Sunday, July 29, 2007

Can Anyone do Anything about the Pathology of Today's Workplace?

In "They're Micromanaging Your Every Move," in the latest issue of The New York Review, Simon Head reviews three books, none of which are particularly new:

  1. The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
  2. Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich
  3. The Culture of the New Capitalism, by Richard Sennett

It is only at the end of his article that Head looks to the future, rather than reminding us of just how pathological the present is and how it was that the past brought us into this mess. Nevertheless, Sennett's book, based on lectures he gave at Yale in 2004, is probably still valuable for its analysis of the implications and consequences of the mess; and he may also have contributed some fresh weapons for taking on some of the more recent claptrap being promoted by IT evangelists. By invoking the concept of "culture," Sennett is justifying an argument that has to do with a major shift in worldviews and values. Head recognizes this by capturing that shift in a single sentence:

The concept of a career has become increasingly meaningless in a setting in which employees have neither skills of which they might be proud nor an audience of independently minded fellow workers that might recognize their value.

While Sennett does not invoke the adjective "Agile" (capitalized by its evangelists to reflect a development methodology, a business strategy, and, consistent with Sennett's "culture" concept, a mindset), he describes contemporary workplaces as scenes in which Agility trumps all else:

As we have seen, in the workplace [changes based on Agility] produce social deficits of loyalty and informal trust, they erode the value of accumulated experience. To which we should now add the hollowing out of ability.

Indeed, it is that erosion of the value of accumulated experience that lies at the horror story of Ehrenreich's book, a truly disconcerting chronicle of the inability of a successful journalist to land a job in public relations, even with the assistance of "career coaches."

Head's concluding assessment of the future is framed in terms of what a Democratic candidate for President might do to get us out of this mess:

Compared with Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards are already concentrating more heavily on the growing inequality of American society, the squeeze on middle- and lower-income Americans, and how to reverse these trends. But all three are having a hard time facing up to how the unfairness and inequality they all claim to deplore has been caused by the relentless growth of corporate power.

This is worth saying; but, once again, it is nothing new. The message was delivered far more dramatistically in John Kirby's documentary, based on a text by Lewis Lapham, The American Ruling Class. The punch line of this film is a motto that says it all: "Why change City Hall when you can buy it?" It is hard to imagine any candidate for President (even one not affiliated with either of the major political parties) achieving the office without ultimately selling out to that corporate power that lies at the heart of our own "ruling class." Furthermore, since the power to rule now depends to such a great extent on the very IT that the evangelists keep promoting, the bottom line is that the world the Internet has made is one in which we have painted ourselves into a corner and the paint is now closing in on us through its own devices!

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