Call for papers: Special issue on Digital Labour

Posted on | November 18, 2017 | No Comments

Feminist Review is calling for articles and Open Space pieces for a themed issue on Digital Labour.

Issue editors: Melissa Gregg and Rutvica Andrijasevic

Digital labour refers to a range of tasks executed by humans on, in relation to, or in the aftermath of digital platforms. On-demand logistics services, micro-work platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, data economies generated by social media sites, and online retail portals all comprise digital labour. So does the emotional work of withstanding the stress of high-tech workplaces with long hours and nebulous corporate Human Relations (HR) policies. To the extent that it is mediated by platforms, digital labour is also intrinsically bound to hardware: mobile phones, computers, and data servers on which software runs and operates. What is common in the many forms of digital labour is an active celebration of worker flexibility, from the precarious workers concentrated in sectors of the Western labour market, to the non-Western countries where vast swathes of online and below-the-line work happens. As such, digital platforms supply an actual labour market with large numbers of individuals virtually excluded from formal employment and consigned to permanently unstable working conditions. Digital labour is thus experienced predominantly as a modern version of on-demand piecework.

As awareness of digital labour conditions grows, this themed issue draws attention to the gendered and racialised foundations of this in/formal digital economy. This work is the flip side of the mythical white, male ‘brogrammer’ or software developer enjoying the comforts and benefits of large multinational tech firms. Given the large proportion of marginal subjects, such as women, urban poor and minorities, taking up digital work in the absence of other alternatives, there is an urgent need to understand the structural elements of digital labour. We are especially interested in the continuities that exist with traditional factory, domestic, agricultural and manual work.

The social effects of a contingent workforce with growing numbers of self-employed, raise policy problems regarding adequate welfare and subsistence to fit the needs of an at-will service class. This themed issue is therefore concerned with the ways that race, gender and class status are embedded in digital platforms and with the formation of a global precariat across the spectrum of high-tech production and consumption. Our aim is to put feminist thinking at the forefront of existing sociological studies of work and technology, so as to show the ways in which feminist theory is central to adequately accounting for the nuances of labour value.

Contributions may include, but are not limited to:

    – the on-demand economy: gig work, virtual work and crowd work
    – below-the-line artificial intelligence: piecework in AI and machine learning
    – engineering culture and minority voices in STEM
    – informal labour economies, past and present
    – productivity services and personalisation of outsourcing
    – gender, voice and personal assistance, including the history of delegation
    – call-centre work and the dynamics of offshoring
    – electronics assembly work and circuits of production
    – emotional labour in software design
    – on-line and off-line resistance against digital capitalism (and sexism and misogyny)
    – AI, robotisation and post-work imaginary

If you would like to discuss your ideas for this issue, please contact the editors at [email protected] and [email protected] (Rutvica Andrijasevic).

Full articles or Open Spaces pieces to be submitted by 16 May 2018.

Manuscripts should be submitted through Feminist Review’s online submission system and in FR house style.

From careers to atmospheres

Posted on | September 24, 2017 | No Comments

While visiting the University of Leicester this year I was invited to contribute to the new CAMEO Cuts pamphlet series produced by the Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies. In this essay, From Careers to Atmospheres, I draw together key points from the conclusion to my new book, Counterproductive, which is coming soon from Duke University Press. Here’s the abstract:

The third issue of CAMEO Cuts examines the changing social relations of time and self-management at work. Melissa Gregg shows how the dispersed organization increasingly relies on technologies and platforms that aim to improve personal productivity and efficiency, but tend to do so at the expense of collectivity. She explores how it might be possible to create new forms of elective association – ‘productive atmospheres’ – based on shared resources and care rather than metrics of individual performance.

You can read the full list of CAMEo cuts here. Enjoy!

Stop the Meeting: I Want to Get Off!

Posted on | January 20, 2017 | No Comments

Notes from Stop the Meeting: I Want to Get Off! How to Manage Your Team Without Meetings by Scott Snair, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2003.

    • Managers tend to hold meetings because that’s what their peers are doing

    • Managers hold meetings because of corporate mandates requiring that certain types of meetings be convened. In other words, they hold meetings because they are told to

    • Managers hold meetings because they perceive personal shortcomings in how they utilize other management techniques, such as one-on-one managing, employing transformational leadership and delegating

    • Sometimes managers hold meetings because it allows them to avoid other, more meaningful and productive undertakings

    • Managers hold meetings to give themselves a false sense that something has been accomplished (14)

Look into yourself and examine your own reasons for disliking meetings but then holding them anyway. It is the important first step that will help you stop surrendering to them. (15)

The benefits of work teams do not justify the dramatic by-products they create – by-products such as leadership vacuums and a lost sense of direction. (55)

The more an organization tends towards management via committees and staffs, the more meetings there are. And the more meetings there are, the fewer sound decisions there are (53)

‘if success isn’t clearly defined, then when does a work team know it is failing? Often, it doesn’t know. Also, if individual jobs and responsibilities aren’t spelled out, then the potential for idleness endures… if a team is preoccupied with establishing procedures and policies in a plethora of meetings, then indolent or indifferent workers easily can hide in a whirlwind of meaningless activity’ (56)

Matrix team members resent being pulled away from their daily tasks without being released from their daily obligations. It is difficult for them to perform well if they believe from the start that they’re getting a raw deal (60)

Offer direct guidance to those who seek it, and encourage your managers to do the same. Subsequently, as leadership gains a foothold, reduce the number of meetings you hold until you reach the point where a meeting becomes the important exception rather than the omnipresent, expected event. (63)

Remember that successful manager exhibit charisma and deep, personal care for team members. A transformational leader truly inspires and intellectually invigorates others.

The worst aspect of self-managing teams or matrix arrangements is that they debilitate the true leaders in an organization. (64)

Set the Example Before Assigning the Activity

It’s important that you complete a task competently at least once before you turn it over to someone else as a project. You don’t need to accomplish it in expert fashion, but just well enough to understand the time, energy, effort and brainwork involved (89)

Make certain the person sees you jot his name down in the diary on the date you’re going to be back in touch seeking results (91)

The First Paradox of Delegating is that delegating almost always means more control, not less, when it is properly carried out… skillful delegating takes planning.

The idea of excluding yourself from a meeting might seem uncomfortable. But consider another uncomfortable idea. How many people in your organization over the years have missed promotions or—in the long run—have been fired for bad performance because they allowed meetings to overcome them, clogging their workday and impeding their achievements? (138)

Compare meeting reduction to weight reduction (139)

Use positive reinforcement. Compliment the person who avoids holding unnecessary meetings. I always make a point of thanking someone for completing a project or soliciting information without holding the obligatory meeting (140)

Data flow best practice: ‘opening up your work routine, your daily goals, your successes and any gained knowledge to all those who might benefit from the information, as well as making sure they know this data is on hand. In spite of the commonly held belief that holding back information fosters job preservation, the reality is that managers appreciate people whose daily progress at work is an open book, and they detest people who are miserly with work-related facts, figures, and findings. (148)

Managing without meetings – 10 ways:

    1. Stay busy and productive
    2. Clarify your job description and duties
    3. Respectfully excuse yourself
    4. Make yourself accessible
    5. Set the example
    6. Obtain the meeting itinerary early and offer answers beforehand
    7. Directly approach someone with your anti-meeting philosophy
    8. Voice your displeasure following an unproductive meeting
    9. Refuse offering vehicles of comfort
    10. Assume the role of project manger

People are less likely to convene meetings if they perceive an abundance of open communication in their organization (151)

Jump right into the topic at hand. There’s no time for tea or coffee. The’res no time to talk about last night’s football game on television. There’s no time for company rumours and no time for socializing. Assume control from the minute you have a quorum and never let go of that control. (158)

Gus Pagonis of Sears: four types of management communication – bulletin, three-by-five, stand-up and sit-down.

The staff call: each department head provides three ‘ups’ (good things that the department has accomplished), three ‘downs’ (problems or things that need attention, with solutions in progress or under consideration) and items of interest (matters pertinent to the group and circumstances that are upcoming). People are strongly encouraged not to stray from the format. (162)

‘after all is said and done and analysed, you should still assume the attitude that the best meeting is the one not called’ (166)

What does the smart office know?

Posted on | January 11, 2017 | No Comments

Tamara Kneese and I are organizing a panel at 4S on the smart office. Please consider submitting a paper! Abstracts of 250 words are due March 1. More info at the meeting website.

    In the spirit of STS scholars who have studied configurations of non-human and human actors (Braidotti 2013, Haraway 2008, Hayles 1999, Sharp 2011), this panel asks: Can an office ever be smart? What skills will a building need to prove its value? How do humans respond to jobs and environments that are intended to make them irrelevant? These and other reflections on the smart office are necessary to situate the imminent Internet of Things (IOT) in the broader history of office automation. From artificial intelligence to embedded assistance, the smart office ostensibly solves workplace inefficiencies by applying the processing power of cognitive computing. But it does this on terms that favor the enterprise. The worker’s experience is rarely prioritized, even though the specificity of human skill will be increasingly important as nonhuman agents contribute to a digitally augmented workplace. This panel welcomes papers on the taskification of white-collar work, the role of virtual agents in the labor process and the prospect of instrumented, computational objects as peer companions for workers. We seek contributions that can inform the design of both IT and management protocols in this new landscape, to overcome historical biases in the composition of assistive technologies, and to ensure the possibility of sustainable and fulfilling workplaces.

    Further topics of interest include:
    – Filing, finding and searching the cloud
    – “Below the line” office labor
    – Ergonomics, aesthetics and euthenics
    – Surveillance, measurement and privacy
    – Interspecies sociality and IOT

Engineering Inclusion

Posted on | October 11, 2016 | 2 Comments

This year Ada Lovelace Day coincides with National Coming Out Day in the US. These are two occasions that mean a lot to me as a queer woman in tech. To mark the moment, I am reposting below a short piece that I wrote on an internal company blog a few months ago.

I started composing this text on the night that the Orlando massacre unfolded. As part of my role on Intel’s Out and Ally Leadership Council, I had been asked to tell my story of moving from a Gender Studies Professor to a Principal Engineer. I wrote most of this without knowing what was happening on the other side of the country. Today, sharing this content further afield, I want others to know that solidarity comes from standing up for your public.


I grew up at the bottom of the world – an island off an island off an island (Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia. Next stop: Antarctica).

It was about four years ago that I was asked to apply for a job at Intel. I was enjoying sabbatical leave from my position as a Senior Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at The University of Sydney, Australia. It was a great gig: smart students, inspiring colleagues, and tenure. On top of all that, I lived in Sydney – a beautiful city, and Australia’s home of gay pride.

If anything, my job was too good. Despite having studied at the same campus during my PhD, the privileged sandstone surroundings cut off from the city made me uncomfortable. I taught students whose inherited wealth was hard to comprehend given my isolated background. A lot of students enrolled in my class because it was called ‘Intimacy, Love and Friendship.’ It was the perfect filler for anyone needing something fun to complete their course requirements.

In the first lecture every year I made it clear that I didn’t hold the secrets to finding love or making friends – on the contrary, given where I came from. By sticking around for 12 weeks they would learn how our culture talks about these things. My lectures explained what scholars call ‘the love plot’: the story we learn from a very young age so that we will be prepared – so that we think we ‘know’ – when we are falling in love. The love plot is a way of describing how, of the infinite number of ways we could live our lives, so many of us choose to arrange ourselves and our families in much the same format.

When I grew up in Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until 1997. In high school and college, I was scared to show affection towards girls I liked in case I embarrassed the person. A small town like Hobart creates worries about reputation. I felt constantly watched by people whose long memories would judge me for being inappropriate. My mother was a teacher at the same Catholic school I attended, which made me especially claustrophobic. These are some of the reasons I escaped to Sydney for graduate school. Leaving home, I was relieved of the sense of intimate surveillance, although I still wasn’t brave enough to do everything I imagined.

I haven’t talked about this personal history at Intel. My first years here were so strange and confusing that it seemed crazy to add even more to my outsider status. But I changed careers because I wanted the challenge of applying my knowledge about gender and culture in a place where this expertise is not obviously valued. Outside of Silicon Valley, technology companies are notorious for their lack of diversity. We have a pledge to change this in our company because the numbers reflect a disconnect between the architects, designers and consumers of our products.

As a researcher, my expertise is studying work. In the Client Computing Group, I drive research on the future of enterprise. It took a while to get here, but now I’ve found a place to apply my knowledge of technology, people and organizational change to the business that gets us paid.

There are many ways to talk about diversity. At Intel, we use the term ‘under-represented minority’ (URM) because it is the language preferred in the industry. But there are other experiences that matter to inclusion in addition to the metrics we are obliged to count by U.S. law. Perhaps these experiences are clearer to me as someone who has moved from a professional environment in which most of my immediate colleagues are gay to one in which those few who are often feel obliged to hide their identity. It is shocking that an employee of a U.S. technology company might consider their sexuality to be an obstacle to career success. Since joining Intel’s Out and Ally Leadership Council, I’ve started to notice that the few queer colleagues I’ve met are leaving, either by choice or circumstance. Writing this blog is a belated way I want them to know that they aren’t alone; that there are more of us here than might be obvious.

The philosopher that inspired the field of Gender Studies is the French historian Michel Foucault. His work demonstrated how modern Western institutions created categories of behavior to identify and regulate people. He wrote about psychiatry, medicine, schools and prisons in this way; he also wrote a three volume History of Sexuality. Knowing this history means I’m not a fan of categories. If I identify as queer it is because this term draws attention to the pressure our culture places on people to define themselves according to sex. Being queer isn’t a shared creed, and it doesn’t mean the same thing as being gay, lesbian, bi or trans*. Each of these categories has its own unique history of struggle.

What all of these groups have in common is the need to identify as different from the norm because the friendships and intimacies we desire don’t attract official sanction. For this, in ways that are sometimes subtle and at other times explicit, we suffer punishment. To me, being queer means living according to the principle that the objects of your affections need not be limited by gender or number. People and cultures get in all kinds of trouble for treating love and intimacy as a scarce resource, as if there is a cap on how much can go around. To be queer means believing that there are more stories of being in and out of love than the ones we inherit from institutions – from our parents, schools, religion or Disney. It means believing that multiple ways of living and loving are not only needed but should be celebrated.

This is how being queer relates to my life at Intel. It’s not my employer’s business who I care about, have sex with, find attractive or otherwise. But when certain kinds of lives generate more rewards than others, when certain friendship and lifestyle preferences translate to approved benefits and support, when certain patterns of intimacy seem to flourish in an organization at the expense of others – there is something at stake in all of us noticing.

I still don’t profess to hold the secrets to love, or inclusion for that matter. But I believe that education and respect are crucial for understanding. I write these observations to help spread knowledge of our differences and in solidarity with all those in our LGBTQ community who are hurting right now. I hope that this Pride Month inspires Intel employees to embrace and join our efforts to build a workplace that is more tolerant, curious, supportive and loving.

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

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