Tuesday, May 1, 2012

From High Technology to Low Skill

The real story behind L. V. Anderson’s post to browbeat, the culture blog maintained on the Slate Web site, has to do with the relationship between technology and work. On the surface the story was about a press screening of The Avengers in which the entire digital file of the film was deleted by the projectionist and needed to be downloaded, requiring a wait of a couple of hours. Anderson used this as an opportunity to revisit an older blog post by Roger Ebert on “the visual pitfalls of digital projection.” At the risk oversimplifying, the basic idea is that using a digital projector is not that different from using an iPod; and Ebert’s point is that projectionists are no longer as skilled as they were in the good old days when you had to worry about things like a smooth transition from one projector to another when the film required more than one reel or monitoring the equipment to make sure that nothing catches fire.

This should not be surprising in a world in which technology has managed to reduce “knowledge work” to just another form of slave labor. The bottom line is that “the owners of the material conditions of labour” (to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx) are not interested in skilled workers; they are only interested in how increased productivity leads to increased revenue, whether it is the productivity of some drone at a call center or a projectionist in a movie house. In the latter case all that seems to matter to those owners is that one projectionist can now easily manage multiple theaters (the metric of productivity); and the risk factors of mistakes do not seem to enter into the equation. Presumably, one could design better interfaces to minimize those errors, but that would involve investing in both the designers and the evaluators. Why go to all that trouble when running a projection room is the same as using an iPod? Last week we saw a vivid demonstration of the answer to that question.

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