Calling into question design’s ability to solve problems: a quick look at micromanagement technologies for low-wage service jobs

In academia, we often talk about technology becoming increasingly pervasive (or ubiquitous) in daily life, referring to technologies moving beyond the personal computer and present in multiple locations. Technologists often herald this vision of technological pervasiveness as a positive change: having more technology opens up new spaces for design to explore solving problems. While new pervasive technologies are able to account for problems in more innovative ways, these new forms create as many problems as they are purported to “solve”. In the case we examine today, new technologies are not shown to solve problems as much as they displace burdens from one set of people to another.

This article from the New York Times outlines a plight of retail and wholesale service workers (e.g., cashiers, cooks, stockers, etc.).  Newly adopted time management technologies micromanage workers’ work hours to such a degree that in impacts their non-work lives. From one perspective, these technologies solve employers’ problems such as creating new ways to deal with peak customer demands and getting the most out of workers in four-hour periods. This may be beneficial for the employers, but in the process of creating efficiencies and responsiveness to economic pressures and trends, however, the new technologies have essentialized human beings as parts of algorithms. By understanding what these new technologies are doing to low-wage service employees, we understand that this time-management software is not solving a problem; it’s shifting a burden.

“We’re seeing more and more that the burden of market fluctuations is being shifted onto the workers, as opposed to the companies absorbing it themselves” – from the article

By using these neoliberal micromanagement technologies, employers want to have access to a flexible on-demand workforce, but without the responsibility (or cost) for officially placing individuals on-call. In more skilled labor jobs, companies often have to pay for the privilege of having a person “on-call” (meaning they can request for you to come in work), which is not the case for these new service workers, which indicates that with the introduction of these new practices and technologies there are also shifting of worker’s workplace expectations.

This article leaves me with a few thoughts:

To be clear, I don’t think shifting burdens happens in every case of design, but becomes likely in cases where design enrolls multiple parties and stakeholders with unequal positions of power. In this scenario, you have employers and employees both impacted by the novel micromanagement technology, but employees are made to bear the responsibility to be responsive to market pressures.

These new micromanagement technologies create new ways for employers to understand their workforce and efficiently allocate their human and non-human resources. These technologies create different types of visibility and understanding of these resources, but we do not entirely understand the potential impacts of these technologies and their accompanying practices on employers and employees. If anyone has any links to relevant research regarding the impact of such technologies on lower waged service jobs, I would welcome their suggested readings.

As I’ve argued, designers and technologists are not always “solving problems” through their innovations; in their efforts to solve problems, they are also creating new problems by displacing and shifting burdens to others. This leaves unanswered questions regarding how design might better account for shifting burdens and what the processes are by which these shifts actually happen. This also brings about a new occasion for design to create new opportunities for these low-wage auto service workers. Prior research documents the rarity for new technologies to disrupt power structures, but it is not impossible. At the end of the article, the author points to workers’ diminished power to collectively organize and form unions as part of why such technologies exist and why low-wage service jobs without much mobility may increasingly become the norm. This point presents an opportunity for design to better help low-wage service workers better understand how technology impacts their everyday working experiences as well as designing for new methods for collectively organizing for better treatment, wages, and working expectations. Which leaves open questions of how can design change and help improve low-wage service workers’ situations? What kinds of new technologies, visibilities, practices and norms would need to be established  and/or supported to help low-wage service workers collectively produce action?

It is important to note that new micromanagement technologies that rely on creative and novel ways of algorithmically thinking and collecting data will continue to pervade the lives of low-wage service workers. This leaves open areas of research to explore the relationship and impact of these technologies, workers, and market-forces.


About lynndombrowski

Informatics Graduate Student @ UC-Irvine

Posted on November 3, 2012, in ICT and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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