Review: Talking About Machines by Julian Orr

6 minute read


In Talking About Machines: Ethnography of a Modern Job, Julian Orr studies the teams of Xerox photocopier technicians who are ostensibly responsible for fixing broken copiers. In his ethnographic study of work practice” (10), he aims to examine the concept of work solely from the worker’s perspective, and begins by giving the reader five “vignettes of work in the field” (14). These stories detail how technicians interact with customers, copiers, and each other, leading Orr to declare that technicians are responsible for the upkeep of more than just machines. In fact, he sees their work “is to maintain a triangular relationship between the technicians, their customers, and their machines” (66). It is this insight that powers Orr’s study, making it something far more than a patchwork of its constituent elements: ethnomethodology, organizational communication, business administration, conversation analysis, ethnography of work, human-computer/machine interaction, and infrastructure studies.

Orr parses through each element in the triangle of technicians-customers-machines, starting with the highly-structured organizational network of technicians. While each machine or organization is usually under the purview of a single technician who fixes most of its problems, the work performed requires the maintenance of a well-functioning social network for multiple reasons. First, the work of technicians is diagnostic in nature, and Orr’s vignettes show how all but the most experienced technicians are able to correctly and efficiently identify and fix every problem that could occur in every machine in the field. Some are more skilled at certain tasks than others, and when technicians gather (most commonly for lunch), those who are unable to diagnose or fix a machine share a “collective knowledge” (71) in the giving and asking of advice. Additionally, technicians are unable to keep all the spare parts necessary to fix every problem for every machine in the field, so they rely on their co-workers to lend them parts when they are in need. As their individual or team workload is often in flux, technicians will also take calls for each other if they do not have any machines of their own to fix. For these reasons and more, Orr defines the technicians as an “occupational community” (76) and illustrates how a significant part of their work is to maintain an ethic of reciprocity within this community for mutual benefit.

The second leg of the triangle is the customers, and the relationship between the technician and the customer is a primary responsibility for this kind of work. As in any service work, keeping the customer satisfied is the ultimate mission, as the machines are not able to pay the lease or fill out the all-important Customer Satisfaction Management Surveys. In discussing the territory of technicians, Orr explains that “technicians worry more about social damage another technician can do in their territory than about what might happen to the machine” (63). He also shows how the technicians attempt to socialize with the customers, for example, when a technician banters with a customer about life as a single parent in Silicon Valley. In addition, Orr refers to the saying “Don’t fix the machine; fix the customer” (79), and gives various stories about how technicians teach customers how to properly use, identify, diagnose, and repair the machines.

However, machines are the final and most obvious element of the triangle, and the relationship between the technicians and the machines is complex. On the one hand, Orr recognizes that machines often frustrate technicians, especially when the teams share their existential crises in realizing that there will always be problems to fix and that every repair will eventually fail. However, he also shows how the technicians are indebted to the machines, who by failing give the technicians a job. Orr shows that “such a machine is a worthy opponent, partner, other” (99), and how their identity (usually that of the hero) is linked to these machines.

The problem with the machines is that they are fraught with uncertainty, as each of their interrelated parts can fail in multiple ways. The Xerox Corporation gives its technicians diagnostic and repair manuals, but these are only used by novices or as a last resort. Most of the diagnostic work performed is kinesthetic or auditory, and such instruction is difficult to convey in a written form. Therefore, instead of putting “blind faith” (113) in the manuals, the technicians rely on the discourse of their co-workers, who share techniques, tricks, quick fixes, errors in the documentation, schematics, and most importantly, “war stories” (125).

Narrative also forms an essential component of how technicians talk about machines in all three facets of their work. Telling a story of a machine’s failure is necessary to gain proper advice from a colleague if one does not know the proper remedy. Likewise, the same story can assist a customer in understanding why their machine failed and how it can be prevented in the future. Finally, technicians often need to construct narratives for the machines as a way of understanding them better: in reading the logs and asking customers for details, the technician works to identify the most likely cause of failure. Ultimately, it is through these narratives that technicians talk about machines, which Orr identifies as “a vital element of their practice” (161). However, he recognizes that this talk, while important, is a mere “means to an end” (161) of fixing the machines and the customers. From the technician’s standpoint, the only distinction between lubricating a squeaky drive shaft and reassuring a complaining manager is the specific target of maintenance and the different kinds of skills necessary to perform such tasks.

In all, Orr’s work is an incredibly interesting expose of what many would take to be a rather marginal and boring job; however, it is not simply of interest to those class-minded scholars who study the maintenance workers who are all-too-often made invisible along with the infrastructure they maintain. Blurring the line between ethnomethodology, organizational communication, infrastructure studies, human-computer/machine interaction, business administration, and traditional ethnography of work, Talking About Machines makes a far more lasting contribution than the immediate fallout of his study – which was to give technicians portable radios so that they could share these tacit forms of knowledge without having to meet at a central location during a designated break period. In addition to practical solutions of interest to his employers at Xerox, his study remains relevant today because it reveals much about the way in which we humans in an increasingly mechanized world deal with not only machines, but also each other.