Thursday, April 22, 2010

The New Proletarians

Matthew Crawford is the author of Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It is being published in the U.K. as The Case for Working with Your Hands and appears to be in the same mould as Richard Sennett's The Craftsman, although hopefully not as long winded and obtuse.

An article by Crawford appeared in last week's Sunday Times magazine, but you know by now our aversion to that particular product and its owner. Fortunately, a version of the same article previously appeared in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago. And here it is.

I don't particularly want to get into a debate here about petty-bourgeois artisanship and the social and technological step backward implied by the retreat to small-scale production. What interested me more, and for obvious reasons, was the second part of the article:

After earning a master’s degree in the early 1990s, I had a hard time finding work but eventually landed a job in the Bay Area writing brief summaries of academic journal articles, which were then sold on CD-ROMs to subscribing libraries. When I got the phone call offering me the job, I was excited. I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing world — miraculously, through the mere filament of a classified ad — and reeled myself into its current. My new bosses immediately took up residence in my imagination, where I often surprised them with my hidden depths. As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of being honored. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk, where I would think my thoughts — my unique contribution to a common enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker.

But the feel of the job changed on my first day. The company had gotten its start by providing libraries with a subject index of popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it now found itself offering not just indexes but also abstracts (that is, summaries), and of a very different kind of material: scholarly works in the physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences and law. Some of this stuff was simply incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the particular field covered by the journal. I was reading articles in Classical Philology where practically every other word was in Greek. Some of the scientific journals were no less mysterious. Yet the categorical difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and Nature Genetics seemed not to have impressed itself on the company’s decision makers. In some of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material. But then, I hadn’t yet been trained.

My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard, diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to ignore in order to do their jobs.

My starting quota, after finishing a week of training, was 15 articles per day. By my 11th month at the company, my quota was up to 28 articles per day (this was the normal, scheduled increase). I was always sleepy while at work, and I think this exhaustion was because I felt trapped in a contradiction: the fast pace demanded complete focus on the task, yet that pace also made any real concentration impossible. I had to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. To not do justice to an author who had poured himself into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in myself.

The quota demanded, then, not just dumbing down but also a bit of moral re-education, the opposite of the kind that occurs in the heedful absorption of mechanical work. I had to suppress my sense of responsibility to the article itself, and to others — to the author, to begin with, as well as to the hapless users of the database, who might na├»vely suppose that my abstract reflected the author’s work. Such detachment was made easy by the fact there was no immediate consequence for me; I could write any nonsense whatever.

Crawford goes on to wonder:

How was it that I, once a proudly self-employed electrician, had ended up among these walking wounded, a “knowledge worker” at a salary of $23,000? I had a master’s degree, and it needed to be used. The escalating demand for academic credentials in the job market gives the impression of an ever-more-knowledgeable society, whose members perform cognitive feats their unschooled parents could scarcely conceive of. On paper, my abstracting job, multiplied a millionfold, is precisely what puts the futurologist in a rapture: we are getting to be so smart! Yet my M.A. obscures a more real stupidification of the work I secured with that credential, and a wage to match. When I first got the degree, I felt as if I had been inducted to a certain order of society. But despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as an electrician. In that job I had made quite a bit more money. I also felt free and active, rather than confined and stultified.

Proletarian indeed, but to imagine that there's no active engagement by workers on an intellectual production line such as this is reinforces the stereotype of mass worker as passive victim. Just as Socialism or Barbarism pointed out back in the 50s and 60s, factories require the active participation of their workers in order to function properly. And that still applies today. Every abstract writer knows dozens of short-cuts and ways to get round problematic articles that will make the job easier, get it done quicker without loss of accuracy or quality, and which he or she will be tempted to keep from editors or management because once management find out they'll likely change the targets. This is partly why management actually don't know how to do the workers' jobs much of the time. It's in the workers' interests to keep management out of the loop and to conserve knowledge for their own protection, something I don't recall Bourdieu ever noticing, although I'm sure someone can correct me on that. What's interesting is that it is the the nature of hierarchy itself that requires the worker to engage with the task in this way, regardless of whether or not he or she has any pride in the job. Indeed, the chance to skive can be part of the motivation.

And 28 articles a day, by the way, is piss.

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