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FORCES OF PRODUCTION [Hardcover]

David F Noble
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 12 1984

Focusing on the design and implementation of computer-based automatic machine tools, David F. Noble challenges the idea that technology has a life of its own. Technology has been both a convenient scapegoat and a universal solution, serving to disarm critics, divert attention, depoliticize debate, and dismiss discussion of the fundamental antagonisms and inequalities that continue to beset America. This provocative study of the postwar automation of the American metal-working industry—the heart of a modern industrial economy—explains how dominant institutions like the great corporations, the universities, and the military, along with the ideology of modern engineering shape, the development of technology.

Noble shows how the system of "numerical control," perfected at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and put into general industrial use, was chosen over competing systems for reasons other than the technical and economic superiority typically advanced by its promoters. Numerical control took shape at an MIT laboratory rather than in a manufacturing setting, and a market for the new technology was created, not by cost-minded producers, but instead by the U. S. Air Force. Competing methods, equally promising, were rejected because they left control of production in the hands of skilled workers, rather than in those of management or programmers.

Noble demonstrates that engineering design is influenced by political, economic, managerial, and sociological considerations, while the deployment of equipment—illustrated by a detailed case history of a large General Electric plant in Massachusetts—can become entangled with such matters as labor classification, shop organization, managerial responsibility, and patterns of authority. In its examination of technology as a human, social process, Forces of Production is a path-breaking contribution to the understanding of this phenomenon in American society.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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“[P]rovides a new generation of readers access to this important critique of blind adoption of “improvements” and the deeper cultural and economic implications of technology.”

Book News Inc.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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photos --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I endorse Chomsky's recommendation. July 24 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I certainly wouldn't have heard of this book if it weren't for Noam Chomsky citing it. David Noble dared to break ranks and suggest that maybe all was not right with machine tool automation. My favorite chapter,entitled "Who's running the shop" describes GE's aircraft division's "Pilot Project" in the 60's. It is first of all a damn good tale--rivaling the arabian nights as a never ending fascinating tale. Secondly, it is a sobering tale of labor-management relations. One suspects that GE management would rather the incident was forgotten. Here is a rough summary: The Air Force gave GE super-expensive numerically controlled (i.e. computerized) machining tools and local GE managers used these as a weapon to deskill workers and lower their pay, but it backfired because without the good will and understanding of the workers it produced only scrap metal at a fantastic rate. The "Pilot Project" was a compromise that enabled the incompetant management to save face, and the workers and union essentially ran the shop during this time. Understandably the union and workers wanted the pilot project to go on forever, and equally understandably the higher corporate management wanted this example of worker control to end as soon as possible even though it worked extremely well.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superlative April 10 2000
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I read this book as part for a course in "Philosophy and Technology" when I was an undergraduate. It is a detailed exposition of how the technologies we adopt are not inevitable, but are instead the consequence of specific choices made by specific people in power (or seeking to be in power). One of the books that fundamentally changed my worldview. Together with his "America By Design," a dull but exacting analysis of engineering education in the U.S., this book should be read as a cautionary tale for the course higher education is taking in its current romance with corporate sponsorship and collaboration. . .
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very important, underpraised book June 2 2000
Format:Paperback
The infantilism of American culture that started with Reagan appears in many guises. For example, Ron Grossman in the Chicago Tribune pointed out last Sunday that the United States Postal Service has a stamp for Bugs Bunny but none for John Brown, the rebel of Harper's Ferry.
The Smithsonian Institution recently thought fit to exhibit Daisy's shortened Levi's from the 1970s television series The Dukes of Hazzard.
The infantilism is that the author of Forces of Production, David Noble, was a serious and pro-labor voice who worked at the Smithsonian in the 1970s and was forced out under Reagan...in favor of Daisy's shorts, it appears.
The subject of Forces of Production may seem to be specialized for overtly it is on numerically-controlled machine tools, nowadays a very small application of computers. Nonetheless this book can be read in the context, not only of machine tools but also of computerization in general.
Noble's book is an account of management folly. Machine tool automation was implemented to eliminate not the unskilled but men like my great-grandfather: machinists who had the nerve to set their own pace, and to design as they saw fit tools to accomplish their job.
The machinist occupies in the world of physical tools somewhat the same space as is occupied by the advanced programmer since the machinist has the choice, in a well-run shop, of deciding not to fashion the part that management wants, but instead to fashion a tool that will in turn make the part that management wants...faster, more accurately and in the long and short run cheaper.
Like Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital, Noble shows how this economic rationality was subverted by the high priests of economic rationality: the CEOs.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I endorse Chomsky's recommendation. July 24 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I certainly wouldn't have heard of this book if it weren't for Noam Chomsky citing it. David Noble dared to break ranks and suggest that maybe all was not right with machine tool automation. My favorite chapter,entitled "Who's running the shop" describes GE's aircraft division's "Pilot Project" in the 60's. It is first of all a damn good tale--rivaling the arabian nights as a never ending fascinating tale. Secondly, it is a sobering tale of labor-management relations. One suspects that GE management would rather the incident was forgotten. Here is a rough summary: The Air Force gave GE super-expensive numerically controlled (i.e. computerized) machining tools and local GE managers used these as a weapon to deskill workers and lower their pay, but it backfired because without the good will and understanding of the workers it produced only scrap metal at a fantastic rate. The "Pilot Project" was a compromise that enabled the incompetant management to save face, and the workers and union essentially ran the shop during this time. Understandably the union and workers wanted the pilot project to go on forever, and equally understandably the higher corporate management wanted this example of worker control to end as soon as possible even though it worked extremely well.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superlative April 10 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I read this book as part for a course in "Philosophy and Technology" when I was an undergraduate. It is a detailed exposition of how the technologies we adopt are not inevitable, but are instead the consequence of specific choices made by specific people in power (or seeking to be in power). One of the books that fundamentally changed my worldview. Together with his "America By Design," a dull but exacting analysis of engineering education in the U.S., this book should be read as a cautionary tale for the course higher education is taking in its current romance with corporate sponsorship and collaboration. . .
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very important, underpraised book June 2 2000
By Edward G. Nilges - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The infantilism of American culture that started with Reagan appears in many guises. For example, Ron Grossman in the Chicago Tribune pointed out last Sunday that the United States Postal Service has a stamp for Bugs Bunny but none for John Brown, the rebel of Harper's Ferry.
The Smithsonian Institution recently thought fit to exhibit Daisy's shortened Levi's from the 1970s television series The Dukes of Hazzard.
The infantilism is that the author of Forces of Production, David Noble, was a serious and pro-labor voice who worked at the Smithsonian in the 1970s and was forced out under Reagan...in favor of Daisy's shorts, it appears.
The subject of Forces of Production may seem to be specialized for overtly it is on numerically-controlled machine tools, nowadays a very small application of computers. Nonetheless this book can be read in the context, not only of machine tools but also of computerization in general.
Noble's book is an account of management folly. Machine tool automation was implemented to eliminate not the unskilled but men like my great-grandfather: machinists who had the nerve to set their own pace, and to design as they saw fit tools to accomplish their job.
The machinist occupies in the world of physical tools somewhat the same space as is occupied by the advanced programmer since the machinist has the choice, in a well-run shop, of deciding not to fashion the part that management wants, but instead to fashion a tool that will in turn make the part that management wants...faster, more accurately and in the long and short run cheaper.
Like Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital, Noble shows how this economic rationality was subverted by the high priests of economic rationality: the CEOs.
Ultimately preferring control over profits, the managers of machine shops imported programmatic numerical control NOT to make the skilled machinist's life easier but instead to eliminate the skilled union men.
Noble shows how a rough compromise was hammered out because the unskilled machinists, and the alienated skilled machinists, stood by (under management's direction) as the improperly programmed machine tools produced "scrap at high speeds."
Union negotiation then restored the skilled men to their positions to get the technology under control.
There is a striking parallel here with the situation in white-collar computer programming, for it has been the consistent discovery of skilled programmers that the computer itself can be used, NOT to "focus on the bottom line goals of management" (as goes the management songbook) but instead to fashion tools...that accomplish, in a laughing and almost scornful way, the goals of the management.
For example, in 1974 I was confronted in a computer center with 50 different programs to scan and to print mailing lists. Being a lazy hippie I suggested to my boss that I write ONE program that would read and parse the format and the logic rules. My manager approved and as a result I implemented a form of "data base."
Of course, management does see the wisdom of this move, but typically (as related in the case of machine tools by David Noble) management prefers to alienate the programmers from the tools, which are bought from third parties. While this makes sense in many environments it has also produced unrecognized disasters...especially where the programmers know or believe they could do a better job.
For example, the state of Virginia recently wasted five years and millions of dollars in trying to use a generalized solution from Peoplesoft to automate human resources. A new manager walked in and had one or two good programmers code, in-house, the most needed routines on the Web.
Reading Noble's important work teaches us how to avoid Luddism (and Luddism itself may have a bad name for certain historians have shown that the Luddite textile weavers of the early 19th century were critics, not of technology itself, but of its use to downsize and to degrade.) It gives the ordinary person who wants at one and the same time to be successful at his profession and to have time for his family an informed way of criticising "scrap at high speeds."
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars CNC since Forces of Production Dec 9 2011
By Norman L. Bleier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Forces of Production" was published in 1984 and leaves off with NC/CNC as it was in the 1970's. By then NC (Numerical Control) had transitioned to computer circuits and software and thus, the name CNC for Computer Numerical Control.

In its inception in the early 1950's it is likely that the professors and graduate students of M.I.T.'s Servo Mechanisms Laboratory named it Numerical Control because they envisioned a broader concept of social control via digital means. NC/CNC turned out not to be the path to this end; the path has been through the PC and the WWW. In view of this, I have argued that the technology should be called NDI for numerically directed interpolation because this is what it does. It directs a cutting tool to interpolate a path in the work envelop of the machine.

The book could have done better in defining interpolation - you did interpolation in kindergarten when you connected the dots in sequential order with straight lines to reveal a figure. It could have done better in explaining how Cartesian (geometric) information is processed into setpoints to position servos to cause the tool to interpolate a path in the work envelope of the machine. This explanation is central to understanding the difference between John Parson's by-the-numbers positioning concept and the much more sophisticated interpolation technology developed by M.I.T.

Our most current CNC is provisioned with spline algorithms that interpolate a curve from Cartesian points. The algorithms render curves as sequences of piecewise continuous parametric polynomials and these polynomials are sampled on a time grid to issue setpoints to position servos. This sampling of a function - called the interpolant - is what most CNC workers mean when they point to the CNC and say, "That thing interpolates." The ability of contemporary CNC to sample polynomial interpolants is what enables commercially affordable CNC to keep up with data requirements of servo platforms that are 20 times more dynamic than when Forces of Production was first published.

As I have already said, "Forces of Production" leaves off with NC/CNC as it was in the late 1970's when the U.S. machine tool industry was on the threshold of collapse and the center of CNC development was emerging in Japan with its emphasis on reliability, friendliness and standard machines ready for immediate delivery to U.S. job shops. Today the leading CNC development is in Germany. The world market for vender CNC - CNC produced to be sold to machine tool builders - is an oligopoly of two, Siemens of Germany and Fanuc of Japan. Siemens dominates in large, high-end and special machines; Fanuc in simpler mid to low-end machines. These are fluid boundaries. High end and special machines can be done with Fanuc, just not as elegantly as with Siemens, and in recent years, Siemens has made a determined push into the low end.

With regards to contemporary CNC and "class struggle", we have "teach" CNC with strong elements of record/playback, we have symbolic programming (conversation programming) in which machining operations are programmed by the operator at the machine, we have the traditional tool path Cartesian programming with CAD/CAM/CNC where the programmer works in an acoustically isolated, air conditioned front office and the operator is at the machine.

However, even with CAD/CAM/CNC, the CNC is provisioned with a powerful HMI (Human/Machine Interface) that allows the operator to assert his will on the machining process for him to establish a rapport with the workpiece. How much decision making is left to the operator is a continuum between all and none that is worked out between the operator and the programmer. The massive functionality of contemporary CNC - sometimes referred to as "Open System CNC" - allows an operator or programmer with an engineer mindset to produce software (cycles and asynchronous subroutines) to so finely tailor the machine to the shop's processes that over time the operator of a given machine is less and less burdened with decisions that can be done with automation. The significance of this is that the development is at the user level, and given that documentation is available on line, a smart operator can make a profound difference in developing the productivity of his CNC machine and usually under the radar of management.

"Class struggle" is still active and I suspect that Dr. Nobel, were he still with us, would find most interesting the developments from roughly the mid 1990's that address global, multinational production. This includes such CNC features as b-spline algorithms that unite CNC with the geometry of CAD, real time kinematics transformations for 5-axis aerospace machining (and not just aerospace), kinematics independent specification of orientation (orientation with unit vectors), relational tool data bases in which tool name/number and its geometry is synchronized as a property of the machine, world wide tool management, HMI in all the world's major languages and e-services for monitor, diagnose and repair, to mention just a few. Boeing flew with some of these developments (to some degree) and their experience with the Dreamliner would be a fascinating volume II to the work that Dr. Nobel began.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Technological change and how it effects society Jan. 6 2008
By James Hoogerwerf - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
That science and technology are accepted as forces that improve life is a central precept of American culture but in Forces of Production, Noble argues against the notion of technological determinism as a bell weather of progress. Noble's is a Marxist critique: if workers see progress as inevitable and automatic, it "absolves...[them] of responsibility to change it and weds them instead to the technological projections of those in command."(xiii) Unless control is redirect away from "technical enthusiasts" and "neo-progressive politicians,"(353), he is skeptical of what the second industrial revolution portends for society and what advantage technology holds for the future. In making his point Noble analyzes the development of numerically controlled (N/C) machine tools in the post WWII era.

Wartime necessity and the subsequent Cold War centralized research and development into what became known as the military-industrial complex. In Part I of his volume, titled "Command and Control," Noble argues that scientists lost their sense of independence and came to "resemble closely their military and corporate brethren."(20) Labor, as a component of the production matrix, was changed as well by a defense establishment which emphasized performance over cost to counter the (Noble would say perceived) Soviet threat. Increased union membership during the war augmented labor's power and heightened labor/management conflict on the machine shop floor.

Who controlled the shop; who controlled the pace of production? Automation, on the one hand, seemed to offer management a means of maintaining control, but labor saw this as a threat to their jobs. Scientist and engineers, more closely allied with those having social power, were predisposed to adhere to the wishes of their patrons, rather than shop stewards, to help make the automatic factory possible.

Noble presents various methods of N/C and explains how the "Darwinian" potential of N/C was stymied when John T. Parson's N/C project was co-opted by MIT in close alliance with the Air Force. The record-playback (R/P) option may have been easier to program and more accurate in that it captured a machinists skill, but it would have "lent itself to programming on the shop floor, and worker and/or union control of the process."(151) This was unacceptable to managers who wanted to maintain control and keep decision making off the floor. The prevailing cultural thus had more influence in developing N/C than did technical or economic needs. The Automatically Programmed Tools (APT) system that was developed, while sophisticated was expensive. None-the-less it became the industry standard.

Noble challenges the ideology of technology as the key to social and human progress. Instead he sees a system of political, moral, and cultural "domination which masks as progress."(351). Indeed, it is Noble's social interpretation of technology that is the major contribution of the book. Unfortunately what also is apparent is his omission of any comparison to the Soviet system and thus his argument is degraded as more of an attack on capitalism than a sincere effort to clarify the role of society in technology. Regardless of this shortcoming, by questioning the relationship of society to technology, Forces of Production challenges the idea of technological determinism in defining the meaning of progress.
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