Thursday, February 21, 2008

Action on the Periphery

Net News Publisher has released an interesting account of a paper published in the Journal of Human Movement Science. The title is "Seeing vs. believing: Is believing sufficient to activate the processes of response co-representation?;" and the author is Tim Welsh of the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Here is the summary culled from the opening paragraphs of the New News Publisher account:

You may not be aware of it - they might not be aware of it, but the people in your work environment might be slowing you down. New research by University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology researcher Dr. Tim Welsh says that regardless of their intentions, having an individual working on a different task - within your field of vision - could be enough to slow down your performance.

“Imagine a situation like a complex assembly line,” said Welsh If you are doing a particular task and the person across from you is doing a different task, you’ll be slowed down regardless of their performance.”

The reason for this is a built-in response-interpretation mechanism that is hard-wired into our central nervous systems. If we see someone performing a task we automatically imagine ourselves performing that task. This behavior is part of our mirror neuron system.

I developed an amateur's interest in kinesiology that goes back to when I was doing research into dance notation about 30 years ago. However, bearing that casual acquaintance in mind, this is the first time I have encountered a published result that deals with the mind-body question where human movement is concerned; but there is still a question of what the scope of Welsh's results are likely to be.

The critical sentence is Welsh's own in the second paragraph cited. On the surface this is a study of improving behavioral efficiency on an assembly line, particularly where complex tasks are involved. The fact that this problem is being studied at all throws some interesting light on the state of Taylorism today. On the one hand it reveals that we are as drunk on those "principles of scientific management" as we have ever been; but, on the other hand, the postulation of "complex tasks" indicates a rejection of Frederick Taylor's most important premise. Thus, I am less interested in Welsh's result and more interested in where he got support for his research and what that says about current work practices.

More specifically, what does this say about that once-grand experiment in production lines, the Toyota-GM joint venture into New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI)? Recall that this was a production environment in which peripheral awareness was regarded as an asset, rather than a liability; and it became somewhat of a poster child for the proposition that even work on a production line could be viewed as "knowledge work." We do not hear much about new approaches to production lines these days; nor do we hear much about knowledge work, which is probably just well, since any valid semantics for the phrase were quickly sucked out by those evangelists who saw it as the best ticket to consulting contracts. The hypothesis behind the NUMMI experiment, however, was that, whatever quantitative metric one might select, the productivity of the group was more important than the productivity of the individual; and the two were not related by anything as simple as a linear equation. However, in the current social world where just about every manufacturing effort is regarded as a losing proposition, broad questions of productivity give way to the hollow cant about "doing more with less." So, if there were any lessons to be learned from NUMMI, it would be hard to find anyone paying attention to them these days.

This is why what interests me most about Welsh's paper is the question of who supported his research. "Pure" Taylorism, which involves reducing a complex process to the simplest possible steps, may be the ultimate refuge for "doing more with less" thinking, since, when you strip away all of the philosophizing, that was Taylor's primary goal. Thus, one way to read Welsh's results is as a recommendation to eliminate complex tasks from the production line, since simpler tasks are less likely to be jeopardized by peripheral awareness. We may be seeing a return to Taylorism as Taylor originally conceived it in the workplace, all in the interest of keeping the production line going while downsizing the staff. Any question of how alienating a "scientifically managed" workplace can be may then be conveniently swept off the shop floor in favor of these new results from an academic setting. Since this approach is being taken in the interest of economic survival, those who still have jobs in this new workplace will know better to complain about alienation and be thankful that they have a job at all. The Marxists had a phrase for such workers that we do not hear much these days: They were called "wage slaves." This is yet another sign that the shadow of slavery still hangs over us, particularly in its relation to the war against the poor.

1 comment:

America Jones said...

Mirror neurons are a relatively recent discovery. Their dysfunction is currently being examinied as a potential contributing factor in autism.

You may also be interested in spindle neurons: