Monday, February 12, 2007

Uncovering Labor in Information Revolutions

Introduction

Aad Blok begins our analyses of information revolutions by calling our attention to an often overlooked factor with ICT study: labor. Research and literature usually focus on the “information” or the “technology” sides of the revolution, while the work implicated within such phenomena goes unnoticed (with the exception of notable innovators or inventors).

Therefore Blok and Downey take labor to be the unit of analysis within information revolutions and propose three framing questions:

  1. what is the role and position of labor within the information revolution?
  2. what are the implications of these IT revolutions for labor?
  3. how have the spatial and temporal divisions of labor changed with temporal and spatial changes in capitalism enabled by technology, particularly with regard to globalization?

Within these questions we can see the influence of an STS approach that emphasizes the mutual shaping of labor and information technology. It is not a one-directional process of cause and effect.

Hands and Minds: Clerical Work in the First “Information Society”

Rosenhalf tells the story of eighteenth-century German clerical workers whose labor is qualitatively affected by an increase in the amount of required data processing. In these cases, workers experienced great mental stress and physical injury as they struggled to keep up with the growing number of pension cases. The troubling aspect from a Marxist perspective is that they were given no additional compensation for the demand of greater work productivity.

Q: Is this a classic case of capital-labor exploitation? In what ways would advances in technology at the time mitigated this exploitation?

If we consider the relationship between labor, technology, and information in the case of the pension clerks, we can see how an increase in information processes outstripped both the labor and technology of the time. As a reader on the edge of my seat, I cry out, “Oh, won’t someone please give poor Anton Dies a copy of Microsoft Xcel to help him make his calculations!?!”

Q: How may the need brought about by increased information processes driven the technological developments that led to such accounting software?

ICT, Containerization and International Shipping Labour

Sampson and Wu bring us into international shipping to consider the ways in which advances in technology have changed the work of various sectors of industry. Being driven by the capitalist logic of efficiency and productivity, the implementation of new technologies throughout the industry has speeded up many processes. This is a mixed blessing, however. While this may mean less time adrift at sea for sailors, it also means less time anchored in port. The authors also cite examples of changes in the social relations of production, such as in the Tetra terminal where dock workers no longer interact with sea staff. Furthermore, the analysis shows how innovation and technology do not necessarily change privilege along lines of division of labor, as in the case of only certain crew members having access to Internet aboard the ships and wealthier crew mates being less negatively affected by the distance from port to city center.

Q: Throughout the discussion, we read of instances and fears of machines taking away or deskilling jobs, making the work more mundane. Are these not the echoes of Marx’s theory whereby the cycles of innovation contribute to increased alienation of workers (eventually leading to the rise of consciousness)?

Q: While interesting and poignant, does Sampson and Wu’s article err toward a more technological determinist description of these processes? It is clear that innovation and technology “impact” the shipping industry in a number of ways. But in what way is the design, use, and interpretation of these innovations shaped by the people working with them? Where is the “interpretive flexibility” within these technologies?

Unionism in the Information Revolution

Benner discusses of the formation of “guilds” within Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry. He describes the formation of new cooperatives of skilled technology workers organizing to share knowledge and strengthen their collective position in a quickly changing labor market. The distinct nature of IT work in this time and place calls for arrangements between workers that professional organizations and unions can not facilitate. The guilds offer an alternative, though remain isolated and less powerful than their counterparts.

Q: How are these guilds different than other online communities of IT enthusiasts, other than that the people actually meet in person? What is the significance of actually meeting together, versus simply web blogging and chatting?

Q: How can such guilds begin to build alliances and strengthen their position within the workforce?

The Case of America Online Volunteers

Postigo writes about the AOL volunteers who helped pioneer America’s introduction to cyberspace, and their spiteful abandonment by the company. This article raises an interesting notion of work being multidimensional and including volunteerism, leisure, and hobbies. The lines between work and these other practices blur within the case of the web and cyberspace, as people engage with the Internet out of fascination and an ethic of knowledge sharing and technical development. Of course, this story has an unhappy ending when corporate need for profitability helps reify a distinction between work (paid, official, and sanctioned) and non-work (denied access and then invisible).

Q: The ethic of volunteerism and knowledge sharing continues strongly on the Internet through the Open Source movement and many useful websites and blogs. Is it inimical to this movement for AOL volunteers to be leveling a lawsuit that may undermine the value of these underlying principles at the expense of more material work-value ideology?

The Place of Labor and Information-Technology Revolutions

Downey reiterates our need to consider labor as a unit of analysis in IT revolutions before problematizing our conception of “revolution” by considering a historical account of various advancements in technology (some of which had far-reaching effects for capitalism and globalization, while others did not). He then challenges some normative assumptions about IT and labor. (note: do people really wonder why the Internet didn’t make work more efficient? Have they seen Google Earth!? I haven’t gotten any work done since it was released …).

Downey goes on to offer 4 dialectical themes that may facilitate making labor more visible within our analyses and discussions of ICT revolutions. He ends with the hope that critical historical narratives will help the history of IT inform societal change.

Q: How to define a revolution? Does it need to fundamentally alter the structure of society or the economy? On a time-scale, at what point does an evolution become a revolution? How fast does it need to happen? If, as Harvey suggests, we’re experiencing a time-space compression, is today’s evolution yesterday’s revolution?

Q: How does a geographic awareness (of space/time transformations, for example) enhance our understandings of ICTs? Why are geographers so awesome?

Q: Why do historians dislike normative assumptions? Is there any room within historical analysis for normative statements at all, and if not, is that a disconnect between historiography and the situated epistemologies of particular identities and movements that are invested in politics?

4 comments:

Anna said...

Q: How to define a revolution? Does it need to fundamentally alter the structure of society or the economy? On a time-scale, at what point does an evolution become a revolution? How fast does it need to happen? If, as Harvey suggests, we’re experiencing a time-space compression, is today’s evolution yesterday’s revolution?

This is a question that I spent way too much time thinking about after encountering it in the reading last week. I would have to say that I agree with the idea that "today's evolution is yesterday's revolution" largely because most definitions of the word "revolution" with which I'm familiar usually describe the phenomenon as involving a certain element of episodic but drastic social change. I agree in part with the quote from Bruce Sterling concerning the fact that we consider the times we live in of a “revolutionary” nature. The quote and the author’s appraisal are as follows:
‘The Radio Age, the Aviation Age, the Atomic Age, the Space Age […] all of these so-called ‘ages’ are history. Soon our much-trumpeted ‘Information Age’ will have the same archaic ring”, to the degree that “what is called new media would be better described as temporary media.’ If we can’t even agree that our own times are revolutionary, how can we hope to make similar judgments about history?
The reason why I agree in part rather than entirely with this assessment is due to the fact that I think that there are several adequate definitions of revolutions out there, according to which our times would not entirely qualify as revolutionary. Although I realize it might not be totally pertinent to the topic at hand, I am particularly fond of Thomas Kuhn's definitions of a scientific revolution and worldview incompatibilities that lead to paradigm shifts – both of which I think can easily be applied in this context as well. Kuhn defines “scientific revolution” as “non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.92). Kuhn also explains that “Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life.” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.94)

I would suggest that, rather than trying to decide whether or not our times are revolutionary, exploring the idea that perhaps we have moved beyond “revolutions” to the point where revolutions are happening at such a constant pace that they are no longer “revolutionary” – kind of like the old saying “change is the only constant,” but “revolutions are no longer quite revolutionary.” The drastic change that normally qualifies revolutions is no longer episodic or geographically-bound like previous manifestations of revolutionary behaviour . . .doesn't that start to sound more like "evolution"? So, in short, I think that the
time-space compression,"today’s evolution, yesterday’s revolution" idea is quite useful in describing our current state of relative instability.

natezilla said...

If we consider the relationship between labor, technology, and information in the case of the pension clerks, we can see how an increase in information processes outstripped both the labor and technology of the time. As a reader on the edge of my seat, I cry out, “Oh, won’t someone please give poor Anton Dies a copy of Microsoft Xcel to help him make his calculations!?!”

This is an interesting way to think about this situation.

Although I believe that a software application would have the possibility of allowing faster clerical work (possibly destroying those poor clerks' last thread of mental stability), the point that I took away from this reading was the exponential increase in workload, which would not be accommodated by making day to day calculations faster.

A technological solution to the problem would need to increase throughput exponentially as workload increased. I think that even if Anton were given a spreadsheet program, he would eventually run into the same problem: Too much workload for one person (The writer's cramp might go away, but he may develop eye strain from his newfound record keeping device).

Barbara said...

I agree with Nate. I found the description of the problems of the pension clerks to be very layered--there are lots of issues at work here, not just overwhelming work load and exploitation by employers, but issues of social class (not in the Marxist sense), family life, changing notions of social obligation (such as to widows) etc etc-- some of these issues are found in the other articles as well, though possibly not so clearly, since it is easier, I think, to see these larger trends in the past than it is in the present. But, for instance, the ordinary seafarers were unable to communicate with families back home because technology could not accomodate them, while officers had technology available that they could use. Beyond the issues of deskilling, workload, etc,which run through all of these articles lie many other aspects of information work. The paradoxical nature of time and geography--compressed, or expanded? was an interesting thread.
And, really, would Xcel spreadsheethave helped Anton all that much? Filling in those blanks in Xcel is tedious work. And that is another interesting thread to me. Have computers actually lightened workload? I don;t think so.

Barbara said...

I agree with Nate. I found the description of the problems of the pension clerks to be very layered--there are lots of issues at work here, not just overwhelming work load and exploitation by employers, but issues of social class (not in the Marxist sense), family life, changing notions of social obligation (such as to widows) etc etc-- some of these issues are found in the other articles as well, though possibly not so clearly, since it is easier, I think, to see these larger trends in the past than it is in the present. But, for instance, the ordinary seafarers were unable to communicate with families back home because technology could not accomodate them, while officers had technology available that they could use. Beyond the issues of deskilling, workload, etc,which run through all of these articles lie many other aspects of information work. The paradoxical nature of time and geography--compressed, or expanded? was an interesting thread.
And, really, would Xcel spreadsheethave helped Anton all that much? Filling in those blanks in Xcel is tedious work. And that is another interesting thread to me. Have computers actually lightened workload? I don;t think so.