The future of work and enterprise

Posted on | March 4, 2015 | No Comments

Much of the buzz around new work patterns made possible by the ‘gig’ economy of Uber and Task Rabbit suggests that consumers are beginning to act like companies when it comes to managing their careers and employment. Since the great recession, a significant upswing in part time and independent contract work reflects a convergence of factors enabling users to work when and how they want with mobile technology and cloud-based services. These workers are vital to what’s called the jobless recovery: individuals take on the burden of providing resources they once enjoyed through secure employment with a firm.

Partly this is about choice: BYOD growth in large organizations reflects a similar desire among workers to take responsibility for their own productivity. Younger workers also enjoy the freedom of working on their own terms and technology allows them to do it. Dropbox, Gmail, Skype and Evernote are just some of the tools available for self-motivated individuals to get their work done from any location.

The rise of the personal enterprise – where individuals negotiate with work suppliers to sell their services and make a living – is a major challenge to business models that differentiate between business (enterprise) and consumer sales. There is a third category emerging between the two thanks to consumer-led enterprise innovation.

The enterprise user provides the basis for any number of business decisions in tech. But the biggest companies today (Uber, Google, Facebook) employ fewer people than previous generations of industry. Those that are employed in enterprise settings are increasingly likely to be temporary or piece workers in a global economy of in-sourcing and outsourcing. If there are fewer ‘jobs’, fewer mid-size companies, and fewer employers then this inevitably affects enterprise business. And when non-standard employment is becoming the standard, we have a distinctly new proposition for thinking about the future of work.

Today more and more workers are acting like enterprises: they have multiple partnerships and vendors to keep happy, they need services to synchronize across platforms and devices and locations, and they need reassurance that the range of activities they perform on the same device will not corrupt their livelihood.

Visiting Grade 2

Posted on | February 26, 2015 | No Comments

These are the questions my niece’s classmates have prepared for my visit to her school on Monday. Any help with the answers is appreciated!

    1. How did you get so smart? Chloe
    2. How long have you been studying Maths and Science? Georgina
    3. Do you enjoy Maths or Science more? Nathalie
    4. Do you do many experiments? Sarah
    5. When did you realise you really enjoyed Science and wanted to do it? Ella
    6. Is Maths hard for you or do you find it easy? Arkie
    7. What is your job? Panayiota
    8. Where do you work? Natalie H
    9. What was the first experiment you remember? Genevieve
    10. Which part of Maths is your favourite and why? Samia
    11. How hard is your work every day? Claudia
    12. Do you work every day? Lara
    13. How long have you had to study to do your job? Emily
    14. Do you have an assistant? Eva
    15. What is the room like that you work in? Abby B
    16. Have you ever met anyone really famous or smart? Abby T
    17. Have any of your experiments ever gone wrong? Matilda
    18. Do you work with many women or do you mostly work alongside men? Bridie
    19. Have you had any apprentices? Lucy C
    20. Can you do your work in Australia or only in America? Caity
    21. Is there anyone who does your job in Tasmania? Taya

Reflections of a McDonalds manager

Posted on | February 21, 2015 | No Comments

…You don’t fire. You would only fire for cause like drugs or stealing. But what happens is he signed up for thirty hours a week and suddenly he’s only scheduled for four. So either he starts being more available or he quits… The only qualification to be able to do the job is to be able physically to do the job… And being there is the main part of being physically able to do the job… It takes a special kind of person to be able to move before he can think. We find people like that and use them till they quit.

Barbara Garson (1989) The Electronic Sweatshop: How computers are transforming the office of the future into the factory of the past, Penguin, New York, p. 33.

Witnessing productivity in early time-motion studies

Posted on | February 20, 2015 | No Comments

My 4S abstract…

A century ago, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s time and motion studies created new standards for productivity by grouping together similar tasks in a streamlined workflow. Demonstration videos from the archives provide ‘before and after’ insight on the number of unnecessary motions removed from tasks as varied as bricklaying, card punching, pear washing, soap packing and labeling produce. These silent films are punctuated by a smiling Frank presiding over information slides with vital statistics that declare triumphant efficiency reforms.

The Gilbreths’ introduction of ‘motion’ to time-motion study in the workplace is significant on multiple levels. As a first principle of management theory, and the individualizing address it would only refine, producing a visual record of performance transforms the worker’s conception of his job away from the broader team or work gang towards a consideration of his own individual achievement. This makes work competitive, as individuals try to improve against their own prior records as much as those of their teammates. But just as important: the keeping of records, the performance of productivity for a witnessing eye, coincides with the first mainstream experiences of cinematic vision. Lillian Gilbreth’s The Psychology of Management (1914) makes links between the worker’s desire to have a performance recorded for history and the ambitions of actors hoping to have their artistic performances recorded for posterity on screen. Productivity’s standardizing gaze became a means to match and improve upon a previous version of oneself, and in turn, a way of being recognized. This paper explains how the Gilbreths turned work into a science, labor into information, and the worker into an individual, indeed, an athlete – whose ability to accomplish ever greater productivity becomes a victory to strive for and possess.


On love

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | No Comments

Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place.

– Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Body cameras and ethical policing

Posted on | January 19, 2015 | No Comments

Jason Wilson and I published an article in The Atlantic this past week addressing the push for police body cameras.

As someone employed in the tech industry, I have been wondering how companies might take on a more prominent role in this area, for example, by offering some much needed thought leadership on the appropriate use of technology for surveillance and citizens’ rights. As many colleagues have argued, technology innovation often takes place in a realm free of ethical constraint. We could have quite a significant conversation about the intersection between civil liberties and new technologies if hardware and software suppliers went about this innovation process differently.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Intel showcased the new capabilities available using its RealSense depth perception cameras. The demo showed what this might mean for the blind – exciting enough to consider. Imagine what a smart wearable ensemble might offer policing in the future – specifically, in terms of improved officer and citizen safety, and better image/data capture for real world, on the beat threats (these cameras allow you to zoom in on different parts of an image after the fact). Clearly there are huge challenges before us in making these capacities culturally acceptable in their appropriate deployment. Still, I’m interested in how technology can contribute better practices of security, privacy, and safety at work, and additionally, how ethics/policy considerations might become a marketable feature of a product’s release.

Find the article here.

Foucault Live

Posted on | December 15, 2014 | No Comments

I dreamed that a day would come when I would know in advance what I meant and would only have to say it. That was a reflection of old age. I imagined I had finally reached the age when one only has to reel out what’s in one’s head. It was both a form of presumption and an abandonment of restraint. Yet to work is to undertake to think something other than what one has thought before.

– ‘The Concern for Truth’, p. 455

It’s very likely that the works I write don’t correspond exactly to the titles I’ve given them. It’s a clumsiness on my part, but when I choose a title I keep it. I write a book, I revise it, I discover new problematics, but the title remains. There is also another reason. In the books I write, I try to pinpoint a type of problem that hasn’t been discerned before. Consequently, and necessarily under these conditions, I must bring to light at the end of the work a certain type of problem that can’t be rewritten into the title. That’s why there is this sort of “play” between the title and the work. Clearly one ought either to tell me that these works don’t reflect their titles at all and that I really must change the titles, or that there’s a kind of gap that opens up between the title and the book’s content, and that this discrepancy is to be understood as the distance I have taken myself in writing the book.

– ‘Return of Morality’, p. 471

This productive life

Posted on | December 7, 2014 | No Comments

Here’s the blurb for the talk I’m giving at UCLA on Wednesday. I haven’t been airing much of this work while it’s still in progress, other than the occasional photo from the archives, but it’s the material for my new book, Counterproductive.

This is the project I’ve been drawing on in some of the press coverage lately, e.g. this NY Times piece, and the Diane Rehm Show. Looking forward to moving this work into the open…

This productive life
The rise of personal productivity apps is a symptom of the consumer-enterprise collision underway as work escapes the confines of place to be more flexible, pliant, and ambient. Just as the Quantified Self movement is revolutionizing health care, with tracking devices and wearables monitoring activities that can be turned into actionable data sets, personal productivity apps and services capture a similar interest in quantifying and perfecting activity. These tools compensate for failures in the affective and material infrastructure of the contemporary workplace. They allow for the performance of composure in the face of ontological precarity and organizational inefficiency.

More than just a metric for efficiency, today productivity is a lifestyle practiced by elite, autonomous workers who manage themselves in transient, adhoc workplaces. Technology is the trusted and reliable companion across multiple domains, contexts and experiences. My account of the software market for personal productivity illustrates the qualities of a productive life. Drawing on the ideas of Peter Sloterdijk, I explain productivity as a form of secular athleticism, while also posing the question: are we prepared for a future in which we bring a virtual companion to work?

Civic hacking postscript

Posted on | November 23, 2014 | No Comments

Audio from the Civic Hacking panel at the Digital Labor conference last weekend is now here. Thanks to everyone who attended and followed the discussion online.

We ran this as a series of position statements on key terms that interest us in the study of civic hacking. This is the result of ongoing research across a number of different sites that are discussed in detail in the session.

The words and speakers are as follows:

    Carl DiSalvo

    Hackers and/as entrepreneurs
    Lilly Irani, Andrew Schrock

    Andrew Schrock, Max Liboiron, Thomas Lodato

    Thomas Lodato, Max Liboiron

    (Data) activism
    Max Liboiron, Andrew Schrock

    Thomas Lodato, Mel Gregg

The final part of the discussion, not part of this recording, was a brainstorm with the audience in which we attempted to move the conversation from terms to tactics. It also featured some ideas from my forthcoming paper, “Hack for Good: Speculative labor, app development and the burden of austerity.”

We will be using this material as the basis for further thinking, writing and events, so feedback is most welcome.

Civic hacking at #DL14

Posted on | October 13, 2014 | No Comments

Next month I’ll be at the Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket lines, and Barricades conference at The New School in New York. This is a description of the panel I’m organizing with Carl DiSalvo, continuing some of our previous thinking on civic hacking. Please join us if you are coming to the conference – and check out the work of our fellow panelists. Very inspiring!

Civic Hacking

If digital labor is often conceived within the framework of industry – occupying the shadows of financial compensation – this assumes that monetary reward is the necessary end point for all labor transactions. This panel argues that a key site for digital labor and its hopeful possibilities is the work of civic hacking. This is digital labor premised on the idea of public good and the necessary provision of shared infrastructure and services.

A growing number of research and activist projects pivot on design expertise, code literacy and data analytics to mobilize resources and improve the quality of life for citizens and consumers. These affective, ameliorative, and civic registers offer a necessary complement to dominant visions of digital labor, and a means of foregrounding other kinds of profits to be gained from donated work.

Our discussion explores new forms of political participation that are enabled by the digital in ways that are situated, tactical and contextually relevant. Through analysis of civic and issue-oriented hackathons, the subjective intensity of informal code work, and the logistical activism of developing grassroots infrastructure, we illustrate data collection as activism. This new horizon for social computing uses technology to advance collective action.

Civic hackers trade on the language of entrepreneurialism and voluntarism to exploit avenues and applications for data. Brokering partnerships between local government, non-profit, activist and scholarly communities, this work builds connections as much as tools in a speculative but no less meaningful enactment of localized belonging. Civic hacking is a characteristic experience of immaterial labor, at once imaginative, pragmatic and symbolic. As we will contest, it is a labor identity that has the potential to challenge the stranglehold of enterprise in defining the character and composition of labor, by rivaling previous visions of work and its rewards.

Format: We propose a panel / workshop hybrid — an appropriate form for the amalgam of labor and performance, debut and resistance that characterizes civic hacking. A short panel format will feature presentations on the empirical and theoretical conditions of civic hacking, drawing from the varied research practices of the panelists which span cultural studies, communication, sociology and design. These presentations will describe the common forms of civic hacking and express concerns with some of its key formats as a displacement of politics and work-based relations. Through this, the presentations set the groundwork for what a practice of civic hacking that embraces the political and labor might be — the articulation of concerns is refigured as a set of desires to achieve. From this point distinctions between panelists and audience will give way to a collective description of those desires and tactics to achieve them.


Carl DiSalvo is author of Adversarial Design (MIT, 2012) and Associate Professor in the Digital Media program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His work draws together science and technology studies, humanities and design research to analyze the social and political qualities of design and prototype experimental systems and services.

Melissa Gregg is Principal Engineer in User Experience at Intel, where she investigate new forms of labor and enterprise beyond the organization. Her publications include Work’s Intimacy (Polity 2011), The Affect Theory Reader (Duke UP, 2010) and Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices (Palgrave 2006).

Lilly Irani (Chair & Discussant) is Assistant Professor in Communication, Science Studies at UC San Diego. Her work examines design practices in situ to understand their relationships with broader cultural, political, and social processes. She explores this through ethnographic fieldwork and activism in design workspaces and crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor of sociology and technology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of harm and crisis legible enough for action.

Thomas James Lodato is a third-year PhD student at Georgia Institute of Technology in the Digital Media program. Interested in theories and methods of empathic design, Thomas often focuses on food and agricultural systems to ground his research. Currently Thomas is researching hackathons and their potential as forms of sociopolitical engagement through design and computing.

Andrew Schrock is a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His dissertation, chaired by François Bar, looks at how interactions on mobile social network platforms (MSNPs) enhance social capital. At USC, he is a member of the Innovation lab and Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths.

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