The CNC (computer-numericafly-controlled) machine
The machine shop was an enormous shed with machines and work benches laid out in a grid pattern.
Wilcox led her down the broad central aisle, with occasional detours to left and right to point out
some particular operation. Robyn soon gave up trying to follow his explanations. She could hardly hear
them because of the din, and the few words and phrases that she did catch - 'tolerances to five thou',
'crossboring', 'CNC machine', 'indexes round' - meant nothing to her. The machines were ugly, filthy and
surprisingly old-fashioned in appearance. The typical operation seemed to be that the man took a lump of
metal from a bin, thrust it into the machine, closed some kind of safety cage, and pulled a lever. Then
he opened the cage, took out the part (which now looked slightly different) and dropped it into another
bin. He did all this as noisily as possible.
'Does he do the same thing all day?' she shouted to Wilcox, after they had watched one such man at
work for some minutes. He nodded. 'It seems terribly monotonous. Couldn't it be done automatically?'
Wilcox led her to a slightly quieter part of the shop floor. 'If we had the capital to invest in new
machines, yes. And if we cut down the number of our operations - for the part he's making it wouldn't
be worth automating. The quantities are too small.'
'Couldn't you move him to another job occasionally?' she said, with a sudden burst of inspiration.
'Move them all about, every few hours, just to give them a change?'
'Like musical chairs?' Wilcox produced a crooked smile.
'It seems so awful to be standing there, hour after hour, doing the same thing, day after day.'
'That's factory work. The operatives like it that way.'
I find that hard to believe.'
'They don't like being shunted about. You start moving men about from one job to another, and
they start complaining, or demanding to be put on a higher grade. Not to mention the time lost
'So it comes back to money again.'
'Everything does, in my experience.'
'Never mind what the men want?'
'They prefer it this way, I'm telling you. They switch off, they daydream. If they were smart enough
to get bored, they wouldn't be doing a job like this in the first place. If you want to see an automated
process, come over here.'
He strode off down one of the aisles. The blue-overalled workers reacted to his passage like a shoal
of minnows in the presence of a big fish. They did not look up or catch his eye, but there was a
perceptible tremor along the work benches, a subtle increase in the carefulness and precision of
their movements as the boss passed. The foremen behaved differently. They came hurrying forward with
obsequious smiles as Wilcox stopped to ask about a bin of components with 'WASTE' chalked on the side,
or squatted beside a broken-down machine to discuss the cause with an oily-pawed mechanic. Wilcox made
no attempt to introduce Robyn to anyone, though she was aware that she was an object of curiosity in
these surroundings. On all sides she saw glazed abstracted eyes click suddenly into sharp focus as
they registered her presence, and she observed sly smiles and muttered remarks being exchanged between
neighbouring benches. The content of these remarks she could guess all too easily from the pin-ups that
were displayed on walls and pillars everywhere, pages torn from soft-porn magazines depicting
glossy-lipped naked women with bulging breasts and buttocks, pouting and posturing indecently.
'Can't you do something about these pictures?' she asked Wilcox.
'What pictures?' He looked around, apparently genuinely puzzled.by the question.
'All these pornographic pin-ups.'
'Oh, those. You get used to them. They don't register, after a while.'
That, she realized, was what was peculiarly degrading and depressing about the pictures. Not just
the nudity of the girls, or their poses, but the fact that nobody was looking at them, except herself.
Once these images must have excited lust - enough to make someone take the trouble to cut them out and
stick them up on the wall; but after a day or two, or a week or two, the pictures had ceased to arouse,
they had become familiar - faded and tattered and oil-stained, almost indistinguishable from the dirt
and debris of the rest of the factory. It made the models' sacrifice of their modesty seem poignantly
'There you are,' said Wilcox. 'Our one and only CNC machine.'
'Computer-numericafly-controlled machine. See how quickly it changes tools?'
Robyn peered through a Perspex window and watched things moving round and going in and out in sudden
spasms, lubricated by spurts of a liquid that looked like milky coffee.
'What's it doing?'
'Machining cylinder heads. Beautiful, isn't it?'
'Not the word I'd choose.'
There was something uncanny, almost obscene, to Robyn's eye, about the sudden, violent, yet controlled
movements of the machine, darting forward and retreating, like some steely reptile devouring its prey
or copulating with a passive mate.
'One day,' said Wilcox, 'there will be lightless factories full of machines like that.'
'Machines don't need light. Machines are blind. Once you've built a fully computerized factory, you
can take out the lights, shut the door and leave it to make engines or vacuum cleaners or whatever,
all on its own in the dark. Twenty-four hours a day.'
'What a creepy idea.'
'They already have them in the States. Scandinavia.'
'And the Managing Director? Will he be a computer too, sitting in a dark office?'
Wilcox considered the question seriously. 'No, computers can't think. There'll always have to be a
man in charge, at least one man, deciding what should be made, and how. But these jobs' - he jerked
his head round at the rows of benches - 'will no longer exist. This machine here is doing the work
that was done last year by twelve men.'
'0 brave new world,' said Robyn, 'where only the managing directors have jobs.'
This time Wilcox did not miss her irony. I don't like making men redundant,' he said, 'but we're
caught in a double bind. lf we don't modernize we lose competitive edge and have to make men
redundant, and if we do modernize we have to make men redundant because we don't need 'em any
'What we should be doing is spending more money preparing people for creative leisure,' said Robyn.
'Like women's studies?'
'Among other things.'
'Men like to work. It's a funny thing, but they do. They may moan about it every Monday morning, they
may agitate for shorter hours and longer holidays, but they need to work for their self-respect.'
'That's just conditioning. People could get used to life without work?
'Could you? I thought you enjoyed your work.'
'Well, it's nice work. It's meaningful. It's rewarding. I don't mean in money terms. It would be worth
doing even if one wasn't paid anything at all. And the conditions are decent - not like this.' She swept
her arm round in a gesture that embraced the oil-laden atmosphere, the roar of machinery, the crash of
metal, the whine of electric trolleys, the worn, soiled ugliness of everything.
'If you think this is rough, wait till you see the foundry,' said Wilcox, with a grim smile, and set
off again at his brisk terrier's trot.
Even this warning did not prepare Robyn for the shock of the foundry. They crossed another yard, where
hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow, and entered a large
building with a high vaulted roof hidden in gloom. This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn
had ever experienced. Her first instinct was to cover her ears, but she soon realized that it was not
going to get any quieter, and let her hands fall to her sides. The floor was covered with a black
substance that looked ae soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand. The air reeked
with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the
roof. Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far comer of
the building what looked like a stream of molten lava trickled down a curved channel from roof to
floor. The roof itself was holed in places, and melting snow dripped to the floor and spread in
muddy puddles. It was a place of extreme temperatures: one moment you were shivering in an icy
draught from some gap in the outside wall, the next you felt the frightening heat of a fürnace's
breath on your face. Everywhere there was indescribabie mess, dirt, disorder. Discarded castings,
broken tools, empty canisters, old bits of iron and wood, lay scattered around. Everything had an
improvised, random air about it, as if people had erected new machines just where they happened to
be standing at the time, next to the debris of the old. .........
Source: Nice Work by David Lodge, Penguin Books 1989, pp. 123-127
Nice Work by David Lodge (hier online bestellen)