Information systems may seem abstract, even transcendent—especially when we emphasize data over the human element. Martin Campbell-Kelly writes, “Indeed, one of the great fascinations of software is its invisibility and intangibility.”1 Nathan Ensmenger observes, “Software might even be considered a form of incantation: words are spoken (or at least written) and the world changes. A computer program is invisible, ethereal, and ephemeral.”2
This paradigm of representing information as immaterial makes it easy to forget how information processing, from physical filing systems to touchscreens, puts data at our fingertips. True, new digital technologies emphasize the interactive, embodied, haptic, gestural, biometric, and immersive – but such interfaces are not new. They are best understood in relation to older forms of hands-on information work. This history is important because it alerts us to the role that technology plays in generating new forms of labor centered on “touch.”
Manual manipulation requires dexterity, and therefore privileges able-bodied hands and fingers. However, by the same token, hands-on information work has long been regarded as inferior to more purely intellectual tasks and managerial activities such as planning, design, coordination, communication, assessment, and decision-making. Studies of digital culture that emphasize immateriality and “immaterial labor” risk effacing the manual and embodied activities that subtend information systems.
Maurizio Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor describes late capitalism’s use of the whole human being – including their personalities, tastes, social networks, and decision-making abilities – and thus highlights the role of non-alienated labor in post-Fordist societies.3 Yet even under late capitalism, the creation and maintenance of information systems still require menial work. The “low-touch economy,” in which consumers enjoy a variety of low- and no-contact services and goods, would not be possible without the digital Taylorist breaking down and distributing of non-automatable work into low-paid microtasks.4
A brief consideration of manual information work illuminates how technological advances contribute to social inequality by sorting workers into gendered and racialized labor through mechanisms of deskilling, degrading, technological displacement, geographic redistribution, and segregation. Typists, telephone operators, and remote VR workers – these three examples show how technological innovations create new forms of work marked by manual manipulation, spatial and social separation, and fragmentation of the labor process.
In the late-nineteenth-century U.S., information technologies produced new forms of manual work, like typing, filing, and punched card handling. The increasingly female composition of these occupations lowered clerical wages, eliminated training and opportunities for promotion, and drastically decreased union participation among these job types.5 Feminized work was gendered discursively as well, through frequent references to women’s traditional skills and pursuits, such as sewing, weaving, and playing piano.
“Girls” who typed and sorted papers, operated telephone switchboards, and checked and fed punched cards into electromechanical computers were praised for their “nimble fingers” and “delicate touch.” From the industrial era to the information age, this gendered language helped smooth technological transitions, naturalizing the reorganization of work through a rhetoric of sexual difference.
Take Remington typewriters, for instance, which were first introduced to the public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. The mass dissemination of the Remington typewriter in the late nineteenth century gave middle-class white women access to clerical jobs. By the mid-1880s typewriting was firmly established as a female occupation with an estimated 40,000 typewriters employed in the U.S. alone.6
Ads extolled Remington typewriters as time-and-labor-saving devices that were far quicker than writing or copying documents by hand.7 They depicted smartly dressed young women operating typewriters, implying staffing changes brought about by mechanization – resulting in a more efficient, responsive, and malleable workforce, with low-level clerical tasks delegated to compliant female workers.8
This organizational and technological shift had its critics, too. It was said that typists destroyed the livelihoods of already low-paid, male shorthand writers.9 In the 1880s, female typists and stenographers earned relatively good wages for women (10-12 USD per day) copying legal documents and transcribing court proceedings.10 They were accused of “taking the bread out of [men’s] mouths” and blocking clerical workers’ unionization efforts.11 As private secretaries, women were supposedly “more teachable and willing to please” than men – and less likely to become rivals in business.12 The feminization of clerical work benefitted businesses and middle-class white women, while downgrading and deskilling the trade.13
During WWI, American industrial manufacturing expanded, immigration to the U.S. plummeted, and young men were conscripted, increasing employment opportunities for both white and Black women. However, as with feminization, the changing composition of urban jobs typically reflected loss of status or poor working conditions whenever the proportion of Black workers increased. In cities with an active labor movement, for instance, Black women were hired into dangerous jobs or recruited as scabs – or employed to prevent unionization in the first place.14 Until the 1960s there were still very few opportunities for Black women in clerical fields and information work, and Black women remained concentrated in agricultural and domestic work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 introduced affirmative action, forcing employers to hire larger numbers of Black workers, but the timing of this legislation together with automation and computerization allowed companies to slot Black workers into jobs that were deskilled or soon to be displaced.15
As computers reshaped the office, unprecedented numbers of Black women found employment in clerical occupations – indicating that these jobs were an important driver of Black women’s social mobility, even as they fell in status relative to new forms of information work, like programmer or systems engineer. In fact, between 1962 and 1974, the proportion of Black women in clerical work increased most strikingly in the lowest graded jobs, such as “office machine operators, postal clerks, telephone operators, and typists.”16 In the case of telephone operators, Venus Green argues, companies like AT&T used divide and control tactics that deployed racial hiring divisively, rather than pursuing real integration.17 As Green explains, gendering and racial discrimination were used to enforce social and occupational hierarchies in the workplace, which not only discouraged workers’ collective organizing but actively facilitated white male managers’ control of workers. Technology contributed to occupational segregation: with the introduction of new technologies, “women were either technologically displaced, or the job opportunities that opened to women as a result of new technologies did not change the sexual and racial division of labor that relegated women to lower-paid, repetitive, machine-paced, dead-end jobs.”18
The above examples of typists and telephone operators are a reminder that new technologies do not simply generate new, specialized, high-skilled jobs; they also inevitably restructure or eliminate existing job types as firms strive for improved cost-efficiency and other competitive advantages. This is true of information processing as much as manufacturing.
As Harry Braverman notes, under twentieth-century monopoly capitalism, office work transformed from something merely incidental to the production of goods and services to “a labor process in its own right” that needed to be managed systematically.19 The application of scientific management principles to clerical work resulted similarly in Taylorization, wherein, Braverman argues, the manual element of labor dominates:
In the clerical routine of offices, the use of the brain is never entirely done away with – any more than it is entirely done away with in any form of manual work. The mental processes are rendered repetitious and routine, or they are reduced to so small a factor in the work process that the speed and dexterity with which the manual portion of the operation can be performed dominates the labor process as a whole. More than this cannot be said of any manual labor process, and once it is true of clerical labor, labor in that form is placed on an equal footing with the simpler forms of so-called blue-collar manual labor. For this reason, the traditional distinctions between “manual” and “white-collar” labor, which are so thoughtlessly and widely used in the literature on this subject, represent echoes of a past situation which has virtually ceased to have meaning in the modern world of work. And with the rapid progress of mechanization in offices it becomes all the more important to grasp this.20
For Braverman, the manual character of clerical work becomes even more pronounced with computerization.
Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, first published in 1974, examined the role that keyboards, switchboards, and punched card systems played in the Taylorization of office work. Today, wearables, like haptic gloves, use tactile receptors to sense pressure, skin stretch, motion, and other stimuli. These interfaces make possible new forms of underpaid and unseen information work that users may not even realize they are performing. As work, socializing, and self-expression are moving increasingly onto platforms, XR platforms like the Metaverse are poised to generate a wealth of new, embodied user-generated information.
Contrary to Lazzarato’s emphasis on subjectivity and social communication in “Immaterial Labor,” this datafication of life is more reminiscent of how Kracauer describes capitalist Ratio, with its emphasis on abstraction and calculability.
The production process runs its secret course in public. Everyone does his or her task on the conveyer belt, performing a partial function without grasping the totality. Like the pattern in the stadium, the organization stands above the masses, a monstrous figure whose creator withdraws it from the eyes of its bearers, and barely even observes it himself. – It is conceived according to the rational principles which the Taylor system merely pushes to their ultimate conclusion.21
While the Metaverse has primarily been envisioned as a next generation social network – and so a source of interaction and connection –, Paul Roquet argues that XR-enabled remote manufacturing and service work has introduced a new kind of segregation that he calls “telepresence enclosure.” Telepresence enclosure captures the worker’s bodily movements “while at the same time keeping the worker fixed in place and socially sequestered.”22 In fact, he argues, the point of VR and “immersive” technologies has always been “perceptual enclosure” – separating users from their surrounding environments.23
As Roquet’s analysis suggests, what we gain from thinking about the longer history of the manual manipulation of information is an appreciation for how technological advancements create separation, fragmentation, and asymmetry within the realm of work – and with it, new forms of piecework and Taylorization that are increasingly invisible and totalizing.