Abstract

With the neutering of the QWERTY keyboard in the early 1980s following largely successful clerical worker organizing, male workers in offices began taking on clerical work that, until recently, they would have considered beneath both their job descriptions and their manhood. Paradoxically, the men who now began typing, filing, and performing data entry for themselves did not generally consider the imposition of these new tasks an increase in work. Rather, they called it “automation.” Employers’ and computer manufacturers’ regendering of the QWERTY keyboard from feminine to neuter in the last quarter of the twentieth century was an example of the uses and power of the automation discourse, an ideological commitment that obscured the intensification of human labor behind utopian rhetoric and technological enthusiasm. Employers regendered the keyboard to get more work out of their employees, and as they did so, they claimed that no one did the work at all. Obscuring human labor behind technological marvels, the claims that the work was done by “automation” proved persuasive, even as human labor was sped up and intensified.

For most of its history, the alphanumeric keyboard was a feminine instrument. When engineers in the early 1970s built a computer system for the personal use of Chilean president Salvador Allende, they installed no keyboards; they did not wish to humiliate the president by likening him to an office “girl.” Instead, the president was to summon information by pressing any of a number of blank, geometrically idealized buttons: a pentagon, a square, a circle. For his part, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke found it easier to imagine colonies on the moon than an unsexed keyboard. In his 1961 novel, A Fall of Moondust, Clarke gendered a fictional computer that automatically transformed speech into typed pages (an “Electrosecretary”) as female. “All Electrosecs,” he wrote, “were ‘she.’ ”1

Masculine exceptions to the keyboard's femininity were made where the work was considered highly skilled or craft-like: the newsman typing an article; Hemingway at his Underwood; and, later in the century, the computer programmer coding late into the night. The masculine trades aside, however, proximity to the keyboard almost always indicated a worker's low status and, often, their sex. Having entered the office in the late nineteenth century under a masculine sign, by the first decades of the twentieth century the QWERTY keyboard's association with degraded female office labor meant that no self-respecting executive or midlevel manager—whose ranks were for the most part closed to women—would, except in extreme circumstances, operate a keyboard. The keyboard was the province of secretaries and low-wage clerical workers, almost all of whom were women.

By the end of the century, however, all of this had changed. In the early 1980s the alphanumeric keyboard made a sudden and almost complete transition from a feminine to a neuter device. No longer would QWERTY spell “female.” With a gender-neutral keyboard, middle managers could shoulder the labor of clerical workers—that is, the labor of “girls”—and still consider themselves men. They could type, file, and enter data, tasks that only a few years earlier they would have seen as beneath both their paygrade and their dignity. While between 1975 and 1982 the number of clerical workers in the United States grew from 15,321,000 to 18,446,000, five of the occupational subgroups under the umbrella of clerical work shrank, and one more than all the others combined: in 1982 there were 93,000 fewer typists in the United States than there had been seven years earlier, even as typing remained the work of the human hand. Typists were replaced, not by personal computers, but by managers who now did their own typing on a neutered keyboard. For the first time in the history of the American office, everyone typed.2

The keyboard ceased to threaten the manhood of the manager because the apparatus no longer actuated the typewriter. Now it commanded a new machine: the desktop computer. When married to a computer, or so the ad men insisted, the keyboard was nothing for which a manager need feel ashamed. Quite the contrary, the computer, they insisted, and the keyboard to which it was attached, provided male managers with access to unprecedented powers, all of them compatible with manliness. The masculine computer canceled out the keyboard's femininity. With his own personal computer on his desk, a manager could type correspondence, pull files, and punch in data, all without exposing his masculinity to undue risk.

Even as managers performed much of the clerical work that until recently others had done for them, however, they did not call it an imposition or an insult. Instead, because they performed that work on a computer, they called it “automation.” The computer entered the office surrounded by an aura of future and progress, much of it quite deliberately fostered by employers and manufacturers. As they distributed the latest in technology to midlevel workers, bosses boasted that the desktop computer was eliminating human labor. In the words of one office employer, it “liberated the executive from the tyranny of the secretary.”3 If so, it was a strange liberation. Managers, it would seem, had been “liberated” from having their clerical work done for them. Yet while employers sped up midlevel office workers to get more labor out of them for less, those same workers credited not themselves with doing the extra work, but rather, the computer.

We have on our hands a paradox, one that was typical of the career of “automation” in the second half of the twentieth century.4 As managers used the old QWERTY keyboard to do the same tasks clerical workers had done for the better part of a century, they believed that the work happened automatically—that the computer did it; that no one did it. It falls to us to explain why they might have thought such a thing.

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Ever since executives in the American automobile industry coined the word automation in the years immediately following the Second World War, the term's precise meaning has been the subject of intense debate. “There is much truth in the quip,” said one of the word's earliest and most successful promoters, “that it is as hard for a group of businessmen to define automation as it is for a group of theologians to define sin.”5 This difficulty has been true for historians as well. For the most part they have assumed that automation described a specific technological development, that it was summoned into existence by objective material changes in the means of industrial production, and that, like steam power or the assembly line, it referred to a discrete technical phenomenon. On account of this assumption, they have granted “automation” a degree of power in its own right as a historical actor, as when one historian writes that “automation sometimes did have dramatic effects,”6 or when another attests to “automation's role in labor's decline.”7 While the technical specificities of this supposed historical agent remain unclear, a consensus reigns as to its supposed effects: whatever technical form “automation” takes, it progressively replaces human labor with machine action. According to this logic, technological progress and the elimination of human labor are synonymous.8

When confronted with the word's vagueness, historians of technology have sought to cut through the ambiguity by singling out specific innovations in technics and then addressing those particular developments as the real “automation.” This practice has led to excellent treatments of specific technological developments: of the transfer machine, numerically controlled machine tools, and computer-aided design. But informative as they are, these histories leave much unexplained. They tell us little, for example, as to why after the Second World War Americans believed “automation” meant a new era in the history of humanity. “We believe,” said Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers in 1955, “that we are really standing on the threshold of a completely revolutionary change in the scientific and technological developments we have experienced.” Nor does this approach explain why so few in the postwar period could agree as to which particular mechanisms constituted “automation”; nor why many jobs supposedly undergoing “automation” in fact witnessed not their elimination but, just the opposite, an expansion of the job category.9

No description of machinery on its own can explain how or why in the postwar period people began to describe an increase in human labor as its elimination. To explain “automation,” therefore, we must go beyond technics and enter into the realms of thought, culture, and politics. A careful parsing of the record reveals that rather than a dispassionate description of mechanism or technique, from its inception “automation” was a term of ideology. Since managers coined the word in the 1940s, “automation” told a story of human progress as a technological revolution that would imminently and inevitably abolish industrial labor. Underpinning this theory of history was an assertion not of fact but of values—that work and freedom stood opposite each other, and that social and technological progress were synonymous with the abolition of human labor.10

The substance of “automation” was not the elimination of labor but, rather, its mystification. From the auto industry to coal mining, from meatpacking to longshoring, the term automation obscured a managerial speedup of human labor, its intensification and its degradation, or as one auto worker put it, simply, the “new Automation speedup.”11 Under the aegis of “automation,” employers deployed spectacular technological innovations and claimed that the latest machines made human labor obsolete, which is to say, worthless. At the same time, they reorganized the labor process to squeeze more product out of workers. Rather than do away with human labor, what many contemporaries called “automation” hid behind marvelous new machines the value that human effort continued to contribute to production. “Whatever automation means to management, labor bureaucrat, or engineer,” wrote Simon Owens, a line worker for Chrysler in 1960, “for the production worker it means a return to sweatshop conditions, increased speedup and gearing the man to the machine, instead of the machine to the man.”12

What had been true of automation in the production of automobiles held just as much for the fledgling computer industry. The introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s and the neutering of the keyboard was in fact not the first but the second attempt to “automate” clerical work by means of the digital computer. In the boom following the end of the Second World War, American businesses expanded their operations and, with them, their payrolls. In the bustling, profitable world of the Pax Americana, typing, filing, and above all data entry required a growing army of workers. Between 1947 and 1956 office employment grew by more than 50 percent, and clerical workers, the lowest rung on the office hierarchy, made up the single largest occupation in the office. These workers operated office machines and manipulated keyboards. They typed correspondence, ran comptometers, and punched keypunch machines. The vast majority of these workers were women, so much so that a count in 1954 revealed that one out of every four wage-earning women in the United States was a clerical worker. By the middle of the twentieth century it went without saying that clerical work and all its appurtenances were feminine.13

Only recently, however, had clerical labor and the keyboard become indisputably women's work. With breakneck industrialization at the turn of the century, managers had degraded the clerical professions using the same methods they applied to manufacturing, chief among them mechanization. Managers and employers introduced new machines to the office to aid in the detailed division of labor, breaking up the traditionally male clerk's position into lesser jobs in an effort to cut wages. The rising generation of late nineteenth-century office workers were compelled to familiarize themselves with an array of new devices, almost all featuring some version of a keyboard: keypunches, dictation machines, and, first and foremost, the typewriter. And as managers degraded clerical work, they feminized it. In 1880, half of all typists in the United States were women. By 1930, practically every typist in America was.14

As the number of clerical workers grew exponentially in the postwar period, the masters of the American office faced a labor problem of unprecedented proportions. Administering America's economic empire proved a gargantuan task. From a backroom behind the main concern, the office became a factory in its own right, and the sheer number of low-level workers flooding the rows began to lend the white collar a shade of blue. In response to the new situation, a 1957 report by the American Management Association suggested that executives avail themselves of mechanization to cheapen labor, not by simplifying it further as they had in the past (and which often had actually expanded the number of employees) but, rather, by doing away with workers as much as possible, by saving “man- and woman-hours in the office” and “eliminating human hands and handwriting.” With the simultaneous degradation and expansion of clerical work, employers entertained misgivings about what one volume referred to, in its title, as “white-collar restiveness—a growing challenge.” Hoping to cut costs and reduce the proletarian element of the office suite, executives found themselves susceptible to the utopian, technological optimism of the postwar period that went by the name of “automation.”15

The postwar vogue for “automation” and the diffusion of the computer into American offices went hand in hand. Rather than the as-yet-nonexistent desktop computer of the 1980s, the first wave of what contemporaries called office automation in the 1950s and 1960s centered on the large mainframe computer. These machines “batch processed” data. They possessed neither monitors nor keyboards. Sitting at desks often not in the same room as the computer, clerical workers converted data into a machine-readable language by converting text or numbers into punch cards or punched tape that they or another worker then fed into the machine. While data preparation remained a feminized task, the mystique and complexity of the computer allowed for its masculinization. The first computer programmers in the 1940s were women, but once it became clear just how much craft-like skill was required to do the job, men stepped in to take over the profession. By the 1950s most programmers were men, and the computer itself was gendered male.16

Since its invention in the Second World War, employers and managers knew that the computer could perform astronomical calculations quickly. Few, however, were able to imagine how they might use such a machine to make money. Out of this fog of enthusiasm and uncertainty stepped a new class of consultants ready to offer their services. John Diebold, widely credited at the time as the world's foremost expert on “automation,” was himself an early promoter of the adoption of the electronic digital computer in the office. When it came to office work, Diebold complained, clerical procedures were “designed largely in terms of human limitations.” First among these human limitations, he insisted, was the organ that had at one time been the pride of the species: the human hand, and, it went without saying, women's hands in particular. “Human hands guided by human brains,” Diebold wrote, held back progress. Efficiency required less biological instruments. Digital computers, he argued, could “handle” far more accurately and quickly the material currently processed by the hands of female clerical workers.17

Office employers bought computers because their advocates promised the devices would eliminate clerical workers by automatically transforming mere data, without any intervening human activity, into valuable, processed, synthesized “information,” understood to mean useful facts with which an executive could turn a profit.18 When mathematician Howard S. Levin, lately of the Manhattan Project, started a business leasing computers in the 1950s, he was disappointed that managers did not especially care about what he saw as the computer's untapped potential. Rather than avail themselves of the computer's novel powers, he complained, “saving money through reduction of clerical payrolls is proving a more powerful motivation.” They lacked vision, he thought.19 Richard J. Matteis, a senior vice president at Citibank, remembered that machinery made up only 10 percent of operating costs, while labor accounted for 70 percent. Management's goal throughout the 1960s and early 1970s had been “to flip the ratio entirely, to stand it on its head until labor costs and other operation costs constituted only 30% while hardware and software made up the rest.”20

Unfortunately for Matteis and other senior executives, the new machines did not eliminate the hundreds of thousands of women performing clerical duties in the United States. Instead, well into the 1980s the percentage of clerical workers in the total workforce steadily grew. Despite speedup and much to the chagrin of employers, the human hand remained essential to “automated” office work.21 The trouble was that while the mainframe computer could perform calculations quickly, the human labor that fed data into the machine remained essential. “The traditional promise of electronic data processing is the possibility of actually eliminating—or at least reducing to a minimum—the processing of paperwork,” said one manager in the pages of Men, Machines, and Methods in the Modern Office. But with the introduction of the digital computer, he admitted, “the magnitude of paperwork now is breaking all records.” There were “just as many clerks and just as many key-punch operators as before,” he lamented. “In most cases, paperwork is actually increasing in the input area.”22

The increased power that came with the computer encouraged offices to enter and process more data than they had before the machine's arrival. To take advantage of the enlarged capacities that came with a computer, offices needed to amass and enter more data to justify the cost of the machine. But data preparation remained the task of people, not machines. As a 1966 study by Bureau of Labor Statistics found, the computer allowed offices “to handle an increasing workload without increasing employment as much as would have been necessary if EDP [electronic data processing] had not been introduced.” Nevertheless, “automation” ironically required an increase, rather than a reduction, in human labor. As had happened countless times before in the history of industrialization, the new mechanical power directly applied only to a narrow portion of the work. To make the most on their investment, employers needed to run the machine as often and continuously as possible; to make the new machines pay, workers employed in other regions of the office needed to work harder.23

By all accounts, data preparation and filing was both exhausting and deeply boring work. Mary Roberge was employed in the 1950s as a low-level clerk doing data entry on an IBM machine at a large insurance company in Springfield, Massachusetts. She labored amid a sea of desks and filing cabinets where for every single male manager, twenty female clerical workers, in her words, “stamped, punched, and endlessly filed and refiled IBM cards.” Workers could not leave their desks except to file or use the bathroom. There were no coffee breaks. A keypunch operator at another insurance company told an investigator in 1960 that with the introduction of the computer, managers had sped up clerical workers. “Everything is speed in the work now,” she said. A vice president pointed to a room where keypunch operators feverishly entered data on alphanumeric keyboards and said, “All they lack is a chain.”24 Data entry required the operation of a keyboard. It remained poorly remunerated. Three out of five people who directly worked with the computer in this era were low-wage clerical workers; of this majority, nine out of ten were women.25

Because midcentury mainframe computers did not relieve businesses of their clerical workers, well into the 1970s large offices continued to break up the job of the individual secretary into typing, filing, and data-entry “pools.” One pool of workers did all the office's typing, another the filing. One pool punched machine-readable cards all day. Often these workers did not directly interact with the computer. They were expected to type or prepare data for more superiors than the traditional secretary had. Take for example the clerical worker employed as a secretary for thirteen years at “a financial firm” who testified that by 1979 “all secretarial positions” at her office had been “abolished.” From her job as a secretary she was moved into a typing pool where, she said, “I now serve three vice-presidents and four paralegals. Just about 100% of the time is spent in filing, getting copies and running errands. The only change in the men's jobs is that they dictate into a telephone instead of a person.”26 Far from eliminating labor, the appearance of the mainframe computer in the office pushed employers to further specialize and degrade clerical work.

The introduction of the stand-alone computer terminal to the office in the 1970s did not change this situation, nor did it lead to the rehabilitation of the QWERTY keyboard. While the first desktop computers looked similar to the later generation of machines that would grace the desks of executives—consisting of a monitor, a central processing unit, and a keyboard—these machines entered the American office intended solely for clerical workers. They were called Video Display Terminals, or VDTs; CRTs for Cathode Ray Tubes; and when especially devoted to typing, Word Processors, or “TV Typewriters.” They were often limited in function to clerical tasks. Only the lowest order of clerical workers used these early desktop computers, and as such, employers gendered them feminine. Clerical workers in American offices had used electronic typewriters since the 1960s, and as early as 1964 some of these machines, like the IBM Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST), possessed a small amount of memory; by means of magnetic tape they could automatically retype copy. IBM and other business machine companies continued to produce electronic typewriters into the 1980s at the same time they marketed VDTs to employers. No one claimed a user would become a better executive by making use of one. “A word processor seemed more like a typewriter than a computer,” the trade journal InfoWorld noted in 1982 of these first desktop computers. “It fit the image of a machine that might be on a secretary's desk.”27

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the introduction of VDTs—which both managers and clerical workers called “automation”—allowed clerical workers to enter data more quickly, but it did not hand over the task of data entry to the machine. As before, with increased capability came more intensified work. “We just had computers come in like within the past 6 months or so,” a clerical worker explained at the 1982 Massachusetts History Workshop, whose focus that year was office work. “The computer's been a real benefit for me, it's made my work a lot easier, so I don't see anything wrong with it, right now.” That said, she acknowledged that with the new machine she had more to do: “It's troublesome sometimes because you have 3 bosses and 3 different things going on, they say, ‘do this, do this, do this.’ ”28 Unions waged campaigns around the machine's health risks. Working at a VDT hour after hour led to carpal tunnel, union officials claimed. By the mid-1980s, 9to5, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and AFSCME persuaded state legislators to introduce VDT bills to protect clerical workers from developing physical illnesses through overwork at the machines, and even in some instances to keep management from using computer terminals to monitor workers’ “efficiency,” that is, pace.29

Computer companies sold early word processors to employers with the promise that the machines allowed workers to type faster. In principle, more words per minute should have allowed managers to shrink the size of their typing pools, but despite the speedup, by the late 1970s it was apparent to managers that neither mainframes nor the VDT had significantly reduced labor costs. “All we did was to concentrate the drudgery for some secretaries and give others more time to run for coffee. It just didn't work to I.B.M.’s grand plan,” complained Vice President R. A. Eliassen of the Security Pacific National Bank of Los Angeles after the bank created a computerized “word-processing center” in 1972—a typing pool using VDTs. Nor did it reduce costs when the bank paid its employees on a piece rate. “We were paying 14¢ a word before word-processing,” Eliassen said, “and 14¢ a word after.” As for the quality of the day-to-day grind in a word-processing center, Eliassen called it “a giant step backward from job enrichment.” “I have a great deal of compassion for my word-processing operators,” acknowledged a vice president at the Unionamerica Insurance Group, also in Los Angeles; “it's tedious work.” Vincent E. Giuliano, executive for the Arthur D. Little management consulting firm, felt the same. “IBM's word-processing secretaries,” he conceded, “are basically a regressive movement back to the secretarial pool.”30

By the middle years of the 1970s, regression would not do. After decades of mechanized speedup, clerical workers, stirred by the growing woman's movement, began to organize. “The rebellion of women against their traditional limitations has become a major social movement in the last five years,” read one 1977 union pamphlet. “All over the country there were small rebellions—secretaries refusing to make the coffee, groups of clerks defying dress codes to wear pants to work, women suddenly expressing their anger at being called ‘girls’ or patted on the behind.”31 Bodies like the National Organization of Women, 9to5, and Women Office Workers challenged the sexist norms that for a century had ruled the American office. Women spoke out against sexual harassment and the commonplace expectation that they perform the role of “office wife,” serving meals and running personal errands for their male superiors. The protest struck at the heart of the profession, for the femininity of clerical work had provided much of its meaning. Not only did clerical workers process paperwork—they also boosted male egos; they served.

Racism, too, shaped how employers, managers, and workers understood the postwar office. Through the 1970s, the majority of clerical workers had been white, and the few women of color employed in the occupation were placed in the worst positions. As with other poorly paid “white-collar” jobs—most notably telephone operating—postwar management's ideal worker had been young, pretty, female, and white.32 But following the landmark civil rights legislation of the sixties and the activism of Black Americans for equal access to employment, managers found it increasingly difficult to maintain racist hiring policies. For example, by the second half of the 1970s, Blue Shield's office of clerical workers in San Francisco consisted of a third Black workers, a third white, and a third Filipino. The white workers, one labor organizer remembered, were “sort of a weird sub-group of whites. They were mostly college students out of college and a pretty fair sprinkling of gay men.”33 The sexism of the postwar office, combined with the increased presence of People of Color in white-collar jobs after the 1960s, threw together people whose identities cut across lines of race, class, and sexuality. White middle-class women with college educations sat next to white and Black working-class women, many of whom had not gone to college, and they all performed the same work for the same people. For a brief time, clerical workers successfully organized across these divisions. It was an employer's worst nightmare: cross-race, cross-class clerical worker organizing constituted a major threat to managerial control of the American office.34

When clerical workers challenged the sexist and racist hierarchies of the office, they struck not only at the ideologies that justified the degradation of their jobs, but also much of the meaning of being a male manager. Commanding subservient women was one of the chief benefits of a manager's job, and the tasks of helpmeet and sex object had proven the hardest of all to mechanize. So when clerical workers moved to abolish the role of office wife, they inadvertently accelerated the degradation of managerial work. Jonathan Pugh III, head of marketing for the computer manufacturer, the Lexitron Corporation (the first company to develop, in 1969, a word processor that included a viewing screen built into the unit), had found that many managers would resist the installation of new machines if it robbed them of the masculine compensations of being a manager. “Many managers do not want to lose their personal assistants or the status which having one's own secretary symbolizes,” said Pugh in 1975. When it came to convincing managers to give up their personal secretaries, he said, “the biggest problem we face is the office wife.”35

When in 1967 IBM installed a word-processing center of twenty-two “editing typewriters” at McGraw-Hill's New York City headquarters, no managers made use of it. “Without the secretary outside their door,” said the project manager, “managers felt they were downgraded.” But in the wake of the women's movement, clerical workers themselves increasingly rejected the servile expectations of the sexist office. Armed with the imperfect weapons of law and union, they aimed to take the sex out of office work. Clerical work itself, they insisted, should be a neuter task. With that demand, they knocked out a central prop holding up the meaning of all office work. Worker agitation made it unsafe for a manager to take uninhibited satisfaction in the femininity of his secretary. “No one used to worry about the career path of secretaries,” said Donald P. Roth, product manager for the Xerox Corporation in the mid-1970s. “Women's lib is affecting things now.” To a large extent, clerical workers were abolishing the job of office wife, and that victory came with unintended consequences. Now that the job of office wife no longer existed, the field was open for employers and manufacturers to expand to management the now ambiguously gendered tasks of typing, filing, and data entry. As they promoted some women into the ranks of management, employers promoted previously feminine clerical tasks along with them.36

While VDTs, like mainframes before them, failed to purge the human element from the office, the regendering of clerical work offered employers an opportunity to try another kind of “automation.” In addition to squeezing clerical workers, employers and upper-level executives undertook to cut costs by speeding up midlevel managers.37 They did this deliberately and conscientiously. In 1979, Harvey L. Poppel, of the consultancy Booz, Allen and Hamilton, was calling “data processing” centers—that is, mechanized clerical pools—“economic straitjackets.” “The incongruity between the enormous growth in the automated office systems and the virtually non-existent rise in office production,” he wrote, “clearly points out that creating equipment alone cannot solve today's management problems.” The computer, he argued, was incapable of reducing labor costs so long as employers continued to focus on clerical workers. Poppel called for the “bourgeoisification” of clerical work. He suggested that if managers were provided with “sophisticated telephone systems,” they might be persuaded to answer their own phones. Perhaps through “electronic mail” the company could prevail on them to administer their correspondence themselves. If provided with a computer, managers might even agree to do some of their own “word processing”; maybe, that is, they could be made to type. And if some managers did their own clerical tasks, Poppel reasoned, a company could hire fewer clerical workers. Ostensibly, these managers would not be paid more for taking on tasks formerly undertaken by a clerical worker. Increasing managerial pay would defeat the cost-saving purpose of having shifted clerical tasks to them in the first place. Instead, the balance saved would fall to the company's bottom line. Poppel described his call for the degradation of midlevel managerial work as “helping managers and professionals do a better job”; Computerworld described this “help” as “spreading automation to professionals.” “The office of the future has to be moved into the professional and managerial suites,” the trade journal explained. From the perspective of an employer's account book, it must indeed have looked like “automation.” Where once scores of female workers had been paid to do a task, now, or so the books would show, practically no one was. Yet the work still got done. Male managers did it, and so did the growing number of women who won entry into the ranks of management. In the end it mattered little that the “automated” labor was performed not by machines, as so many consultants and journalists claimed, but human beings. If it cost nothing, it was as if no one did it at all.38

By the early 1980s, Poppel's bourgeoisification of clerical work had become a given in the computer industry. Randy J. Goldfield, an “office systems consultant” writing for Byte magazine in 1983, informed readers that the biggest gains to be made in mechanizing the office came from giving clerical duties to “professionals.” That way an employer could dispense with “labor-intensive jobs like secretarial typing, shorthand, etc.” “In the average company,” he wrote, “professional salaries account for about half of total salary costs. As the largest segment of the work force salary, increased professional productivity becomes a prime target and justification for automation and increased output.” By “automation,” Goldfield meant providing professionals and managers with computers on which they would complete their own typing, correspondence, and filing. “While word processing and data processing have initially focused on clerical and secretarial staff,” Goldfield wrote, “increased professional productivity is now seen as a major priority in business.” James Folts, vice president of corporate development at Syntrex Incorporated, agreed. “Historically,” he said, “management has viewed office automation as a secretarial tool. However, this approach is the least cost-effective.” Rather, office “automation” was a “professional tool.”39 According to the director of marketing at National Cash Register in 1982, the computerized “personal work station” was now “the major focus of white-collar productivity.”40

But convincing managers to take on clerical work as a part of their job required that employers and the computer industry overcome a major impediment: the feminine keyboard, the instrument through which management had for a century degraded clerical tasks. To make middle managers do clerical work, employers and computer salesmen in the late 1970s and early 1980s needed to convince male managers that the keyboard, when plugged into the masculine computer, was a gender-neutral tool. Their line of persuasion was straightforward: if the mystique of the computer eclipsed the femininity of the keyboard sufficiently, male managers would agree to perform their own clerical duties. Incidentally, incorporating clerical work into managerial tasks would go hand in glove with allowing women to enter managerial ranks. This perhaps explains male managers’ early resistance to the dissemination of the desktop computer. According to Computerworld, “Contrary to predictions made by DP [data processing] managers and systems vendors, top-level executives are not eager to have desktop computers or terminals grace their offices.” “In general,” said the trade journal, “executives do not care to use automated equipment directly.” “The chairman of the board is likely to be unwilling to type all his correspondence into a keyboard.”41

Louis Mertes, vice president and general manager of “systems” at the Continental Bank and Trust Company of Chicago, acknowledged that it was proving difficult to convince managers to use computers to perform their own clerical work. Part of the problem, according to a journalist who interviewed him, was that managers did not want to use “keyboard devices,” which executives “traditionally viewed as tools for lower level employees.”42 “If managers learn to touch-type, wordprocessors will enable them to dispense with much of the typing undertaken by their secretaries,” went a 1979 article in Computer Age. “In the short term, established managers will probably find this too much of a chore—or an apparent reduction in status.” Still, all hope was not lost. “Even though managers may eschew the idea of doing all their own typing, they may be persuaded to use a wordprocessor to input their first draft.”43

Some despaired that they would ever convince managers to type or enter their own data manually into a computer and called instead for developing speech-recognition technology. In 1975, IBM's director of marketing maintained that “it's awkward for a manager to tap the information in the office system of the future. How do you get him to use a terminal?”44 “First, the keyboard should be restricted as far as possible to the clerical functions and other routine tasks,” a writer for Computer Age answered. “The executive and management functions demand a dialogue on a higher plane, and that means speech recognition.”45

Speech-recognition technology, however, was practically nonexistent in the 1980s. To persuade managers to do their own clerical work, therefore, required that employers and computer manufacturers broker a reconciliation between men in the office and the keyboard. If the alphanumeric keyboard held too many negative associations for middle managers, perhaps it was time for a wholly new kind of keyboard. One innovation in this direction came in the form of the charming and uncanny Microwriter (figures 1–3), an 8-bit portable word processor that was also a chording keyboard. Ergonomically designed to fit snugly in the right hand, it had only six buttons which, when pressed in different combinations, produced text. The Microwriter's screen displayed a single line of writing and, after composing copy into its 16 kilobytes of memory, a user could connect it directly to a printer. Intended for the executive-on-the-go, it came with a handsome leather pouch. “We firmly believe that, so long as the QWERTY is the only keyboard driving Word Processing Systems, the office of the Future will remain land-locked in the secretary's office,” announced a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 1982. “For the simple reason,” it continued, “that few executives, attorneys, engineers, accountants, doctors or businessmen will learn to touch-type on the present keyboard. . . . The simple fact is that the QWERTY keyboard is inherently unfriendly.” What precisely the advertisement meant by “unfriendly” was left to the imagination of the reader.46 Regardless, the salesmen behind the Microwriter depicted the operation of the machine not as typing but, rather, as “an extension of normal handwriting”—in other words, more akin to an activity male managers already performed than to the secretarial work of typing.47 Appealing to the logic that typing on a Microwriter wasn't typing at all, marketing portrayed the instrument as automatically achieving the result of typed compositions, even though the manager himself was pressing the keys: “The Microwriter acts as a true word processor,” declared a promotional brochure, “offering the benefits of word processing without an operator” (figure 4).48

Alas, the Microwriter did not flourish; production, begun in 1978, ceased in 1985. Rather than introduce an entirely new apparatus, most employers and computer salesmen instead focused their energies on changing the status of the traditional alphanumeric keyboard, appealing to a line of argument that had characterized the celebration of “automation” in the United States since the end of World War II—that all technological development bent toward the liberation of workers from toil. Focusing the discussion on the magnificence of the desktop computer (what many at the time called the “microcomputer”) rather than the substance of the worker's job, they claimed that the machines themselves performed duties that once required clerical workers. These were the years of the great boom in the desktop computer. From the depths of the hobbyist's basement, the machine's meteoric ascent in the early 1980s onto the well-lit desk of the manager had all the appearance of a technological revolution. Manufacturers both chased and fed the enthusiasm. Now a single individual could possess for himself, on his very own desk, all the power of a machine that once occupied an entire room and served dozens of people, or so the advertisements read. Far from imposing clerical tasks on managers, this argument went, the powerful microcomputer would liberate managers: liberate them, that is, to do their own typing and filing.49

As early as 1975, a study on the future of “data processing” jointly authored by executives from Bell Labs, IBM, Standard Oil of California, Exxon, and Equitable Life Insurance, among other American companies, argued that an “increased respectability of automation” would help associate office computers with “shorter hours” and increase the market for computers. If computer companies could link the direct use of the digital computer—that is, the operation of the alphanumeric keyboard—with “leisure” rather than drudgery, they concluded, managers would be willing to use them.50 Freedom was what Henry Lee, president of Lee Pharmaceuticals, had in mind when he boasted that the desktop computer “liberated the executive from the tyranny of the secretary.” Lee bought dozens of TRS-80 Model I desktop computers for the scientists on his staff, specifically for use as, in his words, a “typewriter.” Once the scientists began typing their own reports, Lee reported, he had been able to do away with twelve secretaries.51 Consultants and salesmen portrayed the imposition of clerical duties onto midlevel office workers as an act of generosity, a way for employers to provide their workers with greater convenience and resources. Doing your own clerical work on an electronic digital computer, consultant Randy Goldfield argued, gave professionals direct access to the information they needed “to make practical, timely decisions.”52

Louis Mertes, the vice president of Continental Bank who had encountered difficulties convincing the managers of his office to use “keyboard devices,” sought to rouse his reluctant subordinates by boasting of the edge they would gain by doing their own filing. “As you use that automated capability,” he said, “you become more deadly on your follow-up and forget less.” “A manager can write a memo on a terminal and then ‘mail’ it electronically to one or more destinations. The memos are stored on the system, which then serves as an ‘electronic filing cabinet,’ ” a journalist wrote of the new machines at Continental Bank. “The system can also store other kinds of written information, freeing its users from dependence on internal mail services.” “I have gone from three aide/secretaries to one, who primarily does the things the system can't do,” exulted the bank's manager of system operations as, for the first time, he performed much of his own typing and filing.53

Advertising now depicted clerical work as exciting, a new frontier a manager could explore by way of his computer. “If you employers think Scripsit 2.0 is just for the secretarial pool, try using it yourself,” went an article on a word-processing program, placed in a trade journal by Radio Shack, “the biggest name in little computers.” “Type a couple of memos instead of writing them down and having your secretary type them. . . . You might consider doing the first draft of a letter yourself, also. With this program the sometimes boring task of writing becomes fun.”54 A few managers evidently found this last assertion true. In a letter to the editor of TRS-80 Microcomputer News, one manager confessed, “Since our office acquired the Model II, my secretary complains that I leave her only the routine things to type up!”55

Where employers encountered managerial resistance to clerical tasks, they likewise portrayed the problem as one of technical expertise, rather than a protest against additional duties. In 1981, Xerox introduced its 8010 Star Information System, a desktop computer that the company marketed directly to managers to help them file, type final copy, and send mail. When managers balked at doing their own clerical work, consultants depicted their opposition as that of wary managers intimidated by the technical complexities of the computer. “Analysts said the product would help make terminals less intimidating in the corporate levels above secretaries,” a journalist covering the release wrote, even as he called Xerox's new system “a video display terminal,” the very piece of equipment that organizers for 9to5 claimed employers were using to further degrade clerical work.56

Playing up the technical complexity of the machine had the ironic benefit of adding to its masculine allure. Besides clerical tasks, advertisers announced, the desktop computer could help managers keep track of the business cycle. Xerox officials spoke of the Star Information System as though it would empower managers, increasing managerial productivity “by speeding their ability to gather information and to compile it into reports and memos.”57 According to a market analyst writing for Byte magazine in 1983, in the early eighties this important selling point of “executive work stations” was more shadow than substance, despite managers’ “grudging admittance of the microcomputer's usefulness.” “So far,” he wrote, “businesses have used personal computers most often for client records and accounting purposes, text editing, mailing lists, and financial planning”—that is, clerical work. “Applications such as stock/investment analysis and graphics do not appear to be as common.” Nevertheless, capitalizing on this line of advertising as well as increasing managerial use of keyboard-operated desktop computers, in 1982 the designers of the market-tracking Bloomberg terminal gave the machine a resemblance to a personal computer, including a color-coded QWERTY keyboard.58

Advertising matched the emphasis on the desktop computer's masculinity with blatant displays of men occupying positions of power and using alphanumeric keyboards. In print and with glossy photographs, marketers depicted the hand-powered entry of data both as consistent with manhood and, simultaneously, as “automation.”59 A before-and-after comparison of computer advertising reveals the dramatic swiftness of the keyboard's sex change. Until the late 1970s, advertisements portrayed data entry and the keyboard-operated computer as women's business. They depicted young women working on keyboard-operated computers. Figure 5 is a typical example from the Datapoint Corporation in 1977.

Consider as well figure 6, an advertisement for Wang Laboratories from 1978. Wang, headquartered in Lowell, Massachusetts, produced VDTs meant for the use of poorly paid female clerical workers. Their advertisement told the viewer as much, informing him or her that the keyboard-operated computer was a tool applied best to ranks of young, regimented women, depicted from above, the way a supervising manager walking the rows might see them. Notice as well that the “personnel headaches” from which a manager suffered—Equal Employment Opportunity, affirmative action—were the results of civil rights organizing in the office against sexist and racist discrimination, the same organizing that challenged the patriarchal hierarchy which had fixed much of clerical work's meaning throughout the twentieth century.

If advertisers showed a male manager in the presence of a keyboard-operated computer, he was almost always standing over a woman using the machine, as seen in figure 7, courtesy of Texas Instruments Distributed Processing Systems in 1978. When women's hands entered data, they were evidence of inefficiency. In 1981, the Caere Corporation hoped to sell optical scanners by presenting a photograph of two feminine hands, announcing that here were “10 reasons why you're losing speed and accuracy in data entry” (figure 8). These were the hands holding back industry.

But scanners, like voice recognition, remained a dream of the future. More commonly, advertisers committed themselves to depicting men, clearly managers, using keyboards to operate computers. When male hands appeared in these advertisements, they were organs of power. Beginning in the early 1980s a new alphanumeric keyboard appeared, one physically identical to the degraded feminine instrument of old but which, now, a male executive might use. As the masculine desktop computer canceled out QWERTY's womanly attributes, weak women's hands were replaced with the potent hands of men. What the Digital Equipment Corporation pitched in 1983 would have been practically unthinkable only a few years before—three men using keyboards (figure 9).

The copy accompanying the photograph emphasized, as Xerox had in 1981, the power and freedom supposedly bestowed on the manager by the computer. It assured managers that using the hitherto feminine keyboard was anything but emasculating, not when that tool channeled such impressive energies. “There was a time in recent history when people could tolerate the inadequacies of personal computers,” the ad ran. “We believe that era has ended. Now you can own personal computers that are more powerful, easier to use and more fully supported than any to have come before them. . . . Digital's personal computer gives you more information on the screen. More storage. And communications options that let you talk to other, larger computers anywhere in the world.” The woman pictured does not have access, the image implies, to the power of the network that allows these three men to communicate with one another. She holds a mere piece of paper. Not for her is the advertisement's promise that if this computer is not big enough to entice a manager, he still has access to an even “larger” one elsewhere.

With the 1983 release of its QX-10 microcomputer, Epson chose to depict the QWERTY keyboard itself as a major innovation that would provide a manager with enhanced capabilities. Their two-page spread in Byte (figure 10) showed nothing more than the unit's keyboard.

“The block of File Control keys on the HASCI keyboard allow you to do everything you need to do with a finished document,” Epson promised. “STORE it; RETRIEVE it; MAIL it to someone else's computer; or PRINT it on the printer. Each with the stroke of a single key.”60 Of course, accomplishing all one's own clerical tasks with the stroke of a single key was not precisely the same as not having to do them at all. But Epson, like practically all computer manufacturers in this period, could count on the awe and wonder the desktop computer inspired to preoccupy the manager who now took on more work. It could seem as the editor of 80 Microcomputing would have had it: “Our computers will be able to remember addresses, file correspondence copies, and all those lovely things the secretary used to do.”61

“Power” was the selling point in 1983 for Basis Incorporated when it placed male hands front and center on a keyboard (figure 11). And power was likewise the substance of a 1985 advertisement for the AT&T Teletype Corporation's 5540 terminal (figure 12). The 5540 could connect to numerous other devices including a printer—to print out the correspondence or memorandum that this male manager typed on the conspicuously central keyboard.

And there, at the center of the photo, lay the human hand, still entering data as it had after over a century of office mechanization. Now, though, that hand was no longer a liability. It was the hand of a new power supposedly liberated by the digital computer—the manager's power to do at least a portion of what was once a clerical worker's task. Nor was there any doubt that this was a man of status, evidenced by those feet up on the desk just outside the frame. That same year, during what was a renaissance in the discourse celebrating the “information revolution,” the US Congress's Office of Technology Assessment acknowledged another, quieter revolution. “PCs are increasingly used by managers and professionals as well as by support staff. Many executives who would not ever have typed now use word processing to draft letters, memos, or reports, or generate reports using spreadsheet software.”62 “It is now legitimate for a computer to appear on a manager's desk,” announced InfoWorld, even though in the past “managers wouldn't be caught dead typing at a keyboard.”63

A remarkable transformation had taken place. Impressed if not astonished by the computer, male managers learned to accept the QWERTY keyboard and, with it, a speedup. With the neutering of clerical tasks, male managers slowly accepted, however grudgingly, an increasing number of women in their ranks. The American office became a more equal place, but this hard-won equality came at a price. As employers were forced to upgrade women, they degraded the middle-management positions to which those women had only just gained access. Equality was not the cause of degradation. Employers, ever nimble, used the creation of a more equal office to fulfill a long-standing desire to cut clerical labor costs. Manufacturers and employers changed the keyboard's gender, as had their forebears a century earlier, to get more work out of their employees. In the years that followed, many new machines would enter into the labor process of office work—cell phones, laptop computers, internet routers, smartphones. With them, white-collar workers became accustomed to a faster pace of business, to working from home and during what had once been their own time. Typically, boosters announced the lengthening hours and increased speed as great advancements in convenience.64 Despite the impressive novelty of each new device, the effects on the work process bore a striking uniformity: more labor for the same pay. A few called the speedup “freedom.” Others called it “automation.”

Margery Davies, Sandi Resnikoff, Patrick Barrett, Lou Resnikoff, and Alice Kessler-Harris read earlier drafts of this article. I am grateful for their insight, as I am to Leon Fink, Patrick Dixon, and the two anonymous reviewers for Labor. Gerrie Casey kindly spoke with me and forwarded source material. I would also like to thank Karen Nussbaum for taking the time to speak with me, as well as for providing invaluable primary source material.

Notes

2.

The breakdown of the five occupation decreases: between 1975 and 1982 bookkeeping and billing machine operators fell by 18,000; postal clerks, by 18,000; stenographers, by 35,000; typists, by 93,000. US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics, Bulletin 2175, 50–51.

4.

There are many historical examples of this paradox at work in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In recent years, “automation” has returned as a public concern, and once more it appears before us as a paradox. Supposedly we are yet again are on the verge of a revolution in the means of production, one that will bring about the abolition of work. Yet between 1994 and 2010 worldwide industrial employment increased. While the percentage of US workers employed in manufacturing fell from 24 to 8 percent between 1960 and 2018, in 2015, in China 43 percent of all workers were employed in industrial production. It goes without saying—or perhaps it doesn't—but we are still working. As it did in the past, today “automation” allows tech boosters and apologists for capital to play a sort of shell game, where the continuing and obvious value of human labor is hidden from view and, as a result, can be had more cheaply. Neoliberal deregulation and the globalization of production explain the fall in US manufacturing employment far better than the arrival of robots does. US manufacturers do not send their factories abroad to Mexico and China because they believe that there they will find better robots; rather, they flee in pursuit of cheap labor. J. B. Freeman, Behemoth, xiii. See also Benanav, “Automation and the Future of Work—1” and “Automation and the Future of Work—2”; and Cowie, Capital Moves.

5.

Diebold, Beyond Automation, 54. See also Diebold, Automation: more than anyone else, Diebold made the term a household word.

8.

The tendency to grant “automation” the power and status of historical agent has become especially apparent over the past decade. “Technical change tends toward perfect automation,” Peter Frase recently announced (Four Futures, 28). “We have lost our race with the machine,” writes James Livingston (No More Work, x–xi). The literature on the benefits and pitfalls of this coming “automation” revolution is enormous. For the most part, these works assume that technical innovation is currently or will soon usher in a new historical epoch. Almost never do these authors consider the historical origins of the word they take for granted: automation. For a selection of recent books along these lines, see Yang, War on Normal People; Oppenheimer, Robots Are Coming!; Frey, Technology Trap; Baldwin, Globotics Upheaval; Carr, Glass Cage; Barrat, Our Final Invention; Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Second Machine Age; Ford, Rise of the Robots; West, Future of Work; Kaplan, Humans Need Not Apply; Srnnick and Williams, Inventing the Future; and Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism.

10.

I address the discursive origins of the word automation and the ideological degradation of the value of human labor in Labor's End . Some of the material used in this article also appears in that work, in particular, chapter 2.

13.

Louis Hyman writes of the crucial role of temporary workers in the “automation” of clerical work in both the 1960s and the 1980s. See Hyman, Temp, esp. chap. 6, 139–40, and 207–9. On women and postwar clerical work, see Hoos, Automation in the Office, 23–24. See also Kessler-Harris, Out to Work, esp. chap. 11; Mills, White Collar.

18.

Management Information Systems (MIS) was to be “a totally automated, fully responsive, truly all-encompassing information system embodying the collection, storage and processing of data and the reporting of significant information on an as-needed basis,” or so wrote Alan D. Meacham and Van B. Thompson, editors of Total Systems (Detroit: American Data Processing, 1962), as quoted in Haigh, “Inventing Information Systems,” 39. See Haigh on the difference between “data” and “information.” 

21.

Clerical workers made up 5.2 percent of the total workforce in 1910 and peaked at 19.3 percent in 1980, just as managers began to use personal computers and perform clerical tasks themselves. But even after the mass diffusion of desktop computers to offices in the first years of the twenty-first century, clerical workers still made up 17.4 percent of all American workers. Wyatt and Hecker, “Occupational Changes during the 20th Century,” 47–48.

24.

Massachusetts History Workshop Records, 1980–1984, MC 365, Box 1, File: 6, “Mass. History Workshop, Interview Transcripts”; Document: “A Life Insurance Clerical Worker in Western Massachusetts, 1959–71, Mary Roberge,” Schlesinger Library, Harvard University; Hoos, Automation in the Office, 43.

26.

National Association of Office Workers, Race against Time, 15.

28.

Massachusetts History Workshop Records, 1980–1984, MC 365, Box 1, File: 3, “Mass. History Workshop, Transcripts of Discussion Groups, April 24, 1982,” Document: “Small Group 16/19—Susan O'Malley & Debbie Katz,” Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

29.

VDT Coalition, Video Views 4, no. 1 (February/March 1987); Collection: 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women (U.S.), 82-M189–86-M213, Carton 18, 1144–66, 1194–1267; File 1220, “Health and Safety, 1982, the Human Factor Guide, 1982”; Document: “The Human Factor: 9to5’s Consumer Guide to Word Processors,” 1982, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

31.

Tepperman, 60 Words a Minute, 16–17. Published sources from the period that named and challenged this sexism in the office include Ann, “Secretarial Proletariat”; Howe, Pink Collar Workers, chap. 5, “Office Work”; and Garson, All the Livelong Day, specifically chap. 3, “Paper.”

33.

Jean Tepperman Papers, MC 366, Box: 1; File: 4, Tepperman, Jean, Interviews 14–18; Document: Transcript 18, “Toni and Ramon,” Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

34.

I would like to thank Karen Nussbaum for this particular insight. On the impact of civil rights legislation on workplace politics, see MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough. On the expansion of the labor movement to be more inclusive of women and People of Color in the last quarter of the twentieth century, see Windham, Knocking on Labor's Door.

37.

In these early years of deindustrialization and decreasing profitability, a gulf began to widen between the apex of the managerial class and its base. The bottom of the managerial hierarchy flattened; the boundaries around lower-level managerial jobs broke down; and opportunities to climb the ladder into the executive class dwindled. Osterman, Broken Ladders, 13–16.

48.

“Microwriter,” in Microwriter Booklet, 13, Buxton Collection, Microsoft Research, https://www.microsoft.com/buxtoncollection/a/pdf/Microwriter%20Booklet.pdf (accessed October 8, 2019).

49.

In the 1980s, Rosemary Pringle discussed the gendering of this wave of office mechanization in Australia. She noted that the computer was sold to businessmen as a tool of power. She likewise looked to computer advertisements as evidence, although she did not discuss the regendering of the keyboard. Pringle, Secretaries Talk, specifically chap. 8, “Technology and Power.” On the boom in microcomputers, see Ceruzzi, Computing: A Concise History, chap. 5, “Microprocessors.”

50.

Dolotta et al., Data Processing in 1980–1985, 22. T. A. Dolotta worked at Bell Laboratories; M. I. Bernstein, at Systems Development Corporation; R. S. Dickson Jr., at Phillips Petroleum; N. A. France, at IBM Corporation; B. A. Rosenblatt, at Standard Oil Company of California; D. M. Smith, at Exxon; and T. B. Steel Jr., at Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.

56.

Between 1979 and 1984, 9to5 ran a campaign hoping to agitate and organize clerical workers around the introduction of VDTs. For example, see National Association of Working Women, Hidden Victims .

59.

“DP managers and other business users can expect enhanced marketing and advertising campaigns directed at them.” Blundell, “Personal Computers in the Eighties,” 170.

62.

Office of Technology Assessment, Automation of America's Offices, 11–12.

64.

At the same time that workers are expected to labor regularly outside both the workplace and regular work hours, gig employment has become increasingly typical of twenty-first-century employment. Working people appear simultaneously underemployed and overworked. See Ravenelle, Hustle and Gig. For one very recent example, R. H. Lossin and Andy Battle argue that recent innovations in “distance learning,” billed as a convenient contingency in a time of pandemic, are simultaneously a means of further degrading academic work. Lossin and Battle, “Resisting Distance Learning.” On the ability of employers to capture the desires of their employees so that they do not see their exploitation, see Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital.

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