Against “Bad Guy” Critiques of Capitalism

There’s a well researched New York Times article everyone is passing around on how Uber uses psychological techniques to get more work out of its workers. The headline is “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons.”

It is easy to imagine that it is Uber and Travis Kalanick in particular who is a particularly malicious actor. Let’s #deleteuber and #deleteexploitation, or at least reduce back to previously naturalized and tolerable forms.

Uber and Travis Kalanick are not the problem. They’re just the most scrutinized (now) and obvious manifestation of how capitalism combines with social science to “create value.” Create value is what we call it when we like how people use workers and resources to make nice new things we like. Extract value is how we talk about it when we feel like something about it has violated some other ethical barrier. Many, for example, consider it free consent when someone takes on a third job to make rent and pay for health care because wages are down and housing is deregulated. But the Uber seems to cross the line when it uses interface design to nudge overwork.

Welcome to the history of American Cold War social sciences.

There’s a long post-New Deal history of the social sciences working to get employees to work harder. The Hawthorne studies were famous for finding that simply being observed by researchers was enough to make people work harder — dubbed “The Hawthorne Effect.” (They thought at first that improving lighting would make workers produce more, but found it was instead the observation.)

The Tavistock Institute, from whom we STS and Informatics people get our socio-technical system language, were also how to manage labor relations to keep industrial peace — code for preventing strikes while maintaining or increasing output. They worked with Ahmedabad industrialists in the mills, as part of a raft of Cold War projects to keep India from going red. (See Productivity and Social Organization: The Ahmedabad Experiment by AK Rice, 1958.)

In the 1980s, Total Quality Management brought worker feedback into management decision making to improve assembly process efficiency and quality. It sounds participatory, but it also increased the intensity of monitoring and communicative labor demanded of workers. (I read this a few years ago, after being a bit of a Deming fan, and need to find a cite but it’ll take me some time.)

Over the last 10 years, well before Uber, Human-Computer Interaction researchers have led the charge on researching gamification and its possibilities as a way of creating non-monetary forms of motivation.

When we make it about Uber, we miss that this is actually both the long trajectory of much post-Cold War social science. Remember how HCI was trying to gamify the workplace 10 years ago? We have been totally complicit in this as a research community.

At Computer Supported Cooperative Work 2017, we had a panel on social justice. Cliff Lampe of U Mich came to the mic and succinctly asked, “Do you think CSCW has been on the side of management rather than labor?” My jaw dropped. Few of us talk about “labor” at CSCW. I said, “Yes.”

When we blame Uber, or even blame psychologists, we miss how sociology that doesn’t look at flows of value or distributions of injury has long silently assented or assisted creating the state of affairs that makes us want to #deleteuber.

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2 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    All fair points, Winnie!

  2. Winnie says:

    Thank you Lilly for this much needed bigger picture! I second the agenda of looking at wider economic systems, rather than just specific actors, and also taking a good long look in the mirror by academics. I’ve had the same experience of feeling like part of the problem in many scholarly meetings — especially those surrounding “human resources” and “organizations.” (Curiously though, I’ve been told by Brits that their sociology departments are more like management studies, while their management programs are more like progressive, humanist studies. Go figure).

    At the same time, I have to feel that — right now — Uber is a particular problem. Not just for this issue of using its interface to hype up productivity, but for so many other practices — its egregious treatment of women in the engineering wing, its manipulating interfaces with ghost cars to thwart state investigations, its complicity in the sexual harassment of riders in Delhi, its participation in racial discrimination in the US, its questionable practices of strike breaking during the Muslim ban protests in NY — all this not mention, the CEO’s cozying up to Trump right after the inauguration. It’s sheer scale scares me as well — how far across the globe it is now reaching, including consumers and workers.

    So perhaps we can keep an eye on both the firm and the system at the same time …