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The Rise of the Machines


One summer during my undergraduate years, I was having trouble scrounging up a job. I needed money fast, so I drew on family connections and applied to America’s employer of last resort: McDonald’s. I was hired within the week. I’d worked kitchens before, so I figured this would be pretty easy stuff. It was and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because it was.

My past experience in the exciting world of fast-casual food prep had gotten me used to a pretty rigid division of labor. Just like in other kitchens, there were “stations”: one for fries, one for the grill, and so on. As a native English speaker, I was most often at the drive-through station, which was one of the least popular positions due to the disrespect with which McDonald’s customers tend to treat McDonald’s employees.

But McDonald’s was also different from other restaurants, where I had had to learn at least a few cooking basics. At McDonald’s, each station was highly mechanized to minimize the need for employees to know anything. That included counting: the cash register automatically spat out the correct change for me with every transaction. The food prep areas had huge specialized machines to standardize the cooking process. I didn’t even have to pay attention when filling up soft drinks — just hit the button for the appropriate size. Practically every machine was connected to some kind of timer. During busy times, the kitchen became a buzzing, beeping confusion, adding a layer of sonic chaos to an already hectic job.

This is the automated kitchen. At McDonald’s, food preparation is designed to require absolutely no thought or technique at all, deskilled as completely as possible by half a century of industrial management. This standardizes the food, so your McNuggets are the same no matter which McDonald’s fries them. More importantly, it entails minimal training for employees, a good idea since turnover is high (I did a bit over two months before quitting). A deskilled workforce is a precarious workforce.

In some ways, this deskilling was liberating. Since work asked so little of me other than my physical presence and native language abilities, I was free to do bong hits with my high-school-aged coworkers in the parking lot during breaks. The managers even turned a blind eye. But maybe “free” isn’t the right word, since getting high was practically the only way to kill the drudgery. Giving as little a fuck as possible was an exercise in corporate synergy, necessary for my own sanity and for the company’s overall corporate strategy. But bong hits notwithstanding, I’ve never dreaded heading to work more than during that fifteen-minute drive from my parents’ house to the restaurant where I listlessly unleashed Big Mac Attacks on suburban office workers. Even stoned, working as an appendage of a machine was awful.

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Tratto da jacobinmag.com