Mike Cooley obituary

Engineer, academic and activist who sought to transform the relationship between human skill and technology

The innovative thinking and political campaigning of Mike Cooley, who has died aged 86, influenced generations of trade unionists and advocates of a sustainable, green and socially just economy.

It was while working as a highly skilled design engineer at Lucas Aerospace during the turbulent 1970s that Cooley, who was also a mililtant trade unionist, first made his mark. He believed that a radically different relationship between technology and human skill was needed for social transformation. At the heart of his philosophy was a conviction that the supposed conflict between these forms of labour should be transformed into a mutually reinforcing partnership.

At that time, when strike action in defence of jobs and pay was commonplace and workers on the Clyde occupied their shipyards, Lucas workers faced the loss of many hundreds of jobs. Cooley, who then chaired the local branch of the technical trade union Tass (the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section of the AUEW), and was a member of the Lucas group’s national shop stewards committee, was instrumental in the formation of the Lucas Plan – that aimed to convert Lucas production from arms to the manufacture of a wide range of socially useful products.

Appalled at the contradiction between society’s potential and unmet social need, Cooley later wrote, in his first book, Architect Or Bee? The Human Price of Technology (1980): “We have, for example, complex control systems which can guide a missile to another continent with extraordinary accuracy, yet the blind and the disabled have to stagger around our cities in very much the same way as they did in medieval times.”

Through consultations with community groups and health service users and workers, the Lucas shop stewards came up with proposals for a hybrid road/rail bus and a radically new kind of portable kidney machine. Following a visit to a centre for children with spina bifida, a vehicle was designed to help children with this condition to be independently mobile.

After realising that 30% of people who die of heart attacks die before they reach the intensive-care unit, union members at another Lucas plant developed a lightweight, portable life-support system that could be taken in an ambulance. Cooley subsequently wrote: “The workers involved were encouraged to think of themselves in their dual role, both as producers and consumers.”

Without the backing of government and with the decline of trade union power the campaign failed. But some of the socially useful prototypes were subsequently developed and produced by commercial companies in other countries.

Born in Tuam, County Galway, to Eddie Cooley, a garage owner, and Frances (nee Browne), Mike went to the local Christian Brothers school. Due to his love of design and engineering, he was allowed to study one day a week at the nearby technical college. He then worked as an apprentice welder and fitter for the Tuam Sugar company. He began learning German at that time as well, then studied engineering at Bremen Mechanical Engineering University in the mid-50s.

After a period working for a specialist manufacturing company in the Oerlikon district of Zürich, Switzerland, Cooley moved to London in 1957 and gained a PhD in computer-aided design at the North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London). That marked the start of a lifetime devoted to a better understanding of the role of the replacement – in Marxist terms – of living labour by dead labour.

He became a visiting professor at Umist (the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) and, in 1961, married Shirley Pullen, who proved a lifelong kindred spirit and was his first publisher, of Architect Or Bee.

Fired from Lucas for his activism, in the 1980s he was appointed director of technology at the newly created Greater London Enterprise Board, where I worked with him. There he helped worker co-operatives and other small enterprises to develop 33 new ways for workers to interface with computer technology, rather than their skilled work being replaced by machines.

Cooley drew inspiration from the historical precedent of the builders of the great medieval cathedrals who – he never tired of pointing out – were their own architects. In 1981 he received the Right Livelihood award for “designing and promoting the theory and practice of human-centred, socially useful production”.

He continued to lecture at universities across the world, and produced a series of books outlining his ideas for restoring decision-making power to workers in the production process. His output was compiled in the 2020 reader The Search for Alternatives: Liberating Human Imagination.

In Delinquent Genius – The Strange Affair of Man and His Technology (2018), Cooley disputed the “inevitability” of ever greater de-skilling of human labour, writing: “I disagree. The script for this finale can still be rewritten. And I do mean ‘man’ and not ‘humanity’, for it is a relationship from which women have been largely excluded and this to disastrous effect.”

The president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, wrote in a foreword to the book: “Mike Cooley may well be the most intelligent Irishman, the most morally engaged scientist and technologist Ireland has sent abroad.”

Cooley is survived by Shirley and a son, Graham. Another son, Stephen, died in 2009.

• Michael Cooley, engineer and author, born 23 March 1934; died 4 September 2020


John Palmer

The GuardianTramp

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