‘Robotism’ and the agency of ‘automated’ workers

Following on from my post about the ways we might think about and research ideas of agency in relation to ‘automation’, it so happens that an accessible and interesting comment piece in the Grauniad by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger was published last week (not being on Twitter means I miss more of these sorts of things perhaps). Here’s a few of relevant lines (all links are from the original):

Most of the headlines about technology in the workplace relate to robots rendering people unemployed. But what if this threat is distracting us from another of the distorting effects of automation? To what extent are we being turned into workers that resemble robots?

Fears about humans becoming like machines go back longer than you might think. The sort of algorithmic management we see in the modern gig economy … has its roots in a management theory developed by Frederick Taylor in the early 20th century.

Technological innovations have made it increasingly easy for managers to quickly and cheaply collect, process, evaluate and act upon massive amounts of information. In our age of big data, Taylorism has spread far beyond the factory floor. The algorithmic management of the gig economy is like time cards on steroids.

It’s not just the intensity of the monitoring that is different. Surveillance is increasingly hidden. In Taylor’s analogue era, workers were acutely aware when they were being observed by management with stopwatches and notebooks. Today management tools are much less visible.

Taylorism starts from the assumption that employees are innate shirkers. While there will always be some who want to game the system and put in as little effort as possible, there are plenty who don’t. When the guiding assumption of management is that employees won’t be productive unless forced to be by constant observation, it engineers low morale and pushes people to act like resources that need to be micromanaged. Too often, we become what we’re expected to be.

Read the full comment.

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