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 André 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.

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