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.


Leave a Reply

  • @melgregg

    One of many knockout passages in Temp, by @louishyman - important, deeply historical labor scholarship for our times

    About 2 days ago from Mel's Twitter via Twitter for iPhone

  • Currently reading

    Invisible Labor
  • Look Who