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InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 23, 2006

3 Min Read

I first saw the film Modern Times when I was seven or eight years old, and it made a lasting impression.  I clearly recall the still-silent Tramp, with his small Derby hat, mustache, and cane in his last screen appearance.  What I recall most clearly is the conveyor belt sequence, wherein the Tramp is a factory worker whose job it is to tighten bolts on an endlessly-flowing assembly line of indeterminate parts made of like steel plates.  Echoing the 1930s industrial obsession with time, motion, and automation, the Tramp performs his duties with clockwork precision.  [This scene was echoed in the I Love Lucy episode "Job Switching" where Lucy and Ethel work in a candy factory.]

Realizing I might have missed many of the salient points at the age of seven, such as the almost dehumanizing struggle of man v. machine, I decided to screen the film again.  The opening titles explain the movie's theme: "'Modern Times.' A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."  The film opens with an overhead shot of flock of sheep rushing through a chute and dissolves into a similar shot of workers flowing out of the subway exit into the gates of the factory complex.

Filmed between 1932 and 1936, and written, scored, and directed by Chaplin himself, the movie is a splendid study of the 1930s view of the office of the future.  In the executive quarters, the presumed CEO of Electro Steel sits at his desk working on a puzzle, reading the comics in the paper, and interacting with the factory floor via a two-way video screen that supports audio and video.  "Section 5 - speed 'er up" he orders.  Our CEO is also witness to new and emerging technologies, including a mechanized salesman delivering a sales pitch with the help of a phonograph record, and a "practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work."  This feeding device features a revolving table, an automatic food pusher, a corncob feeder, a soup pourer, and last but not least an automatic mouth wipe.  Naturally, our hero, the Tramp, is used to demo this tool, which promises greater productivity by eliminating the lunch hour (who takes an hour for lunch anyway - I usually get a lunch minute myself).

Of course, all of this technology proves to be too much, and the Tramp suffers from a nervous breakdown, demonically tightening everything in plain sight, including buttons on a woman's dress, and people's noses.  

I've always compared the pace at which e-mail arrives to the assembly line scene in Modern Times, and have wondered if anyone else has suffered a similar breakdown from too much e-mail.  What's more, many people's views of productivity have been shaped by scenes such as the conveyor belt sequence, and as the knowledge economy and information unfold, this is generally how people envision productivity.

Modern Times is an excellent tutorial for too much technology and for technology applied solely for the sake of technology; today's knowledge workers may not benefit from a Deus ex machina that allowed the tramp to walk with his lady friend into the horizon as the sun rises. 

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