One of Marx’s many great insights was the theory of commodity fetishism – the idea that in capitalism relations between people assume “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” For example, the labour market – “a very Eden of the innate rights of man” – serves to depersonalize the relation between boss and worker and disguise the fact that the former exploits the latter.
Some things I’ve seen recently remind me that this phenomenon is still very much with us.
So many problems that are spoken of as “computer systems” problems are systems problems, that just happen to be implemented using computers rather than paper or giant rocks or whatever.
In this way, management tries to pass off blame for failure onto inanimate things. He’s surely right. We’ve all heard somebody say “our systems are down” as if this were an act of God rather than what it is – bad management.
A lot of talk of this week’s stock market fall fits this pattern. We’re told that the drop was amplified by algorithmic trading, and invited to believe that if only humans were in charge the market would be more stable. This is, of course, pish: who wrote and implemented those algorithms?
Sarah O’Connor describes how a similar thing is happening in workplaces, as workers are increasingly monitored not by humans but by algorithms, with the result that “human managers [are] hiding behind the veneer of ‘data science’ to offload responsibility for their decisions.”
Technology, then, serves an ideological function. It permits bosses to shift their own responsibility onto impersonal things, and to disguise their own power by attributing it to machines. Commodity fetishism lives.
This is on top of the fact that it also provides means for capitalists to better exploit labour. Peter Skott and Frederick Guy show how technologies (pdf) such as CCTV, containerization and bar codes have allowed bosses to screw down wages; the algorithmic management discussed by Sarah is an extension of this.
There is, of course, nothing new here. Supporters of worker oppression in the 19th century claimed that workers needed to be closely supervised because it would be too expensive for thousands of pounds worth of machinery to lie idle even for a short while. James Carey describes (pdf) how the telegraph “turned colonialism into imperialism: a system in which the centre of an empire could dictate rather than merely respond to the margin.” And more recently, containerization facilitated globalization and hence the entry (pdf) into the global workforce of millions of low-paid workers.
But might there be a backlash here? Rene Chun describes how self-checkouts encourage shoplifting because people feel anonymous. Partial gift exchange – which is the foundation of many economic transactions – is something that happens between humans, not between people and a machine.
My point here should be an old and trivial one, but I fear is under-appreciated. It’s that technology is not merely a neutral set of possibilities for improving the human condition. It plays a central role in shaping both the reality of class relations and our perceptions of those relations – often in ways which we cannot foresee at the time.