In Forces of Production, David Noble examines the transformation of the machine-tool industry as the industry moved from reliance on skilled artisans to automation. Noble writes from a Marxist perspective, and his central argument is that management, in its decisions to automate, conspired against labor: the power that the skilled machinists wielded in the industry was intolerable to management. Noble fails to substantiate this claim, although his argument is impressive when he applies the Marxist concept of "de-skilling"—the use of technology to replace skilled labor—to the automation of the machine-tool industry. In automating, the industry moved to computer-based, digitalized "numerical control" (N/C) technology, rather than to artisan generated "record-playback" (R/P) technology.

Although both systems reduced reliance on skilled labor, Noble clearly prefers R/P, with its inherent acknowledgment of workers' skills: unlike N/C, its programs were produced not by engineers at their computers, but by skilled machinists, who recorded their own movements to "teach" machines to duplicate those movements. However, Noble's only evidence of conspiracy is that, although the two approaches were roughly equal in technical merit, management chose N/C. From this he concludes that automation is undertaken not because efficiency demands it or scientific advances allow it. But because it is a tool in the ceaseless war of capitalists against labor.

The passage suggests which of the following about N/C automation in the machine-tool industry?

It displaced fewer skilled workers than automation did.

It could have been implemented either by experienced machinists or by computer engineers.

It was designed without the active involvement of skilled machinists.

It was more difficult to design than automation was.

It was technically superior to automation.


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