Productivity Machines. German Appropriations of American Technology from Mass Production to Computer Automation

Schlombs, Corinna
History of Computing
Cambridge MA 2019: The MIT Press
Anzahl Seiten
368 S.
$ 35.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ksenia Tatarchenko, School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University

To fully appreciate the scope and arguments of Corinna Schlombs’ book, one has to suspend acquired disciplinary frameworks and think beyond conventional watershed moments of the history of the twentieth century. National political histories rarely belong with accounts on cultural exchanges; narratives of mass production seldom converge with those of digital transformation, and analyses of Cold War diplomacy are not usually found alongside gendered readings of workspaces. Schlombs masterfully integrates all these themes, while crafting a transatlantic narrative encompassing multiple decades. Productivity Machines spans from the 1920s, corresponding to America’s rise to an economic model, across the post-World War II decades and toward the beginnings of computerization in Germany. Undermining the parceling of pre- and post-war historiography, Schlombs’ chronology reflects the evolution of her main subject: the idea of productivity.

Changing interpretations of productivity, from statistics to politics, to technological embodiments, and to social relations, are the analytical backbone of Productivity Machines. Engaging simultaneously with history of technology and Cold War studies, US and European histories, and the history of labor, makes the work an invaluable contribution to the literature. Although structured around a history of the concept of productivity, the book builds upon, but is not dominated by history of ideas or discourse analysis. Rather, Schlombs creatively integrates the tools of constructivist histories of technology, as well as social and institutional history, within her transnational approach, deploying a wide-ranging body of evidence from archives in Germany and the US. This detailed and localized evidence provides her with a full grasp of the dynamics of circulation, transfer, and appropriation of productivity across the Atlantic. Ultimately, Productivity Machines is largely more than the sum of the US and German national stories; the book offers a sophisticated depiction of Western capitalism as an uneven operational field shaped by human encounters and technological exchanges.

What is productivity, how to measure it and who is to benefit from it? Chapter one introduces the category and its interpretative flexibility within the institutional setting of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Best known for its cost-of-living index, the agency was home to Ewan Clague who popularized the notion of productivity grounded in statistics in the late 1920s. The second chapter extends the chronological frame from interbellum to Nazi regime. It introduces a diverse group of German and other European visitors who created a set of diverging perspectives on the American ideas about productivity and the national successes with mass-production technologies, most famously Ford’s production line. These opening chapters set the stage for the following two, which are devoted to an analysis of the Marshall Plan’s Productivity Program, propelling a longer-term vision of economic reconstruction into being. Schlombs documents how the notion of productivity, this time rearticulated not as a seemingly objective statistical measurement but as technological improvement, was infused with political ideas. Although the export of this tenet was now orchestrated by a single agency, and not the individual entrepreneurs of the pre-war era, contradictory interpretations of productivity persisted and individuals’ beliefs still drove multiple forms of dissemination. Marshall Plan officials promoted productivity as a stand-in for the US economic system, with a promise of the redistribution of benefits in the form of a higher standard of living for everyone. This vision was to counter the obvious threat of communist ideology and planned economy. But, as Schlombs convincingly demonstrates, on the one hand, this new interpretation of productivity was fraught with internal domestic tensions across the US public diplomacy network: the public-private partnership emphasis on business and labor groups that the Marshall administration depended upon came at a price of accommodating diverging values such as free enterprise and collaborative labor relations. On the other hand, its European beneficiaries were not passive recipients of productivity-mindedness.

The last four chapters of the book describe the mechanisms of German appropriation that reshaped combined technical and ideological experiences as structured through generations, class differences, and local traditions. Chapters 5 and 6 examine German responses to American productivity by different segments of working society, from enthusiastic youth workers to older, skeptical industrialists. The most salient feature of compromise involved in the transnational transfer of productivity in the German context was tied to labor relations. Instead of plant-level collective bargaining as advocated by the Productivity Program, German legislation implemented co-determination, i.e. a form of corporate governance giving workers a say in company decisions. Chapter 7 takes a close lens to the labor relations of one company: the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and its West German subsidiaries. Schlombs' choice of IBM, especially given its eventual dominance of global computer markets by the 1970s, is particularly rewarding.1 The chapter explores the implementation of American productivity methods on the ground demonstrating how local values and practices steered the IBM management away from the ideals of the Marshal Plan, as well as general consequences of the technological change from Ford’s production line to electronic computers, marketed as the ultimate productivity machines.

Indeed, the first installations of electronic computers in Germany in 1956 coincided with the transatlantic debates on automation. The last chapter of the book focuses on the German debate and dialogue with the American ideas and technologies but also exposes this dialogue’s limits, for example when US officers denied a European study tour on automation technologies in 1955. The divergent cultural meaning of computers as constructed in the debates in the US and German debates was eventually diffused within larger economic trends. In Germany, thanks to the so-called economic miracle, the computer eventually came to be seen not as a threat of unemployment, but as a solution for labor scarcity. The US ascended to global power and American companies dominated global computer markets but domestic reflections on automation and labor persisted throughout the 1960s in the context of fluctuating unemployment rates: during his 1962 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy identified the problem of maintaining full employment while facing automation as the major domestic challenge of the decade.

Documenting the process of technological change and transformation of work on both sides of the Atlantic, Schlombs concludes with an open question “Who would share in the benefits from the technological improvement?” (p. 248) The interpretative flexibility of productivity technologies demonstrated throughout the book makes the question one of political awareness. Here Schlombs points to the gap between the promises of the productivity tenet of dynamic growth contextualized against actual growing socio-economic inequality and the transformation of informed choices about work and lifestyles. This broader agenda combined with the scope of German and US historical material will make the work an excellent addition to university curricula, enabling her audience to interrogate historical and contemporary issues, especially salient in the light of media debates on the future of labor and Artificial Intelligence.

The main historiographic question that remains with this reviewer upon closing the volume concerns the prospect of integrating Schlombs’ account with Anson Rabinbach’s seminal 1990 The Human Motor – Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity and the more recent The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor. Rabinbach conceptualizes the utopias of labor as divided into three distinct eras (mimetic, transcendental, and digital), tying the demise of the central place of labor with the computer technology, privileging symbol processing and simulation.2 On the one hand, it is easy to observe that Schlombs’ account complicates Rabinbach’s proposition by demonstrating the materiality and values associated with the production and the transatlantic transfer of the computer as a productivity machine. Yet, on the other hand, the very fact that Schlombs’ focus on factory labor and productivity is an unprecedented scholarly achievement for the rapidly growing historiography of computing points to the relevance of Rabinbach’s observation regarding the eclipse of work-centered worldview. Productivity Machines thus invites us to further our reflection on labor and information technology, on lasting ideas and changing machines, and on politics shaping the present-day global landscape of computer-related lives and livelihoods.

1 IMB had 70 percent of the computer market share in the US and more than 60 percent in every Western European country except the United Kingdom. Schlombs, p. 247.
2 Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor. Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity, New York 1990; Anson Rabinbach, The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor, New York 2018.