Since compiling these notes, the work in this talk has been discussed in two peer-reviewed publications:
Angliss, S: “Mimics, menaces or new musical horizons? Musicians’ attitudes towards the first commercial drum machines and samplers”.
In Material Culture and Electronic Sound, edited by Frode Weium and Tim Boon (with forward by Brian Eno). Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2013.
Radcliffe, C and Angliss, S: “Revolution: Challenging the automaton: Repetitive labour and dance in the industrial workspace”.
In Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts Vol 17, Issue 6, 2012.
‘The Machinery’ – a dance piece from 1804 which I reinterpreted with performer and historian Caroline Radcliffe – is one of the topics of this talk. Since 2011, we’ve performed our version of The Machinery many times at music festivals, algorithmic arts festivals, museums and more.
A performance of The Machinery at Algomech Sheffield was filmed by Jon Harrison who then worked with us to create a tourable, large-scale video triptych of the piece. Funded by Arts Council England, this was first exhibited at Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Coalbrookdale. It was due to go on tour in 2020 – sadly the tour was postponed due to the Covid pandemic. A smaller preview of the work was seen in the 2018 automaton exhibition ‘The Marvellous Mechanical Museum‘, Compton Verney.
Dr Caroline Radcliffe: Performer, musician and lecturer in theatre – Caroline is the dancer in the video who introduced me to The Machinery and its origins. Caroline has researched the history of clog dancing in its many forms in the UK and is a skilled Lancashire clog dancer. She’s also an expert on the life and work of Dan Leno.
Spinning the Web: A great resource on the history of the Lancashire cotton industry (update March 2021: currently offline).
Quarry Bank is a working cotton mill on the Cheshire-Lancashire border. Here’s an excerpt of the sound collage Caroline and I put together, using my layered field recordings of cotton mill machines in Quarry Bank mill. We’re grateful to Quarry Bank for allowing us into the mill to tour and record the machines.
As we devised the piece, I painstakingly layered and beat-matched these sounds, treating them as loopable sample material. Of course, you’re only hearing half the performance here as this is missing the sound of Caroline’s live clog steps. NB The left-right balance of this sound is slightly odd as it was set up for a particular performance space.
Arguably, the Wurlitzer Sideman was first synthetic drum machine to go on sale. Earlier automatic drummers, such as the Rhythmicon (1931), from Henry Cowell and Léon Theremin, and Raymond Scott’s Circle Machine (1959), were one-off experimental units. The Chamberlin Rhythmate had been on sale since 1948 but only a dozen or so were sold. Using drum sounds pre-recorded on tape loops, rather than electronically synthesised beats, the Rhythmate was a precursor of the Mellotron.
Robots and Electronic Brains
This book by Mark Brend includes a very interesting history of drum machines.
Video by Peahix
Video by RoilNoise
“It remains to be seen whether, when the novelty wears off, patrons of cinemas will be satisfied with this dehumanized form of entertainment.”
Musicians Union, c1930
Archives of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers of time and motion study. Here’s one of their studies from the early 1900s. The worker has flashing lights strapped to her wrists so her movements can be tracked in this long-exposure photograph. The Gilbreths were looking for signs of ‘wasted motion’. They wanted to streamline manual tasks to reduce fatigue, increasing efficiency and give workers more ‘happiness minutes’.
Excerpt from the film ‘The One Best Way’ (from emmaroses)
The archive of Frederick Winslow Taylor, pioneer of the ‘scientific management’ of work. At the end of the nineteenth century, Taylor pioneered the application of engineering principles to the management of people and labour. Taylor’s views influenced the development of the assembly line.
Job Matching for Women (1930). Source: US Dept of Labor.
Charlie Chaplin in the factory scene from Modern Times (1936).
An interesting video on the development of the car assembly line (source unknown).
We Are The Robots (1977). Complete with Gilbrethian movement techniques and timer.
Here’s an article in Management Issues, January 2004, reporting on the HSE comment likening the worst call centres to ‘dark satanic mills’.
Here’s the HSE report in question, in which monotony and lack of autonomy are shown to be causes of stress. Interestingly, I don’t see the term ‘dark satanic mill’ here so there may be some discrepancy between the formal report and the words used in press releases and interviews with the author. I am now digging around my old hard disks to see if I can find the source of the original quote. At the moment, the best I have is a comment reported on a BBC website. Of course, the source may have been updated since 2004, as I remember this comparison caused quite a stir.
Here’s a BBC News report from the time, in which Christine Sprigg, author of the HSE report, is reported to use the term ‘dark satanic mills’. Here, you can also see comments from people who were working in UK call centres at the time.
Update 10 March 2011: Dr Christine Sprigg emailed me after the talk and told me some more about provenance of the ‘dark satanic mills’ statement. As far as she knows, it first appeared in this press release, from the British Psychological Society, early in 2004. Although it’s titled ‘Call centres are “new satanic mills”‘, the press release goes on to say:
Ms Sprigg said: “Not all call centres are ‘satanic mills’. Some do merit that description, but the best do not. The task facing organisations that use call centres is to match their aspirations for high service for their customers with high quality of working for their staff.”
…the inference is that some call centres deserve this epithet. And this was seized on by unions and journalists around the UK as it fitted prevailing concerns about these new work places. In a recent email exchange, Dr Sprigg recalled ‘personally I can’t remember even saying that! The Call Centre Association (CCA) got a bit upset at the time. It…snowballed massively.’
Just to add to the confusion, here’s a Channel 4 news page, dated 2002 but updated in 2005 that also makes the reference.
Dr Sprigg also pointed out this paper: ‘An Assembly Line in the Head‘ (Taylor and Bain, 1999) which talks about Taylorism in the call centre. The ‘assembly line’ in question is the stack of calls awaiting the call centre operator, no matter how swifty he or she can deal with their current caller. Here, the authors also refer to the stress of ’emotional labour’ – the need to keep check of your own emotions in the call centre, ‘smile down the phone’ and keep within certain boundaries of acceptable conduct and language. They explain how call centre technology cuts out manual tasks, such as dialling numbers, that slow work down (see my notes on ‘wasted motion’ above). As one manager pointed out:
Dialling manually you can make only 30 calls and speak to 10 people. The power dialler will get 80 phone calls and you speak to everyone one of them in a four-hour shift. 10 to 80.
Automation like this boosts productivity but demands employees to keep pace with the relentless call centre machine. And the call centre technology can measure the pace of work of every employee, throughout the day.
Crucially, Taylor and Bain point out that call centre employees do sometimes resist this work structure – either individually, for instance by finding ways to manipulate management to get better shifts, or collectively, via unions. In the UK, unions have negotiated everything from more teabreaks to better maternity leave for its (majority) female employees. Of course, this paper was written in 1999, before the era of ‘outsourcing’, when faster data networks have enabled companies to site their call centres around the world, cherry picking countries according to their wage costs, labour laws and so on. It would be fascinating to know how closely this represents life in the call centre today, in Europe, India and beyond.