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The Future of Work Looks Like an Agency-Free Hole That Goes Nowhere

Brazil (1985)

A recent Planet Money episode about worker analytics provokes two things: a memory of a troubling past, and troubling vision of the future of work.

A couple of weeks ago, NPR’s Planet Money podcast -- which is an absolute treasure, by the way -- put out an episode with a suspiciously familiar title: "Episode 536: The Future of Work Looks Like a UPS Truck".

The title echoes the headline constructions typically employed by the very many tech-oriented publications all over the interwebs; companies like Fast Company, Inc., Gizmodo, and, oh I don’t know, TechCrunch or something. That is to say, it’s the kind of headline that draws upon a spirit of futurism and techno-utopianism, the kind that capitalizes on the conceit of being quietly provocative about where modern society is going.

Today's form of Taylorism work ethic is decked out in an Armani suit (or a fuchsia hoodie and flip flops).
The Planet Money piece centered on the plight of the modern UPS worker, and it purports to show the way in which UPS utilizes “big data” to manage its workers and help them attain the beautiful, transcendental state of maximized productivity. An observer with more overtly Marxist inclinations would describe the Planet Money report as a depiction of yet another instance of the corporation using technology and science to further expand its social control over the alienated, exploited worker.

But I won’t use such language. Even the connection to be made is exceedingly clear, because we somehow can’t really deploy good ol’ Karl Rove’s ideas without provoking either laconic condescension or blind enthusiasm. Marx’s gorilla-sized specter looms awkwardly these days, you know?

Anyway: while the Planet Money episode was wonderfully executed, it was also a little bizarre. It’s not merely the fact that the report painted a picture of extreme micromanagement by a tech-enabled employer that’s imperiously data-driven, it’s that the report was understated in highlighting that what UPS is doing is, in no small way, very disturbing. Listening to the podcast, you get a strong sense that nothing, nothing at all, can be kept sacred from the scrutiny and control of corporate management.

Consider the following observation made around 6:25 mark:

UPS has been shaving time off for decades. For instance… someone (at UPS) has already figured out that if you’re right handed, you need to put your pen in your left pocket, and vice versa.

Or this relatively long monologue delivered by the company’s Director of Process Management (Planet Money calls him the “data guy”), somewhere around the 6:50 mark:

You know, it’s almost embarrassing, but one of the engineers said that the drivers spend time opening and closing the door behind them. And starting the vehicle takes time. And you know what? Replacing keys that get lost takes time. So we tested a key fob. And the key fob will start the vehicle for the driver… and will open and shut the door automatically… just shaving a few seconds off deliveries made our drivers a little more productive.

The “data guy’s” monologue was interspersed with audio of a UPS driver, who served as the everyman-centerpiece of the report, showing off his nifty truck to the reporter. At one point, the driver sheepishly chuckles: “Is that high tech or what?” He sounds a little embarrassed, a little awed, but also a little proud of the vehicle he commandeers for his livelihood. It's as if the flashiness of the tech is distracting him from his real relationship with the tech, which is, to put it bluntly, a relationship of being bodily subjugated and subtly controlled.

So, here’s the part of the column where I draw a parallel to a similar development in recent economic history. It implicitly suggests that time as a whole is, indeed, a flat circle, and that we’re all fighting the same fights throughout human history, only under different guises and with better infrastructure.

During the latter end of the 1800s, when Western Civilization marched steadily into the dawn of the 20th century beneath the smog of newly found industrial factories, there was an idea and a practice called Taylorism, also called “Scientific Management”. You see where this is going. Taylorism was a management technique developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer and generally powerful old white dude who was one of preeminent thinkers riding on what’s known as the “Efficiency Movement”, which was this micro-historical moment of collective initiative where a lot of powerful old white dudes tried to make industrialized society more… well, efficient.

The basic idea behind Taylorism was that every aspect of the worker performing his job in the industrial work-line could be measured and causally deconstructed. To offer a hypothetical example: let’s say we have a factory of young dudes making pins. And let’s say the manager of said employs the principles of Taylorism. First, this means that every young dude working in the pin factory is given a specific set of instructions precisely detailing how he is supposed to execute his tasks on almost every level. No one is allowed to deviate.

Second, each and every worker is closely scrutinized and every individual task measured with an eye to spotting ways to reduce any moments of inefficiency. No one and nothing is free from observation. In Taylorism’s ideal working environment, the entire workforce would resemble nothing less than a perfectly oiled and engineered system of robots. No room for chilling out, no room for water cooler bullshitting, no space for the stuff of human affectations.

Over the length of the 20th century, Taylorism didn’t really go away, but it did chill out a fair bit. A bunch of factors contributed to the relaxing of scientific management: the rise of labor rights, the changing internal configuration of the industrial economy, and the emergence of a pretty stable middle class. As the 21st century crept in, Western society rode on the back of a growing information economy and the happy-go-lucky finance-driven days of the Clinton and Bush eras. The dominant image of the workspace was the cubicle, now, and not the now highly mechanized factory floor.

But time is a flat circle. And now, as we settled into a new century propelled by the ubiquity of sensational technological advancement and a belief in the social-analytical power of statistics, we see the emergence of a practice called “People Analytics” – or, as Forbes staff writer Rich Karlgaard likes to call it "Data Fascism".

“People Analytics” is what you get when you stuff two things into Taylorism like a turducken: 1. the invasive and statistically deconstructive power of our modern digital infrastructure and 2. the happy feel-good techno-utopian sucrose of the American tech startup culture – the very same kind that waves around horseshit job titles like “Happiness Hero” and “Coding Ninja”. That is to say, you get a more powerful, invasive, and potentially unstoppable form of Taylorism, now decked out in an Armani suit (or more accurately, a fuchsia hoodie and flip flops).

And we seem to be lapping it all up. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure the insane popularity of stuff like Lifehacker, Fast Company’s “Work Smart” vertical, and a great deal of LinkedIn’s Pulse media content -- all of which possess a sizable number of articles designed to help you develop ways of becoming the perfect worker bee – is an indication of how much a great deal of folks have internalized the controlling demands of Taylorism work reality as virtue. Seems like all we really want to do is to be the perfect servant, as long as we get good enough pay and colorful enough perks.

There remains an avenue for resistance, if one is so inclined. Back when Taylorism was first developed, groups of workers rebelled against the system by “soldiering” – which is the act of working at a level that’s just enough to go unpunished. They weren’t always successful, and the fight between Taylorism-implementing managers and soldiering workers was long drawn out, but the fact that soldering exists suggests a chink in the armor.

Both Taylorism and People Analytics are largely based on the idea that the human worker can be effectively represented through a composite of statistical metrics, and that an understanding and wielding of the information produced by those collective metrics will allow the managerial class control over the worker. However, there still exists a gap between a human being’s capacity to be fully measured and data-technology’s capacity to fully measure. Whole industries still misinterpret data all the time in pursuit of their respective goals (for a good example of this, check out this discussion on “click-baiting” and digital publication analytics, on Time.com). That gap is precious, and it represents the battleground over which the worker and the manager/corporation will struggle; the former for freedom, the latter for control.

Destiny lies in the exploitation of that gap – whoever capitalizes on it first by attrition wins.

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