There’s an interesting passage in Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, in which he discusses the contrasting experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk by users and workers. From loc 719:

While AMT is profiting robustly, 11 it has –following the observations of several workers –not made significant updates to its user interfaces since its inception, and the operational staff appears to be overwhelmed and burned out. Turkers have written and shared various browser scripts to help themselves solve specific problems. While this is a wonderful example of mutual aid among AMT workers, it is also yet another instance of how the invisible labor of Turkers remains uncompensated. While people are powering the system, MTurk is meant to feel like a machine to its end-users: humans are seamlessly embedded in the algorithm. AMT’s clients are quick to forget that it is human beings and not algorithms that are toiling for them –people with very real human needs and desires.

It’s easy to slip into characterising platforms in terms of our familiar experiences of them as end-users. This is an important reminder that their user-friendly character is a contingent expression of the interests the corporation has in maximising user engagement, rather than anything intrinsic to the technology of the platform itself. 

This is important for analytical reasons, but it’s also a crucial prop to the ideology of platform capitalism, sustaining an idea of platforms as user-friendly spaces which mediate interactions determined by external factors. As opposed to deeply rule-governed systems, with the content of those rules being determined by commercial imperatives. From loc 735:

Mechanical Turk starts to look even less positive when considering that in the case of labor conflicts, Bezos’s company remains strictly hands-off, insisting that AMT is merely providing a technical system. Why would they have anything to do with the labor conflicts occurring on the platform? This would be like Apple owning the factories in Shenzhen where its iPhones are assembled, but then rejecting any responsibility for the brutal work regimes and suicides of the workers in these factories because Foxconn controls daily operations.

I just came across this term in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 1828:

Enjoying a modicum of momentum, Kalanick leased a new office in San Francisco but had a month before he could move in. Instead of waiting, he took the whole company to Thailand, where they worked eighteen-hour days out of cafés and a house overlooking the craggy Railay Beach coastline rewriting the Red Swoosh code. It was a productive retreat and the first of what Kalanick called workations, a tradition that continued at Red Swoosh and, later, Uber.

There are loads of videos on YouTube about this:

(the last one is particularly cringe-worthy)

On pg 106 of their Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? Simon Winlow and Steve Hall describe the changing realities of work, as more and more jobs become “non-unionised, low paid, short-term, insecure and part time”:

We should also note that few of these jobs enable workers to construct and maintain an image of themselves as socially valuable (Winlow and Hall, 2006, 2009a; Southwood, 2011; Lloyd, 2012); in fact, many of these McJobs (Ritzer, 1997) communicate the exact opposite: the low-level, low-paid service worker is seen as disreputable, exploitable and untrustworthy, the homo sacer of the post-political order, waiting tables, flipping burgers and sweeping rubbish. These are fundamentally insecure and alienating jobs. The people who have these jobs do not want to retain them beyond the obvious and pressing need to earn enough money to pay for their immediate living expenses (Winlow and Hall, 2009a). Most of the positive symbolism associated with traditional work has already been stripped away. They do not cling to and seek to defend an image of themselves as fast food workers, call centre operatives, cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers or factory box-packers.

This is the context in which I’m interested in contemporary discourses of ‘craft’. As anyone who’s followed my work will probably have noticed, I’m drawn to these ideas because they seem to promise a bulwark against alienation. For instance in higher education, I’ve long seen the idea of ‘craft’ as a way of experientially reclaiming the pleasures of scholarship in an institutional context which increasingly hinders, if not outright obliterates, such internal goods.

But are these residual pleasures mere consolation prizes against a background of exploitative precarity and communal diminishment? Increasingly, I wonder if they are but the theoretical challenge as I see it lies in recognising the reality of these internal goods while nonetheless being critical of their cultural deployment in the creation of a new ethos of work.

Can we see the notion of ‘craft’ as something that is developing alongside, indeed implicated in, the stripping away of traditional bases of working identity? On the one hand, for example the elaboration of the role of barista into that of cultural producer able to meaningfully express oneself through latte art (etc), goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of part-time labour and zero hours contracts in the hospitality sector. On the other hand, craft micro-production and the opportunities for micro-enterprise are being embraced alongside the decline of secure employment, the growth of underemployment and the still expanding phenomenon of forced freelancing.

To explain away the real pleasures people take in these ‘crafts’ is problematic. But we need to avoid a dichotomy in which we take their accounts of craft pleasure at face value or we reject them in the name of being ‘critical’. What interests me is how the discourse of ‘craft’ increasingly organises the pleasures and dissatisfactions of contemporary labour, giving cultural form to “I am” statements* about one’s working life in a context where structural trends had made such statements less tenable in precisely the way Winlow and Hall suggest.

The notion of ‘craft’ also finds itself employed as part of a macro-economic narrative in which the harms of structural unemployment, particularly that led by technology into the previously secure professions which are themselves subject to longer-term trends toward deprofessionalisation, can be offset by the imperative towards craft production. There’s a kernel of truth here but only a kernel. The idea that mass unemployment can be offset by the expanding ranks of Etsy craft sellers is obviously absurd. But it’s another vector through which ‘craft’ can be used to effectively romanticise exploitation and abjection.

So on level, I increasingly find myself opposed to the notion of ‘craft’, despite this being an idea which I’ve gone on about for years to anyone who’ll listen to me. On another level, I’m still drawn to it as a way to organise my own experience, something which I think is ripe for informal autoethnography. There’s also a critical potential in the notion of ‘craft’ which I think shouldn’t be lost and that’s why we need to avoid dispensing with it entirely. What I mean here is captured incredibly forcefully by Akala after his freestyle in this video: ‘the craft’ is something which transcends marketing and commerce, something basically irreducible in any arena of human activity and a site upon which excellence can be achieved:

*This is an expression I heard on a radio call in show i.e. “I am an X”. I wish I could remember which one because I’d love to cite this properly.

From Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, loc 2429:

Work has become central to our very self-conception –so much so that when presented with the idea of doing less work, many people ask, ‘But what would I do?’ The fact that so many people find it impossible to imagine a meaningful life outside of work demonstrates the extent to which the work ethic has infected our minds.

I’d add to this that the more time we spend triaging, attending to the immediate and urgent rather than the diffuse and important, the more difficult it becomes to imagine lives for ourselves beyond the horizon of our present conditions.

From Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, by Douglas Rushkoff, loc 72-86:

A few weeks later, there was nothing to smile about. Protesters in Oakland were now throwing rocks at Google’s buses and broke a window, terrifying employees. Sure, I was as concerned about the company’s practices as anyone, and frustrated by the way Silicon Valley’s rapid growth seemed to be displacing instead of enriching the people of San Francisco and beyond. But I also had friends on those buses, trying to make a living off their hard-won coding skills. They may have made $100,000 a year, but they were stressed-out, perpetually monitored, and painfully aware of their own perishability. “Sprints”—bursts of round-the-clock coding to meet deadlines—came ever more frequently as new, more ambitious growth targets replaced the last set.

We may all be on the same side here. Google workers are less the beneficiaries of an expanding company than they are its rapidly consumed resources. The average employee leaves within a year 2 some to accept better positions at other companies but most of them simply to break free of the constant pressure to perform. Taking the bus gives them more time to work or just relax instead of driving. They are human beings.

I find his suggestion that recognition of growing inequality by Google workers leads them to pursue their careers more forcefully very plausible:

Google’s employees are not oblivious to the increasing poverty outside the bus windows on their way to work. If anything, such sights only make these workers cling to their jobs all the more desperately, leaving them less likely to question the deeper processes at play.

From Intern Nation, by Ross Perlin, loc 2379:

(A small-scale survey in the U.K., conducted in 2010, found that a whopping 86 percent of recent graduates and soon-to-be graduates were willing to work for free, despite considering it exploitative.) As the cost of copying and disseminating (but not creating) content has plunged towards zero, no one is quite sure what to charge for in the digital world. The position of interns is not unlike that of many young journalists, musicians, and filmmakers who are now expected to do online work for no pay as a way to boost their portfolios.

An interesting snippet from Losing The Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, concerning the lengths to which overzealous mangers would go during the early days of Research In Motion. From pg 39:

One RIM manager became so obsessed with deadlines he issued an edict requiring engineers to ask permission before leaving at night. Lazaridis reversed the decree, but his company’s aggressive, need-it-yesterday approach fostered what would become a robust cynicism. “It got to the point that when schedules were made up I didn’t bother to read them,” says Wandel. “They were so made up, a fantasy.”

While it’s nice this wasn’t enforced indefinitely, it’s nonetheless reflective of a peculiar culture of intensified work. The famous office perks of Google et al represent a domestication of this impulse: why would you want to go home when we’ve provided all these nice things for you? Add to that an element of self and social selection, such that only those willing to subordinate themselves in this way are likely to get there in the first place.

But what was once a peripheral phenomenon, confined to the run up to deadlines and struggling start ups, now defines the working culture of much of the tech industry. The managerial culture this breeds can be toxic, as illustrated by this notorious op-ed about the ‘wage-slave attitude’ in game production:

A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways. I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done. Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on. These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

Another concept I was unfamiliar with introduced in David Frayne’s superb Refusal of Work. From pg 210:

For most of us, and for good reason, giving up work seems like an extreme solution, and working less is not always a practical option. When the periodic sense of dissatisfaction swells within, most of us resort to a more familiar set of escape strategies. We fight the demon of routine in our minds. Some common strategies are those we might place in the category of ‘refrains’: mental tics and transitory fantasies that remove us momentarily from the mundane reality in front of us. A refrain could be playing a song over and over in one’s head, or it could be having daydreams. Cohen and Taylor write that, at any moment, we can ‘throw a switch inside our heads and effect some bizarre adjustment to the concrete world that faces us’ (Cohen and Taylor, 1992: 90). We can strip people naked, assassinate bosses, or conjure in the mind an altogether different and more pleasant scene than the one set before us. Drink and drugs provide a comparable break from reality, whereas some people rely on an annual holiday overseas. So unhappy are many of us with our daily routines, that even illnesses are sometimes greeted as a welcome refrain.

The role of such pauses, whether internal or external, in providing relief from conditions we’re struggling to cope with is what I was trying to get at when writing about the phenomenology of inertia. How do these breaks work to preclude action? Should they be seen as negative because they engender a propensity to tolerate conditions which would otherwise come to be experienced as intolerable? Here’s a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago:

I wrote a few weeks ago about obsessiveness and how I understand it in terms of internal conversation. I’m particularly interested in the role that differing forms of obsessiveness, as a generic term for difficulty with drawing deliberations to a close, plays in making decision making difficult. There’s no logically necessary end point to our rumination about a potential course of action. There’s always other possibilities we could consider. There’s always other ways of looking at the issue. There’s always other people whose advice we could seek. The divergent tendencies of individuals with respect to these possibilities could be conceptualised in a range of ways. I’d argue that they’re more significant than they may seem. Not necessarily because of their implications for action at one point in time but because of their cumulative implications for the trajectories of social action which an individual will tend towards.

It’s from this standpoint that I’m also interested in inertia. The capacity of people to go months, years or decades pondering a decision without making it is one which fascinates me (albeit slightly morbidly). I’m currently reading John Lanchester’s novel Capital and there’s a wonderful passage which made me come back to these issues, which I’ve been thinking about less since I (finally) finished the data analysis for my PhD. In the chapter introducing an Oxford educated classicist who entered the police force on a graduate fast track, Lanchester has a lovely couple of pages in which he paints a vivid picture of the ambivalence which characterises the relationship of this middle-class teetotal Christian to his career in the police. Having “wanted to scratch an itch to do with authority, his need for it, his desire to have it, his liking of hierarchy and order” he found the social politics deeply challenging. While he felt he was doing some good, this nonetheless went hand-in-hand with a perpetual consideration of a possible exit:

“That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.”

This is what I mean about obsessiveness and inertia. This fictional character deliberated almost everyday about a potential exit (“could I leave? should I leave? is this right for me?”) but far from deliberation leading functionally towards action, the obsessiveness which characterises this consideration actually engenders inertia. Reminding himself of the possibility of exit offers fleeting protection against the facets of the job, as well as his feelings about them, which engender his desire to do something else. But if this continues then with the passing weeks and months the cost of exit (and entry elsewhere) become higher and the inertia becomes ever more entrenched. How much of life is lived this way? How different would the world be if inertia of this form didn’t exist? Is such inertia simply a product of the tyranny of choice which privilege allows? Is inertia always negative? Is it possible to investigate inertia in an empirical way? Or will the stories people tell themselves and others to make sense of their inertia prove too much of a problem?

Unfortunately the pleasures of the refrain are fleeting. They can promise change yet remain defined by their underlying escapism. From pg 210-211:

The problem with refrains, however, is that their buzz never lasts long. A holiday overseas might provide us with a refreshing sense of distance from our usual circuits of possibility –we might arrive home pledging to relax more, eat more interesting food, and reconnect with old friends –but it is never long before life takes over and we are once again overwhelmed by the ordinary business of living. Try to make the temporary escape more permanent and one runs into trouble.

As Frayne asks on pg 214, do “they only serve to reinforce our tolerance of the toxic situations from which we seek escape”? I suspect they usually do.

From The Refusal of Work, by David Frayne, pg 199:

What do you do? After ‘What is your name?’ and possibly ‘Where are you from?’ this is one of the first questions that strangers usually pose to one another, with convention dictating that this question is almost always an enquiry into our employment situation. ‘What do you do?’ means ‘What job do you perform?’ If we are being generous, we might say that the posing of this question is innocent enough. It represents a social custom, or an attempt to elicit information that might bring relief to the interaction by providing it with some context, pushing the conversation towards some common ground. If we are being more critical, we might view this question of ‘What do you do?’ as a naked attempt to measure the status of the other. ‘What do you do?’ means ‘Summarise in a sentence what you contribute to this world, and I will judge you on the basis of your response.’ Or ‘Are you a person worth knowing?’

I found this argument, in David Frayne’s excellent Refusal of Work, deeply persuasive. From pg 110:

Employment itself can be held partly responsible for the negative experiences of joblessness because, in allowing people only a limited space in which to cultivate other interests, skills and social ties, full-time jobs can often leave people with few personal and social resources to fall back on.

In contemporary capitalism, the notion of a public life has become so synonymous with paid work that it has indeed become difficult to imagine other ways in which a person might transcend the isolation of a purely private existence.

I’m enjoying The Refusal of Work by David Frayne at the moment. He asks some fundamental questions about the meaning of work in contemporary society. From pg 12:

What is so great about work that sees society constantly trying to create more of it? Why, at the pinnacle of society’s productive development, is there still thought to be a need for everybody to work for most of the time? What is work for, and what else could we be doing in the future, were we no longer cornered into spending most of our time working?

I’m interested in the role that this intensification of work plays in circumscribing the lived experience of future possibilities. When people are triaging, they suffer from a death of the imagination: it becomes much more difficult to address Frayne’s question: “what else could we be doing in the future, were we no longer cornered into spending most of our time working?”

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.

Much deserved Guardian coverage of the weird phenomenon that is the internet cat video festival. What grips me about things like this is not the fact that people are trying to make money from their cats, but rather that many others people are trying and failing to make money from their cats. Not unlike the aspiring professional pick up artists, though you’ll have to read this brilliant paper to see what I’m getting at.

I’m increasingly convinced that a tendency to publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion‘ can be seen across the web, as a few people who make a living within a novel field wilfully co-operate with platform providers to promulgate the notion that other people could do this too. The result is inevitably a rather off-putting stampede of aspirants which must be read against the background of contracting structures of opportunity which can be seen across more established sectors within an increasingly low-wage and precarious economy.

There’s an interesting BBC programme about the rise of Vloggers which has left me thinking about this: It’s very descriptive but it’s interesting to see these people asked about what they’re doing now and how it relates to what they were doing previously.

I was slightly disappointed by Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism but I’ve come away from it with one core concept stuck in my mind. The author distinguishes between what he calls ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ enjoyment: the former is that which ‘serves’ social and cultural structures, while the latter is pointless activity which serves no purpose. I take his point to be that, say, a high minded enjoyment of work is ‘productive enjoyment’ (or maybe blogging about social theory) while a game like the cat simulator I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been playing for the last month counts as ‘unproductive enjoyment’.

He argues that we fail to recognise the radical potential in unproductive enjoyment while failing to recognise the conformist compliance in productive enjoyment. In doing so, we obscure the relation between them, with unproductive and productive enjoyments forming two sides of the organisation of desire in contemporary capitalism. His argument here isn’t clear to me, as he seems to say that ‘unproductive enjoyment’ naturalises a sense of joyless work by implicitly treating it as something from which we need mindless distractions, while also trying to sustain a view that we take enjoyment from work. Nonetheless, I think he opens up some really interesting questions about the proliferation of ‘unproductive enjoyments’ against a context of the intensification of (insecure) work.

A really interesting BuzzFeed article about the use of smart phones on building sites to increase efficiency (the 30% of on-site time that is regarded idle, for reasons attributed to ‘miscommunication and disorganisation’) and their implications for workplace surveillance. What’s particularly striking is that inefficiencies are often the result of the complex subcontracting arrangements now ubiquitous within the construction industry:

According to Frinault, 30% of time workers spend on-site at commercial construction projects is idle — not because workers are lazy, but largely because of miscommunication and disorganization. There’s also the problem of “rework” — doing a task, and then having to do it over again. For example, a subcontractor might be told to cover a hole with drywall; the next day, an electrician who wasn’t finished wiring an outlet comes in and tears that drywall out again, and the drywall hanger has to come back and redo it. With Fieldwire, Frinault hopes to improve the communication channels between subcontractors.

His app, which raised $6.6 million in October, doesn’t locate workers on a map; it locates tasks on a blueprint — tasks that foremen can then check off in real time as they are completed. The purpose of Fieldwire is to record and share information as synchronously as possible. “It may seem invasive,” said Frinault’s co-founder Javed Singha, “but the reality is these guys are recording all this information manually anyway.”

This app is apparently being used on over 35,000 construction sites internationally. An even more invasive app has been developed by former Navy engineers:

Rhumbix, an app meant to be in the hands of the workers themselves, is making an even bolder ask in terms of transparency. Not only do workers clock every hour of their day on Rhumbix, but the app also tracks their location, and even some of their movements. Rhumbix is the invention of two former Navy engineers, Drew DeWalt and Zach Scheel, who took a class together at Stanford and decided to build a startup. “I said, every phone has GPS in it,” Scheel told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s try to create a system like the ones we use now in the military to help improve the system we use for construction.”

With Rhumbix, workers clock in and out at the beginning and end of each work day. While they’re on the clock, the app tracks their movements, both in terms of motion (moving or stationary?) and location (on the job or out to lunch?). This data is presented to managers in two ways: as a live safety snapshot, which shows where workers are at any given time, and as aggregated and anonymized labor time data that can help the bosses figure out how much is being spent on different activities. This tracking can benefit the worker — for example, a worker who had passed out on a hot roof due to sunstroke was discovered when the Rhumbix app alerted his foreman that he wasn’t moving. But the app can also be used to, say, prove that workers who claim they worked through lunch actually didn’t.

At present the Rhumbix data is anonymised and aggregated when presented on the dashboard for managers. But how long can this last? As a general rule, if a weakly held moral commitment is the only thing preventing a service-provider from offering a much demanded service to existing customers, it’s unlikely to provide durable in the face of, say, declining sales or a difficulty raising further venture capital. Charmingly, their take on this question is to say “You’re going to have to trust us a little bit”.

It’s worth considering this in terms of what was until recently established practice within the construction industry. Given the existence of a UK industry wide blacklist has been conclusively established, ruining the lives of many who had the temerity to demand basic safety obligations be met on site, you’d have to be painfully naive to imagine these new technologies won’t be used for work place repression. For instance, if a manager wanted to rid a site of a ‘trouble maker’, use their Rhumbix data to demonstrate an unacceptable amount of ‘idle time’ as grounds for dismissal. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine how Rhumbix could end up tracking collective organisation on site. Even if the data is aggregated, surely it would represent a grouping of the work force for a face-to-face meeting? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this technology can be used for workplace repression and I fear we’re on a slippery slope.

In The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, there’s a great discussion of the expansion of bureaucracy in American healthcare. From loc 1728-1737:

Between 1968 and 1993, the number of managers and administrators tors in U.S. health care rose fourfold from 719,000 to 2,792,000, outstripping the growth in the number of physicians, which less than doubled from 430,000 to 761,000.4 The very high growth in of administrators ministrators changed the structure of employment in the health care industry dustry significantly. Between 1969 and 1993, the percentage of the total health care workforce employed in administration rose from 18 percent to 27 percent, while the percentage of physicians in the total health care workforce declined from 10.8 percent to 7.4 percent, and the total percentage of nurses fell from 40.6 percent to 36.3 percent. In U.S. hospitals, employment of administrators rose sharply, even as the number of patients declined.’ On an average day in 1968, U.S. hospitals employed 435,100 managers, administrators, and clerks to support the care of 1,378,000 inpatients. By 1990, the average daily number of patients had fallen by 39 percent to 853,000, but the number ber of administrators serving them had risen by 280 percent to 1,221,600. In 1968, there was one administrator for every three patients, tients, in 1990, 4.3 administrators for every three patients.

There’s a similar story that can be told about the expansion of bureaucracy in higher education. What drives this? In part I think it’s socio-technical innovation in auditing coupled with growth of an administrative class within organisations charged with utilising and intervening on the basis of this expanded capacity for audit. The constant drive to rationalise and reengineer organisations generates an ever expanding class of those driving the process who are insulated from the discipline they’re enforcing elsewhere.

This is compounded by counter-bureaucratic tendencies in other institutions. The particular kind of bureaucratic bloat digital capitalism gives rise to goes hand-in-hand with institutional isomorphism. The precise dynamics are specific to institutional spheres but the trend itself cuts across them. This is the example Simon Head cites:

The existence of this MCO bureaucracy has given rise to two counter-bureaucracies: one within doctors’ offices as physicians hire administrators to deal with MCO case managers, and another in hospitals pitals as managements hire administrators for the same purpose.

This is not the centralised bureaucracy of popular imagination but rather a bureaucratic build up within and across all organisations. I’d agree with the argument David Graeber made earlier this year that bureaucracy has been rendered peripheral in the popular and social scientific imaginations at precisely the time when it is becoming more prominent than ever. 

Under such circumstances, I think the best hope for a leftist politics might be to reframe statism in terms of modernisation, overcoming the gross inefficiencies of the digital capitalist market place. Consider this example cited by Simon Head on loc 1711:

In February 1994 the New England Journal of Medicine published a research paper that sheds light on this last claim. The paper looks at variations in insurance coverage for a trial of an experimental treatment of breast cancer, autologous bone marrow transplant. Tucked away in the study was a remarkable statistic: The physicians running the trial had to deal with 187 insurance companies providing coverage for the 533 participating patients. Each company had its own database, expert panel, treatment guidelines, and bureaucracies of medical monitoring and control.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 1209. I wonder what ‘innovations’ have emerged in the ten years since this was book was published?

There are at least five distinct types of monitoring software. First, there are what might be called “classic” monitoring products, software that embodies the Taylorist preoccupation with timing and measurement: How long do agents take to answer a call? How long does the call last? How long does the agent take to “wrap up” the call by completing clerical tasks that may have arisen in the course of the call? Second, there are “quality-monitoring” products-software that eases the manager’s task of measuring the agent’s “soft skills”-his warmth and politeness, and whether his demeanor has strengthened ties of intimacy and loyalty between company and customer. Third, there are what might be called “total monitoring” products, software that simultaneously multaneously monitors what is happening on the agent’s screen and what the agent is saying on the telephone. With this “total monitoring,” it is possible to know whether the agent is following a prescribed script and accurately relaying the information and recommendations provided by product databases. Fourth, there is software that monitors Internet and E-mail “conversations” between agent and customer, and which can, if necessary, integrate this monitoring with the parallel monitoring of telephone conversations. Fifth, there are the digital technologies that are embodied in many of these monitoring products and that have made possible this forward leap in the scope and intensity of monitoring.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 630-647. Taylor’s  experience of industrial resistance to his methods led him to replace this participatory aspect with an elaborate system of inspection and control:

But perhaps the most important portant contribution of Japanese manufacturers to the theory and practice tice of scientific management has been to develop what can be called its participatory side. Taylor himself envisaged that workers themselves could suggest ways of adding to the speed and efficiency of their routines, tines, provided that management always had the final say in deciding whether an employee’s suggestion was acceptable and exactly how the design and timing of tasks should then be altered. In the The Principles of Scientific Management Taylor wrote: 

Every encouragement … should be given him [the worker] to suggest improvements, both in methods and in implements. And whenever a workman proposes an improvement, it should be the policy of the management to make a careful analysis of the new method, and if necessary essary conduct a series of experiments to determine accurately the relative tive merit of the new suggestion and of the old standards. And whenever the new method is found to be markedly superior to the old, it should be adopted as the standard for the whole establishment. The workman should be given the full credit for the improvement, and should be paid a cash payment as a reward for his ingenuity.’ 

In Taylor’s lifetime the fierce resistance of the skilled machinist to scientific entific management so poisoned Taylor’s own view of the workforce that this participatory aspect of his doctrine was largely ignored by Taylor lor and his disciples. Their view was that improvements to the “one best way” were decided by management and then had to be imposed on a reluctant workforce: Thus Taylor’s elaborate burueacracy of planners and supervisors. It has been left to modern Japanese corporations such as a Toyota and Nissan to develop the participatory side of scientific management. To best understand how participatory Taylorism works at a company like Nissan, one must first describe the corporation’s unending ending campaign to improve productivity by speeding up the pace of operations.

But as Head notes, there’s a paradox here. Under the Japanese model, workers make suggestions which contribute to the acceleration of their own work: why voluntarily make your own job harder? In part this reflects the lack of institutional structures through which the demands of participatory Taylorism could be resisted. From loc 665:

It was puzzling to me why employees at a place like Nissan should willingly collaborate in speeding up their work routines, particularly since it was and is company policy not to reward workers who come forward ward with suggestions that are acted upon. It was clear that employees on the line were already working under great pressure. At the time I visited ited the Nissan plant there was a story going around about a visiting delegation of managers and trade unionists from BMW’s Munich base. After being shown the line, the visiting Germans were asked what they thought. After an awkward silence, one of the unionists remarked “Well, some of our people are over fifty.” It was indeed hard to see how anyone much over forty, let alone fifty, could long survive the pace at Nissan. So why should Nissan employees be thinking of ways to make the line even faster? 

One obvious explanation was that there has been no strong union at Nissan to place checks on management’s drive for “speed-up.” In auto assembly plants, resistance to speed up has been the a chief task of unions since the 1930s. It was the cause of the UAW’s first great strikes against Ford and GM in the 1930s and a leading cause of the UAW’s strikes against GM in the winter of 1997-1998. But the “big three” Japanese autornakers-Toyota, Honda, and Nissan-have kept the UAW out of their U.S. plants, and Toyota and Honda have kept their British-based European plants union-free. At its Sunderland plant, Nissan san deals with a weak union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical trical Union (AEEU), once Margaret Thatcher’s favorite union. Representing about a third of the shop floor workforce, the AEEU at Nissan acts much like a company union that has given management carte blanche to run the plant as it sees fit.

However Head offers a further explanation in terms of the time horizons of the worker suggesting improvements, from loc 684:

For the worker, therefore, this participatory Taylorism involves a trade-off between tween the convenience of doing the job in a simpler, less burdensome way, and the inconvenience with speed up, of also having to do the job just a little bit faster. From the perspective of the assembly line, this saving ing of effort through kaizan can easily loom larger than the price to be paid with the seconds, or fractions of seconds, of speed up. However, over time these seconds and fractions of seconds can pile up.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 704:

Soft flexibility ibility involves changes to the appearance and styling of a product, such as occurred on the auto assembly line at Nissan, with its variety of dashboards, boards, seats, radios, and carpets. This flexibility can easily be accommodated modated by a work regime that remains wholly Taylorist in design. Hard flexibility refers to something much more ambitious, the ability to vary not merely the outward appearance but the basic engineering structure of a product, so that a single machine shop or assembly line can turn out, within a single day, more than one model of an automobile, bile, computer, or video recorder.