In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power

Zuboff, S. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Shoshana Zuboff (profile from Harvard Business School site) is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School (retired), where she joined the faculty in 1981.  One of the first tenured women at the Harvard Business School and the youngest woman to receive an endowed chair, she earned her Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University and her B.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. She has been a featured columnist for and for Fast Company Magazine.

This video is more geared toward her computer-mediated work – “the relationship between information technology and work: 1) technology is not neutral, but embodies intrinsic characteristics that enable new human experiences and foreclose others,2) within these new “horizons of the possible” individuals and groups construct meaning and make choices, further shaping the situation, and 3) the interplay of intrinsic qualities and human choices is further shaped by social, political, and economic interests that inscribe the situation with their own intended and unintended opportunities and limitations” (from Wikipedia dot org).

Overview of Argument

We read two chapters from the book – “The Laboring Body: Suffering and Skill in Production Work” and “The Abstraction of Industrial Work”. In “The Laboring Body”, Zuboff sets out to construct better understanding of the relationship between automation technology and the body in the industrial/manufacturing setting.On the one hand, industrial technology have simplified and reduced physical effort of work, and Zuboff discusses work as effort and skill, but because of the relationship that exists between effort (doing) and skill in work, technology have tended to eliminate knowledge, or know-how, that is implicit/intuitive in the physical working if the sentient body. In “The Abstraction of Industrial Work”, Zuboff looks at computerization and its impact on intellective skills and action-centered skills. Zuboff summarizes the tensions associated with the body as interface versus data as interface -“Ac­complishing work came to depend more upon thinking about and responding to an electronically presented symbolic medium than upon acting out know-how derived from sentient experience” (95).

  • “Technology represents intelligence systematically applied to the problem of the body. It functions to amplify and surpass the organic limits of the body; it compensates for the body’s fragility and vulnera­bility” (22)
  • “Information technology, however, does have the potential to redirect the historical trajectory of automation. The intrinsic power of its informating capacity can change the basis upon which knowledge is developed and applied in the industrial production process by lifting knowledge entirely out of the body’s domain” (23)
  • “work was above all the problem of the laboring body” (24)
  • bodies as instruments for acting-on: body as instrument for producing calculated effects on material and equipment and acting-with: body as instrument for interpersonal influence (30)
  • paradox of the body:
    • “But the body as the scene of effort, the body to be protected, held a special paradox. For it was also through the body’s exertions that learning occurred, and for those who were to become skilled workers, long years of physically demanding experience were an unavoidable require­ment…Where the skilled worker was con­cerned, the body’s sentience was also highly structured by a felt knowledge of materials and procedure” (36)
  • “Skill and effort finally seemed to be uncoupled” (51)
  • “As long as their knowledge is concrete and specific rather than conceptual and technical, workers will tend to be confined to a certain set of roles” (55)
  • “knowledge was first transferred from one quality of knowing to another-from knowing that was sentient, embedded, and experience-based to know­ing that was explicit and thus subject to rational analysis and perpetual reformulation” (56)
  • action-centered skill (61):
    • Sentience. Action-centered skill is based upon sentient information derived from physical cues.
    • Action-dependence. Action-centered skill is developed in physical perfor­mance. Although in principle it may be made explicit in language, it typi­cally remains unexplicated-implicit in action.
    • Context-dependence. Action-centered skill only has meaning within the con­ text in which its associated physical activities can occur.
    • Personalism. It is the individual body that takes in the situation and an indi­vidual’s actions that display the required competence. There is a felt link­ age between the knower and the known. The implicit quality of knowledge provides it with a sense of interiority, much like physical experience.
  • “Computerization brings about an essential change in the way the worker can know the world and, with it, a crisis of confidence in the possibility of certain knowledge” (61)
  • “Accomplish­ing work depended upon the ability to manipulate symbolic, electroni­cally presented data. Instead of using their bodies as instruments of acting-on equipment and materials, the task relationship became medi­ated by the information system” (62)
  • “It is as if one’s job had vanished into a two-dimensional space of abstractions, where digital symbols replace a concrete reality” (63)
  • “”We are simply providing you with new tools to do your job. Your job is to operate the equipment, and this is a new tool to operate the equipment with.”” (65)
  • embodied knowledge to “scientific inference” (72)
  • in mind vs. in body (embodied)
  • “Intellective skills are necessary when action is refracted by a sym­bolic medium. They are used to construct appropriate linkages between a symbol and the reality it means to convey” (79) – external and referential worlds
  • “new control technology had the parallel effect of informating the operators’ task environment. Accomplishing work came to depend more upon thinking about and re­sponding to an electronically presented symbolic medium than upon acting out know-how derived from sentient experience” (95)


Zuboff poses the question “Will effort and skill, indeed the very presence of the worker, be wiped out altogether?”, going on a few sentences later to pose the question “While it is true that computer-based automation continues to displace the human body and its know-how (a process that has come to be known as deskilling), the informating power of the technology simultaneously creates pressure for a profound reskilling. How are these new skills to be understood?” at the end of “The Laboring Body”.  Zuboff’s work with this text was conducted in the 1980s, do we understand these skills now? Has the context changed ?

Do the selections we read from Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope about the action that is made possible by human and nonhuman actants, and about the influence of actants on each other – how they change because of their interaction (mediation) – allow us to approach Zuboff’s computerization, from action-centered to intellective skill, differently?

Where is craftsmanship/what is craftsmanship in this context?


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