It was a Financial Times newspaper poster that warned of UK job losses on a mass scale. It captured the pervasive idea that, as in the industrial revolution, huge changes in working conditions and types of jobs were come down the line. Technology would radically reshape employment. Those in comfortable jobs would not be imune from change.
One whole broadsheet page carried a message. Center of a picture was a large, polished metal dustbin. Contrasting and overspilling it were white shirt collars. The background was blank. The stark message was – the silicon revolution will mean an end to white collar jobs. I think the advertisement was placed by the trade union: Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS).
This was the 1970s. A time when speculation about the impact of computers in the workplace was rife. It was before the Personal Computer burst onto the scene. Names like IBM and the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) were dominant. I wonder what it would be like if I could step into a time machine and return to that era. To let them know what really happened as technology advanced unrelenting for the next four decades.
In many ways white collar jobs, or office jobs, have not disappeared. If anything, the numbers employed, where a computer is an essential part of the everyday work has increased dramatically. Yes, there’s not so many white collars as digital communications allow people to work at any location. The workplace dress code, if there is one, has left the standard suite and tie behind.
Taking a broad view, the “silicon revolution” has improved life for many. Gone are huge typing pools, mechanical calculators, and Orwellian workplaces. Card file indexes, drawing boards, and toxic chemical copying machines look prehistoric in black and white pictures from the 1970s.
In that conversation with an office worker of that time, what they may be shocked to hear is that the diversity of companies shaping their workplace will narrow down to a small number of vast American names. The expected liberalising impact of technology, that makes information available to everyone, anywhere and at speed will have the perverse effect of narrowing minds.
What do I take from this journey to the past? It’s that the impact of technology is shaped by the choices we make. However, we choose with little idea of the longer-term influence technology has on our lives.
POST: Timeline | The Silicon Engine | Computer History Museum