The master-smartphone dialectic

In this week’s Economist, the Schumpeter column — which deals with management issues — considers how elastic work time becomes with the advent of the smartphone. What was alleged to be a tool to empower individuals and cater to their convenience has ended up making them feel more harried and hassled than ever.

The servant has become the master. Not long ago only doctors were on call all the time. Now everybody is. Bosses think nothing of invading their employees’ free time. Work invades the home far more than domestic chores invade the office. Otherwise-sane people check their smartphones obsessively, even during pre-dinner drinks, and send e-mails first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Funny how that worked out. Convenience not really convenient, but a veiled speed-up? How strange.

When consumption is a form of work, convenience is a means for speeding up the line.
But it’s interesting who the management columnist wants to blame rhetorically for this insanity. Though the writer gestures, in whimsical management speak, toward the structural changes in the workplace that have prompted “the cult of flexibility,” “adhocracy” instead of bureaucracy, and just-in-time decisionmaking, the problems of hyperconnectivity and the full subsumption of workers’ waking hours don’t, in the columnist’s view, derive from those insititutionalized imperatives. Hyperconnectivity is regarded as some natural evolution prompted by the innate human desire for more, more, more; there is no sense that hyperconnectivity is an emanation of the necessary logic of capital to always expand. People are simply getting too much of a good thing that they want if they can’t put their smartphones down; it’s not that they are caught in a system that is trying to commodify an increasing amount of their lives.

Instead, if it’s not employees’ fault for being too weak not to become “addicted” to smartphones and working in their leisure hours, then the blame for hyperconnectivity rests with the smartphones themselves. It’s what “technology wants.”  The column imputes a weird will-to-power to the phones, making them into scheming servants that want to turn the tables on the masters and seize control. The column invokes the 1963 British class-conflict comedy The Servant, but a whole slew of science-fiction dystopias hinge on this idea as well, that the machines want to enslave humans whose faculties have been dulled by dependency. Rather than liken the capitalist firms to implacable monsters seeking to suck more working time from its employees,

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.” Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chapter 10 
the machines themselves become the monsters, the ingrates who want to usurp their minders.

Hence the solution is to reassert pesonal will in the face of the temptations the “servant” craftily offers:

Just as the abundance of junk food means that people have to be more disciplined about their eating habits, so the abundance of junk information means they have to be more disciplined about their browsing habits. Banning browsing before breakfast can reintroduce a modicum of civilisation. Banning texting at weekends or, say, on Thursdays, can really show the iPhone who is boss.

That will teach that dastardly iPhone not to be uppity.

The beauty of the smartphone from the management point of view is that it allows bosses to steal worktime  from employees while the employees blame themselves. If workers don’t have the inner steel to prevent themselves from starting work before breakfast, then what can the bosses do about it? Smartphone lockout?

Once employers successfully blame workers for overworking (or for being “workaholics,” an earlier version of this blame-shifting tactic), they can present themselves as caring intercessors, urging them to set boundaries around their work, to enforce some leisure time, and to seek “balance.” Having deployed machines and devices to extract more labor from employees, employers can then pose as saviours who want to rescue from us from the evil “enslaving” devices.

But most corporate employees know that this sort of discourse is meant to separate the lackluster employees from the dedicated ones. They know it is a trap. The employees who effectively manage themselves and deserve eventual promotion are the ones who drive themselves the hardest in the face of such advice. The “balance” rhetoric sets a bar employees know they are supposed to clear to make themselves exceptional. It’s a cloaked motivational tool to discredit the entire notion of work-life balance.

Still, the dialectic turns. No doubt employers are sincere at this point in hoping to prevent their best employees from burning out. The  Schumpeter column describes an effort at the Boston Consulting Group in which management tried to enforce no-smartphone-use periods among employees.

The firm introduced rules about when people were expected to be offline, and encouraged them to work together to make this possible. Many macho consultants mocked the exercise at first—surely only wimps switch off their smartphones? But eventually it forced people to work more productively while reducing burnout.

It turns out that from management’s point of view, the abuse of worktime limits is an inescapable collective-action problem brought on by the competitive structure of capitalism, which of course is the natural, unalterable way of things. No individuals are responsible ultimately, bosses or employees. No wonder the devices are personified and blamed.