Our focus in this instalment of digital geographies is work. We will explore the ways in which work has been reconfigured and reimagined with and through digital media. We will focus on the technologies, practices and sites of digital work. In particular our objective is to investigate three particular aspects of digital work:
- How new forms of work may be created by the digital
- How the digital reconfigures existing forms of work
- How particular jobs are considered under threat by digital technologies
Work is imagined in particular ways. When the idea of ‘digital’ work is mentioned you might immediately think about some of the things that frequently feature in the popular press. At present this may bring to mind ‘working from home’ and the frustrations of patchy Zoom connections. However, there are a wider range of stories that are often told. For example: you might think about Uber and the gig economy, or you might think about automation and robots. In many ways, the digital is classed as something that ‘impacts’ upon work. This is arguably one of the main themes of ‘digitalisation’ and ‘digital transformation’. Digital technologies are, in this way, conceived as something external that changes the status quo.
Digital forms of work are often use analogies or metaphors from current models of work to make them seem more familiar. For example, the metaphor of travel – in relation to commuting, e.g. ‘telecommuting’ – or spatial metaphors associated with workplaces, such as offices, desktops and so on. One of the most persistent ways in which digital work is discussed is in relation to a technology being implemented to change something. This is the narrative of ‘disruption’, as many Silicon Valley venture capitalists might argue. For example, the models of work that have become known as the ‘sharing economy’ or the ‘gig economy’ are often narrated as disruptions of the status quo. Depending on your perspective, these jobs either free workers to conduct work more flexibly or they make them more precarious.
Work is actually altered, created, or removed by virtue of technological change. This has certainly been the case with the growth and spread of digital technologies across all areas of our lives.
Networked digital media, in particular, has been an instrumental part of how work has been reshaped in the last 50 years. These are not only changes in how work gets imagined or talked about in the abstract. There have been significant shifts in the kinds of work, the practices of work and the places of work wrought with networked information and communications technologies. The postal services, for example, do not exist in the same way as they did 30 years ago precisely because of the rise of networked communications.
Some jobs simply no longer exist. I will provide two quick examples: First, the earliest meaning of the word ‘computer’ was to denote a job. People would ‘compute’ – performing mathematical calculations, sometimes according to instructions, other times by skill. As Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures recounts, John Glenn was put into orbit in Friendship 7 by virtue of the complex and prodigious calculations of mathematicians, known as ‘human computers’, such as Katherine Johnson.
Second, whilst we all type our own words into various devices now, thousands of people were, until comparatively recently, employed to ‘type’. Their role was to literally reproduce handwritten work or transcribe dictated words into typed text. This continued beyond the widespread adoption of computers. It remained the case until the mid 1990s that the UK civil service employed typing pools across government.
In the tasks for this instalment of digital geographies, we will explore how work has been altered, created and reimagined.
There are three sections to this weeks asynchronous learning. Each is designed to take a maximum of 45 minutes to read through and make notes on. Some key considerations
1. Re-working work
Welcome to the first section of this instalment of digital geographies. We will be focusing upon how work has been altered or reconfigured with and through digital technologies. Many of the places and practices of work in our contemporary lives were once novel. Some technology researchers and theorists, such as Langdon Winner and Bernard Stiegler, argue that the shift the digital makes is as much an acceleration of changes as the changes themselves. Let us begin with what might seem a banal example: working from home.
[See the Harvard Business Review Video embedded below]
At present, working from home might seem far from desirable. Even so, in the fairly recent past – a ‘home office’ and ‘flexible working’ were considered a luxury. RMIT researcher Julian Waters-Lynch observes that home telecommuting became viable with the growth of the personal computer market in the late 1970s. In 1980 futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in his book The Third Wave that the home would “assume a startling new importance” with the growth in knowledge-based work. The home was to become “a central unit in the society of tomorrow – a unit with enhanced rather than diminished economic, medical, educational and social functions”. Due to the rapid growth of the internet, the notable Austrian management consultant Peter Drucker felt confident enough by 1992, in his book The Ecological Vision, to declare commuting to the office obsolete:
What the management consultants and futurists perhaps ignored is that in bringing new forms of work into the home, as Mel Gregg (2011: 136) observes: “the private sphere … takes some of the utilitarian perspectives of the public”. Working from home changes what ‘home’ is and means. It is no longer solely a private space but we show people our private spaces on Teams and Zoom, we bring people to our kitchen tables for ‘meetings’. Working hours are blurred by being always on.
We might pause to note, in passing, that, as several Dickens characters illustrate, the home has only ever been ‘private’, in the ways just inferred, for the wealthier in society. For those of us in society without wealth ‘home’ may long have been the site of work – in the shape of ‘piece work’ manufacturing or serving other people in their homes. Whilst the flexibility of knowledge work has placed the ‘office’ in the ‘home’ it has also preserved a degree of job security.
The next step in the changing of work through the digital that we might explore is the ways in which workplaces more broadly have been reconfigured. The ‘home office’ and ‘working from home’ may have become ‘normal’ for many of us, but so has working in cafés or ‘hotdesking’ facilities. Many cafés have changed their physical layout and the ways in which they sell coffee to accommodate workers. ‘Pay as you work’ hotdesking centres or shared workspaces have also grown in prominence mirroring the growth in ‘freelance’ labour in knowledge work, as well as some companies now eschewing a settled physical presence. What work looks like, the quality of the experience of working, for some of us at least, has significantly changed in the last decade with the spread and reduction in cost of internet infrastructure.
[See the video clip about DeskLodge embedded below]
A prevailing theme in this version of a narrative for ‘digital work’ is flexibility or mobility. The digital worker may work from almost anywhere, and so also be accessible anywhere and perhaps at any time. We work from home, from a café, from a hot-desk, on a train and so on. And yet, as one of the first interviewees in the video interviews said, almost in passing: she ‘got more done’ in the hotdesking centre than at home or in a café. Many of us perhaps crave the familiarity or settled routine of a workplace. We might, perhaps, pose the question of ourselves once we have moved beyond the current pandemic of where we really want to work and the answers may be less about technology than about social ties.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of the supposed liberty of home and café working is the growth in workplace surveillance. Where knowledge workers are apparently free to quaff flat whites and work flexible hours, those whose labour in some cases props up that knowledge work, not least in customer fulfilment and distribution centres, experience anything but liberty. In some professions all work time must be accounted for and ‘booked’. Workers must fill in timesheets for all billable work. In some cases this is done ‘automatically’. In the perhaps more punishing work of customer fulfilment in warehouses and distribution centres, staff are constantly measured and prompted.
The archetypal example of the work-place surveillance enabled by digital technologies is customer fulfilment in Amazon distribution centres. Staff carry technology with them, sometimes strapped to an arm, sometimes on a trolley and the system tells them what and how many items to pick and gives them a timeframe. There are constantly updating targets. A worker must achieve the targets or face a warning, even as the targets continue to rise in frequency of picks per hour. The systems check for unscheduled breaks by tracking workers. In these systems the policies and rules are coded-in and the system directs the lower levels of staff management, as illustrated in the video clips below.
A further step has been taken in some instances, where workers have been supplemented and roles rationalised with the introduction of robots. Amazon bought the firm Kiva Robots in 2012 and uses their systems to speed up the picking process. Rather than send the worker around the warehouse they stay in place and the robots bring the shelves to the workers. The worker then simply performs the task that is less easy to automate – picking the item from the shelf, illustrated in the video below.
It is tempting to think about the robots ‘replacing’ human workers, and we will return to that trope in the next section. However I want to suggest an alternative possibility – technologies such as the Kiva robots both replace existing forms of work and create new forms of work. How these are managed and how companies decide to implement technologies is not determined by the technologies themselves. Rather, it is the management strategy and choices made by people in companies that, mostly, determines how work changes.
In this first part of our discussion about digital work we have thought about the role of digitally networking work in where we work and how we work. The workplace has been significantly reimagined for those who work in ‘knowledge’-oriented jobs. Home working and working from places not previously identified with ‘work’ has grown in influence. Re-working the workplace with and through the digital is an ongoing process, desirable to some and less so for others.
Section 1 Videos
2. Automation Anxiety
Welcome to the second section of this instalment of digital geographies. We will be focusing upon how work has been apparently replaced by and through digital technologies. There has long been a trope of workers being either subordinate to or replaced by mechanisation and robots. From Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, robots have been prominently figured as a threat. This idea fo a threat has translated into the ways automation is popularly figured: ‘the robots are coming’ is a news headline used repeatedly in the last fifty years.
In some respects the threat of automation is a threat that never quite arrives. The story told and repeated in the clips from BBC documentaries across three decades, embedded below, illustrates how the threat vs. opportunity narrative automation carries a lot of rhetorical power. On the one had we should be worried about an impending loss of jobs, on the other hand we can ‘get ahead of the curve’ and reorient ourselves and our economy to turn this into an opportunity.
Advances in industrialisation, mechanisation and finally automation are often figured in terms of historical periods. We speak of ‘ages’, ‘epochs’ and ‘revolutions’, such as the ‘stone age’, the ‘information age’ and the ‘machine age’ or successive ‘industrial revolutions’. The fourth industrial revolution is touted by the former chair of the World Economics Forum as the latest iteration of ‘revolutions’, drawing on familiar claims about automation, such as driverless cars. In their comment published in the times in October 2017, Klaus Schwab, former chair of WEF, and Alan Mak MP argued “robots may not be coming to take your job, but artificial intelligence is definitely going to change how you do it … A new wave of technological change is transforming socieities around the world. This is the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
There is a form of ‘technological determinism’ that plays out in relation to these narratives. The changes are coming and the technologies are necessary, but the technologies are, at the same time, figured as the causes of those changes. This is what Sally Wyatt calls a ‘justificatory determinism’. It is, as Wyatt observes, “the technological determinism we are all susceptible to when we consider how people’s lives have changed in the past 200 years’ (Wyatt, 2008: 174). A more sensational version of the same logic was deployed by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2019.
According to the most widespread narratives of automation, we should (at least be tempted to) see automation as a reduction of labour. In the 2014 Pew Research Report on ‘Digital Life in 2025’ the self-styled technology ‘guru’ Stowe Boyd argued “What are people for in a world that does not need their labour, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot based economy?” This is not a novel narrative. Ideas about automation and the purpose of human endeavour are manifest across our history, with tales of automatons dating from ancient Sumaria, ancient Greece all the way through to the present day. In the early 20th Century the influential economist John Maynard Keynes argued, in an essay entitled ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, that:
Such stories captivate public imagination and fear. We need only look to some of the stories in the UK national press of the last few years, as illustrated here. Much of the certainty articulated in such headlines stems from influential management consultancy reports. There is, apparently, as much money to be made in economic horror stories as there is in cinematic horror.
The connotations of automation implied in the news headlines, the management consultancy reports and even in branches of academia appear to be threefold: First, we are to be consigned to redundancy – the ‘machines’ will be stronger and faster than ‘human’ workers. Second, as Keynes argued in 1931, automation may be a freedom from drudgery – the boring jobs can be done by the machines freeing us to a life of leisure. As an aside, according to Keynes we should only be working 15 hours per week by now. Finally, and tied to the previous two, automation means an ever-increasing productivity. The limits of the human body, even the human mind, will apparently be surpassed. All three of these stories about automation, whether you believe them or not, point towards it as a historical force and as a measure of ‘progress’. Automation will literally make history.
The rhetoric of automation may be poetic and fantastical but the pragmatic reality of automation may be perhaps more mundane. Automation is, more-or-less, oriented towards making things uniform, processable by software and easily manipulable by machines. A humorous example of how such a logic plays out is the David Walliams character Carol Beer in the comedy programme Little Britain. Beer has a blithe and unbending deference to the computer, which simply says “no”. The whole premise of the joke presented by that catchphrase is that, of course, there should be room for interpretation. Yet, we are presented with a blind adherence to the results of ‘the computer’ programme, which is patently stupid. Nevertheless, in many moments of everyday life we are presented with such forms of adherence to nonsensical outputs from software. Think of the many drivers who get stuck when rigidly following their GPS. We may even feel compelled to be complicit.
Despite the embellished and perhaps sensational stories of automation there are, of course, actually existing implementations of automated processes. From Amazon’s warehouse robots to the automated telephone systems we must negotiate to contact utility companies, our lives are filled with automation. It is also the case that there are forms of work that are, indeed, being replaced or, to a lesser extent, augmented or rationalised through automation. Journalism, for example is not immune. Compare the two paragraphs of prose, reproduced below. One of them was written by a computer programme. See if you can discern which:
- “Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday.”
- “The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium.”
I will give you the answer in the live session.
Even so, there are all sorts of claims made for what automation can apparently do. These often take the form of ‘the algorithm’, which will complete tasks that appear to costly, daunting or unwieldy for a human workforce. A notable example is Facebook’s 2016 claims for moderation by algorithm, which spectacularly failed. Three days after laying off their news editorial team and ‘automating’ those roles, Facebook was listing at the top of it trending news several ‘fake’ stories, which made the company itself the subject of international headlines.
There is no one, single and simple narrative that makes sense of automation for us. It is both a promise and a problem. It is somewhat mundanely in our present but haunts our futures.
In this section we explore automation as both a promise and fear for potential futures. We looked at some of the ways in which automation and digitised work play out, what sorts of stories get told around them and the ways in which broader and perhaps long-standing stories about mechanisation and industry influence how we understand the role of technology, especially digital technology, in our working lives. in particular, we can see the ways that digital technologies are sometimes used in a form of justificatory technological determinism, to make certain outcomes appear inevitable.
Section 2 Videos
3. Gendering digital work
Welcome to this third and final section of this instalment of digital geographies. Our focus in this section brings together the two previous explorations of how work is reconfigured or ‘replaced’ in relation to gender. Much of the discussion around digital work either explicitly or implicitly figures work in relation to (often stereotyped) gender roles. In this section we will explore how gender is important to critical understandings of digital work and why we should be bothered.
Before we focus in on the digital let us reflect upon the ways in which technologies have been figured in relation to stereotypes of gender roles. On the one hand we have heavily masculinised representations of business – the besuited businessman with the mobile phone, for example.
On the other hand we have the feminised representations of assistive technologies. From the washing machine to Alexa the work of assistance, especially in the space of the home, is feminised, even when apparently ‘automated’.
Whilst it is by no means a new trend (see for example The Jetsons cartoon embedded below), there is, arguably, at present an intensification of the feminisation of the home, and ‘house work’ or in-home assistance, through the gendering of digital ‘assistants’ such as Alexa and Siri. Let us spend some time reflecting upon this trend and try to tease out some of the particular qualities of how it plays out.
Firstly, we can consider the naming and default voices of digital assistants. Whilst there are quite a few associated with particular companies, such as telecoms providers, the ‘big 4’ digital media companies, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, are perhaps the most notable. Each have their own digital assistant and associated products and services. Three out of the four have named the ‘assistant’, Google instead opts for ‘Google Assistant’. All three of those names may be reasonably interpreted as feminine: Alexa, Cortana and Siri.
Secondly, following the UNESCO 2019 report, entitled “I’d Blush if I could”, we can see that all four of the ‘assistants’ were released with a default ‘female’ voice. Many remain that way, with the exception of Apple in certain countries, such as the UK. We might infer, therefore, that in the eyes of these globally influential firms – work that happens in the home, especially work that is ‘assisting’ someone else, is female or feminine work.
Thirdly, the early public advertisements for these technologies often featured prominent male figures, sometimes ‘celebrities’ (such as Jamie Foxx for Apple), asking the assistant for trivial support – sometimes it is emotional labour, Foxx asks ‘how do I look’, albeit apparently humorously, suggesting a need for reassurance from a subservient female figure (see the video embedded below).
More broadly, the discussion of robotic assistants in the press has a tendency towards gendering the machines according to stereotypes of the work being automated. For example, in February 2020, The Times characterised a robotic bar-maid as “a strange girl, but an efficient one. From the moment you make your order, she is all action, plucking up glasses, plonking in ice cubes, and offering a running commentary on the whole thing in a high-pitched squeak”.
Fourth, and perhaps most problematically, the responses determined by the developers of these technologies to gender-specific and often misogynistic statements addressed to the assistants has rarely challenged that behaviour. Returning to the UNESCO report, we can see that, in some cases, the responses are attempts at humour. However, we can also understand these as inferring acceptance of the behaviour.
These are hard issues to discuss and even harder issues to try to resolve. Even so, there is an increasing amount of research and critical reflection upon the role of gender in relation to digital assistants. There is also a growing amount of satire asking questions of how we are adopting digital assistants – a significant example is South Park, see the video embedded below. Ultimately, I suggest that, as Jessica Nordell, stated in 2016 in The New Republic:
For even when the stereotypically gendered work of ‘assisting’ is taken away from people, if it is then projected upon to anthropomorphised technologies it sediments the stereotype. Especially when that work is about reassurance and the pretence of expressing care. As Hochschild argued in 1983
However, some might think that to be ‘relieved’ from having to pretend to care isn’t so bad, right..? Of course, it’s not only the removing of that labour from a person to a process that takes place. It is also the sedimentation, the doubling down, of gender roles that is affirmed through the gendering of voice assistants. This also plays a part in the transformation of the home from a private space into an economic space of exchange.
The transactional nature of the digital assistant sediments are particular form of hierarchy in the home. The places we put the devices themselves, the Amazon Echo, Apple HomeHub or Google Nest, speak to the household roles with which they are associated. According to a consumer research report by Voicebot AI, over 50% of households with digital assistants have them in spaces we might consider to be the most ‘domestic’: the bedroom, the kitchen and the living room. These places are still popularly imagined, in sitcoms and lifestyle magazines, as the locations where feminised emotional labour take place.
There are, of course caveats, to the growth of smart speakers in bedrooms given the recent context of the pandemic, where we might reasonably assume that many people have desks located in bedrooms. Even so, there is a clear association of digital assistants with the spaces in which particular forms of domesticity play out, where emotional labour in home-life often takes place.
Rather than think of ‘the home’ as a place set aside from ‘business’, we can see that not only in ‘home working’ but also in how we relate to one another, to our families and housemates, may take place through the lens of economic exchange. As Linda McDowell observes:
Our home lives, mediated through digital assistants are increasingly transactional. This is made stronger by the ‘features’ that the developers add to digital assistants, such as Alexa’s ‘announce’ illustrated below. Why talk to your child when you can get a digital assistant to do it instead…
In this section we have explored the ways in which digital ‘work’, when carried out by automation, may be gendered and that gendering can and should be studied. We focused in particular on the role of digital assistants in the home. I argued that there is significant evidence for a purposeful gendering of these technologies in ways that reinforce particular forms of stereotype. We also investigated the ways this may be tied to how we imagine the spaces of home and the forms of ‘work’ that play out there. In particular we thought about how ’emotional labour’ is feminised and that the ways digital assistants are designed to attempt to simulate that work further sediments gendered imaginations of work and home.
Section 3 Videos
You may wish to follow up this week’s tasks with the following readings:
David Bissell & Vincent J. Del Casino (2017) Whither labor geography and the rise of the robots?, Social & Cultural Geography, 18:3, 435-442, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2016.1273380
Richardson, L. (2018) ‘Feminist geographies of digital work’, Progress in Human Geography 42(2), 244–263. DOI: 10.1177/0309132516677177
This week we explored the digital has variously reconfigured and prompted us to reimagine work. We focused on three particular facets of how that plays out:
- How new forms of work may be created by the digital
- How the digital reconfigures existing forms of work
- How particular jobs are considered under threat by digital technologies
In the asynchronous tasks, we studied three inter-related issues: the ways in which digital technologies create, disrupt, reduce or replace forms of work. We explored at how the workplace has changed with and through the digital. We looked at how working practices have changed and how expectations of workers have been affected. We examined the ways in which jobs are said to be ‘replaced’ by automation. We asked questions about how these forms of ‘threat’ to work and workers take shape and where they may come from.
In the synchronous activities we discussed two particular issues: Where digital work takes place and Who’s digital work matters and why? See the padlets below.
The recording of the live session will appear here.