Technology, time-discipline and worker control then and now

“What needs to be said is not that one way of life is better than the other, but that this is a place of the most far-reaching conflict; that the historical record is not a simple one of neutral and inevitable technological change, but also one of exploitation and of resistance to exploitation; and that values stand to be lost as well as gained.” (93-94.) This quote captures a core tension at work within E.P. Thompson’s analysis of the interplay between the technological tool of the clock (and in fact the normalization of the systematic marking of time itself) with the structuring of the labor force to adapt to the exigencies of industrial capitalism. Thompson’s study lays out the centuries-long transitioning of labor from “task-orientation” in which work varied in length and intensity according to need to systematic, time-controlled, work-discipline within industrial production designed to maximize efficiency and labor’s value to the employer; i.e. the remaking of time as currency no longer to be “passed but spent.”

Notwithstanding Thompson’s tendency to gloss over exploitation also present in earlier, more flexible labor models, for example the unpaid labor of women and children within home-based piecework, he richly depicts the transition through which employer control over work-time was regularized and internalized, and sometimes repelled.  Through this process workers learned to demarcate their time and establish boundaries between work, now the expenditure of labor for purpose of survival, and life, now viewed as leisure time separate from work.  Or in more direct usage of Marxist terminology, the separation of workers from their work-process and species being.  I found Thompson’s thick usage of primary documents, and sharp irony, particularly salient as he mapped out the imposition and internalization of the Puritan moral order. Work and efficient time usage is sanctified as the highest aspiration of a virtuous life whereas leisure among the masses is a scourge to be eradicated – even worse when combined with incivility, as Thompson notes “this clearly, was worse than Bingo: non-productivity, compounded with impertinence.” (90) And in the spirit of capitalism, the technological instrument of the imposition of time-discipline enabling capital’s extraction of surplus value would also become coveted by those whose labor value was being extracted as an object of consumption.  Thus, the watch became a fashion accessory desired not merely for its functionality but also as a status symbol – which Thompson reinforces in his biting observation about retirement gifting “for fifty years of disciplined servitude to work, the enlightened employer gave to his employee an engraved gold watch.” (70)

To what extent does Thompson’s analysis apply to the interplay between technology, work and life as we experience it today in the 21st century? Certainly, our present day technological instruments, MacBooks, Iphones, etc structure both our work and everyday life and, to a certain degree, have become objects of acquisitive consumption which we upgrade and accessorize beyond immediate necessity.  For many of us our smart phones have become extensions of our bodies, never leaving our hands.  However, more pertinent is the manner in which digital technology has penetrated and transformed the ways in which we experience both work and everyday life.  While digital technologies optimally could enhance worker flexibility and control over work time, the current balance of power has enabled capital to utilize flexibility for their own purposes – with workers peppered with continual emails and text messages, spending their evenings responding to the latest correspondences in preparation for the following day or inputting edits into collectively produced google-docs.  If prior time-control of hours of work established a demarcation between work and life which would drain work of meaning, today many workers look wistfully upon a time when they could leave the job-site with the expectation that, unless urgent, no after-hours work communication would occur.  Certainly these changes have benefited some employees including those who can now utilize flexible work for child and elder care, doctor’s visits, trips to the gym, etc – although the ability to take advantage of this flexibility varies greatly depending upon status and position.  Moreover, while the “uberization” of work touts worker flexibility in actuality it more frequently transfers the imposition of time-discipline from being employer-imposed to system-imposed while enabling capitalists to evade regulatory accountability to employees.  Meanwhile, the new cohort of flexible workers juggle multiple demands for inadequate compensation amidst an expectation of permanent availability – and without established work hours as a means to demand compensation for real hours of work.  So capital has transcended the need for clock-imposed work-discipline to generate profits and has learned to incorporate newer, digital technologies to its benefit.

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2 thoughts on “Technology, time-discipline and worker control then and now

  1. Lots of relevant thinking here, Lynne. Since you concluded with Thompson’s musings on the lost “arts of living,” I just wanted to add one item that resonated with me: how our present “Puritan time-valuation” leads to the exploitation of our leisure time by the “leisure industries”; for instance, we have been disciplined to use our smart phones to blur the line between work and play (as when people use it to play games on the subway–or even at work!): a far cry from what Thompson was expecting from the “automated” future in 1967.

  2. I found myself thinking about similar 21st century issues after reading Thompson’s work, particularly around the ‘flexibility’ that (some) modern work offers. The exploitation of leisure time that Ximena mentions had me considering the phenomenon of a ‘workcation’, something that many savvy start-up technology companies offer. Companies take employees away on an all expense paid trip, filled with fun and games and team-building, but really it’s a way to get 24 hour labor out of the entire company at once. The line between life and work has become so blurry that I have to laugh that a word like ‘workcation’ even exists!

    To Lynnes point about needing a change in the labor system, rather than a battle over who owns the time of workers, resonates with me. The capitalist mindset has invaded the fiber of our beings, and the decreasing presence and power of unions is no match for the American internalization of capitalist values. However, I don’t think the revolution is imminent so it might be left to us to find our own leisure/work balance.

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