ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Monthly Archives: December 2013

‘The Smart Machine’ Twenty-five Years Later

In this time of year to reflect on the past and look forward to our future, we often display a curious amnesia when it comes to events that predicate the present. Twenty five years ago Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power appeared. We proposed a retrospective to several publications. Those we approached were not interested or did not have room. Even while citing her work, many people in industry and academia have no notion or appreciation of its prescient nature or profound insights.

Zuboff’s contribution (besides having great hair) was to capture the thoughts and voices of people in the midst of change — in their jobs, in the way they thought, in the way work was defined. In a synthesis of history, psychology, anthropology and oral history, her book anticipated the impact of computer technology in the workplace and in our daily lives today.

In clear, articulate prose, Zuboff captures the voices of those confronting new technology in paper mills, insurance agencies and other industries. She explores the laboring body vs. the laboring mind; the skill in acting on materials vs. with people and ones and zeros; the abstraction of labor and making decisions based on ephemeral data and working with people one never sees.

There has been a lot of discussion since then of the virtual office, the global economy and social networking. The Internet is now a fait accompli. E-mail is old hat. The world wide web gave rise to Facebook, which begat Twitter,which begat instagram. But at the time the book appeared the IBM PC had only recently debuted. The Macintosh was a revolutionary machine with a graphical interface. WindowsTM(version 2.0) was barely beyond a gleam in Bill Gates’ eye. Technology for the world wide web (TC/IP protocol and hypertext linked database) was a work in progress at CERN1. Online networking was the domain of dedicated services such as Compuserve and Prodigy.

In an argument as old as the 19th-century factory system and early 20th century Taylorism2, Zuboff quotes managers and technologists who extol the virtues of separating people from the skills and experience that give their work value in the interest of efficiency and predictability.

Zuboff illustrates the cost as well as the benefits of this dynamic and the human side of the equation. At the time of her research in the 1980s most efforts focused on automating repetitious or dangerous physical tasks (e.g., mixing toxic chemicals in a paper mill) and clerical skills involving data entry.

Since then computer algorithms have invaded functions previously thought the exclusive cognitive domain of humans. Examples include data modeling, pattern recognition and predictive analysis used in engineering, medicine and the financial industries. Some of these result in calculations so complex that those who created them don’t understand their meaning and limitations. Trading instruments created by the human mentats3  of Wall Street (aka quants) to calculate derivatives helped precipitate the 2008 financial crises.

In 1988 there was still reason to feel that the benign aspects of computer automation would prevail – relieving us from tedium and danger of the workplace and opening up unlimited vistas for human beings to collaborate, share knowledge and solve problems.

You can lead people to knowledge, but you can’t make them think. The dream of finding universal laws and finding ways to create a better world (or at least workplace) and ‘improve’ human existence is as old as civilization – beginning with simple machines, followed by water power, steam, electricity and nuclear energy. Zuboff’s genius was to recognize and record a time in history when the power to do this seemed suddenly (and again) within reach. Her findings anticipate — and also warn –against the world we live in today.

Before the NSA and YouTube, she anticipates issues of privacy, autonomy and deskilling. The workers Zuboff interviews take pride in doing their jobs with a degree of autonomy — rather than simply dancing to the computer’s tune. This is no different than workers we have interviewed in the new millennium who demonstrate value and problem-solving in working around system’s limitations or to fulfill unexpected demands — even at risk of censure. In one vivid example Zuboff cites, workers in the paper mill impatient with waiting force open the Star-Trek-like doors designed to protect them from the toxic fumes.

The issues of human deskilling and the abstraction of labor (not just in performing labor, but of emotional and social interaction) from its meaning and value, still loom before us. Unchecked, the Utopian impulse may not just reform, but divorce us from our own humanity. Led by visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Ray Kurzweil, technology insinuates itself our lives more and more each day – with the goal replacing the human frailty and idiosyncracies with supposedly more efficient algorithms. Zuboff’s mindful approach to exploring technology and change has been overtaken by ever more creative ways to monetize the web and offer deals to consumers that seem increasingly Faustian. We take videos of ourselves, tweet our most innocuous and profound beliefs. Others follow us without knowing a thing about our lives. Our buying habits and selections follow us as well – whispering new product suggestions in our ear based on our lifestyle.

Fitbit Wireless Sleep & Activity Monitor

Some of these now allow us to monitor and share our sleep, our weight, and our exercise routine minute-by-minute, under the assumption that data provides connection and meaning. As writer and essayist Mathew Crawford e-mailed one of us, ‘We are coming to know ourselves too well, I fear.’ Too often technology simply enables us to clothe our old behaviors in shiny new raiment, rather than providing useful insight to understand or change them. 

After Age of the Smart Machine, Zuboff wrote The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism with her husband James Maxmin. She lectured at Harvard and wrote articles for Scientific American, Business Week and Fast Company Magazine. Most of these focus on the need for businesses to empower workers and consumers through technology, rather than exploiting them. Along with her work at Harvard, Zuboff, now just in her early 60s, founded the executive education program “ODYSSEY: School for the Second Half of Life”. A discussion board at Fast Company carries her entries through 2005 and 2006. After that they cease. One gets the impression that, having fought the good fight, Zuboff leaves it up to the rest of us to carry the banner now.

Computer technology is always waiting for a new paradigm around the corner to fully realize its potential: From ‘scientific management’ to knowledge-management; from crowd-sourcing and the wisdom of crowds to social networking. But in the workplace or on the web, in government or industry, for the most the technology is still used almost exclusively to improve efficiency by automating tasks and reducing the expertise and skill required to perform them to the lowest common denominator – often by eliminating the human element or forcing individuals to adapt to misconceived business goals and processes.

The machines may be smarter, but the human beings who create them demonstrate the same hubris and flawed thinking they have throughout history. — DA & CDL

# # #

David Abramoff Ph.D. is director emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.  For Chuck Lanigan, director of events and outreach, a previous career developing Lotus Notes workflow applications means never having to say he’s sorry.  He  writes and consults on workflow and collaborative computing and holds an M.A. in educational communication with a focus on literacy, critical thinking and computer-mediated work.  His creative work includes spoken-word presentations and live events.

1Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research)

2 Also known as scientific management, and characterized by time-motion studies applied to find ‘the one best way’ of performing physical labor and tasks. This approach is still used today in many workplaces.

3 From Frank Herbert’s Dune: A human specially trained to mimic the cognitive and analytical ability of a computer. (Wikipedia)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Related:

Thinking & Computers, by David Auerbach in Nautilus 

Saving Conversation, by Megan Garber in The Atlantic

Hard Work and Leisure, by Steven Poole in the New Statesman

The Religion of Technology, Geoff Shullenberger in Dissent

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is embarking on an oral history project on technology in literature, popular culture and the creative arts.  Starting the first quarter of 2014, we will schedule interviews to gather peoples’ reminiscences  and first-hand stories on the  role  technology has played in their work, leisure and daily life.  For questions or if you are interested in participating,  please e-mail outreach@alcstudies.org or call  (412) 353-3756. You can also use our handy contact form.

You Are There

Sixty-plus people attended our live radio presentation of ‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn Saturday November 23rd. One of the first questions people asked me was, ‘Are you going to record it?’, followed by ‘Are you going to put it on YouTube?’ We could just as well have done this for people to enjoy anonymously behind their screens — in between checking e-mails and Facebook. Instead, people braved the first real winter weather of the season to join other audience members and ourselves for the experience of hearing Nick and Nora and an array of lowlifes and highflyers do their thing. My thanks to Sarah, Bob, Tamer, Jessica and the staff at the Omni for providing a great venue.

Omni William Penn Lobby

Omni William Penn Lobby

In these days of twitter and instagram, human activity is endlessly digitized, replicated and deconstructed. Eight-word text messages count for meaningful conversation. Experience must be compressed into 144 characters. I was privileged to collaborate with a wonderful group of people who made our event come alive. Only two perform full-time. One is a musician and poet, in addition to working in the financial services industry. The rest have day jobs. We rehearsed for two months to put together a show to knock the socks off our audience. ‘Astonish me’ the theater critic said. What seems astonishing is that we pulled it off.

Whether painting or music, theater or dance, the arts at their best connect us to our deepest selves as individuals and as a community. This is more important than ever as our lives become preoccupied with self-promotion and dependent on duplication of experience — endlessly replicated and mass- produced. This trend affects everything from clothing to relationships to our emotions to the food we eat. We seek the ‘authentic’ in a safe, standardized, mass-produced palatable format — one that won’t challenge our expectations too much or result in a less than optimal experience. Andy Warhol, still revered here in his home town, reframed and resold us our own memes (the familiar artifacts of consumer culture) and took the proceeds all the way to the bank.

So we update our Facebook pages, send tweets on our own time and convenience, screen our calls (if we talk to anyone at all) — endlessly reiterating what someone else has said and what we already know. Our lives themselves are circumscribed by the virtual and vicarious so that we barely have a thought that is not predigested and shared immediately with others, hardly knowing ourselves what we think.

We are in danger of becoming commodities ourselves. We are encouraged to this by consumer advertisements and depictions of what life should be (speaking of Warhol). Smart phones, helmet cams, GPS coordinates allow us to track, monitor and share our most profound and innocuous thoughts. We watch ourselves constantly. The consequence of all this sharing with strangers who do not know us – is that experience is isolated and fragmented. We form judgments of others (and have judgments formed about us) without regard to personal history, circumstances or context.

But the process of ensuring a perfect cup of coffee every time1 does not scale easily to the arts or to being human. The happiest and most tragic aspects of living are fraught, unpredictable, messy. True art reflects this. It contains an element of the sacred, an immanence that cannot be manufactured. To be more than than just the sound of one hand clapping, it must involve an audience and a performer (or presenter) taking a mutual risk on an unknown quantity. As Stefany Anne Goldberg writes2:

“A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. “

“… in a live performance, there’s a symbiotic relationship between audience and performer, in a recorded performance, audience and performer are divorced from each other, unreal to each other.”

” Nothing else has the feeling of standing on that precipice between failure and success — the puddle of sweat at the small of the back, the fluttering heartbeat, the tingling knees; to experience that moment when everything just might fall apart and probably should and you know it will, but then it doesn’t…. “

A live performance invites strangers to invest individually and together in a communal experience that will never be repeated. On good days the result can be transcendent, enlightening, uplifting. On other days, well, at least you can make up your mind yourself. Because you were there. – CDL

1See Julian Baggini, Joy in the Task, in Aeon Magazine

2Stefany Anne Goldberg , Send in Whatever Clowns are Left, The Smart Set

%d bloggers like this: