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?


The Workshop

In Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, he says of the workshop that the “workshop is the craftsman’s home. Traditionally and literally so” (53). In previous posts, I have mentioned the not so desirable workspace I have for printing – my (low) kitchen table in my kitchen.


My last round of prints, which were of two small designs, took a total of seven hours from start to finish: sketching, painting drawing fluid, drying, painting screen filler, drying, making the prints, washing the screen (this doesn’t include the amount of time it takes for me to convert my “workshop” back into my kitchen, or my “washing station” into my shower. Both spaces need to be cleaned and reassembled after this process.) During this time I am on my feet. I’m not sure of the physical/body reasons for this, but sitting to print seems improbable to me. Here is where a technical account should occur, but I haven’t the language for it, so put crudely: I don’t have the same control and dexterity of my hands (and what they’re doing is remarkable in range) and arms sitting, especially at my low table. And given that this workshop is actually my kitchen and is small (and occupied by two curious cats that watch on), I am back and forth washing my limited amount of tools, my hands so as to not sully the process or product, and the screen as it advances in the process.

When I print, I am enjoying myself. I am listening to Radiolab or music and I get absorbed into the process, that is until physically I am pulled out of my head and made aware of my body: back ache. Printing in my workshop space is grueling on my back, but for the most part I do not focus on this, I instead focus on the progress of the print. I typically take a break about halfway through the move to the living room to stretch and lie on the floor a minute to give my back a break. This last time though, despite feeling just about everything that is able to crack in my neck, shoulders, back and wrists pop, one side of my back and neck went into a state of cold numbness and I was forced in that moment to think about my workspace. Printing requires much from my body for the process, not just my hands, but movements that involve my arms, wrists, shoulders, and back. Craft does require the body as an integral part of the making, and I had never been made so aware of my own body then I was in this moment. I thought, this is why space matters, this is why workshops aren’t often transferable to any space – there are conditions that must be attended to. Craftspersons have established workplaces because the process is involves and requires certain material conditions. While I have been able to make without some of these elements, if I am to continue doing this (and I would like to) I have to envision the space and conditions of doing it as I view the process of making – with care. While I don’t think this quite gets to the naturalism of John Ruskin, I do find myself uninspired by my transitory kitchen workshop, which I feel in my craft. Each part of the process becomes felt, no longer embodied, I am aware of time  passing and time left to take, and begin thinking about the transformation back into cooking and eating space and the scrubbing of paint and Speedball Cleaner from my bathtub before it can be used again. This is hardly the imagination necessary for designing and making.

A parting word on ventilation: it’s critical. I think about my dad’s workshop in the garage – “industrial” surfaces that are easy to clean, high ceilings, many windows and or/door to open, waist high and lower chest high work surfaces. It’s part in the garage because we don’t have room in our tiny house for a workshop, partly because of the nature of much of my dad’s work – wood work, welding, working on cars and the like, and part because of the materials and solvents he’s working with. Printing itself, although using chemical materials, isn’t as noticeable, but the cleaner is. In my tiny bathroom with a functionless (it lets some light in) window, the steam created from cleaning the screen fills the room. I have yet to clean a screen without getting a headache, and I think it’s attributed to the cleaning agent. While this isn’t a universal requirement of printing, I think there is a reason many print workshops are in more open industrial settings aside from space to set up the many materials – air circulation and ventilation. This, like my workshop space, has been something I’m dealing with because I don’t have other resources available, but it is not sustainable space.

Next apartment criteria: a workshop space (and a taller table) so I can live in my living space and in my working space and not an uncomfortable transitory space in between that seems to be at odds with both.

The Body of the Artisan

Pamela H Smith’s The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution is a dense and interesting history of the influence of art and craft on the formation of science, or “new philosophy” in the early seventeenth century, that I can’t begin to unpack just yet. But I am interested in questions that are surfacing about natural knowledge, the focus of the scientific revolution, on the basis of observation and depiction. I’m not sure how (or if) questions of seeing help me get footing in the text, but I couldn’t get the work of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida and James Elkins in The Object Stares Back out of the back of my mind. I can make a loose connection their work to create a language/way to talk about images and art beyond aesthetic qualities to the work of theorizing from drawings/paintings – a way of communicating knowledge orally (or in alpha. text). But the connection I find more interesting what knowledge is and isn’t able to move from nature, or from embodied practice, as a representation (a re-presentation). I feel like in posing this thought it seems like I’m trying to get a some philosophical real world beyond, but it’s really a matter of curiosity in how this knowledge (embodied or tacit) traveled because of graphic depiction (and what couldn’t). And in terms of engaging with nature, sight (reasonably so) is the sense that is appealed to/through; while it highlighted to the eyes, I wonder what was left unseen.

“Well, what is it like?” (In the Laboratory with Agassiz): It reminds me of a short account I read in a tech comm class before, In the Laboratory with Agassiz on Learning to See. A student enters Agassiz’s lab wanting to learn zoology , to which Agassiz responds with leaving the student alone with a fish to analyze. He asks the student what he sees in the fish but is dissatisfied with the student’s observations of the fish’s appearance. After days of looking at the fish, the student describes it as “symmetrical sides with paired organs” which pleases Agassiz as a connection between facts and general law – not just observations in isolation as facts. While this is distributed throughout Smith, I thought these related:

“The pursuit of natural knowledge became active and began to involve the body; that is, one had to observe, record, and engage bodily with nature” (18).


“Images came to be known as witnesses to facts. Images that increasingly invoked claims of factuality reinforced the techniques of observation and eyewitness as modes of inquiring knowledge” (150).

as disciplined observation and engagement to construct knowledge in objects and physical, observable phenomena. This enaction is what made scientific inquiry and the construction of knowledge possible. Making allowed people to make themselves, or the material of their culture; “Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism” (James Elkins The Object Stares Back). These depictions seem of a small scale though, or perhaps singular – how did this knowledge circulate? (particularly when its origins were in craft and art that was embodied knowledge unto singular persons that moved through apprenticeship). What is the relationship between the body of the artisan and the body of scientific knowledge?

Screen Printing: Screen Filler I

While it was difficult to make the decision on what to print, looking around my kitsch inspired kitchen (a fusion of cat, calico prints, vintage food ads, and punk touches) I recalled the “Cat Flag” poster print I have been wanting for some time. To create my first print, I decided to try the screen filler method. I browsed YouTube for tutorials on how the screen filler should be applied – what the consistency should look like, to what thickness it should be spread, and how long it took to dry/what it looked like dry. To begin, the graphic is drawn directly onto the screen with a pencil. I wanted the cats and the text to take the ink in the print, with the field around them remaining open. To achieve this with screen filler, the liquid must be applied everywhere on the screen that you do not want to allow ink to go through. Opening the jar of screen filler, it appeared separated – a clear liquid at the top with thick rust colored particulates (of gelatinous consistency) toward the bottom. I stirred the liquid with the stick of a paintbrush and began to paint it on. On the screen, the screen filler didn’t appear to have uniform consistency, so I continued to stir the jar and re-painted the area I had started. Controlling the substance was akin to painting with oils – around areas of small detail, it was difficult to keep the clean lines of the graphic I drew. With only two paintbrushes, I didn’t have a size large enough the cover open areas of the screen easily, nor did I have a brush small enough to attend to small elements – like around the letters’ edges or the cats’ eyes. Once the screen was coated with the filler, it had to dry.

I wasn’t sure how long the drying process would take, so I turned to searching for answers in online tutorials. The few I consulted stated that the screen could be left to dry overnight, or could be helped along with a hairdryer. I applied the dryer’s medium setting over the screen for close to ten minutes. The wet look of the filler turned dull, like a dark terracotta clay. When it was dry to the touch, I decided to try printing with the screen.

This first print was done with black ink on pieces of white and red matte poster board. I placed pieces of trimmed poster board under the screen, trying to mind where the print would fall. One set, I poured ink in a strip across the top of the screen. I didn’t measure, nor did I use a tool; it looked close to two tablespoons of ink. With the squeegee, I pulled the ink down across the print area on the screen, making close to eight passes back and forth. Lifting the screen, the paper stuck to it. Pulling the paper off, it seemed that there might have been an excess of ink due to its sticking, and that the design of the graphic didn’t appear to have clean edges – instead, the ink seemed to extend outside of the print area. I made two more prints without adding an additional ink. Both seemed to look similar in that they didn’t have clean edges. I set the prints aside to dry overnight somewhere out of the reach of the cats.

I immediately began to clean up my work space. Cleaning the brushes and squeegee was easily done in the kitchen sink with warm, soapy water. To clean the screen, I had a bottle of Speedball brand cleaner. I placed the screen in my bathtub and poured about a third of a cup of cleaner all across the screen’s surface and left it for five minutes (according to the directions). I began to scrub the screen with a nylon dish sponge, but realized only the ink was coming off while the screen filler remained. I turned hot water on the screen while I scrubbed, and while some of the filler began to lift in areas it was thickest, it remained. I poured another third cup cleaner on the screen and left it to sit. The directions called for very hot water, so when I returned to scrub the screen, I turned the shower on hot, focusing the stream of water on the screen as I scrubbed. The sponge didn’t appear to be abrasive enough, and I remembered a potato scrub brush I had in the kitchen. With the brush, filler began to come off, but it took focused scrubbing. Over phases of letting the screen sit and running hot water over it while scrubbing it, and becoming soaked from the waist up, I used up the bottle of cleaner (16 oz) in its entirety. After twenty five minutes of scrubbing, the screen had come mostly clean. The pencil drawing was still visible and a light tint of rust could be seen (like a negative of the design). I leaned the screen against the wall in the hallway of my apartment to dry overnight. After cleaning the screen in my bathtub, it was necessary to clean my bathtub.

This first print, with clean up, took close to four hours. While I was content with my first prints, my hands ached from scrubbing and my skin felt raw from the screen cleaner (I did not wear gloves). Between the drawing, painting, and printing which I did all standing up at my kitchen table (which stands at less than 2”5, while I stand at 5”7) and kneeling into my bathtub to clean the screen, my back ached. For future prints, while limited to this space, I will have to make adjustments to this process. Another matter that arose was the smell; the ink, screen filler, and cleaner all had strong odors. I had the window open in my kitchen while I worked, but do not have a functional window in my bathroom. After I was finished working, I positioned fans to try to ventilate the space. It only occurred to me then to read the label on the cleaner, which carries a Caution Label for hazardous materials. Although it is deemed safe to use with appropriate caution. I looked up the label on the web to learn that it was a skin and eye irritant, not unexpected, but that it also shouldn’t be inhaled, particularly as a mist. In my unventilated bathroom with the shower on hot, I assume this could become potentially hazardous. I searched on the web for alternative screen cleaners and read that detergent could be used.

For my next print, I need to take steps to alleviate back strain during the process. I would also like to try cleaning my screen without using the Speedball cleaner. After this first print, I find myself really thinking about the idea of a workshop  – a designated place to work in. Some place that equipment and tools can remain up/out, and that has furniture or equipment conducive to what needs to be done in order to make. How essential is this space?