Low Paid Labor At The Pace of the Relentless Algorithm
The New Republic - December 4, 2019
"The hidden moments of reclaimed freedom that make any job bearable are being discovered and wiped out by bosses everywhere."
... In her new book, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Guendelsberger re-creates a version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous experiment in Nickel and Dimed. Guendelsberger, a reporter for the alt-weekly Philadelphia City Paper until it was sold off and shut down in 2015, went undercover at three low-wage workplaces: an Amazon warehouse in Indiana, a call center in North Carolina, and a McDonald’s in San Francisco. Whereas Ehrenreich’s main discovery was that there still existed an exploited working class—a controversial point in the late 1990s and early 2000s—Guendelsberger takes inequality and exploitation as given, asking instead what these jobs are doing to the millions who work them.
What does the phrase “in the weeds” mean to you? In the professional-managerial class, “in the weeds” signifies knotty detail (as in the Vox public policy podcast, The Weeds). In the working class, Guendelsberger points out, “in the weeds” means the same thing “swamped” does in professional-speak: overwhelmed and stressed out. And America’s working class, Guendelsberger argues, is in the weeds all the time, increasingly subjected to an automated neo-Taylorism. Workers are scheduled by algorithm, their tasks timed automatically, and their performance surveilled digitally. This was what she learned on these jobs: “The weeds are a terribly toxic place for human beings. The weeds make us crazy. The weeds make us sick. The weeds destroy family life. The weeds push people into addiction. The weeds will literally kill you.”
What Guendelsberger found in her experiment was that employers now “demand a workforce that can think, talk, feel, and pick stuff up like humans—but with as few needs outside of work as robots. They insist their workers amputate the messy human bits of themselves—family, hunger, thirst, emotions, the need to make rent, sickness, fatigue, boredom, depression, traffic.” The results are “cyborg jobs,” and they account, by Guendelsberger’s reckoning, for almost half of the American workforce. The hidden moments of reclaimed freedom that make any job bearable are being discovered and wiped out by bosses everywhere: That trick you used to use to slow down the machine won’t work anymore; or that window of 23 minutes when you knew your boss couldn’t watch you is vanishing. Whatever little piece of humanity survived in these fragments dies with them.
In her first job, at an Amazon “fulfillment center,” Guendelsberger finds a regime that is Taylor’s “vision incarnate.” (One co-worker, sensing Taylor’s ghost, theorizes that Amazon is “a sociological experiment on how far a corporation can push people.”) Guendelsberger, a “picker,” is made to carry on her waist a scanner gun, which monitors her location, tells her the precise item among the hundreds of thousands in the warehouse that she is to go pluck from the shelves, its location, and how much time she has to do it. A sliding bar counts down as seconds go by, haranguing her. When she’s identified the shelf in the vast facility, dug through the bin, and scanned the item, the next one appears right away.
Read full report at The New Republic