Technological Intensity

Technological intensity refers to the degree to which machines, and technology generally, substitute for autonomous human action in a production task. A distinct term is needed here because the technology used in a labor process frequently curtails human autonomy, which can significantly impact the worker's health.

Technological neutrality refers to ENL’s stance that an economy's level of technological complexity is a social choice, and is therefore irrelevant for judging economic performance or progress. However, in this section we are concerned with specific labor processes, and in this narrower context the term “technological intensity” is used instead.

Technological intensity is treated as a contributor to input cost, similar to the toxins and stressful noise (or clean surroundings and peaceful quiet) that may be present in a work environment.

An important aspect of technological intensity is that its increase can initially relieve painful drudgery. For tasks that are physically arduous, machines can reduce both the toil and the dangers that are frequently associated with hard labor, thereby decreasing labor cost.

A wheelbarrow greatly reduces the toil associated with moving soil and sand. A backhoe will reduce this toil by at least another order of magnitude.

The trickier issue is to determine what happens to the worker's health after drudgery has been largely eliminated and the worker’s skills and personal involvement are eroded by the continuing increase in technological intensity.

It has long been evident, at least informally, that workers are seriously impacted by the skill levels required for labor tasks. French economist Jean-Baptiste Say was aware in 1803 that workers are degraded when the division of labor forces them to focus too narrowly on one simple task:

A man, whose whole life is devoted to the execution of a single operation, will most assuredly acquire the faculty of executing it better and quicker than others; but he will, at the same time, be rendered less fit for every other occupation, corporeal or intellectual; his other faculties will be gradually blunted or extinguished; and the man, as an individual, will degenerate in consequence.1

What is exceptional about Say’s understanding is it went beyond the physical realm to include intellectual labor. He added: "…men, whose professional duties call into play the finest faculties of the mind, are subject to similar degradation."2

In the 1950s the relationship between automation and skill level was rigorously examined by James R. Bright of the Harvard Business School. Bright’s study is extensively cited by Harry Braverman in his book, Labor and Monopoly Capital.3

Bright's aim was to assist management in choosing workers who were best suited to the machines then being deployed. Based on empirical studies, he found that skill requirements increased sharply during the initial phase of automation, but soon peaked and then declined rapidly.

The explanation he provided is that machines at first amplify human capabilities and give greater scope to creativity and imagination. Beyond a threshold level, however, they usurp human dexterity, mental involvement, and control, eventually turning workers into their appendages. See the following figure, which replicates a figure from Bright’s study.

Skill vs. automation
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As the degree of automation increases, the required skill level first rises and then declines. Lower skill levels imply a loss of control over the production process, which often results in reduced health.

The numbers on the horizontal axis are from Bright’s work and are called mechanization levels. Levels 1-4 relate to hand control, 5-8 relate to mechanical control, and 9-17 relate to various degrees of sophisticated automated control.

For the lower degrees of automation, Braverman describes the effects on workers as follows:

On mechanization levels 1 to 4 Bright concludes that since control is entirely up to the worker, skill is increasing… On levels 5 to 8, where control is mechanical but still dependent on the worker, some skills are increasing but a number have turned downward, resulting… in an overall decrease in total skill required.4

For the higher levels of automation, Braverman lets Bright speak for himself:

When [levels 11-17] are reached, we find that the worker contributes little or no physical or mental effort to the production activity. Most of the functions are mechanized. The inspecting devices feed corrective information into the machine and thus relieve the operator of mental effort, decision-making, judgment, and even the need to adjust the machine… The ‘operator’, if he is still there, becomes a sort of watchman, a monitor, a helper. We might think of him as a liaison man between machine and operating management.5

The extent to which this relationship between automation and skills holds will depend on concrete circumstances, but it is incorporated into ENL as a broad reflection of industrial reality.

According to studies cited by biologist Robert Sapolsky, the less control a worker has during the labor process, the greater the health risk he or she faces:

Numbing assembly-line work and an occupational lifetime spent taking orders erode workers' sense of control… the less autonomy one has at work, the worse one's cardiovascular health.6

There are also links between boredom and decreased worker health. Boredom likely plays a role in depression, which is a risk factor in heart disease. It is also conducive to anger suppression, which can raise blood pressure and decrease the body's natural immunity. As well, bored people tend to eat and drink more, and to focus their appetites on unhealthy products.7

The general conclusion is this: If required skill levels are high, worker health will likely be high as well. As skill levels decline with increased worker specialization and machine sophistication, worker health will tend to decline correspondingly.

The combination of these “automation effects” and the “drudgery effect” mentioned earlier constitutes the overall effect of increasing technological intensity on workers. In general, this will cause labor cost to initially decrease, then flatten out, and eventually rise. See the following figure.

Labor cost vs. technological intensity
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As technological intensity increases, labor cost first declines because drudgery is overcome. It declines further because of the skills initially association with automation. Labor cost then rises because automation destroys the worker's independence.

In this graph, labor cost is expressed in total (not marginal) health units. The curve therefore traces the actual labor cost as technological intensity rises.

Note, however, that technological intensity is only one factor in labor cost. The curve should therefore be seen as shifting the existing labor cost curve — based on the remaining factors — down and then up.

The same kind of effect would be observed if we held all factors constant except for workplace toxins. In that case, an increasing level of toxins would cause the labor-cost curve to move up, and a decreasing level would cause the curve to move down.

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