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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Gut of the Quantifier

I am finding Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine to be a very compelling and useful book, considering that we are now presumably entering the age of the smart phone.  Zuboff details how the introduction of the “smart machine” — i.e. networked computers — into the workplace kicked off a new regime of clerical deskilling that made on-job interpersonal communication an even more precious resource. A greater proportion of work in production was turned into information processing — “once mute material processes now translated and displayed as data —  and the definition of executive function as work that could not be automated and that depended on “feel” and the expression of authority in unmediated interpersonal communication was strengthened. Zuboff notes that

The textualization of the operations that they supervised provided them with a wider, more accurate, timely, and accessible record of work. They were able to use this text to augment and enhance their supervisory function.

Executives become the subject for whom the mediatization of work is prepared for, allowing them to exercise unmediated, subjective authority, making decisions that are not alogorithmically dictated, for example. Clerks are the object of this process, their efforts being turned into data so that they can be better controlled, and ideally accelerated.

So the stakes for workplace elites are high in the “informating” of the office. It sharpens the definition of what makes their work distinctive, and it makes those skills more ineffable, less quantifiable, more the apparent magical properties of the individual executives themselves. I sketched out some of these ideas in this post.

To the extent that skilled practice eludes codification, it provides a living resource for the preservation of oral culture … Senior executives, because of the authority they enjoy, have been able to preserve the orality of their culture, perhaps more successfully than any other group. This serves to maintain the conditions that support their authority, as it protects the opacity of their know-how.

Executive prerogative is to not be quantified, to mandate the quantification of others. Call it leadership. You have the information necessary to lead and keep others from accessing that total picture. The most sobering sentence in the book is when Zuboff reminds readers that “individual potential is a necessary but not sufficient condition for intellective skill development” — in other words hierarchical organizations can work to impede one’s skill development and thwart individual potential in order to preserve existing power relations. You might be marginalized despite or because of your potential; simply having it recognized is not enough to garner it institutional support.

So it is that quantification is an assault on others’ “oral,” subjective ways of knowing; it is an attack on that form of knowledge’s legitimacy. This is what I find so off-putting about the ideologists of the quantified-self movement; they represent self-surveillance not as a mode of surrender but a means to self-control — which it is, but by the terms of the unquantified. You serve the data which serves someone else’s ends of controlling you, according to non-qualitative, non-intuitive standards that must be imposed from outside.

What the “smart machine” did to work, the smart phone (and the social media it facilitates) is doing to our social lives. Social media attack the legitimacy, the validity, of nonmediated experience: “Pics or it didn’t happen.” But some of the affordances of friendship, if it makes sense to call them that, are destroyed by making them explicit. When you make too-obvious instrumental use of friends, as social media is designed to encourage, friendship’s tacit reciprocity is obviated. The relationship becomes unstable, insecure, something to be measured and managed. (“How come he didn’t comment on my status?” “Where’s the retweet? I retweeted him.”)

The attack on unrecorded sociality, on its existence as an ephemeral, oral phenomenon, is an effort to subsume social behavior as a productive form of work. Social activity is quantified not to give us helpful information about ourselves so we can enjoy our leisure more but to make everything we do into signification work. The “mute material process” of our social life is “made visible” in social-media data as work. Like the workers in automated offices, Facebook users become what Zuboff calls “functionaries of the text” — the text being her somewhat outmoded term for work processes translated into data monitored on screens. Clerks, once their job functions were automated, “were treated like mechanical devices in the textualization process, and were not encouraged to utilize the text to create value.” On social media, we are encouraged to create “value” in the sense of personal-identity elaboration and microcelebrity, but we are not encouraged to seize control of the process as something monetizable. Our data in these media belong to someone else, no matter what “value” we got out of creating it (or having it passively created for us). We don’t see the whole picture of how our data is used; we are “trained” only in the basic procedures of logging ourselves in, uploading and “sharing,” and, of course, consuming.

Please forgive the amateur futurism I’m about to launch into here, but it’s easy to see how the ineffability of friendship will be banished for ordinary people, becoming the province and mark of the elite. Just as executives reserve the right to not be quantified at work, mystifying their work as an emanation of their personality, so will elites evade privacy-invading social media as a way to express and conserve their power. “I don’t need to be on Facebook; I’m important enough to be told individually about parties, which are too exclusive for such broadcasting anyway.” In a reversal of Facebook’s Ivy League-only origins, social life for elites will recede from social media and will seem like “elite behavior” to participants precisely because it is unmediated. For elites, the motto will be “pics and it never happened.”

The rest of us will be more or less required to conducted social life on quantifiable platforms; for some, it will be an economic necessity and for others it will be an emotional one. But the inability to opt out will become a class marker, a kind of objective determinant.  Everything you say and do will go down in your permanent corporate record; the incentives for you to be more friendly will be applied ruthlessly when necessary.

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5 Responses to “Gut of the Quantifier”

  1. Greg Graham says:

    I’m buying much of what you are saying. It coincides with the contention I’ve been making to anyone who will listen that face-to-face education will one day be a luxury only experienced by the elite and the fringe.

  2. Dnew1 says:

    spell check!!

  3. Byrd says:

    “I don’t need to have a telephone; I’m important enough to receive postal mail about parties, which are too exclusive for telephone announcements anyway.” #goodluckwiththat

  4. Magneticnorth says:

    I can track how many friends follow links from Facebook to my blogs and tehn track how many of them click through to ads. It seems I am able to monetize my Social Networks.

  5. Gary Wolf says:

    “Executive prerogative is to not be quantified…”

    Is this true? Executives are almost always evaluated quantitatively, and the manipulation of numbers is a crucial element in establishing compensation and defending it against criticism.

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