online:28 june 2008
modified: 26 april 2008 (originally writtten in october 2001)

22 may 2008 the human operators

shortened version of the digital diary of 28 - 29 October 2001
'working on the lines' the catch-22 of industrial life and evolution
(about 2000 words)

Yesterday I switched on the radio to hear train drivers and other railwaymen recalling the days of steam locomotives, of their replacement by diesels in the late 1950s, and of the difficulties of that transition - from what they remembered as high quality work in the harsh conditions of coal and steam to poorer quality work in the seemingly easier but actually worse conditions of sitting in a draughty and poorly-heated diesel cab on your own - and amidst lowered standards of safety, punctuality etc. ('working on the lines', BBC radio 4, 27 October 2001, produced by Angela Hind)

I was enthralled, for at the time of that changeover I was working with some of those drivers - sitting with them in their diesel cabs as I tried to find out, from their opinions and my observations, how to redesign the cabs and the control equipment to be better fitted to the drivers and to this new kind of power source. Everything I heard them say on the radio fitted exactly my memories of that work and of the insight I gained into what I thought of then, and think of now, as the completely hopeless way in which we are still failing to design the changing conditions of industrial work, and industrial living, to fit our own nature - and the fine things we can achieve when the conditions and the people are well adapted and in full accord.

I could write a book about this (and perhaps I should, here and now, for I can't see anyone else doing it) for my memories are plentiful and I think well-founded. But it would take a lot of explanation and effort because there is almost no one who shares my privileged and quite detailed experience of all this - of the work of train drivers, crane drivers, mine-winder engine men, power-station control room operators, computer users (and other 'human operators') whose activity I was able to study during those years. It was my real education into the combined (and often mis-combined) nature of people-and-machines and I believe it to be the unspoken basis most of what I am writing here in this diary and in all my other works, no matter how poetic, or otherwise far they may seem from the roughness and the grittiness of the people who 'make the system work' despite the gross and blundering inhumanity with which it was and is designed by some of our own misguided selves and recent ancestors....

Yes I am still angry at what I learnt then and still determined to insist on something better!

Ah! I'm laughing as I write that - at the persistence of my anger and the daftness of the systems in amongst which we still grapple needlessly and self-destructively in the near-total absence of a proper regard for people-as-people when we shape the forms of modern life!... Yes I'm laughing at this angry flow of hard words that pour out of me when something triggers these memories! But I love them, these thoughts about the whole system and about the people who operate industry as it so misguidedly is, in all its inhumanity, as they stretch and adapt themselves so greatly (and I think needlessly) to the artificial world as we wrongly shape it and accept.

As I listened to that radio programme I could feel my unforgotten knowledge of the whole situation of British Rail re-arranging itself in my mind into a new and clear vision of what was wrong in the whole dreadful saga of how the once-fine standards of the old steam locomotives and their drivers and signalmen and everyone, with their primitive but so effective equipment, by one hopeless stage after another became the present near-disaster of a series of disconnected companies, run by accountants not railwaymen, unable to stop themselves causing accidents and unable to keep the trains to the timetable... etc. etc.

But then I remembered how my work in the cabs was suddenly prohibited because I'd sent my provisional conclusions not only to my employers, the makers of the next generation of electric locomotives, but to some of their customers, the leading engineers in British rail. I was almost dismissed for this impertinence and so my work on cab design was never completed. 'You've angered the Jesus Christ of this works' said my industrial patron, Harry West, when he told me of the row I'd caused between the rail company and its suppliers. I think it would be the same today. Anyone able to discover and to make public the profoundly wrong pattern of industrialisation, and to criticise those in charge, is going to be squashed or ignored...

The essential point, which I expect is still the case today, is that no one who has a wide enough view to see what is wrong is going to be given the power to over-ride the necessarily narrower vision of someone who has accepted enough of the status quo to become responsible for it. It's the catch-22 of industrial life... and evolution....

for comfortable line length set the window to about two-thirds of the screen width


© 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 john chris jones

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