My notes on Al-Amoudi, I. (2018). Management and dehumanisation in Late Modernity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 182-194). Routledge.

What does it mean to talk about work as dehumanising? In this insightful paper, Ismael Al-Amoudi identifies a number of senses in which management practices can be dehumanising:

  1. The “oppression or denial of human flourishing” such that “we cannot be fully human in organisations and societies that repress the development of specifically human powers” e.g. “our capacity for instrumental, moral and aesthetic reasoning”, “our capacity to feel and express refined emotions and our crucially important capacity to act out of love and solidarity” (pg 182).
  2. The “dehumanisation of subalterns” regarded as”lacking characteristic human traits and are thus denied basic human rights” (pg 182).
  3. Those “dehumanisation processes” which involve “the replacement of human activity by automated processes of production and organisation operating differently from human reflexivity and sense making”, as in “humans being increasingly replaced by ‘intelligent’ machines and governed by information systems” (pg 182).

He cautions that ‘dehumanisation’ is a polysemic term and thus these senses might overlap in practice. It is a term that can easily be used in imprecise ways which inject confusion in debates. Furthermore, it has often be used to justify what should not be justified and promises an easy sense of moral security. As he puts it, its “heavily value-laden” character is both “worthy and dangerous” (pg 183) but it’s one should persist with when the alternative is a technocratic outlook which gives no pause for what makes the human valuable. While the human is always open to contestation, affirming it provides a normative foundation upon which such contestation can take place. In this sense, it’s an important resource for critical social science.

These are not new considerations, even if they’ve often been framed in terms of other than dehumanisation. Weber’s account of bureaucracy in which “[h]uman persons were increasingly subject to forms of rational-legal authority” both “in terms of limiting the range of legitimate actions” and “restricting human interpretations, emotions and bonds” cast dehumanisation in the first and third sense as the telos of bureaucracy (pg 185). Virtues like “efficiency, calculability, predictability and control”, the “fundamental tenants of professional management and science”, found their origin in bureaucracy with all their dehumanising consequences. However what has changed, suggests Al-Amoudi, is the concern of management to obfuscate this process and mask its consequences.

He goes on to consider how declining employment security then the decline of the welfare state have contributed to a situation in which “it becomes impossible to formulate coherent life projects” where increasing numbers of young people “have so little certainty a few years ahead about their social and economic conditions that they are unable to start a family or even make meaningful friendships” (pg 187). Even those who have a job might feel it shouldn’t exist, as in David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’ concepts, with all this implies about their capacity for fulfilment and happiness when work figures so prominently in their life. Voice and exit which might have been plausible responses in an earlier period are increasingly denied, with important consequences for the form which resist to dehumanisation might take. In some cases this results in violence which is widely deemed to be shocking, but this violence is a response to more insidious forms of violence which can be found within the labour process. He draws on Mbembe’s account of necrocapitalism and cites examples such as “workers in sweatshops, indigenous populations displaced and sometimes massacred for their lands, unjust wars beneficial to what President Eisenhower termed ‘the military-industrial complex” which indicate how violence at less exceptional and more generalised outside the global north.

Al-Amoudi argues that attention to dehumanisation serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows us to distinguish between forms of violence which are ethically problematic and those which are not i.e. “when those involved in violence see their human powers wither rather than flourish” or “when it negates human dignity” and “recasts victims as less human than perpetrators” (pg 188). He cites the example of a boxing match here but I’m not convinced about the general point, as I’m struggling to think of workplace cases where violence might be acceptable. Furthermore, one could easily make the case that the warlord flourishes in his exercise of violence, even though it remains reprehensible. Secondly, focusing on dehumanisation lets us “examine the social conditions of such violence and, when appropriate, to criticise them” (pg 188). He then moves onto a prospective mode to consider what ‘smart technologies’ might mean for dehumanisation, asking a number of important questions:

  1. Who will own the robots in the factories and the algorithms upon which our devices depend? What new forms of exclusion and subalternity will develop?
  2. What effect will increased workplace competition driven by smart technology have on our willingness to accept technological enhancement of human beings? What human powers might be extended and which might be lost?
  3. What inequalities will develop between humans and transhumans? What forms of organisation could help mitigate these inequalities?
  4. How will our interactions with robots change how we interact with other humans?
  5. What threshold will machines have to reach in exhibiting signs of humanity for us to be willing to respect their rights?

One crucial theme in the chapter is the relationship between management studies and management practice. He cautions that “the vast majority of management and organisational studies to date ignore the historically contingent cultural and social structures within which managerial groups operate” producing  “an historical vision of human organisations” and a “dangerous fantasy of humanity without without a history” (pg 190).

The robots are coming! The robots are coming! After watching More Human Than Human, I’ve woken up preoccupied by the rise of the robots narrative and how inadequate it is for making sense of the cultural politics and political economy of automation. The film is an engaging exploration of artificial intelligence and its social significance. While its analysis is often superficial, it foregrounds the agency of the roboticists and thinkers who are shaping emerging technologies and this feels important to me. Nonetheless it sits uneasily with the film’s tendency to frame technological change as inexorable, able to be steered for good or evil but nonetheless impossible to constraint. This is a tension at the heart of disruption rhetoric, celebrating innovation as a form of creativity while holding it to be unavoidable. But this is just one way in which the film so starkly embodies a broader trend.

One reason it is important to see the figures shaping these developments is that it makes clear how white, male and Anglo-American they are. As Jana Bacevic observed, the film manifestly fails the Bechdel test. There are three women with speaking roles in the film, only of whom talks about her own work but does so in a way framed through the lens of the man whose memory powers it. As far as I can recall, every single person in the film is white, mostly American with a few northern Europeans thrown in for good measure. The only exception is a Russian-born women in the film who now works as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. This is problematic for many reasons, not least of all that much cutting edge work in artificial intelligence is taking place in China. By ignoring these developments, not only does the film undermine its own investigative mission but it further evacuates the political questions it raises by robbing them of their geopolitical dimension. Disruptive innovation is bound up in techno-nationalism, as machine learning becomes an arms race with epochal significance at a time when American power seemingly enters a state of terminal decline after years of domination without hegemony.

The film ends in a contemplative mode, reiterating familiar rumination about our future. Every sentence in the closing scene repeatedly invokes ‘we’ and ‘our’. Who are we? How does the white American author in his early 30s who provides the intellectual narration for the film come to articulate the agenda of this we? How does the older white American director who provides its substantive narration, with the film framed around his own personal project in disruptive innovation, come to articulate the agenda of this we? The ‘we’ here is devoid of politics. It is a we without a they as Chantal Mouffe would put it. At a time when the liberal order is in chaos, we ought to be suspicious to the point of paranoia about the emergence of a powerful narrative of civilisational renewal in which we can save ourselves or we can doom ourselves. It is Anglo-American capitalism mystifying its own bleeding age, making a religion out of its own products and celebrating them as world-making or fearing them as world-breaking. None of this is to deny hugely significant technological advances are occurring. But the rise of the robots narrative actively frustrates our understanding of it, systematically shutting down the intellectual space in which it becomes possible to think through the cultural politics and political economy of automation. Provincialising disruption is unavoidable if we want to understand the reality of putatively disruptive technologies.

In the last month, I’ve seen two scenes of automated retail which I wish I could have taken a photograph of. In the first scene, people were queuing up for the automated checkouts at Marks & Spencer in Euston station while multiple cashiers were left redundant at their station. It’s a shop I use a lot and I remember when the automated checkouts were first installed, often being left unused while people opted to queue as per routine. In the second scene, each of the ten automated checkouts at my local supermarket were occupied by ten people, standing passively as an error message flashed on the screen. Eventually, as I began to contemplate whether I could legitimately take a photo (or even go to a non-automated checkout and stop treating a trip to the supermarket as a sociological expedition) a guy came along and slowly began clearing the error messages one-by-one.

I was struck by a sense of sequencing between these two scenes, immediately recalling the image from Marks & Spencer in Euston which I had long since forgotten. People quickly adapt to the automation of retail, perhaps motivated by a sense that it is quicker and more efficient, even though it is frequently anything but. In reality, I suspect the truth of the motivation is more complex, perhaps reflecting what Ian Craib described as the discomfort with disappointment that leads us to escape the ‘mess of life’. Bit by bit, we become less inclined to tolerate the fleeting awkwardness of everyday life, the falterings that can unpredictably afflict mundane interactions and the loss of emotional energy, however minute, it takes to get through them. For instance, I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy in his 60s who was struggling to buy a newspaper on an automated checkout had opted to so, let alone continued with it in the face of mounting of obstacles. This is all speculative but a psychoanalytics of everyday automation remains an important endeavour. Can we assume that people will happily shunt over to automated retail en masse, carefully nudged along by retailers? If so, why would retailers preserve staff other than to ensure a baseline degree of functionality in human-computer interaction? The shadow work of coaxing desirable outcomes out of recalcitrant machines seems liable to become an even more central part of our lives than it is at present.

Bleak but plausible predictions from Nick Srniceck and Alex Williams in their Inventing the Future. From loc 2020-2035:

1. The precarity of the developed economies’ working class will intensify due to the surplus global labour supply (resulting from both globalisation and automation). 

2. Jobless recoveries will continue to deepen and lengthen, predominantly affecting those whose jobs can be automated at the time. 

3. Slum populations will continue to grow due to the automation of low-skilled service work, and will be exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation. 

4. Urban marginality in the developed economies will grow in size as low-skilled, low-wage jobs are automated. 

5. The transformation of higher education into job training will be hastened in a desperate attempt to increase the supply of high-skilled workers. 

6. Growth will remain slow and make the expansion of replacement jobs unlikely. 

7. The changes to workfare, immigration controls and mass incarceration will deepen as those without jobs are increasingly subjected to coercive controls and survival economies.

This leaves us with a profound contradiction of “a future in which the global economy is increasingly unable to produce enough jobs (let alone good jobs), yet where we remain dependent upon jobs for our living.”

An important reminder by Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. From loc 198-212:

For many of us, the current system, however convoluted, is better than nothing, and changing to one in which we must create real value is frightening. Most people are not cultural creatives capable of launching a business on Etsy, programming a new iPhone app, or growing artisanal organic yams. We work in cubicles managing spreadsheets, calculating sales targets, and budgeting ad spends—or in retail stores, on factory floors, and in warehouses—doing jobs that may have no application or value outside that single corporate setting. We are simply fighting to stay employed, pay our mortgages, save for our kids’ college, and make sure we have something left for retirement. And in spite of the digital boom—or maybe because of it—it’s getting harder to do any of those things.

If we accept the likely impact of automation, even within the professions, it raises an obvious question: what will people do for a living? I had someone senior within a company at the forefront of automation argue to me that it will force some professionals to raise their game, others can become independent crafts people and the remaining ones who cannot adapt will simply be a societal burden. How widespread is this view? My hunch is that it might prosper as a convenient rationale for ‘disruption’ constituting a form of cultural evolution. It needs to be challenged.

This is an idea put forward by James Bryce, a British observer of the United States, in 1889:

This tendency to acquiescence and submission, this sense of the insignificance of individual effort, this belief that the affairs of men are swayed by large forces whose movement may be studied but cannot be turned, I have ventured to call the fatalism of the multitude. It is often confounded with the tyranny of the majority, but is at bottom different, though, of course, its existence makes abuses of power by the majority easier, because less apt to be resented. But the fatalistic attitude I have been seeking to describe does not imply any compulsion exerted by the majority. It may rather seem to soften and make less odious such an exercise of their power, may even dispense with that exercise, because it disposes a minority to submit without[999] the need of a command, to renounce spontaneously its own view and fall in with the view which the majority has expressed. In the fatalism of the multitude there is neither legal nor moral compulsion; there is merely a loss of resisting power, a diminished sense of personal responsibility and of the duty to battle for one’s own opinions, such as has been bred in some peoples by the belief in an overmastering fate. It is true that the force to which the citizen of the vast democracy submits is a moral force, not that of an unapproachable Allah, nor of the unchangeable laws of matter. But it is a moral force acting on so vast a scale, and from causes often so obscure, that its effect on the mind of the individual may well be compared with that which religious or scientific fatalism engenders.

Are we seeing a generational resurgence of this in Europe? If so, what are the consequences for politics and social life? Understanding these dispositions are crucial to the cultural politics of automationwe can’t just assume that mass automation would lead inexorably to a certain social response because those responses are always mediated by a culture which is transforming through the same processes driving mass automation.

FT_15.02.06_europeanMillSuccess FT_15.02.06_europeanMillWork

I gave a lecture earlier this week about the cultural politics of automation and how this might shape the emergence of mass automation as a primarily structural reality.  I wish I’d seen this Pew poll when I was preparing the lecture:


This sense of the inexorability of mass automation is deeply worrying. It’s possible that people might begin to see the issue differently when face-to-face with the prospect of their own technologically induced redundancy. But it’s also possible that the mechanisms I outlined in the lecture – anticipatory acceleration in the face of contracting opportunities within an occupational field, coupled with an increasing fetishisation of ‘talent’ and corresponding denigration of ‘failures’ – might work to preclude any kind of collective resistance to mass automation or agitation for policy designed to mitigate the damage to people’s lives.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 208-219:

Economists use the term “skill complementarity” to describe how information formation technology enhances the skills of high-income workers such as architects and engineers. They speak of “skill substitution” when technology eliminates the jobs of telephone operators or bank tellers. The examples of the physician and the call center agent add a third dimension mension to this interaction between employees and digital machines, which I shall call “skill debilitation.” Skill debilitation occurs when management tries to apply the principles of industrialization to skilled work, whether the skilled work of a high-income worker such as the physician, or the skilled work of a lower-income worker such as the call center agent. Within the elite of college-educated workers, “skill debilitation” itation” and “skill complimentarity” are therefore working at cross purposes: poses: One limits skill, while the other enhances it. For the workforce as a whole, the practice of skill debilitation shows that some of the oldest est practices of the old economy still have a very strong presence within the new.

I’ve been using IFTTT for ages now to perform various acts of automation between my various social media accounts. It’s an incredibly useful service and the sheer diversity of ‘channels’ supported by it hint at all manner of future uses yet to be divined. Their new ‘Do’ button raises their game even further: allowing one click deployment of any recipe you’ve defined in IFTTT. Here are some of the examples they offer: