The last few posts have described my latest post-academic gig at a tech firm where I am paid hourly to do administrative work. (“Administrative” is a fancy word for “secretary,” of course.) The office where the firm is located is temporary. The firm may be temporary too. Who can tell? My employers seem to have a lot to do, though I am only vaguely aware of the services they offer to the people who pay them.
My employers sit at computers all day and have frequent conference calls with clients. They complain constantly about being overworked and about the stress they’re under to make this new company a success. Inexplicably, I am very sympathetic to their plight and would like to help them succeed. Yet, from a proper perspective, their success means nothing to me.
I am rarely told what I will be doing each week in advance. I am instructed (usually by email) to file this and to mail that. I do these things. But I am never sure what the context is for these actions. Why must I file this and mail that? It’s not as if I need to know why I am mailing something in order to address the envelope properly or to hit the “print” button on the printing machine. I can certainly do those things without understanding the larger purpose. But my effort feels disconnected from any meaningful context. The partners operate as if I don’t need to know anything more than the action to be performed in its stripped-down, utilitarian form. Moreover, if I perform the task and perform it well, I have no sense of the outcome. Did my actions result in the employers earning more money? Did it result in more business for the firm? I never know.
I believe this experience is called alienated labor.
It may be alienated, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless. There’s a lot of concern these days that workers are going to be replaced by robots, that there won’t be jobs anymore, only tireless machines. This is not a particular fear of mine. I know that I won’t be replaced by a machine because I am one. I am a particular kind of machine, a robot of the service economy.
I sit in a state of suspended animation and wait for instructions. When I receive them, I sputter to life and perform the task with a smile. Then, when the mission has been accomplished, I grind to a halt and I wait for the next to-do list to arrive in my inbox.
At least, that is what my employers imagine I am doing. I am actually not doing that. I have other paying jobs, and I have friends, family, and writing and reading projects that matter to me. When I am not following the employers’ instructions, I am engaged in my human life. Yet, each time they email a new task, I know they expect me to do the job right away. They would not like it if I replied: “I will do this task as soon as possible. Right now, I am busy doing something else.” Such a reply would be confusing to them. As soon as they issue instructions, they assume that my gears click into motion at that precise moment. I am a technician of the age of information, a life form conjured from chemical-laced dust. When I am not doing something for them, I do not exist.
The service economy, which is all there is now, is a marketplace in which workers are expected to know only how to perform the acute task in front of them. (To be fair, in my case, maybe that’s all I want to know.) I have been told many times by one of the firm partners that he has no time to train me so he would like me to watch and learn. Watch and learn. It sounds like a warning, a slogan stitched onto a flag at the gates of The Only Factory That Will Ever Hire You. At some point, my employer seems to expect, the tiny bits of disconnected data that leak into my inbox each week will add up to something that represents a whole. But if it doesn’t add up to something, it doesn’t matter anyway.
My service to my employers, I have concluded, is to not know anything.
In some ways, the focus on acute tasks and on discrete, portable skills is the exact opposite of academia. (That is one reason I found myself so woefully unprepared for the part-time office work that became my fate the moment I entered a PhD program in English.) I wrote a dissertation that contained an extensive literature review: many pages devoted to explaining what other people had said about the topic I was writing about years before I had ever heard of it. This was an important and necessary part of the work. In learning to be a scholar, I learned to frame my arguments by historicizing them and by providing context and purpose. It all seems hilarious in retrospect.
There is no historicizing in the service economy. There is no context that really matters in a globally connected world of instant communication. Learning context and history takes time, and time is money. Who wants to pay for that?
Perhaps the neo-conservatives were right and it really is the end of history, just not the history they had in mind. The end of history, for workers, means the end of the need to know anything except how to perform the next task on a list of tasks thought up by someone else. Employers no longer need to invest in education or training. In the future, we’re all mechanical Turks.
What corporations need is a “technical workforce,” the New York Times has explained. “Companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.” This is what Henry Giroux meant when he wrote, in his essay on the fury of the young, that “what the ruling class wants are technicians.” Employers prefer people who make and do whatever is asked of them quickly and efficiently without too many questions.
This preference, now so concrete to me in my post-academic life, exposes one of the great lies of liberalism. We’ve all been told (we’re still being told) that employers want to hire people who can think broadly and have the capacity to deliberate in a critical fashion about a wide range of problems. This is bullshit. Employers want nothing of the kind. They want organisms, vaguely sentient, that respond to stimuli in predictable and profitable ways. Then they want silence and waiting until a new task becomes evident, until the next, inevitable keystroke sparks the machine to life.