Monday, 23 January 2017

Willing robots

I posted recently about the growing possibilities for replacing human workers with robots, but alongside that it’s possible to discern a growing ‘robotization’ of human workers. That thought was prompted by a recent article by the excellent journalist John Harris about employee monitoring. Harris discusses the soon to be released film The Circle based upon a 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. I have not read it, but apparently it depicts the dystopian world of a high-tech corporation where:

“… privacy and autonomy count for almost nothing. Under a veneer of feelgoodism, employees are complicit in their own constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.”

Harris goes on to discuss real life counterparts of this, including the ‘Humanyze’ system of ‘people analytics’ which tracks and records employee movements and interactions, biometric data and so on. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear of this, as back in February 2014 I wrote about the Hitachi Business Microscope which has very similar functions.

The theme of workplace surveillance has been very widely explored within organization studies for at least 25 years, especially under the influence of Foucauldian analysis, and I discuss it at some length in my book (pp. 72-77). Yet we should not dismiss it as ‘old hat’, not least because of the ever-advancing technological capacities to extend surveillance.

Alongside the technology, there seems to be a growing acceptance and normalization of its use, so that (as Foucault recognized of surveillance and disciplinary power in general) those subject to it welcome it rather than experience it as intrusive. As the Circle Corporation sloganizes: “Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft”.

The obligatory reference to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four hardly seems necessary, but the ‘feelgoodism’ of contemporary surveillance is rather different to the austere, monochrome ambience of Orwell’s Oceania. It resonates more with Jacques Donzelot’s (1991) thought-provoking essay ‘Pleasure in Work’. Donzelot’s argument is that work was being re-imagined as a “means towards self-realization” (p. 251) as a reaction against the effects of the drive for productivity in the workplace.

Yet the contemporary harnessing of ‘feelgoodism’ is different in that it seeks to re-inscribe productivity into pleasure. That is to say, pleasure is not the antidote to techniques of enhancing productivity but is itself a technique to do so, what organizational theorist AndrĂ© Spicer calls ‘the cult of compulsory happiness’.

Harris concludes by saying that “what all this means is pretty obvious. On the way to being replaced by a robot, you will have to become one”, and I have some agreement with that. However, in co-opting pleasure for and securing subservience to productivity, the kind of robots we are suppose to become are oxymorons like the ‘willing slaves’ described by both Madeleine Bunting (2011) and Andrew Scott (1994). In being willing robots we are simultaneously robots and that one thing that robots cannot be – willing, in all senses of the word: cheerfully prepared and possessed of choice and purpose.

The centrality of productivity to contemporary economic discourse is pointed up by the consultation document on its industrial strategy released by the UK government today. The longstanding weakness of UK productivity by international standards is the central theme of this strategy and throughout the document it is linked to the need to work ‘not harder but smarter’ (p.13) and to new technologies, including robotics (p.63). Like everything else in British politics at the moment it is refracted through Brexit, so that the opening preface from the Prime Minister declares that the vote to leave the EU was also a vote to “change the way our country works forever” (p.3).

It strikes me as unlikely that those who voted for Brexit realised that they had also voted to be replaced by robots or themselves to become willing robots – after all, neither this nor, for that matter, industrial strategy were on the ballot paper - but if this turns out to be the case it underscores that the exercise of human will is less predictable than the operation of robots, so that the choices we make may lead to consequences we never envisaged.

Bunting, M. (2011) Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruining our lives. London: Harper Collins.
Donzelot, J. (1991) ‘Pleasure in Work’ in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller P. (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in governmentality, pp 251-280. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Scott, A. (1994) Willing Slaves? British workers under human resource management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Jobs for the boys

Today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced a widely-reported research document showing the huge growth of part-time working amongst British men in recent years. Specifically, amongst men aged 25-55 in low-wage occupations, those working part-time work has risen over the last 20 years from 5% to 20%. The 20 year timescale indicates that this is a long-term trend, not just an effect of recession.

There are various issues arising from this. Those highlighted by the IFS are that part-time work is much more common now amongst men in low-wage occupations than it is amongst men in higher paid occupations; and that the trend for women is exactly the opposite (the percentage of women working part-time in low-wage occupations has fallen).

These seemingly dry statistics are extremely important. Interestingly, they do not show increasing inequality (which the report shows has actually fallen) but they do imply increasing insecurity and precariousness in employment. In particular, they probably help to explain at least part of the populist convulsions in the UK and elsewhere which are largely driven by angry, white, working-class men whose place in the world has been threatened. Within that, the regional discrepancies in men’s employment and wages are also important, as they then join together with resentment against the ‘metropolitan elite’ to drive populism.

However, the particular aspect I want to focus on is the way that these figures speak of a kind of crisis of masculinity. For generations in Britain (and elsewhere) masculine identity has been bound up with being ‘the breadwinner’. That is both an economic and a cultural – and psychological – notion. Economically, it requires stable, secure and reasonably well remunerated employment. That is the ‘bread’ bit. Culturally, it enables having a successful place in the world. That is the ‘winner’ bit. And taken together, it is a potent identity: bread + winner = breadwinner.

It is important to understand that the loss of this identity is both economic and cultural because it explains why the corresponding improvement in women’s situation does not ‘compensate’ for the deterioration in that of men. It’s not enough to add together the overall household position and conclude that nothing has changed because economically the household is just as well off in absolute terms and (if the IFS Report is right) even in relative terms. That does not assuage the cultural and psychological hurt of lost identity and meaning.

A generation ago, as explored in Paul Willis’s fantastic ethnography Learning to Labour (1977), young boys could disdain education because an unskilled factory job was there for the taking. That world has disappeared, but the sons and grandsons of those in the study have not moved on (see also Dolby et al., 2004). The sub-title of Willis’s book was ‘how working class kids get working class jobs’, but those jobs – in the form they once existed – have massively declined.

The most under-achieving educational group in the UK is now white working-class boys, three-quarters of whom fail to achieve five good GCSEs. This directly impacts upon their employability, as does the more nebulous issue of behavioural skills (time-keeping, self-presentation etc). Thus just as the opportunities for good jobs erodes so does the capacity of white working-class British boys to get whatever good jobs there may be, feeding directly into the populist anger against immigrants seen to be ‘taking’ the jobs. It is a situation that was starkly exposed by the 2010 BBC documentary The Day the Immigrants Left.

The biggest problem in all this is that three separate issues have come together: the changing nature of work in developed countries; immigration; and what it means to be a (working-class) man. Populist politics speaks to the first two, but it has nothing to say about the third. The period that saw the transformation of work and the global economy also saw a transformation, through feminism, in understandings of what it meant to be a woman. I don’t mean by that the tired old trope that feminism has, somehow, undermined or de-masculinized men. That’s nonsense because it is not a zero-sum game in which ‘advances’ for women come at the ‘expense’ of men. I mean that what has still not occurred, and urgently needs to occur, is a transformation in understandings of what it means to be a man.

That is not to say that the only problem here is the cultural understanding of masculinity. Economics and culture are indivisible, which is why the feminist movement has always been about changing both economic and cultural realities. It has to be both. And because it has to be both, the populist approach to the new situation of men is inadequate, because it is solely economic. If (and, in my view, when) it fails to deliver it will leave working-class men even angrier and even more economically marginal. To avoid that, the old equation that real men = real jobs needs tackling on both of its sides.

Yes, we need more real jobs for both men and women. But we also need men to understand that being a ‘breadwinner’ is not the definition of a ‘real’ man and, moreover, that there are many different ways and many different potentials for masculinity that have little or nothing to do with work. Part-time work may well be a problem for many economic reasons, for both men and women; but it doesn’t carry the meaning of not being a ‘full-time’ man. To put it another way, if feminism broke the link between femininity and unpaid homemaking then what we need to do now is to break the link between masculinity and paid work.

Dolby, N., Dimitriadis, G., & Willis, P. (2004). Learning to Labour in New Times. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour. How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough, UK: Saxon House.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Justice for some

In this post I want to draw the links between two current UK news stories. The first concerns the report today that forensic science services are operating in a risky way. These services, which are crucial to the criminal justice system, were largely privatised in 2012 in a move that was heavily criticised at the time. Since then, repeated concerns have been raised about it. It is a story with many affinities with the horsemeat scandal of 2013 that I posted about at the time, and with several other examples of privatization.

However, it is not this aspect I am going to discuss, but something more specific: that within today’s report one thing highlighted was that cuts in the legal aid budget meant that defence lawyers were unable to commission adequate forensic science. This is linked to the wider issue because it arises from there being a private market in forensic science, but results from a different political decision, that to restrict legal aid.

This brings me to the second news story from this week. Because legal aid is no longer available in the vast majority of family law cases, there has been a huge rise in people representing themselves (in 80% of cases only one party has legal representation, in 60% of cases neither party has legal representation). This means that abusive ex-partners can get to cross-examine their victims in court (something that cannot happen in criminal cases of abuse) causing massive distress.

The issue of the consequences of cuts to the legal aid budget has been highlighted for some time but inevitably it has taken a while before they begin to bite in a widespread way. Lack of legal aid in immigration courts has led to children having to represent themselves. Even where legal aid is available, the cuts have led to a shortage of legal aid lawyers (whose fees have been cut), impacting on housing disputes and causing homelessness.

These are amongst many of the (presumably) unintended consequences of the reform of legal aid provision and serve as an illustration of that concept, discussed in my book (pp. 26-31). But they are of a particular sort. As with the organization of prisons, discussed in another post, or in the superficially very different but in this respect similar case of the organization of dental services, they impact primarily upon the marginal and/or demonized: the poor (obviously), immigrants and asylum seekers, those accused of crimes, those on the edge of homelessness, the (largely) women who suffer domestic abuse. In fact, it is perhaps because the latter group is not confined to the socially marginal that the government have now launched an emergency review of the problem?

It doesn’t seem an outrageous proposition that justice should be available to all. It’s not even particularly expensive to provide it. Although the cuts to the legal aid budget have been large in percentage terms, the absolute amount (£200-£300M a year) is quite trivial in the context of overall government spending. The effects are huge, not just on the individuals affected but on the wider sense of a civil society to which law and justice are both fundamental and paramount.