To Our Readers

By John Flanagan

Saturday, May 22, 1999

A darker side of
high tech

I recently wrote about a visit to IBM's research campus in Silicon Valley and described the awe-inspiring work being done in one of the computer industry's showplaces.

On the same trip, I saw a plant where PCs, disc drives and other electronic devices are put together. Conditioned by advertising hype, I expected hip technicians in Mylar bunny suits, robotic assembly lines and "clean rooms" --you know, high-tech stuff.

The building was a "tilt-up," a single-story structure named after the construction technique: prefabricated panels tipped upright and bolted together on a concrete slab surrounded by asphalt.

Inside, we trooped through acres of sterile office space crammed with rows of impersonal cubicles to a conference room hung with posters tritely promoting productivity. There, they issued blue lab coats to distinguish us visitors from white-coated employees. We listened to an enthusiastic itemization of industry awards won by the company -- it's one you've never heard of, but it fills contracts for many well-known brand names.

Having crammed us with statistics, earnest young managers herded us into the inner sanctum in small groups, watchfully keeping us outside a yellow line painted on the floor. The line encircled a vast windowless space fenced off with chainlink into "bays," where workers quietly took parts out of boxes, put them together, tested them and packed them into different boxes.

Each bay had a pegboard wall hung with employee rosters, production and training data and hooks for a broom and dustpan. The silhouettes of these tools were painted on the walls lest they be lost or misplaced -- very high tech!

No detail escaped scrutiny. In a locked area, a trusted employee carefully emptied every garbage can, rescuing any useable part.

Working there, repetitively filling orders under watchful eyes, would make cleaning hotel rooms or selling fast food in Hawaii seem like paradise, indeed.

Economic development is great, but be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

John Flanagan is editor and publisher of the Star-Bulletin.
To reach him call 525-8612, fax to 523-8509, send
e-mail to or write to
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802.

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