A belated processing

Posted on | September 11, 2016 | No Comments

Last week I finally wrote the email I have been dreaming of writing for years. It was sent to my publisher, along with the draft of my new book, Counterproductive: A Brief History of Time Management. It made a certain sense when I realized that the day I submitted the manuscript was also the anniversary of my mother’s passing. She died 15 years ago, of cancer. I have never really written about this event, and the many ways it has affected my life. I still don’t want to share much about it, except to say that there are aspects of the book that are closely tied to my memories of her. These include what are imagined connections to different parts of her working life.

When I was young, mum taught home economics at the local school on Bruny Island, Tasmania, where I grew up. She went on to teach and direct Religion and English Literature at the Catholic school I attended in Hobart. It must have been some time during this later period that she acquired a book on stress that I found years afterward. It was this discovery, along with some other books related to health and illness, that inspired my interest in self-help. I saw them as symptoms of how she and other first generation office workers developed strategies of consolation and recovery to face professionalism and its strangeness.

When my mother was very ill, she needed to leave work for certain periods, not all of which I can date well now. Eventually she took early retirement to savor life with my Dad. They spent a lot of time apart while we were growing up, as she took on the breadwinner role and supported us through the perils of Australian farming. Their sacrifice in putting us through private education is something I always hold prominently in mind.

While she was a converted Catholic, mum adopted a range of new practices in response to cancer’s disequilibrium. She did Tai-Chi and meditation. She also started reflexology. One of many regrets I have from our time together is refusing the multiple offers she made to give me a foot massage with her new skills. As a punk rock wanna-be, these gestures seemed entirely weird and unnecessary to me. I think anger was my dominant response to mum’s sickness. Often it still is.

I wish that I’d had more foresight to enjoy the gifts she was trying to offer.

In my book, I dedicate a chapter to mindfulness – one of several examples of time manipulation and self-suspension that workers employ in the quest for affect management. Reading the ideas of alternative medicine gurus as part of this research brought me to the point of experimenting with some of their recommendations. Now, when I meditate – or try – I have started to understand this as a belated appreciation of the spiritual pleasures my mother was finding towards the end of her life. It also makes me conscious that my response to her death, which has generally involved working and writing through it, may not have been an ideal strategy.

This personal history may explain why Counterproductive starts with an account of home economics and ends with an argument about postsecularism and co-immunity. In talking about the myopia of knowledge work, the book addresses many of the same issues of my previous writing projects, but somehow the structure has also become a mirror of certain stages in my own life narrative, filtered through mum. The relief I feel in having completed the manuscript makes me wonder if at least part of my sense of accomplishment has been to find a way to become closer to her, and the messages she was trying to share. While I can’t yet figure out if I’ve succeeded, writing this postscript is a prompt to remember these ideas as part of the record of what the book became and what I have been processing.

The cinematic origins of self-management

Posted on | May 12, 2016 | No Comments

Text from my talk at Selfies, Self-portraits, and Social Media, the 7th William A. Kern Conference in Visual Communication, RIT College of Liberal Arts, April 14


In memory of John Urry, 1946-2016

Photography is a promiscuous way of seeing which cannot be limited to an elite, as art
– John Urry, The Tourist Gaze

In a blogpost on December 6, 2010, “How Instagram changes the way I look at things”, author and technology commentator Clive Thompson provides a first-hand account of his early encounters with the photography platform. ‘I have lots of apps on my phone, and I check some of them very, very often,’ he writes. ‘But my Instagram behavior verges into the realm of what one could more properly call tweaking… there’s something weirdly hypnotic about following the lives of your friends through nothing but images.’ Thompson’s post defends the use of filtering, the particular affordance that made Instagram both unique and a target for photography purists. In his previous life, before Instagram (BI?) a blue door he passed somewhere in the neighborhood was ‘attractive enough’:

but after the Lomo filter I realized it reminded me of a Tardis. I began scrutinizing otherwise blasé stuff in my house, wondering, hmm, how would that look with a filter applied?

In Thompson’s words: ‘filtering makes me look at stuff with fresh eyes… And this, really, is what I love most about new communications tools. At their best, they encourage us to pay attention to our lives in new ways.’

Thompson is not someone to cite at random. As a columnist for Wired, and a contributing writer for NYTimes Magazine, his reflections convey a degree of cultural clout. His opinion of Instagram matters in a way that mine or yours does not. It sets a tone for how others will get to know a medium. Some of you may know Thompson from his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For the Better, and I mention this because I have a similarly optimistic perspective to share in this talk. But my enthusiasm for Instagram has slightly different foundations.

In what follows, I suggest Instagram’s reification of the selfie marks a discernible shift in the experience of gender, class and mobility in contemporary culture. These changes in many ways overthrow the hierarchies of experience, expression, entitlement and movement that have constrained young women in particular throughout history. The selfie epitomizes a set of anxieties about social change not least because it is a genre of composition that emerges to celebrate what have been minority experiences. The always implied metacommentary of the selfie is that it has been women’s historical burden to manage her appearance in socially pleasing ways. I know there will be many papers in the next few days that address this. My objective is to focus on the new powers of information composition and dissemination that the selfie enables which have the potential to disrupt considerable financial and political interests. But before I do that, I need to make a detour through some material that has led me to hold these beliefs, and turn to a different moment of infatuation with a new medium.


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were a married couple working as time management consultants early last century alongside contemporaries such FW Taylor. These ‘efficiency engineers’ pioneered the use of film as a means to capture the ‘one best way’ for a worker to carry out a given task. Thompson mentioned the ‘weirdly hypnotic’ quality of watching an Instagram feed, and watching time and motion films from the turn of the century gives me a similar feeling. They invoke some of the earlier examples of experimental film at the dawn of cinema – such as Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge (whose running horse dates to 1878).

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s iconic workplace reform was reducing the bricklayer’s stoop by placing bricks on scaffolding close to the worker. As a former bricklayer himself, Frank surmised the energy and effort that could be saved by placing bricks in graspable position within arm’s reach. This principle was the bedrock for many subsequent reforms the pair would make in a range of locations. The archive of Gilbreth films provides before-and-after insight on the unnecessary motions involved in a variety of tasks, including card punching, pear washing, soap packing and produce labeling. In many of the reels, a portly, officious, waist-coated Frank supervises proceedings and accompanying information slides and statistics. Workplace efficiency comes alive as both a quantitative and qualitative measurement in these initial forays into industrial PR, some of the first examples of promotional film.

The camera’s ability to track the worker’s body, hands and eye movements creates an unprecedented level of accuracy in recording the labor motions under observation. Unlike the ‘stop watch men,’ as the Taylorites were often known, the Gilbreths’ films and other light-based imaging devices aimed to capture activities taking place at speeds beyond human perception. The still images produced by the slow motion camera enabled a new kind of awareness of the manifold movements involved in a task, a visual record of achievement. Applied to worksites, these technical systems had the benefit of removing managerial bias in capturing field data. For the first time, workers could see the activity upon which their performance would be judged. Trained to recognize and covet optimization – the principle of scientific management being to ‘eliminate waste’ – the worker could begin to contemplate managing taskloads for himself.

One notable demo in the Gilbreth archive shows the method involved to ‘train a lady to become a champion typist.’ Sitting at her desk and typewriter, the worker in this film calmly processes lines upon lines of text against the backdrop of a ticking clock. Her fingers move, her left hand raises as she moves the carriage to return. The only break in output is to adjust the page and place a tick on the completed document. Departing from this set framing, a subsequent shot shows the typist’s face in portrait style with particular attention focused on her eyes. The written slide explains the purpose of the film, to demonstrate ‘Early Studies of eye movements in conjunction with the motion of hands.’ Gilbreth’s new keyboard layout minimizes hand stretching and head turning. The wide eyes and demure smile playing across the typist’s pale face convey delight at her industry as much as the modesty of an earlier era.

The typist’s hands become the focus for further close-up inspection. A grid of squares is transposed over footage of the busy fingers, assisting the measure of activity relative to the space occupied or touched in each square. However accurate these representations may have been, their effect was to turn film in to a landscape of data ripe for survey and inspection. The Gilbreths enabled ‘one kind of image (detailed, moving)’ to be transported and reified ‘into another (simplified, still)’ so that the elements of a task could be identified. Their cinematic depictions of small-scale gestures created ‘a graphic image of what efficiency and inefficiency look like’ (Curtis 2009: 93).

The portrait of the individual worker on camera is a new kind of labor performance, an act choreographed and directed for a witnessing audience. In The Psychology of Management (1904), the book arising from her PhD, Lillian Gilbreth makes an explicit link between the worker’s desire to have his performance recorded for history and the ambitions of actors hoping to have their artistry captured for posterity on film. From this perspective, scientific management could be pitched as an obvious solution to workers’ frustration at not having a record of accomplishment for the day’s toil. The measurement of motion efficiency relative to output generated an archive of achievement, much like the actors and singers who were also ‘grasping the opportunity to make their best efforts permanent through the instrumentality of the motion picture films and the talking machine records.’ In Gilbreth’s account, knowledge that the record will be compiled creates interest in the work, for with it ‘comes the possibility of a real, scientific, “athletic contest”’ (33-4). For the worker, attention ‘is concentrated on the fact that he as an individual is expected to do his very best.’ The psychological dimension to this is most notable:

He has the moral stimulus of responsibility. He has the emotional stimulus of competition. He has the mental stimulus of definiteness. He has, most valuable of all, a chance to be an entity rather than one of an undiscriminated gang (36-7).

Gilbreth writes at a time when Taylorism faced vocal criticism from workers concerned about its heartless quantification methods. She aims to assuage doubts by arguing that, ‘under Scientific Management, the spirit of individuality, far from being crowded out, is a basic principle, and everything possible is done to encourage the desire to be a personality’ (48; emphasis added). In the case of the typist, working against her own previous record, embracing productivity becomes a way to match and better a previous version of herself, and, in turn, a way of being recognized. Gilbreth anticipates that individual performance will ultimately draw out new kinds of pleasures for workers that will rival the security and comfort of the group. ‘This chance to be an individual, or personality, is in great contradistinction to the popular opinion of Scientific Management which thinks it turns men into machines’ (36-7).

The Gilbreths’ introduction of motion to time-motion study is significant on multiple levels. Applied to manual work, the cinematic apparatus transforms the worker’s conception of her job away from a team or gang to a personal achievement. This visual account, and the performance of productivity for a witnessing eye, coincides with the first mainstream experiences of cinematic vision. The intimacy of the close-up, focused particularly on the face and eyes, provides coordinates for appraising the worker as a particular kind of actor. The typist’s gaze is offered for scrutiny, her movements open to mastery and replication given the assumed benefits of reform. Time and motion studies in this way educate viewers in the dynamics of empathy and recognition through filmic projection. Like the male gaze that would come to be associated with the pleasure of Hollywood narrative (Mulvey 1975), industrial film normalizes the manager’s view of a world waiting to be optimized. Identifying with the recorded image turns work into a science, labor into information, and the worker into an individual. Improving upon one’s own prior record becomes a seductive prospect as a mark of distinction. For the typist, accomplishing ever greater productivity – becoming ‘a champion’, in the words of the slide inserted in between reels – is a victory she can possess.


Gilbreth’s close-up of the typist is not, of course, a selfie. But by showing this history in relation to the practices of self-management in social media today, we can see that the tendency to capture oneself for a witnessing audience is neither natural nor spontaneous activity so much as an inherited set of procedures. From this initial period of management training that encouraged workers to improve themselves to meet the interests of profit, to the practices of self-presentation that appear as voluntary in the broader culture today, we see an interesting lineage. The Gilbreths’ legacy has been to normalize the capacity to see oneself as a manager does: to separate oneself from acts that become the basis for subsequent assessment, and to willingly entice the best performance from an individual for mutual benefit.

At the dawn of cinema, time and motion films naturalized and legitimated a necessarily individualized form of attention. This desire to be a personality – a star of the performance that is your labor – continues in the more informal genres of technology consumption today. Even in utilitarian venues that find official professional sanction, where the imperative is to develop a personal brand, the pressure to perform oneself also manifests. Advancing one’s career and self-interest with the right kind of decorum rests on the idea of perfecting performance, like an athlete: to engage in self-management is to achieve and promote a string of victories that form the collateral for continued success. In the case of the selfie, while the typical curated feed of photos may be more banal than spectacular, the phenomenon nonetheless hinges on a sense of responsibility for comportment and pride in one’s projected image that bears a debt to early examples of management thinking.

Time and motion studies introduced the genres of spectatorship and self-presentation for assumed benefits that the selfie takes for granted. The self that is captured and projected is a progression from The YouTube Generation Catherine Driscoll and I discussed a decade ago when the initial wave of social media (blogging and video) initiated moral panic about the online activities of youth. Today Instagram and Facebook occupy the same set of concerns about what we then called the “broadcast impulse,” and which Rebecca Brown and I explained as a failed “pedagogy of regret” targeting women.

But what has intensified in the space of 10 years is the amount of quasi-voluntary labor accruing profits for businesses through intimate online performances. In today’s social factory, online media create the expectation that you will participate in crafting your own narrative, build your personal brand and curate ‘content’ for your personal ‘feed.’ These norms articulate a new kind of labor extraction that mines the social and leisure worlds of technology users as much as the formal work sphere.

Viewed optimistically, the mixture of governance, comportment and empowerment that characterizes selfie culture is a neat way of thinking about a technologically enhanced ‘aesthetics of existence’ – Foucault’s expression for the considered and ethical life. Selfies can provide the basis for a more cooperative conversation and shared witnessing of events beyond the itineraries of our typical daily encounters. At the very least, as this image from a recent webinar shows, selfies are an index of the new routes of travel available to technology users who have the potential to threaten the established industries, stakeholders and profit lines for corporate capital. If we are condemned to manage ourselves in choreographed performances that pay no mind to what is public or private, for women especially, our devices provide a new weapon, a democratization of the production of the social and public space, and a transmission of ownership of the image to those who were previously cast and judged by others.

Transit computing: From productivity to personal logistics

Posted on | March 30, 2016 | No Comments

A summary of some recent work…

The idea of productivity so crucial to both IT and workplace design relies on a notion of work that is over a century old. Scientific management eliminated wasted motion to drive efficiency in the factory and the office at a time when people worked in fixed hours and locations, with measurable inputs and outputs. In today’s distributed work worlds, mobile devices turn any location into a potential workplace. What we count as work has also changed to incorporate the logistical, administrative and social aspects that accompany the formal demands of a job. These two factors require new technical, psychological and logistical skills from technology users who aspire to be productive in ever more adhoc situations. Examples from two recent studies – of mobile knowledge workers and air travel passengers – suggest the dominance of transit computing. A range of services now facilitate personal logistics for workers who want to make a life around a living. In this context, business models wedded to strict work locations, singular employers and privileged access are obstacles to productivity. The future of work will be defined by technologies that remove barriers to transit.

The following table plots the shift from productivity to personal logistics as it relates to workers’ experience. In the logistical enterprise, competition comes not from what we do but how we do it.


Data keyword – final draft

Posted on | March 13, 2016 | No Comments

Access the final version of Data – a short piece I wrote with my Intel colleague Dawn Nafus for a new collection of media studies keywords. Feedback welcome.

Joining The Atlantic

Posted on | December 27, 2015 | No Comments

The last few months I have been writing a regular column for the Business section of The Atlantic. Here’s a list of the pieces published so far.

    The Deficiencies of Tech’s ‘Pipeline’ Metaphor

    The Blurry Corporation

    The Productivity Obsession

    The Neverending Workday

    The False Dichotomy of Work and Care

    How Sexism Shaped Corporate Culture

    The Doublespeak of the Gig Economy

Data 1.0

Posted on | August 18, 2015 | 2 Comments

For media studies* data is a key term because of the role it plays in orchestrating contemporary power relations through the collecting capacities of knowledge generating machines. In an information economy, data can provide both the record and the source of individual energy, self-enlightenment and collective opposition. Here are some qualities we ascribe to data.

Data are collected insights. They begin with an individual fact – a datum, the Latin singular – and attract further instances to lay the foundation for an argument. Historically, the word has conveyed different meanings, but it has always referred to the tension between truth and persuasion.

The destiny of data is to facilitate narrative. An isolated activity that produces no evidence does not become data. It is rogue, discountable, exceptional. It is a tree falling in the woods. Without a script, data are unemployed actors.

Data gain significance through association. They come together to say something. But to do so, first they must be assembled. This work of crafting association is necessarily rhetorical, since it is never possible to capture all information adequately.

Media technologies capture data. They provide the recording vehicles for activity. Technologies are thus tools for communicating the stories data tell. In media studies, these stories tend to take two forms.

1. Information about individuals, self-assembled: Data capture that is self-nominated, in which people have some say in crafting the narrative.

In the Quantified Self subculture, people choose to adopt tracking technologies such as wearable fitness monitors to record physical activity, heart rate and sleeping patterns. In productivity tools, software developers build platforms that can record device activity so that users have an archive of on-screen practices. In each case, data visualisations and statistical measures are the outputs that operate as points of reflection. This is their rhetorical power: data prompt a process of enlightenment as individuals seek self-knowledge. Data allows us to perfect aspects of a hidden lifeworld not always available to the conscious mind or witnessing eye. Compelling data prompt reform and improvement.

2. Information about individuals, assembled by others: Data capture that is aggregated en-masse for particular purposes, from enhanced civic services to commercial profit, with or without individual consent.

When National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden acted as a whistleblower to reveal the extent of unacknowledged data surveillance in the United States, individuals responded by claiming new rights to privacy to oppose such widespread monitoring of intimate life. Payment transactions, traffic routes, energy consumption and phone conversations are some of the most well known data sets amassed by external bodies and institutions. This emerging context for popular governance is vexed given that citizens are not always told about or actually understand the ways their data are collected. The most common justifications for the capture of non-identifying behavior is the convenience of predictive services (e.g. Google Maps) or matters of civic patriotism, safety and care (against terrorism, say, or in response to disasters like Hurricane Sandy). Collecting data is the means to secure favorable social ends.

In both instances, data produce actionable knowledge; the difference lies in our awareness of the process. When data are self-assembled, we experience a feeling of control. The notion of freedom we put in practice by choosing to record activities is one that privileges will as the best kind of agency. Conversely, when data are collected without assent, we become subjects in Foucault’s sense. We are agents only insofar as our activities are recorded in the terms of others, for the purview and measure of an external authority. Helen Nissenbaum calls this ‘information asymmetry’: the ethical dilemma that arises when individuals have little chance to influence the terms upon which their information is gathered and used.

In media studies, the data economy is typically understood as operating within these axes, where the morality of tracking behaviour is plotted according to the benefits brought to oneself in relation to or opposed to others. The underlying framework is the idea of pouvoir-savoir, the articulation of power/knowledge that is the grounding principle of Michel Foucault’s early work. In an information economy, it would seem, knowledge is power. Data allow us to craft our own stories and understand ourselves better, just as they enable authorities to abstract the significance of highly personal narratives to impose order and extract profit. But is this the best way to understand data as we continue to advance a marketplace and a polity ruled by large data sets? Is power really secured through knowledge, or do we need another account to fit the times?

Our research develops different metaphors and frameworks to challenge the idea of sovereignty that has dominated ideas of property and personhood – two aspects of identity that US privacy law often conflates. When sovereignty commands the visual and conceptual field, to know something is to own it. By extension, to see data is to reify and ostensibly possess the knowledge on display. This is the scopophilic fantasy that data visualizations often fulfil, and it is one which typically obscures the tools and labor of assembly.

To explain the often unspectacular experiences of data exchange in everyday life, we are attracted to more organic concepts. For example, the notion of data sweat draws attention to a natural phenomenon that happens to all of us that is an emission of meaningful information depending on the context. What media studies can sometimes miss, partly because of the focus on text and format, is the difference that place makes in perception. More recent theorists are beginning to identify the significance of dwelling, habit and transition in understanding our engagement with media environments. For those of us who live life in transit, moving between many places, this is a necessary development. It recognizes that we are always leaving traces of ourselves in the different settings and contexts we encounter.


The current fascination with data metrics and analytics can be read optimistically as an interest in technology’s role in helping us tell new kinds of stories. This is the last gasp of what has been called ‘participatory media.’ When communication technologies and people are equally mobile, we are no longer observing discrete bodies interacting with static media entities so much elaborating a hybrid relationship of collaboration. The media studies to come will need to explain our engagement with data and their capturing devices as an accommodation, a co-habitation, a shared breath, mutual dwelling.

*Given some recent writing, I am contributing to a new media studies keywords collection. My term is ‘data’. I’m writing it with my colleague Dawn Nafus, who has her own book coming out on the topic. By way of motivation, I thought I’d share some ideas in process. This is the first draft, yet to benefit from Dawn’s input, and it shows – for some reason everything I write lately is using a script metaphor. I suppose that is the humanities training coming through. But it might also be a sign that I am always searching for words…

Typewriter, telephone, transistor

Posted on | July 6, 2015 | No Comments

Here’s a write up of my paper from the recent Terms of Media conference at Leuphana University. This is a draft heading for Judy Wajcman and Nigel Dodd’s forthcoming collection, The Sociology of Speed: Digital, Organizational and Social Temporalities. And since it is material coming out of my own book, Counterproductive, all feedback at this stage is very welcome. Abstract below.

How do employers encourage productivity in knowledge workers? How do we measure outputs and accomplishment in a world of immaterial labor? Inspired by Kittler’s (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, this article traces a series of management innovations over the past century that cumulatively determined the speed and character of labor. In the shift from shop floor to social factory, productivity moved from an external imposition to a performance of individual will – a lifestyle choice for responsible professionals. The personalization of productivity completes a process of professional subjectification that sutures aspiration and athleticism to competitive ends. It turns the workplace into a sporting field that promises to reward champions.

Airport flash ethnography guide

Posted on | April 23, 2015 | No Comments

If you are in transit over the next few weeks, help out our research project by sending some notes from the departure lounge! Below is a set of prompts to think with as you wait for your next connection. We would be so grateful to have your input for our archive. We are especially interested in differences across cultures. How is device power experienced locally?



(e.g. gate area, food court, corridor, private lounge, etc.)




(e.g. Flight on time? Delayed? How long have people been in this space?)

(e.g. Cramped? Empty? In-between?)


(e.g. Free for anyone? Fee Based? Watch advertisements?)

WHERE ARE POWER OUTLETS LOCATED? (e.g. Part of the seating? On support poles in the middle of the space? Along the walls?)



– Are people staying with the device/s being charged?

– Are they charging multiple devices?

– Are there social interactions taking place around charging?

– Anything meaningful you notice about the chargers: age, gender, demographic details?

– How long are they charging for?

– Are they using the device while charging?

Power out

Posted on | April 19, 2015 | 1 Comment

When do you charge your mobile device, tablet and/or laptop? Do you have a ritual, or do you only do it when the power runs out? Are there places that you prefer to charge? Where? Why?

Are you the kind of person who is always battling a red battery signal and dwindling percentages? Do you carry a charger with you? Since when? Are there times when you are more or less anxious about power? How does it feel?

These are some of the questions we’re asking in a new project on charging practices and power use. We’re interested both in the nitty-gritty of charging habits (when, where, for how long, using what) and broader questions about power infrastructure. For example: Who allows access to power, on what terms? Do users have a right to power in a world that is increasingly dependent on mobile devices? Who should provide that service: a state or commercial entity? Does it depend on the cultural context? Is access to power one of the new demands we should make of a ‘smart’ city?

This work involves in-context research around transit zones – airports, hotels, train stations and the like. If you do any amount of regular travel you probably harbor an ambient awareness of where power sources are likely to be found in a bar, which airlines have charging sockets in their seats, and whether or not there is a chance to stay longer than the time of your laptop battery in a cafe.

These are the stories we’re collecting over the next few months. I’m writing this in the hope that you’ll share yours! And: next time you are waiting somewhere in transit and you see people charging, send me a photo of the setting. I’m keen to get a broad visual landscape for the sorts of international audiences this study needs to address.

The sockets pictured below are from a bar amidst the stunningly tablet-centric layout at JFK Terminal 2. There’s a lot more to say about this, and when it comes to the ramifications for e-waste and obsolescence, others will do it better than me. Almost every available surface in the terminal contains an iPad at the center, beckoning customers to order a lottery ticket or a glass of wine and – in the requisite air travel parlance – ‘relax’. But how exactly one relaxes when a screen is constantly flickering in your face telling you to do so is beyond comprehension.

The belief that efficiency comes at the expense of human interaction is just one of the design principles taken for granted in this vision, in which fulfilling shopping involves nothing more than a credit card and a ‘complimentary’ iPad. In the airport, like other domains of mass governance in the US, what would be most helpful is if you could simply stay in your seat and consume. More concerning: the future of work implied by this architecture is that hospitality employees will soon join knowledge workers in suffering the fate of a job that is not much more than creative device attendance and maintenance.

CocktailFree to charge

Slack and synchronicity

Posted on | March 22, 2015 | No Comments

The current market valuation of enterprise software start-up #slack is prompting some much needed discussion of effective communication channels in the workplace and email in particular. A few of my close colleagues* recently debated the value of the service in terms of both ephemerality – the serendipity of useful, chance engagements with colleagues that email cumulatively broke – and flow. Slack succeeds by letting users stay ‘in the moment’ on the job without accruing excessive information baggage to wade through after the day is done.

In this sense, Slack marks a turning point for understanding the social dynamics of the digitally mediated workplace. The popular aspiration to transcend the inbox, or the idea that one might ‘catch up’ on email could only ever fail: there is simply too much of it to begin with, and too few acknowledgements of its effects on others.

What I find missing in discussions so far is an explanation of how, in the wake of social media, the design deliverable has changed to favour a collective experience of synchronicity. The productivity imperative in tech and management thinking failed to acknowledge that flow is subjective and personal. It places the individual above the group, celebrating heroic solo performances of uninterrupted creativity. This is because flow’s original theoretical premises were based on varieties of athleticism – whether in the excessive regimes of the subject-in-training or the excusable asociality and egotism of the artist-genius. Flow aligned with the foundational move in scientific management which was to erase solidarity with the gang.

The point about Slack is that it makes groups feel together, practically and psychologically: it makes them aware of their time as a collective, and it performs that coherence through its design. The company’s claim to make people feel less busy is about re-engineering the competitive individualism of the workplace to embrace social ends: it promotes an atmosphere of collegiality.

One reason knowledge workers feel busy is because their schedules aren’t in synch; they work across multiple times and locations. Getting ‘in touch’ with distributed others requires significant logistical overhead. People become frustrated with enterprise software not because it lacks functionality, then; it lacks intelligence about timing. It also lacks a model of collective accomplishment or wellbeing beyond maximizing the assets of the firm.

When we are looking at the most valuable companies right now, I wonder how many of them are delivering some kind of access to services and resources that firms once provided, just at a more convenient time or location for the user. This is what I mean by consumer-led enterprise innovation. The fact that today’s workers have little obvious rationale to remain loyal to an employer makes it entirely sensible that they want technologies that are ambivalent about institutions. Slack is a platform for the adhoc professional who needs access to information and a support network on demand.

*This post is inspired by a characteristically complex, humorous and extensive email thread between Peter Levin, ken anderson, Richard Beckwith and Tony Salvador, all of whom regularly stretch the creative possibilities of Outlook. It also benefits from ideas long championed by Maria Bezaitis (on collectives) and Margie Morris (on attunement).

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