53: Taylorism in Motion - Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (Part 1)

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Routinely ranked as one of the greatest movies of all time, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times” balances great physical comedy with powerful social commentary. Playing his famed “Tramp” role for the final time, Chaplin portrayed a hapless Worker on an assembly line who is tormented both by supervisors and the work itself. After being subjected to a humiliating experiment intended to improve the line’s efficiency, the Worker runs through a series of rotating jobs, stints in jail, and other misadventures as he tries to find his purpose in life. He eventually finds his purpose through a growing relationship with the Gamine (Paulette Goddard), a tragic young woman orphaned after a worker’s strike turns violent and kills her father. She escapes becoming a ward of the state but resorts to stealing to survive until caught by the police. After the Worker sacrifices himself to save them, the two would become inseparable. Seeing a happy couple in a well-to-do, they imagine themselves being happy and carefree living together in a rundown falling-apart shack. But in the end, she cannot hide from her past as an escaped orphan. Destitute and alone, the two find themselves on a barren road — she appears to have given up on life, but the Worker convinces her to continue on and try again. They leave, walking down the road to who knows where? As we viewed the film, our initial thoughts were about how Taylorism is portrayed and critiqued through the scenes at the factory and the social turmoil going on outside. But the film actually touches on many of the themes of this podcast. Referenced throughout the episode were Taylor (Episode 1), Maslow (Episode 3), Max Weber’s Bureaucracy (Episode 6), The Hawthorne Studies (Episode 9), Banana Time (Episode 13), Suchman’s Human-Computer Interactions (Episode 22), the Gig Economy (Episodes 36 & 40), Socialization a la Van Maanen (Episode 38), the Garbage Can Model of Decisionmaking (Episode 39), and Kunda’s Study of Tech Culture (Episode 49). Listen as we discuss this fantastic and powerful film whose insights on work and society are still relevant today!

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