Interesting article in the Guardian which reminded me of a lecture by Phillip Brown a couple of years ago, where he outlined some of the research that he’d been doing for his latest co-written book, The Global Auction. His lecture was part of the methods course, where he explained the intricacies of gaining useful interviews with business elites across the world – how important it was to dress the part, produce brochures etc., to enter their world a little to get the best possible research data. But the main thrust of his research seems to explore this central idea of digital Taylorism, which Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian has been looking in various articles over the last year or so. Also, related article by Peter Wilby in the same paper, written in February.
Ultimately, this is an observation that there’s a process of a McDonaldization happening to jobs which previously required more autonomous, creative thinking. Key passage from the book is this one:
If the twentieth century brought what can be described as mechanical Taylorism characterized by the Fordist production line, where the knowledge of craft workers was captured by management, codified and reengineered in the shape of the moving assembly line, the twenty-first century is the age of digital Taylorism. This involves translating the knowledge work of managers, professionals and technicians into working knowledge by capturing, codifying and digitalizing their work in software packages, templates and prescripts that can be transferred and manipulated by others regardless of location. It is being applied to offices as well as factories and to services as well as manufacturing. Unlike mechanical Taylorism which required the concentration of labor in factories, digital Taylorism enables work activities to be dispersed and recombined form anywhere around the world in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
More of this can be read here. It’s an interesting idea because these methods are now being applied to all manner of professions, to a greater or lesser extent, and ones which hitherto have seemed protected by their own guilds, such as the legal profession, even medicine. Neo-liberalisation of all aspects of government surely means that deregulation of all such services is on the cards (and actually happening – coming to Tesco about now), but at what cost eventually, we don’t really know. Costs and responsibilities are shifted to the individual citizen (who will be looking for the cheapest option), choice the mantra. Not sure if it makes a difference in legal services, but for health? There’s going to be a lot of people out there, highly educated, spending a lot of money on uni fees and finding that the work has been shifted to another English speaking country, or scanned at virtually no cost by a ‘lawbot’.
All sadly inevitable with our current system of capitalism, when the cost-accountants took over at the end of the 70s. I can also see how it runs in parallel with a lot of magical thinking that’s about already; in tandem, and complicit, with unfettered capitalism, we start thinking of technology as the only efficient answer for human systems and problems e.g. health. There’s that impending feeling of techno determinism, of technological processes being end in themselves, without regard for end users, let alone trained, professional people. Also, reminds me of the Dreyfus model – if all the ‘mundane’ work in professions e.g. legal are to be carried out by software/cheap labour, how do you make sure that professionals have a true, deep understanding of what they’re doing, if they haven’t put in the hours sifting through data themselves? By taking away the autonomy at certain level, aren’t you hobbling the potential for expert understanding?
Software can’t do everything, nor can we expect people to interact completely rationally with software – bad news for those who would have us do everything online I guess, worse news for those who are already excluded (good, myth-busting report on digital inclusion in Wales here).