenly taken by a machine, the small number of marketable skills you have almost become moot, Hoot observed. Older non-supervisory employees were particularly vulnerable. “In almost every case I have investigated, few marketable skills have been acquired by workers during the years on the job,” she laments. “Much of the knowledge is related directly to one company’s practices, and has little value in another business. Thus, many workers in the middle years find that their experience has no asset.” Supervisors were also hit hard because they were losing people — and the tasks those people did — to actually manage.

Post external references

  1. 1
  2. 2