Noah Berger / Reuters

Technology should emancipate workers, not oppress them

Organizational structures can free workers from a toxic ethos of ruthless competition and executive-managerial control

August 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

Thanks to a recent New York Times exposé of work conditions at Amazon, the world now knows that the e-commerce giant’s ability to quickly and easily deliver an expansive list of items comes with a side of white-collar worker misery.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Over the past few years, there have been many investigations into Amazon’s warehouses’ grim labor conditions. Because of advanced monitoring technology, surveillance of warehouse workers is omnipresent; every movement is tracked and optimized. Every second is monetized, and accruing mere minutes of “unproductive” activity is an offense (or “time theft,” as Walmart, which operates similarly, calls these infractions) that must be weeded out.

These organizational structures, corporate cultures and surveillance systems are essentially technologies of exploitation. Amazon is not the only company putting them to use, but it has been a pioneer in instituting them widely, thoroughly and lucratively. We are surrounded by technologies that reinforce (at least) three features of modern capitalism: competition ethic, labor control and profit accumulation. They pull us into exploitative environments that have become standard, almost expected and at times unnoticed.

Labor control has always played an important role in capitalist economies. It’s not just about monitoring and managing the workforce but also about creating a certain type of worker. Exploitative technologies mold employees into the kind of worker that capitalism thrives on — productive, docile and exhausted. Docile workers are obedient and submit themselves to the company; they either internalize their roles in the system or play along, because it’s harder not to.

Exhausted workers are unlikely to dissent. They have neither the time nor the energy to, say, organize for change. And if they burn out, there’s a replenishing pool of fresh labor.

The drive to maximize profits has led to a quest for ingenious (and inhumane) ways to monetize everything. Whether it is the managerial organization and competitive culture of office workers or the surveillance systems and demanding push of warehouse employees, these technologies of exploitation are primed for slashing costs and wringing cents wherever possible.

Sounds dehumanizing, doesn’t it? It is! Yet executives, journalists and boosters routinely manage to frame these technologies as somehow emancipatory. The companies that implement them promise to make participants part of something bigger, better, more useful. Our success is your success, as they say. This is the price of winning and innovating. The harder you work, the more you will be.

This ultra-capitalist ethos sells us an existential story: Your wages are more than just the paycheck, they’re the self-fulfillment of buying in, integrating into the system and becoming more than a worker. “This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter, told The New York Times. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people, it doesn’t work.”

Taking over the world requires extracting the most from the available human resources. Only the “peculiar,” as Amazon calls them, are fit to survive this “purposeful Darwinism” and become a real contributor to the company mission. And if you don’t like it, you can choose not to work there. 

For-profit businesses have little reason to adopt an emancipatory vision when exploitation is so much more lucrative — unless they are given reasons to change.

In reality, this is a logic that solely benefits shareholders, who enjoy the value created, regardless of who creates it. And the rhetoric of choice doesn’t always apply “in places of high unemployment and low economic opportunities, places where Amazon deliberately sites its distribution centers,” as The Guardian reported. While members of the white-collar class are conditioned to believe that their efforts are a way of finding meaning in life, blue-collar workers aren’t given these bromides on quite the same scale. For them, the options aren’t work here or work there; it’s work or be poor.

In the age of Amazon, we need ways to envision and institute technologies of emancipation — ones explicitly infused with a politics of equity, social well-being and liberation from exploitative labor practices — that aim to complement and empower humans instead of push them to keep moving, toiling and producing until they are no longer useful or can’t stick it out any longer.

It’s not about being for or against technology; to shun technological development entirely would be wrongheaded and regressive. What needs attention are the mythologies, politics and social relations that emerge out of a high-tech economy. Technology built to support large companies making profits certainly benefits the executives, but how can it help the working class and society as a whole?

When automation and robotics are used as a new model to compare human workers against, they become a justification for turning people into machines. An alternative political vision could see these technologies used to relieve workers from the demands of repetitive, backbreaking labor, long workdays and stagnant wages. Of course, technological advancements have saved us from some jobs that nobody would want to do — such as inspecting the tight confines of sewer pipes and exploring hazardous environments like abandoned or collapsed mines — and have allowed us to do more and do it quicker. Yet these gains seldom translate to high guaranteed wages for workers and are sucked up by shareholders seeking ever-growing returns on their investment.

For-profit businesses have little reason to adopt an emancipatory vision when exploitation is so much more lucrative — unless they are given reasons to change, such as union organization and strikes, updated labor regulations, mass boycotts and investigative reports.

Similarly, novel organizational structures centered on democratizing the workplace can free workers from a toxic ethos of ruthless competition and executive-managerial control by offering them power to participate in decisions that affect their collective lives and well-being. Such places exist, though they are few and far between. The New Era Windows Cooperative in Chicago, for example, is a factory that is owned and democratically operated by the workers. There are many models for worker cooperatives, and they are spreading. What they have in common are values and motives based on providing benefit for worker-owners, nurturing solidarity and mutual support, establishing democratic procedures and enriching their communities.

Academics such as Trebor Scholz and Karen Gregory are exploring ways of applying lessons from worker cooperatives to digital platforms. Thanks to the spotlight on Amazon, the company is likely to reform parts of its corporate culture. While I don’t expect workers to overtake Amazon, the emancipatory lessons from cooperatives should inform any changes.

As a society, we must resist and tear down the technologies of exploitation. Many of us live with their consequences every day, but contrary to popular belief, there are alternatives. And if there’s one thing worth working long and hard for, it’s a techno-political arrangement that’s built for all of us. 

Jathan Sadowski is a freelance writer and Ph.D. student in the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He writes about social justice and political economy of technologies.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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