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.