An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Electronic Plantation

AR sent me this link to an interview with a Facebook employee. It's well worth a read through. But here's what truly horrified me:

I think the coolest thing about the work environment is the trust. They don’t care what, where, how, when, as long as you get your shit done. If you want to work at a bar, the ball game, a park, the roof, they don’t give a fuck. Just get your shit done. Hence I was able to ditch work, come have two pitchers with you, and I will literally be able to go back and get my work done. And it goes a long way. Because I know I can get these things done. I know I’m going to have to go back. And I may be there until ten or eleven tonight.
[Emphasis added]
I e-mailed the following to AR:

I find myself very uncomfortable with the separation of time clocked-in with completion of tasks. At this stage I see it "sold" to employees as empowering but I'm waiting for the electronic plantation to rear its ugly head. This amounts to a kind of 21st century piece-work.

A management scientist named Frederick Taylor in the 19th century wondered why workers in a steel factory so vehemently opposed his changes. After all, they were paid piece-work so the more they produced, the more money they made, right?

No. When productivity increased management reduced the piece-work rate. The game was rigged, and the workers knew it.

There was also some resistance by management to the creation of clothing factories because they negotiated different piece-work rates for different women who did the sewing by hand at home. Eventually the greater productivity of sewing machines won out.

Back to the present, if the tasks accomplished become too separated from the 8-hour day, then how does one determine a reasonable amount of productivity? As usual the arrogant know-nothings populating the tech industry are screwing themselves and will no doubt act very suprised when the consequences hit them. They complained bitterly after the boom went bust then the tech jobs went to India. Wait until they have to work 12 hour days for peanuts just to keep their jobs.

Sorry about the tone. Rough morning.

AR Responds:

Your tone seemed perfectly appropriate to me. I just saw a CNBC "documentary" on Google, where they showed how Google did laundry, made gourmet food, provided massages, etc so that their employees never had to leave the Googleplex and never had stop working. I'm thinking of a B.F.Skinner box with gourmet California cuisine replacing the mice food pellets. For many of the type-A personalities and for most of the functional autistics who make up the employees at Google, staying there and being "productive" is what they most dearly want and need (especially the autistics). For the rest of the US population work is merely one aspect of our lives and that separation is just fine and was hard fought for.

Where Google's ethos becomes a problem is that your very average middle manager at whatever generic office/business gets delusions of grandeur and thinks that his/her office/business should emulate Google's work ethos. Of course they don't have the money of Google and are nowhere near as bright as Google's founders and the work is nowhere near as innovative, useful and creative as Google's, yet "If it worked for Google, it can work for us." becomes the mantra of the generic middle manager. Look at any Dilbert cartoon drawn in the 90s for a deeper understanding of this process/lifestyle. I've seen a similar ridiculous belief in working 16 hours a day for 6 days a week in my friends who drank the Wall Street Kool-Aid in the early 90's. They were used, then spit out once they burned out. A very similar fate befell my associates in the late 90s who were all about their Internet Start-ups. After looking down on my work in old media academia, some even had the amnesiac nerve to ask me if there were any openings once every single one of these dot coms went belly up and smelled like bad fish.

This is just the latest iteration of the Protestant Work Ethic in America. The French have it partially right when they call it an Anglo-Saxon model. They simplistically leave out the Protestant roots of this Anglo-Saxon model. What most media in the US refuse to look at is how prosperous Germany is without most of its people working more than 40 hours per week and with most of its people having at least a month off every summer for holiday. The same with both Denmark & Sweden, the subjects of a new book on their apparently baffling creativity and wealth. All three of these Protestant nations have intense productivity, which I'm perfectly willing to label as Protestant. What they seem to lack is the Anglo-Saxon obsession with work and with staying at work for ridiculous amounts of time. I cannot see how people can possibly stay focused and productive for all those hours per day, unless they are a Google autistic. The business press is the major generator of these productivity myths, which is why they are and always will be redoubtable. Academia has plenty of problems, as we both know from direct experience, but I'll gladly take its myths over those of the business world and take 4 weeks off every summer too. Deutschland uber alles during summer holidays.

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