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

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

  1. You should talk about goggles (like Google Glass), and you should read the Dilbert cartoons on the subject of the BSB design principle (beautiful slippery brittle) starting at:
    I just want to also note that human computer interface is an entire academic field of study, not entirely constrained by commercial interests. You could say it tries to make sense of the tension between the capabilities of the machines and the needs of the humans.

  2. And you choose to comment on this post? Unbelievable! I wrote this a year ago and it had been waiting in my unfit-to-post draft folder all this time.

    The Dilbert comic is funny.

    Your point about academia is good, though I don’t know what gets talked about in computer-interface studies (nor how old the field is, nor how effective)- I suppose that’s where the critiques, which FB is apparently accommodating, of the endorphin trigger-exploit are coming from.

    It’s was also a mistake of me to imply that even within corporations commercial concern is the determinant.

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