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Tag Archives: Shoshana Zuboff

‘The Office’ Inspired by Sade?

An excerpt from an essay by Lucy Ives in Lapham’s Quarterly:

“…Office work sets into tension, in close quarters, the ambitions of the individual and the destiny of the group. Office workers rub elbows with one another and gather at the water (or kombucha) cooler, rolling chairs collide and become entangled, sweaty softball tournaments are organized. It is possible that the success of the individual can become the success of the group, but it is more likely that in order for an office to succeed, individuality must be undermined, in that it must always directly serve the plural. Here is a rationale for the current vogue for open-plan work spaces, in which one has little privacy unless urinating, defecating, or making coffee. The open-plan-office worker must progress from a state of hyperconsciousness of the effect of her fleshly presence on her coworkers to total numbness in order to get any work done. In such work spaces, the sensitive are likely to spend their days endeavoring to stop unconsciously fidgeting or touching their faces or hair. Open-plan offices also stymie the unusually creative and independent, reducing them into collaborators. Management likes this. Accountability and credit can circulate in offices and even temporarily land, but there should be no authors in offices, only positions. Meanwhile, offices are not just places. Offices are not merely locations, nor are they particularly egalitarian. There are “office politics.” The office has a will of its own, yet, paradoxically, it is not exactly collective.

Setting aside for a moment the annoying behavior to which we must become inured if we are to survive the office (inane chats, baffling email communications, multipage budgets), we must also learn to cherish less our personal specificity. This soft injunction to conform often has a funny way of meaning that we must also become inured to our colleagues’ specific personalities. We do not fully choose or even desire our coworkers, no matter how intentional or progressive the workplace. At the office, we need one another to fulfill certain tasks by means of certain skills. We have less need, inevitably, of our coworkers’ personal histories, the deep reasons why they are the way they are or need whatever is needed. Nor do we have much use for our coworkers’ bodies, in all their ample particularity. We must, with our coworkers, develop forms of dependency and attachment that are risible and fungible, but not too risible and not too fungible. The legend emblazoned above most office doors should be “Try Not to Harm One Another When Convenient but, Above All, Don’t Love One Another.” Far worse than insulting one’s office mate or stepping on a colleague’s toe would be to recognize her or him as one’s soul mate. In such a scenario, all work would cease.”

— Submitted by DA

N.B.:

1. The appearance, quotation or reference to work from other authors and publications on this site does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.

2. For an interesting and early exploration of the relationship between automation and the de-personalization (not to say de-humanization) of work and life, please see Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine. More recently, see Andrew Sullivan’s I Used to be a Human Being in New York Magazine.

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‘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

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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.

Learning to Master the World

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently provided $3,447,740 USD to organizations in the U.S., including one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The goals of the award are to:

  • Create engaging learning experiences
  • Support the role of museums as community anchor institutions
  • Enhance collections stewardship

The local recipient in SW PA plans to use the award to ‘conduct a research study of family participation in museum-based “makerspaces.” As one staff member told a colleague, “Basically, we are going to use the award to research how children play and learn.” The organization will work with academic researchers at Carnegie Mellon University “to design tools that recognize and measure productive patterns of family participation and their associated learning outcomes in these spaces.” Most likely this will involve the use of computer technology. Every hammer must find its nail.

When I was a boy barely knee-high, I often stopped on the way home  from school when it rained to watch water flowing from a downspout. Left to their devices, kids are naturally little physicists. They try to figure out how the world and people work. Perhaps it is easier to understand the function of dark matter than plumb the mysteries of the human heart. When children play, they try different roles. They cast pieces of wood adrift in mud puddles. They build forts outside. They get messy. Sometimes they do things that result in conflict, bruises or tears. This is how they learn, have fun and practice being human. To do this they need a balance of structured and unstructured (read, unsupervised) time.

Of course childhood may be viewed as an invention, a construct of society that become possible since about the eighteenth century when one in five children stopped dying before the age of three and the rest were put to work in coal mines. Now that children are our future, they have been turned into a preoccupation (if not fetish) of society and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Parents and adults in positions of self-appointed authority feel compelled to direct the efforts of children to make sure they are equipped for our dubious future. Many of these efforts (and the money invested) involve applying new technology to create learning environments and products. They take the form of initiatives to promote literacy and early learning. Millions of dollars are invested by schools (and parents) in technology to address the so-called digital divide.

One product advertised on TV allows a child to draw in different colors on a digital tablet. This offers an advantage over a pad of newsprint and crayons or water colors in that it’s less messy. There is no danger the child will express his or her creativity and fingerprints on the walls or furniture. All the child’s efforts are neatly packaged within the digital environment for the parent to save and admire and post on Facebook — ensuring John or Judy fifteen minutes of fame before the age of five. The company that sells the device has occasion to hire programmers, designers and marketing personnel, and turns a profit to create an artificial environment for children to play in.

Are we doing children and ourselves a favor by creating such adult-designed, carefully circumscribed  ‘spaces’ on their behalf in which they can develop their 21st-century skills and practice social interaction (presumably learning to type with their thumbs and talking to themselves while crossing the street)?

After thousands of years human beings have still not mastered the control of nature or ourselves. Despite our remarkable advances in technology and prognostications for the future, our creations will  inevitably reflect our imperfections. We spend our brief time on this earth futilely trying to impose our will upon the entropy within our souls and in the void without. We can choose do this in enlightened or idolatrous ways.

Our freedom to play may extend into our adult lives and at least elements of our jobs. The Wall Street trader plays Monopoly with other people’s money. The CEO organizes and runs part of the playground by his or her rules and gets others to play their game. In creative pursuits such as the arts we can try on different roles, write our own stories, leave our fingerprints on the wall where none have been left before. But we still need to pay the bills, pay the piper, make a living by putting our fingerprints in the service of someone else (or the public taste). When play becomes indistinguishable from work, the fun of creation may be lost in drudgery despite employers’ attempts to make the workplace a barrel of laughs and convince employees that work/life balance means dedicating one’s life 24/7 for profit.

Children play in the present with every ounce of their being. Becoming adults means making a transition to building sand castles on the beach knowing that eventually the ocean will overwhelm our creation. We persevere, living our lives in the midst of joy and sadness until we exit this confused, confusing, unfinished world leaving behind whatever contributions or depredations we have made.

The seductive promise that technology and the marketplace seem to offer to us is to become creators of our own reality; either controlling the world to suit our whims and desires, or divorcing ourselves from it to live in our own cocoon of virtual reality. The legacy of this may be to deny (or spare) future generations the pleasures and frustrations of discovering how the world works alongside their own limitations and possibilities. What kind of future will it be if human beings are arrogantly devoted to controlling what they don’t understand and remaking the world in their own egotistic image, or retreating  into an alternative world restricted to rules and possibilities devised solely themselves? — DA

Related References:

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