Marx on the machine and Repetitive Strain Injury (Quick Reflection)

In our present place and time, the ‘machine’ has become so much a part of our lives.

Marx says:

It is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it… The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself (Marx in Seidman 1983: 137)

Reflections on the machine from the present


Amongst the affluent (with entry barriers ever-lowering) we have not just the machine of the workplace but the machine of leisure. This machinery is not forced upon us by necessity but is chosen. Elsewhere, the machinery of the assembly line plods on, as inane as ever it was.

We act through the machine, according to the machine’s laws, but since we choose to use these machines (not necessarily without coercion) and first of all, must have purchased them, it is a condition of the machine’s existence that we – lowest common-denominator (and bleeding-edge aficionado) – want to use it – therefore the machine must conform, to some extent, with our own functional requirements (the “laws” of our movement)).

Also, these new machines have allowed so much that is positive. We do not feel alienated from the ‘product’ of our ‘labour’. We are enabled to create, to socialise.


Increased connectivity is a mode of industrialisation. It has removed barriers and made sociality potentially ever-present. In this sense, the machine is not just a tool; it is transformative; has become part of the background of everyday life. A sociological cliche: we don’t choose that background, we are in the background, we choose from within it.

But all society exerts pressure (even if only the mind of the beholder) and some barriers are healthy – don’t you know it, Durkheim. The technology-human nexus runs roughshod over so many taken-for-granted norms of yore: quite obvious in the case of libraries and the absence of the “Shhh” police.


It is a long-standing rumour that the dominant computer-layout QWERTY was invented to stifle over-exertion. Not for typists but to prevent jammed keys, for the machine: principally for productivity. This rumour is disputed (this dispute is also disputed).

Overuse (RSI)

RepetitiveStrainInjury, or OccupationOveruseSydrome as modern professionals prefer to call it – though I don’t see why as it denies injury outside of ‘occupation’ (from the perspective of work-insurance perhaps there is some advantage in this) is another matter – swipe left, right; up down. Watch the endless pawing movement of fore-fingers and thumbs on commuter train journeys. An injury that results from another absence of barriers to use, the ‘logic’ of the machine, and the clever format of the digital-space – orchestrated carefully to trigger endorphins, though never quite enough. The gestures we use on touch-screen technology are an imposition on ‘nature’, absent throughout evolution, the long-term effect we don’t know yet. We are still in this sense determined by machine, a sense similar to Marx’s example, even if it is willingly that we commit ourselves.

It is not always true that manufacturers pamper their machines while giving short shrift to health concerns of users. Of course they don’t – they are bound (monopoly aside) by the demands of consumers. Heat dissipation is an issue for users as for the longevity (and warranty claims) of laptops and PCs. Nonetheless, many ergonomic adjustments stem from aesthetic-commercial-related short-term interests (long-term progressive injury is at a distinct disadvantage).

It is a rationalisation, combining requirements, desires and limitations of technology and humans that leads to the simplest yet still easily discerned, least-fingers intensive action used as a means of working with these devices. For the human: how does it feel to swipe rather than ‘what may be the long term consequences of repetitive use of two-jointed digits on people who begin as toddlers’? For the computer: what is most easily understood.

Once upon a time mobility was more present in social engagement: trips to the post-office to pickup or deliver, home-visits, even telephone calls (and one could never be assured of reaching the other). Now so much of it can be before us in a single package (or three or four, smartphones and iPads included). The abundance of technology, their convenient use have perhaps shifted a hitherto unknown burden (spaces between use (temporal and spatial)) onto the individual.

Consider: smartphones and tablets are mindbogglingly un-ergonomic from the perspective of posture, eyesight, and forelimbs. One can, and more frequently they do, lean their device on a little stand, but this is unlikely to become elemental to the device itself because the aesthetic ranks higher. This means that restrictions to use, which may prevent certain negative-effects must come from culture, and the individual.

That said, haven’t they always? Consider the careful dignity, upright posture of the clerk.

Human machine?

Perhaps his behaviours (sociological jargon: habitus) also act as limitations on use, a protection against over exertion as much as they were an outward show of pride. In a sense, what is this proud show of dignity than a manifestation of the belief: I am not (your) machine?

The Machine is an enabler, a ‘tool’ but that is not all it is. It changes the world, conditions the nature of social interaction, thereby conditioning the nature-nuture of ourselves and much more.

Contemporary reflections on a poetic remark from Marx

Representative Democracy Versus the Unrepresentative Swill

I have been absent for a while but have been strong-armed back by the appearance of Iain Walker on the ABC’s Qanda political debate program tonight (Question and Answer). I don’t know much about Iain Walker so I’m not plugging him, other than to say that he runs a foundation called newDEMOCRACY which has proposed a ‘citizen senate’, something along the lines of an idea I have been mulling over for the last month and a half. I post some brief details below.


The question is whether democracy could be improved by greater representation from ‘ordinary’ people. Australia’s present political landscape features one peculiarity which suggests (by sheer fluke) that this may credible: due to Australia’s fairly unique ‘preferential’ voting system and the large number of candidates that can run for election to the Senate we have seen the election of a number of relatively ‘ordinary’ Australians who quickly developed their ability and taken their job with seriousness. Continue reading

Prohibition of Alcohol in America (Quick Reflection)

This following is as a brief critique of the notion (sometimes expressed) that the 1933 repeal of nation-wide liquor laws in the USA is a knockdown argument against new forms of ‘prohibition’. “Prohibition never works. Look at Prohibition in America”.

The standard argument is as follows: consuming alcohol was very common in America. It was banned; yet many people still wanted to consume it. Therefore an extremely powerful criminal underworld emerged to produce and distribute alcohol; underground saloons sprung up, and the huge number of people who now consumed alcohol became ‘law breakers overnight’.

‘When there’s a will there’s a way’

I suspect it is no coincidence that this account sits in harmony with basic economic principles and the rule of ‘supply and demand’ – there was demand and therefore there developed a market. But the suggestion that barriers preventing people from obtaining what they desire will always erode of necessity (and a more harmful and unregulated system emerge), hides many complexities.

The wills are many as are the ‘ways’

In simple terms, prohibition fails when the will and ability to subvert the law (and its punishments) outclasses the will and ability to uphold the law.  In other words, the success or failure of prohibition is a result of the specific factors involved in the case (the arrangement of ‘wills’, availability of ways) rather than something intrinsic to prohibition itself.

Some specifics of the American Nation-Wide Prohibition 1920 – 1933

In understanding why Prohibition eventually failed so spectacularly it is useful to consider its particular context. Here are a few: alcohol is low tech and easily manufactured; alcohol has intrinsic value (it relaxes or disinhibits); it has symbolic value: related to a masculine ideal, or idea of a good time. Also, the extent of the ban was absolute, allowing no ‘pressure relief’ to cushion the severity of the law. This lack of pressure relief meant that the social function performed by alcohol, a relaxant after work, and as instituted in business practice -i.e. discussing a deal over a drink- was neglected.  This prohibition occurred at at time when relaxation was highly desirable- the era of the Great Depression.

Ultimately the government failed to win the argument with a highly individualistic people.

Few substances share the same characteristics as alcohol, and the social context of the 1930s America were unique. As a comparison, consider ‘soft drinks’ which are similar in that they are widely drunk, have symbolic value, and pose a health risk when consumed too often; yet soft drinks lack intrinsic value, they don’t have exclusive reign over a social function, and they are perhaps too easily manufactured. Would a massive black-market and criminal network develop to satiate the people’s will for soft drink were it prohibited?

This was the first ‘quick reflection’. The point is to raise an idea for contemplation [edited for brevity]