The Tyranny of Leveled Workplaces

The workstation of the future in “Big Hero 6” (2014) Image: DisneyLifestylers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The workstation of the future in “Big Hero 6” (2014)
Image: DisneyLifestylers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

by William Attwood-Charles and Juliet B. Schor

The image of the U.S. worker and U.S. workplace is in the midst of a transformation. Stable, full-time employment is increasingly scarce and many firms are organizing work around projects rather than fixed tasks or competencies. Workers, particularly in knowledge intensive industries, are expected to self-manage and collaborate as teams, a dramatic shift from Fordist and Taylorist systems that emphasized direct supervision, simplification, and standardization as techniques for coordinating production. Thus, while the dominant image of the U.S. worker in the 1950s might have been the industrial laborer, arguably the new face of U.S. industry is that of the “maker.”

Urban Dictionary (always on the forefront of linguistic innovation), defines makers as “those who love to create things in their spare time (often electronic, often with their own hands). Also called Hobbyists.” These passionate, multi-skilled tinkerers are offered in exuberant think pieces (here, here and here) as the engine of the New Economy. Indeed, the Maker is arguably having a cultural moment with Disney’s release of its animated movie, Big Hero 6, which features a group of tech-enabled wunderkinds fighting a scorned research professor.

Putting aside the fashionable aspect of the maker movement, it fits squarely within a trend over the last four decades to flatten hierarchies and promote open and egalitarian workplace arrangements. To understand how the architects of leveling hope to achieve these goals, it is first useful to examine what the leveled workplace is situated against; namely, the conventional hierarchical and bureaucratic world of work. In doing so, we can have a better idea of how hierarchies are produced in ostensibly leveled environments, as well as the meaning of status hierarchies in domains where they should be absent.

During the postwar “golden age” of U.S. capitalism, large bureaucratic institutions became a staple of daily life. Having endured the hardships of the Great Depression and two world wars, the institution builders of that time aimed to erect stable public and private institutions that could continue the process of capital accumulation while minimizing uncertainty. Bureaucracy, as a particular social technology, was ideally suited towards these ends. After all, any bureaucracy worth its salt should be able to ensure uniform and predictable outcomes. While bureaucratic organizations may have succeeded on these terms, many U.S. workers experienced them as profoundly alienating. Writing in 1951, C. Wright Mills provided one of the most scathing critiques of bureaucratic life, characterizing the white-collar worker as a “small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody’s office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand.” It isn’t a very flattering description, and one can easily imagine why workers would want to distance themselves from such an image.

Mills’ critique of bureaucracy resonated with many U.S. workers, and the social and labor unrest of the 1960s and 1970s (as in Lordstown, Ohio) can been seen partially as a response to what many felt to be a deadening and inevitable bureaucratic existence. Widespread dissatisfaction with the state of work gave rise to alternative ideas about organizing production.  One strand of 1960s anti-bureaucratic thinking came from the New Communalists, who saw in computer technology an alternative to conventional institutions that relied upon bureaucracy to coordinate production. As Fred Turner said of their utopian vision, “…If the bureaucracies of industry and government demanded that men and women become psychologically fragmented specialists, the technology-induced experience of togetherness would allow them to become both self-sufficient and whole once again.”

With the rise of international economic competition in the 1970s, many managers and management theorists joined a growing chorus against bureaucracy and hierarchy. For U.S. firms to remain competitive in the new global economy, the story went, they would need to become “lean” and “agile,” the opposite of the bureaucratic rigidity inherited from earlier, less enlightened times. The leveling of hierarchies would hopefully usher in a new era of job satisfaction and profitability, reconciling the previously irreconcilable tension between individuality and organizational life, autonomy and collective production. Perhaps nowhere was this sentiment more widely promoted than in the newly ascendant (and fairly libertarian) tech sector. Apple Computer’s award winning Super Bowl ad (which was made in 1984 and themed around Orwell’s book of the same name) would remind consumers that they were no longer cogs in a machine, but rather liberated, networked individuals.

The maker movement shares many of the same goals as the New Communalists, even as the movement’s official mouthpiece, Make Magazine (Make), largely avoids its predecessor’s anti-establishment rhetoric. For example, an emphasis on openness and sharing can be seen in Dale Dougherty’s (the founder of Make) conception of hacking and making:

A coder would share his work, and like a chef who develops his own recipes, he wanted to find others who might use them and in doing so test them. Sharing created community. From the beginning the best coders were ones who made tools to make tools…. In the community, hackers developed a reputation on the basis of their work… Hackers had a disregard for credentials but a clear focus on the work itself. Amateurs could succeed on the same terms as professionals. Independents could work alongside those who had corporate or academic titles. Share and share alike.

Making, insofar as it is oriented towards bringing together a diverse group of actors with a wide range of skills, should help foster the kind of cross collaboration and knowledge sharing that produces innovative products and energized workers. It is because workers are interacting with each other spontaneously and on a leveled playing field that new innovations are said to come about.

However, as we argue in Attwood-Charles and Schor (2015), eliminating status hierarchies requires more than dispensing with formal roles, responsibilities and authority relationships. Status hierarchies can be produced in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Furthermore, leveled environments may be more prone to status competition than bureaucratic environments in that meanings are less shared and, hence, more open for contestation. The vulnerability of leveled sites in respect to those who would attempt to erect informal status hierarchies in them is a major obstacle to institutionalizing open and egalitarian workplaces.

A makerspace in Milwaukee

A makerspace in Milwaukee. Image: Pete Prodoehl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the makerspace we examined, some makers promoted an informal status hierarchy by valorizing projects that denied the realm of necessity. That is, a “good” project was one that couldn’t possibly serve a worldly or economic function. To borrow from the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, these actors appeared “disinterested.” While makers could use the collectively available tools to repair, say, a washing machine, in practice it was more common for tools to be used to build non-functional objects. High-status makers were those who denied making for practical considerations, instead emphasizing the otherworldly and disinterested nature of their making. As one maker put it:

You have people who take it to some extreme. They’re building some really specific or weird project that they’ve devoted eight months to. It’s really single use.  Like, you’re going to devote so much time to this one project, and then it has one function and then you’re done. Then they just move on to the next project.  When you ask them, “Why did you build that?” They say, “Because I can.” Like, “I have the intelligence, the skillsets, and the tools at my disposal to build said thing.  That’s why I built that thing, because it occurred to me to build said thing.”

Because actors with economic resources are better positioned to maintain a disinterested orientation and presentation of self, the promotion of disinterestedness as a cultural value in our research site structured the field of making so as to disadvantage certain players (notably ones without much in the way of economic resources), while advantaging others. Even in the non-hierarchical environment of the makerspace, when demonstrating their merit, actors did so on specific terms.

Beyond privileging members with financial resources, the makerspace we examined was disproportionately male and overwhelmingly white. While officially open to anyone with the time and inclination to make, we found that in practice membership was racially and culturally homogenous. This comes at a time when many are beginning to criticize the lack of diversity in fields that overlap with the maker movement, like the U.S. tech industry. One former participant in the maker movement, Debbie Chachra, has pointed to how making in practice valorizes work traditionally associated with masculinity while devaluing practices associated with femininity. In light of these findings, we suggest it is necessary to interrogate the claims made around the recent proliferation of “non-hierarchical” environments. What do they really hope to achieve, and why is it so difficult in practice?

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. William Attwood-Charles is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Boston College.


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