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Quantified Workers in Precarity

The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts

by Phoebe Moore on August 16, 2017

Humans are accustomed to being tool bearers, but what happens when machines become tool bearers, calculating human labour via the use of big data and people analytics by metrics?

My next book is about to come out. Published by Routledge, this is the summation of about four years of work I have been doing on the quantified self at work. The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts is the state of the art text on how technology and the use of technology for management and self-management changes the ‘quantified’, precarious workplace today.

Data, as quantified output, is treated as a neutral arbiter and judge, and is being prioritised over qualitative judgements in ‘agile’ key performance indicator management systems and digitalised client based relationships. From insecure ‘gig’ work to workplace health and wellness initiatives in office work, which include sensory tracking devices, digitalisation is not an inevitable process. Nor is it one that necessarily improves working conditions. Instead, workplace quantification leads to high turnover rates, workplace rationalisation and worker stress and anxiety. Indeed, before too long it will be possible for employers to quite literally track our blood, sweat and tears. These issues are linked to increased rates of precarity both objective and subjective. Scientific management asked us to be efficient. Now, we are asked to be agile. What will this mean for the everyday lives we lead?

The book includes one year of field work with knowledge workers in a real estate and work design company funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Foundations; interviews I conducted with some of the first self-trackers including Chris DancyBethany Soule and Robin Barooah; with trade unionists working with gig economy workers; and warehouse workers themselves whose lives are affected by extreme quantification of work.

Marx recognised relations between the material, living labour and objectified labour. Ontologically, he did not exclude agency of machines, where ‘living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism’ (Marx, 1858/1993: 693). Automation, as I argue in chapter 4 of the book, is not a blunt instrument, where one robot replaces one human. Instead, technologies perform more types of work and fulfil more aspects of work, a trend that gives more work to fewer people in e.g. knowledge work environments, rather than render more efficient labour processes or eliminate dirty, dark and dangerous work in the factory setting. Machines are now attributed more authority, requiring transformed subjectivities of workers and what I call ‘unseen labour’.

Marx’s Fragment on Machines was read by autonomists and post-autonomists (such as Antonio Negri) who viewed it as a fresh reading of capital, power relations and subjectivity, positioned in the face of technology. Marx observed during his lifetime the ways in which early industrialisation turned ‘living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realisation process of capital’ (Marx, 1858/1993: 693). These augural comments continue with: ‘[machinic] knowledge appears as alien’ and ‘external’ to the worker where the worker is ‘superfluous’ (brackets added) (1858/1993: 605). In this text, Marx identifies the machine in the labour process and describes its capacity for quantification and division and of abstracting labour, commenting that ‘the worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movements of the machinery, and not the opposite’ (1858/1993: 693). In this way, Marx identifies agency, and even authority, to the machinery, where ‘objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital’ (Ibid). The means of labour, Marx wrote, is transformed, controlled and absorbed by machinery.

In this book, I identify a distinct rise in precarious conditions in the context of digitalisation and automation and say that the rise and types of agile, digitalised work significantly impacts women and vulnerable groups. With this in mind, I approach a philosophical landscape, aiming to contribute to the new materialist literature as it emerges from the corporeal and affective turns. I outline the emergence of this area of research from both feminist and orthodox Marxist literatures in both cultural theory and international political economy arenas.

Nick Srnicek, Maria Fotou and Edmund Arghand point that ‘the most common approach in International Relations has been to see material things as forming an inert backdrop for the play of social forces’. Adding to this, and to address Negri’s claim that political economy has become de-ontological, I challenge Marxists to re-think assumptions about how life happens and where struggle occurs in their depictions of new materialism so that we can better understand how technology is being used to calculate the corporeal and the affective. Turning to the feminist new materialist and Marxist social reproduction literature, I outline the emerging dialogue between new materialism and the discipline of IPE to build a platform upon which I can theorise issues around the quantified self at work from a labour process perspective. New materialism is not only an idea or a philosophical treatise but is lived, practiced, and agential and as Patricia Ticineto Clough has indicated, it is a response to the technoscientific which I indicate has infiltrated workplaces in the areas of measure and quantification in ways that reflect but do not replicate scientific management. Scientific management was a work design model intended to identify the ‘one best way’ to work. New forms of quantification take an increasingly intimate look at where work happens, measuring affective and emotional labour, to identify the likelihood of worker collapse and worker resistance.

In the quantified workplace, individual workers become accountable for attitudes and behaviours that are recounted by algorithm, leaving no room for qualitative depiction of affective selfhood within communities. I ask how can workers begin to resist the rise of control aspects in precarity, where even self-management is subordinated, where all of life is at risk of being subsumed, leaving a spectre of a non-realised self under conditions of the haunted.

Advanced praise for the book

‘Moore’s book offers a timely overview of the critical models of the working body as a labour value. What counts, in Moore’s astute narrative, is how the fleshed capital potential of this value is measured and turned into data. The Quantified Self, as Moore argues, may be used as units for the service of post-industrial processes, yet this value’s very identification has also enabled sites of resistance, generative of affirmative moments of change.’ Felicity Colman, Kingston University, London

‘This is a compelling, timely and a much-needed analysis of the ways in which technological developments are increasingly affecting the sphere of labour and employment relationships. It covers a variety of pertinent and topical issues including automation, precarity, quantification, and surveillance at the workplace, thereby advancing the current debates on these issues. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the intricate interplay between technology, power and agency in the context of work.’ Btihaj Ajana, King’s College London and Aarhus University

‘This original admixture of critical analysis and passionately written warnings against the dark sides of algorithmic rule raises fundamental questions about human involvement with machines. Exploring the variety of ways to quantify work and workers, Moore offers a rich account of the oppressive effects of calculative practices and politically promising ways to counter them.’ Minna Ruckenstein, University of Helsinki, Finland

Chapter outline:

  • Ch 1. Getting to know the autonomic self
  • Ch 2. Labour processes from Industrial Betterment to Agility
  • Ch 3. Precarity 4.0: A political economy of new materialism and the quantified worker
  • Ch 4. Unseen labour and all-of-life surveillance
  • Ch 5. Meet Some Self-Trackers
  • Ch 6. Robot Army of Redressers?

This post was previously published on Phoebe Moore’s blog Global Judgements and Ideas.

Phoebe Moore
Dr Phoebe Moore is an active researcher and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and International Political Economy at Middlesex University, London in the Department of Law and Politics. Dr Moore has written several books and articles on labour struggle and the impact of technology on working lives. Moore recently won a British Academy/Leverhulme award (2015-17) to research the use of self-tracking health devices in companies. This cutting edge project is ‘Agility, Work and the Quantified Self’. She is lead Social Scientist researching the project The Quantified Workplace at a company in the Netherlands. Moore is primarily interested in how technology is transforming our work and labour and has recently published the single-authored monograph The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts (Routledge, 2017) and a co-edited volume (with Martin Upchurch and Xanthe Whittaker) entitled Humans and Machines at Work: Monitoring, Surveillance and Automation in Contemporary Capitalism (Palgrave, 2018). Moore is also working with the International Labour Organisation looking at the risks of psychosocial violence and harassment for workers posed by new technologies at work.

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