lundi, février 18, 2008

longing for the days of readers

I love the lede on this article and how 19th century cigar rollers made their lives less mindnumbing. But those are all tactics to make work more palatable. Nowadays, I listen to music while coding or writing when possible. I also have NPR, music, or an audio book on whenever I'm exercising or in the car for more than a few minutes. Each is a way to pass the time and focus less on the distasteful task at hand.
Technology Can Be a Blessing for Bored Workers
Published: February 18, 2008
OF all the repetitive, mind-numbing jobs in the late 19th century, cigar-rolling was special.

Unlike sewing clothes, mining coal or forging steel, it was blessedly quiet. And thus cigar workers, whether in Chicago or Havana, were the first ones in their time who managed to introduce that vital commodity — distraction — onto the work floor.

Using their own wages, and backed by a powerful union, they paid for a “reader” who sat in an elevated chair and began the morning with the news and political commentary. By the afternoon, he would usually have switched to a popular novel. The 100 or so rollers on the floor were his captive audience, listening as they worked.

Today, the outside world has managed to sneak into the workplace through personal music players and cellphones, not always with official consent. But discussion of the effects of technology on our working lives is almost always restricted to office workers, who often see cellphones and BlackBerrys as emblems of their busy lives.

For blue-collar workers in many occupations, however, cellphones and music players have also had profound effects — including escape from the tedium or the physical isolation of their jobs. Unlike white-collar workers, many of these workers face restrictions from employers or objections from customers.

New Yorkers like to complain about cabbies talking on cellphones, but they rarely ask themselves why someone driving a cab late at night far from home needs the phone in the first place.

Music helps many postal workers stay sharp during what is often repetitive work. Giselle E. Ambursley, part of a group of five or six who work on a mail-sorting machine at the Postal Service’s Morgan Processing and Distribution Center in Manhattan, said that on a typical day, “four out of five” listen to music. “It helps most of us get through the day.”

“I remember when I first got a Walkman,” she said. “I was excited, especially about using it at work. I bought tapes galore. I have thousands of dollars worth of tapes.” Ms. Ambursley, a shop steward in the American Postal Workers Union, now uses a Microsoft Zune and says she intends to convert those tapes into digital files for her player.

Cellphones are another matter. Cellphone conversations are not tolerated while working because supervisors see them as a distraction, Ms. Ambursley said, and when a call comes in, it can be returned only when off the floor. It is a shame, she said, because for night workers, the calls are often short — wishing a good night or helping with homework — and some people can easily use a hands-free cellphone while working. The time spent leaving the work floor is a waste, she said. “They keep bringing up safety, but I bring up productivity.”

David White, a freelance truck driver from Amherst, Mass., said his Treo 700 — a phone with an Internet connection — made the many days he spends away from home more comfortable. While he recognizes that truckers are not the stereotypical users of a Treo, he thinks they are ideal users. “Getting my Hotmail — now Yahoo mail — on my P.D.A., that made a world of difference,” he said. “It didn’t matter if I was living in a truck.”

His iPod is another critical gadget. He says he downloads audio books from and listens to them through an adapter in the tape deck in his truck.

His job does have advantages, he says. “You’ve got no boss, no one bothering you. You just have to show up,” he said, but even so, “if I didn’t have the books, I couldn’t do it.”

Last Christmas season, however, he worked as a temporary employee for United Parcel Service, moving packages — but not making deliveries — and he found that the trucks had no tape decks. There were speakers, he said, and he saw that some full-time employees had rigged CD players and radios to connect to the speakers. He was leery, however, of using them without permission. He was left, he said, to listen to the G.P.S. road directions. “It was a little British voice,” he said. “Even that much was enough.”

Truckers and mail sorters have an advantage, however, that other workers do not: they largely do not deal with the public. Cab drivers, for example, are the most widely vilified users of cellphones in the workplace because they use them in front of customers. In New York, cabbies are not permitted to use cellphones while driving. The city has been sending undercover inspectors to ticket them.

Likewise, U.P.S. delivery drivers are not permitted to listen to music. Nor are trainees at the Ready, Willing and Able program in New York who clean the streets. The program’s spokesman said they “are learning how to be responsible workers, which includes balancing work and personal life.” He said they are highly visible, so “New Yorkers can see them on their cellphones or listening to music, as opposed to interacting with each other and the public.”

Biju Mathew, a professor of technology at Rider College who has been an advocate for taxi drivers, said cellphones have replaced the citizens’ band radio system. CB was “completely communal,” he said. With the arrival of cellphones, “it was broken down to a series of individual conversations,” he said. But with newer technology, he said, the drivers frequently speak in groups of 6 to 10 drivers in conference calls.

“They found that a single conversation is isolating, and they are back to communal discussions. They have readapted the technology.”

The cigar makers faced restrictions of their own. After a strike in 1931 in Tampa, Fla., failed, said Nancy Hewitt, a Rutgers history professor, the workers returned, but the factory owners had dismantled the readers’ chairs. “They replaced the readers with radios,” she said.

Over the next decade, industrial production came to the cigar factory and the radios were gone, too — no one could hear them over the noise.

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