The cyberserfs

Technological innovation promised us more leisure time. But, asks Christine Evans-Pughe, are we now just in thrall to machines?

Wednesday 19 November 2003 01:00

Around the world, people are sitting with one hand poised over a keyboard and the other going from keys to mouse. They're all staring at dull grey squares labelled File, Edit, View, Tools, Format, Windows and Help - "the ghastly spoor of some aesthetically-challenged Microsoft employee of the late 1980s," according to the teleworking guru and labour historian Ursula Huws in her new book of essays, The Making of a Cybertariat.

"For the first time in history," she says, "thanks to Bill Gates, we are all working with a common language in the form of an identical labour process." This is why, "having designed the creativity and skill out of their information processing jobs, companies can partition what's left into piecework tasks and shunt them around the globe".

Huws is professor of international labour studies at London Metropolitan University and an expert on the global division of labour in the information business. As the director of the multigovernment-funded programme Emergence (Estimation and Mapping of Employment Relocation in a Global Economy in the New Communications Environment), she's also a leading commentator on the implications of the rush to outsource every job under the sun.

Her essays chart the transformation of technology and work since the late Seventies, with the theme that we're using technology to turn every part of our working and personal lives into commodities. On the one hand, she says, we're employing it to standardise paid work processes to squeeze the maximum labour from each other at minimum cost. On the other, we're plundering areas of life in which labour is carried out beyond the money economy (for example, housework, entertainment, communication and sex) to come up with more and more "labour-saving" products. The result is amazingly complex global systems of machines and people that are slowly spiralling out of our control.

"The first shift is typically to a service industry," Huws says. "Then, as technology develops, the service industry becomes automated and goods that are more complex are produced, which spawn new services to deal with the complexity. Then each of these services can be automated, allowing the creation of more new products in a continual cycle of innovation.

"Communication used to be people talking to each other," she says "Then it became writing, and then various electrical and electronic ways of transmitting, like the telegraph and telephone. Entertainment used to be somebody singing; the service industry grew minstrels and then orchestras, then technologies for recording music, which become the basis for mass commodities like the CD or pop music videos."

Mobile phones are a great example of the creeping "commoditisation" of our personal lives, Huws says. "We now walk down the road with friends while talking on our mobiles to other people. We're prioritising the distant person over the near one, which is exactly what the phone companies want us to do because it doesn't cost anything to talk to the person you're standing next to."

Huws shows me pictures taken as part of her Emergence research. One is of a home-based outworker in Vietnam sitting in front of a gleaming computer in a dilapidated shack. Others show Chinese women employed to enter data for credit-card companies; they eat, sleep and work in the same building while being continuously monitored by video from Australia. Huws explains how their work is chopped up so that one set of women types postcodes, another surnames and so on. In India computer operators - often postgraduates - now process medical transcriptions for doctors in the United States for one-eighth of what US computer operators would earn, but four times the salary of an Indian schoolteacher. These Indian workers have their own servants and are part of the élite. Supermarket security cameras in California are now monitored by cheap labour sitting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Huws mentions that someone from the World Bank recently suggested that employment could be created in Africa by giving the Africans jobs remotely monitoring supermarket cameras in the West. She feels the idea is brutally idiotic: "They would have their noses constantly rubbed in the profusion of Western consumer goods. And would they ask them to watch out for the dodgy-looking black shoppers?"

Using technology to standardise and strip creativity out of work processes and to monitor workers is certainly dehumanising. Taking advantage of the poverty-stricken is exploitation. But Huws also sees positive democratic effects on the usual master/ slave dynamics of the relationship between customer and service provider.

She relates with amusement how an Indian call-centre that provides help to computer users deals with difficult callers. "If the customer makes a racist remark, they say, 'Switch the machine off, put it in the sun for 24 hours so it reaches its optimum temperature, and if it doesn't work, call us back.' This works on two fronts because the workers lose bonuses if the call goes on for too long or if the customer calls back within 24 hours. Their view is that the work is beneath them: the customers are stupid, but they're doing it for India."

The big problem Huws sees is that, as producers and consumers, we all risk losing the plot as we become enmeshed in ever-growing chains of interconnected manufacturing and service relationships filled with people with incomplete knowledge of what they're doing, and very different agendas as to why they're doing it.

A mobile phone, for instance, involves tens of thousands of people distributed around the world in chip manufacture, design, assembly, marketing and sales. Then there are those building the satellites and base stations, the credit-card companies sorting out how you pay, and the people at call centres dealing with complaints about why multimedia messaging doesn't work. "As each part of each work process gets separated, it becomes harder to get a handle on the map of the whole, and to see where the buck stops," Huws says. "Nobody can see who's up at the top. There probably isn't anyone at the top."

The irony is that technology doesn't seem to be giving us more leisure because we spend more time doing "consumption work". We trail around shops and websites deciding what phone or dishwasher we need. We wait in real queues to buy it, then wait in virtual queues for advice from call centres on how to use it. "The stuff we do for fun is things that our grandparents did as chores or duties: gardening, making bread, singing in a choir," Huws says.

But she doesn't romanticise a golden past where most of us worked like slaves and a small proportion of the population got waited on - she's a fan of technology. "Technology holds out the promise of things being redistributed in some way, but there are two edges to it," she says. Huws hopes her book will get people thinking about how they can regain some control over their working and consuming lives.

'The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World' by Ursula Huws (Merlin Press, £13.95)

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