Counterproductive: Towards mindful labor

Posted on | March 13, 2014 | No Comments

Excerpt written for iDC in the lead up to the Digital Labor Conference, The New School, November 14-6

Affective capitalism is defined by the articulation of self-fashioning practices with a productivity imperative. We work on ourselves in order to be productive, but without an overarching referent or guide for our actions. To feel productive is to celebrate as a personal accomplishment the qualities endorsed by computing technologies and management mantras alike. The current boom in productivity software draws attention to a new kind of digital labor – mindful labor – that is preparatory and reparative as much as it is obligatory. Through “Getting Things Done” (GTD), “lifehacking” and other productivity applications (apps), individuals create regimes of anticipation, protection and recovery to meet the temporality of data flows. The productivity industry depends on the promise that users can achieve their goals and reclaim ownership of their time in the face of network culture’s immersive potential.

Productivity apps facilitate the pleasure of time management, which is ultimately the pleasure of control. Their various platforms offer strategies for closure and containment, from shutting down email and non-essential communication to identifying peak performance periods and ideal moments for efficiency. With names like “Self Control,” “Omnifocus,” “Rescue Time,” even “Freedom,” these tools offer liberation as much as consolation from everyday demands. Providing mastery over extraneous matters (what management manuals have long referred to as “trivia”), human fallibilities can be avoided. GTD techniques deliver an enhanced relationship to time by focusing only on what is important, maximizing opportunities for optimal work “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi 1990).

Productivity software epitomizes the trend towards algorithmic living, in which data bits and code become the impetus for enlightened behavior. App services and pointers turn ordinary activities into objects of measurement – and hence adjustment and improvement – by a “quantified self.” GTD categorizes, with the aim of eventually finessing, different elements of a user’s world. As an instance of cognitive capitalism, the administrivia of life and labor become interchangeable. Personal and professional tasks are similar challenges to be met through superior programming. The volatility of contemporary living is transformed into actionable steps that better pace and orient our encounters with time and things. In this way, productivity apps follow a long tradition of time- and self-management.

The scientific management of the Taylorist factory, the human relations theories that succeeded it, and the self-motivated, mobile professional of the present each advance the work of monitoring and reflection necessary for peak performance. At each step in this history, productivity logic retrains seemingly natural aspects of social being towards more efficient, substantial and rewarding ends. Convivial interactions, from the pleasant to the merely phatic, become traps or annoyances that obstruct the engineering of a viable professional self. The productivity mandate evident in time management apps continues this lineage by positing the viability of focusing only on the consequential, at least for predetermined periods. That individuals have the power to control life’s unpredictability in such a way with the deployment of technological infrastructure is just the first fantasy necessary for productivity’s appeal.

The relationship between GTD, lifehacking and other techniques for living is illuminated through the ideas of both Michel Foucault (1988) and Peter Sloterdijk (2013). In different ways, these writers’ insights show that work on the self has been a key facet of (Western) modernity. Drawing out these historical precedents for productivity helps to isolate the limitations of its current manifestation as a secular ethics, or what in Sloterdijk’s terms is a kind of religion. Productivity operates at the level of practice. It is a lifestyle enacted as genre, as pure form. But unlike religion, which makes an attempt to relate the individual to a larger whole, productivity isolates and sanctifies the individual. It elevates an elite class of worker beyond the concerns of the ordinary and the collective. These two factors mark its difference from previous visions of labor and its possible politics.

In the organization era, workers gained power and privileges through association with a firm. Career ambition was couched within the terms and the “social ethic” of a company and its standing within a community (Whyte 1956). By contrast, today’s workers learn to manage themselves in proximity to a workplace that is felt to be omnipresent, even ambient (Gregg 2011). This pervasively “virtual” space and time for work is the territory of the adhoc professional. Employees are less tethered to a particular office or workplace because they are assumed to be willing to provide their own ostensibly inexhaustible resources for labor. These resources begin with the logistical benchmark of constant connectivity and stretch to include the psychological resilience of day-to-day affect management. Productivity’s requisite asociality is symptomatic of this growing experience of mobile work. Adhoc professionals are entrusted to internalize productivity, accomplish results, and maintain composure using techniques that are self-sought and -taught. The science of management thus gives way to the pseudo-science of self-help, as workers encourage themselves to focus and flourish – often at others’ expense.

The convergence of neo-humanist management practices and productivity’s anti-institutionalism obviates mutual dependence and reciprocity in the workplace, not least because of a happy alliance with the entrepreneurialism at the heart of computer culture. The story of productivity is the story of assembling the ideal subject of professional work in terms defined by machines. Combined with the mythology of Silicon Valley, the most corrosive outcome of productivity services is to advance a broader ideological project that destroys solidarity in the name of individual freedom and creativity. This situation calls for a new kind of labor politics – what I call mindful labor. A politics of mindful labor alleviates the psychological impact of performative presence, requires periods of withdrawal, and summons collective means for resisting the alienating effects of digitally-mediated work. An anthropotechnics of mindful labor issues new demands on behalf of the adhoc professional, including the right to ritual. It asserts the value of work as a fully social practice, one that has the capacity to provide individual dignity, but only once the myopic nature of the productivity imperative has been overturned.

Productivity apps materialize a mode of thinking that takes seriously the possibility of transcending the social. Such an aspiration has the effect of producing a hierarchical workplace in which trivial tasks can be delegated down to other, less powerful employees, whose inferior status prevents their recognition as colleagues. The reciprocity of the labor relation is precluded in this process, and the cooperative nature of work transactions underplayed. By celebrating this structure as freedom, productivity tools normalize notions of individual exceptionalism in the guise of effective entrepreneurialism. A faith in technology is productivity’s salve for broader ontological insecurity, even while it exacerbates divisions of labor inherited from previous configurations of work and its management.

Stripped of religious, which is to say other-facing demands, productivity’s self-affirming mantras falsely suggest an underlying “order of things” (Foucault 1970). It is this lack of philosophical substance that drives the search for an enlightened metaphysics that can assuage the accumulative bias of capitalist thinking, in the rise of mindfulness practices, for instance. For the current experience of professional life, in which self-management occurs biopolitically, mindful labor emerges as a concept indebted to the spiritual foundations of protestant capitalism, but attuned to the global conditions for business. It offers a patchwork of ontological substitutes for a system that provides little by way of spiritual nourishment. If mindful labor is a Band-Aid cure for the productivity imperative, then, in more optimistic terms it also offers a path back to the social, to the world of others, and a set of relationships that hinge on reciprocity. It is therefore one of the best means available to show that collective thinking continues, that other worldviews remain, and that entertaining them is necessary to produce a labor subject appropriate to our times.

References

Csíkszentmihályi, M. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, New York.
Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Pantheon, New York.
—. 1988. The History of Sexuality, Volume Three: The Care of the Self. Vintage.
Gregg. M. 2011. Work’s Intimacy. Polity, London.
Sloterdijk, P. 2013. You Must Change Your Life. Polity, London.
Whyte, William H. 1956. The Organization Man. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

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