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).

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.

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