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Notes on standardisation (of parts and people)
An ongoing historical examination, some still true today but stranger still.
Standardisation was initially concerned only with the pieces involved in production—nuts, bolts, screws, etc. All was to be reduced to the level of interchangeability so as to reduce waste and increase productivity. This meant, for instance, that rather than crafting each item to fit the variations in its components—shaving here and there, tweaking this or that—instead the product was designed with a certain amount of tolerance to allow for variation. Of course, this meant shoddier products; but at a faster rate, and less for less seemed a fair enough deal.
After the standardisation of parts, there was the standardisation of people. All the while this had been going on quietly, yet here began a more concerted effort. By time studies, for instance, the productive labour of a worker was measured and a standard rate was fixed; those that exceeded this, as a purely quantitative criterion, were awarded a bonus. Where before a craftsman may have been more or less skilled in their capacity to adjust across variations and integrate parts into a cohesive whole, now the only relevant skill was the pace of productivity.
Further, the introduction of motion studies brought with a new phase of standardisation. Now not only the parts but also the people were to be standardised, where time studies had been concerned only with the end result, here the emphasis was instead on the very embodiment of the worker. Their every motion was analysed and standardised, an ideal form was returned to them in the form of a slip containing instructions; or they were shown a video, frame-by-frame, of a model worker acting out their new instructions.
Where in this could there be any pride in one’s labour? Who could ground even an ounce of self-worth in such inhuman work? Marx proclaimed the worker as alienated from the products of their labour, yet here they are further alienated even from the motion of their bodies. The machine killed the craftsman, yet here the motion study has killed the man; what remains is but a marionette.