On managerial control and the tyranny of digital technologies

I have written many times before about the changing balances of power enforced by most digital technologies, but three recent incidents have focused my mind yet again on the shifting relationships of control brought about by the use of such technologies.

Tales from a worker…

  • I was invited to be a speaker at an online event using a particular technology with which I was not very familiar (Streamyard). I tried both of the browsers that I usually use (Firefox and Safari), and although the former enabled me to use some of Streamyard’s functionality, I could not do everything that I had wanted to use (and usually do) when giving an online presentation. Streamyard recommends Chrome, but I limit my use of Google products as much as possible, and refused to download it just so I could give one short presentation. I fear that the organisers did not appreciate my obduracy, and were surprised that I kept receiving error messages when trying to use some of Streamyard’s functionality.
  • I also belong to a civil society organisation that has recently gone over to using a particular app for managing the activities of volunteers. Previously, the administrator used to circulate details of rotas directly to the e-mail boxes of volunteers, letting us know when we were required and also providing reminders nearer the time. We have just received a message saying that the new automated system has been set up, and I have to check “my rotas” periodically to see what I am scheduled to do, and if necessary arrange swaps with others. Now, that obviously makes life easier for the administrator, but adds greatly to my time load because I have to log on to the system, negotiate its far from perfect functionality, see what I am down to do, and then note this in my diary. This is many more clicks than just opening an e-mail sent to me! The centre benefits; the volunteers have more work to do!
  • I was likewise doing some work for an organisation that uses Microsoft Teams, and when I requested a document, rather than it being sent to me I had to got into Teams, find where it was located (often in a crazily obscure sub-folder), download it onto my device (which often took some considerable time), and only then was I able to open the file and read it. If only someone could simply have sent it to me, or even just sent me an accurate link so I could open it online.

All of these examples illustrate ways through which digital technologies are being used to shift the balance of work away from administrators/managers at the “centre” and towards the employees/volunteers at the periphery, whilst concentrating the actual power ever more at the centre. My hunch is that the net wastage of time within such systems has gone up, that inefficiency has increased, and that the extraction of labour power from human employees has likewise increased. Digital technologies rather than improving the efficiency of systems, have become a means through which work/labour has not only increased but has also become very much more dehumanised and exploited by those at the “centre”.

Changing the balance of power

There are many ways through which such dehumanisation and exploitation take place, but the following are some of the most prevalent:

“Papers” for meetings: a historical legacy

I am old enough to remember the days when staff were sent papers (even in manilla envelopes) sufficiently far in advance before a meeting so as to be able to read and annotate them by hand. As an employee I received them, but it was the management/administration team who actually printed and distributed them. From the early- to mid-1990s, with the introduction of MIME, attachments became possible, and very swiftly, papers for meetings (and everything else as well) started to be sent by e-mail. In the early days, employees were often even required to print them off themselves and bring them to the physical meeting (a ridiculous multiplication of effort and expense). The balance of direction had shifted. No longer could the employee just open the package; now they had to save, open and print the files themselves – and that was in the days before you could bring your laptop to a meeting. Today, as digital systems have become ever more complicated and sophisticated, all the administrators have to do is upload documents once onto a centralised digital administration or management system, and then all relevant employees or users each have to log on, find the file, download it (be it on Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Teams, Slack, SAP, Google Drive, DropBox or wherever), and then read it. All of these stages take additional time for employees, and many are problematic and frustrating to use. While such systems clearly benefit the central generators of content, the total amount of time spent by all of the users who need to access it has increased.

Multiple overlapping systems: who decides which system to use?

For people only working in a single organisation and trained to use a single main digital system or environment, the time wasted in accessing digital content is bad enough. For those working across organisations, each with different systems, it becomes a whole lot worse. Not only are users encouraged to leave all of their systems on all the time so that they know what is happening or required immediately, but they are frequently also expected to reply instantaneously. This is neither possible nor sensible. Moreover, leaving your systems on means that others can see if you are there and contactable, which is not always helpful!

Extending the working day

This is perhaps the most obvious and yet insidious “benefit” of digital technologies. I’m old enough to remember the notion of a working day being “9 to 5” – although confess that I have always tended to spend longer “in the office” than that! However, even before COVID-19 helped to create a 24 hour working day, digital technologies have been used by employers dramatically to extend the working day, whilst at the same time claiming it is in the employees’ interests. This is particularly seen, for example, in the expectation by many managers that employees are contactable all hours of the day and night by e-mail, or even worse now through invasive social media messages. Long gone are the days when London commuters locked their safes, finished the day at 5 pm and got on over-crowded smoke-filled trains for the long commute to the suburbs. The commute has often now become the time to respond to digital messages, and once home people are then also frequently expected to do online training in the comfort of their homes. Travel to work, and the sanctuary of the home – all times previously free from employment-related labour – have now been incorporated into normal work expectations.

The all-seeing eye

More concerning than the extension of the working day, though, are the many ways through which employers now monitor every aspect of an employee’s work – reflecting both a collapse in trust, and an intent yet further to maximise extraction of the labour power of employees. This goes far beyond the use of digital fingerprints or retinal scans that check when an employee enters an employer’s premises, to the spatial monitoring of their personal digital devices and their every use of the employer’s digital management system; some are already microchipping their employees, in the name of making life easier for them (see for example, Metz, 2018; Schwartz, 2019).

Wasting time in digital meetings – just because we can meet, doesn’t mean we should waste so much time online in them!

Most face-to-face management meetings are a waste of time for the majority of people attending them. Invariably they are held for the sake of holding them, for the performance, and as a way of “management” controlloing “staff”. The proliferation of online meetings during COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated this problem, and the difficulty of picking up the sensuous physical indicators between people has actually also often caused damaging misunderstandings that would have been less likely during a physical meeting. Just because it is possible for many people to participate in online meetings at all hours of the day and night does not actully mean that this is a valuable use of time. Participating in online meetings is rarely productive work!

Digitally enabled co-production of content is not always a good use of time

The potential for many people to work together in creating a single document can be greatly facilitated by the use of digital authoring tools. However, this crafting process can actually take much longer for people to interact with, and the net outcome is not necessarily any better than traditional editorial commentary systems. Working with different colleagues in various ways to craft texts through COVID-19 has been fascinating, and has reignited concerns I have previously had that most such usage of digital technologies actually increases the total time spent on “writing” without necessarily producing a better outcome. Furthermore, so called more “democratic” digital systems actually usually still contain subtle power structures. The first person to comment on a shared document, for example, exerts great influence on the remaining respondents. In contrast, where colleagues each respond to a central editor without seeing the comments of other team members, this “first respondent” bias is not present.

Why on earth would you want to attend a Zoom webinar where you aren’t even allowed to speak?

One of the greatest recent forms of control – and time-wasting – has been the proliferation of Zoom webinars, where an audience is invited to a view-only platform without being able to see each other or participate interactively beyond a limited chat facility. What a power relationship! Almost every company, international organisation (especially UN agencies) and civil society organisation I know has got on the bandwagon of inviting people to join Zoom webinars. If I were to accept all of the invitations I have received, my diary would be full mutliple times over every hour of the day and night! But most of these are dreadfully presented, and a complete waste of time, quite simply because it is much quicker to read something than it is to listen to someone talking to the background of a shared overcrowded and poorly designed slide deck! This is not to suggest that we should not try to use digital technologies to interact at a distance, but we should try to do so in as open and democratic way as possible (this is at least what we tried to do successfully with the ICT4D2020 Non-Conference, as well as with the launch of the Education for the Most Marginalised report #emmpostcovid19, or which more than 350 people were registered).

In conclusion

These are but a few of the countless ways through which digital technologies are being used to impose new systems of control, and to shift that balance of work and time away from the “centre” (or employer/manager) to the “periphery” (worker, employee, volunteer). In the academic part of my like, I encounter this increasing everyday exploitation in so many ways:

  • through the increased amount of time that online marking takes;
  • through the time-consuming online grant application forms that need to be completed,
  • in having to submit ghastly unintelligible spreadsheets online to report on grant expenditure;
  • through being required to use the frequently dreadful journal online processes when asked to review papers for them;
  • in being required to process and provide comments on job applications online;
  • in reviewing online fellowship and grant applications…

The list could go on, but my essential points are that many of us who experienced pre-online life find the new systems much more time consuming than they were previously, and most of them represent increasingly centralised control of professional working life. In the name of efficiency and democracy, many digital “solutions” actually create sytstems that are much less efficient and much more centralised and controlling than they were previously.

This is also a call for change; a call for the wise to say enough is enough. It is a call for those designing these systems to make them serve the interests of the workers rather than the masters, a call for the overthrow of the tyrannical powers of the digital barons, and a challenge to those who seek digitally to enslave the masses. We, the people, have the power in our hands to reject such control – all we need to do is to determine our own digital boundaries (for a summary of mine, read here), and make those who wish to control us instead to serve us through them. Above all, we need to reclaim our own physical and sensuous experience of reality, unmediated by the powers of digital control.

7 Comments

Filed under digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D

7 responses to “On managerial control and the tyranny of digital technologies

  1. Pingback: Digital environments and social media | Tim Unwin's Blog

  2. Wayan

    A few great points here – especially power relationships and endless workday – however, you’re getting close to sounding like a grumpy old man wishing things would go back to what they were. I for one certainly do not miss smoky anything nor the limitations of printed text over email and PDF.

    • Tim Unwin

      Just describing, not wishing we went back – not least because we can’t – although there were definitely some things that were better at times in the last 65 years. And do note, e-mail/PDF and printed text have different adbvtaages and disadvantages. I’m certainly not grumpy, just saying it as I see it!

  3. James

    “Furthermore, so called more “democratic” digital systems actually usually still contain subtle power structures. The first person to comment on a shared document, for example, exerts great influence on the remaining respondents. In conrtrast, where colleagues each respond to a central editor without seeing the comments of other team members, this “first respondent” bias is not present.”

    This is a fascinating and very important point. Of course, it also occurs in non-digital settings – think of the senior staff member who asks the first question/offers the first comment after a presentation, and sets the tone for the subsequent discussion.

    Do you have any (academic or non-academic) sources on this first respondent bias? I can only find material on survey bias. Thanks!

    • Tim Unwin

      Hi James – there must be some work on this – perhaps by social psychologists – but the comment was based on my own experiences rather than academic references. I’m sure a search on Google Scholar (if you use it) or another academic research or bibliographical engine would reveal some interesting material. If you do find some good references, please share here! I would be interested to read them as well!

      • Hi Tim – thanks for your reply. I’m afraid I’ve come up disappointingly short in my search for literature on this phenomenon! This could be a reflection on my search skills, or that this is an under-researched area. There’s more stuff on ‘agenda setting’ more broadly than digital technologies – usually concerning the role of the media in informing public debate, and politics as a result.

        In my own work, I’m looking at how a supposedly ‘open’ and ‘consultative’ process for formulating a university strategic plan (commonplace documents in pretty much all universities) is often undermined by a senior leader setting ‘loose themes’ to begin the conversation, thus closing down new ideas. The ‘first respondent’ effect, it seems, may do the same thing.

      • Tim Unwin

        Interesting – I think the phenomenon can happen at any levels in an organisation. A more junior career-focused individualistic colleague can all do the same thing. We all “just” need to be more collaborative, collective and thoughtful of others. But at the same time, we must make sure that digital techs support the communal rather than the powerfu and “individual”!

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