The Thing Called Information: Understanding Alienation in the Post-Industrial Economy

“Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.”

“That’s very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company.”

“Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”

Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle, 1963[1]

The late Kurt Vonnegut loved to skewer the irrationality of both science and religion in his novels. In the acclaimed Cat’s Cradle, he invented Bokononism—a faith that encouraged its adherents to believe in lies or, at least, “harmless untruths.” For a believer, the idea that knowledge was an end in itself appeared laughable. The Bokononists, though, may have been right to doubt science. The specter of nuclear annihilation haunted Cat’s Cradle, which tells the story of scientists who create a substance that irreversibly turns all the world’s water to ice, destroying civilization. If religion was made up of myths and lies, it seems, science risked fetishizing knowledge without providing any means to contain or control its consequences.

Cats Cradle (1963)

Vonnegut also anticipated an emerging discourse about a post-industrial or information economy. His 1952 debut, Player Piano, tapped into growing fears that machines would displace human labor by imagining a totally automated society.[2] In Cat’s Cradle, he imagines a new category of worker—men whose sole job is to “increase knowledge,” who work with information everyday and whose output is information. They could be scientists at the General Forge and Foundry Company or General Electric, Bell Labs or MIT. One could also imagine journalists, photographers and scholars as people whose job is to add to humanity’s storehouse of precious knowledge.

In the years since Cat’s Cradle’s publication, the idea that most Americans work with information in one way or another has become commonplace. Although intellectuals began to ponder the possibility of a post-industrial society in the 1950s, the notion of an economy specifically geared toward producing and selling information or intellectual property emerged later. The expression “information revolution” first entered circulation in the 1960s, as part of a public relations initiative by IBM, RCA and other corporations. In the late 1970s, economist Marc Uri Porat estimated that 53% of the American workforce already worked in the “information” industry, although his definition of the term was rather broad. By the 1990s, the existence of an information economy was widely taken as a given; high-tech firms in software and pharmaceuticals generated jobs and big profits, the federal government provided new protections for intellectual property rights, and theorists such as Richard Florida celebrated the emergence of a “creative class” of a highly educated, mobile workers who congregated in hip cities and powered innovation.

In all the enthusiasm for information, few have paused to take its measure. How can we define the “information industries” that make up the “information economy”? What does the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector have in common with education, pharmaceuticals, or publishing? Until the US economy crashed in 2008, conventional wisdom held that the forward march of technological innovation was normal and inevitable. When the American auto industry teetered on the brink of collapse in late 2008, many commentators could hardly have cared less; the US did not need its old manufacturing base anymore, critics said, and if Ford and Chrysler could not survive, so much the better.[3] In contrast, companies such as Apple and Google represented the best of American capitalism, providing products and services that the public genuinely wanted.

At the same time, though, many non-manufacturing industries were in crisis. The real estate business helped spark the financial crash, as lending, homebuying, and construction ground to a halt. The nation’s largest financial firms faced extinction until they received government support far greater than what the big three automakers ultimately got. Meanwhile, the publishing and recording industries—emblematic of the business of making and selling information—have been in decline for most of the new century. Salon’s Scott Timberg recently surveyed the widespread shuttering of record shops, video stores and newspapers, and reached only one conclusion: “The creative class is a lie.”[4] If Borders and Barnes & Noble, Bank of America and Merck, Interscope and Indiana University have something in common with eBay and Amazon, it remains unclear what that is. Shared prosperity is clearly not it.

Looking for Information in the Workplace

Go to the nearest record store, if you can find one. Is the person behind the counter an information worker? We are said to be living in the long shadow of an information revolution that occurred in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, depending on whether you place the historical emphasis on the development of mainframe computing, satellite communication, personal computers, or the Internet. In any case, the vaguely yet inescapably condescending person who rang up your purchase of the Panda Bear album is an information worker of sorts, right? He or she is a functionary at some level in a grand enterprise recording “information” (also known as music) and distributing it to the public.[5]

Thinking about information...

Thinking about information…

What is the relationship, though, between the increasingly endangered record store (or book store) clerk and the manufacturing worker or the much-lauded creative class worker? Is the person who scans the barcode on your CD and gives you change more like the assembly line worker, the burger flipper, or the toiler in an office or lab?

Traditional Marxist (and Marxist-inspired) theories do not view the white collar employee as alienated in the same way as the industrial worker because A. the white collar worker does not produce a product that embodies his labor, which he can, in turn, be alienated from, and B. middle class managerial workers share characteristics both with the proletariat and the capitalist, deprived of ownership or real control but still in the position of bossing around other workers.[6]

Knowledge workers?

Knowledge workers?

Why is this? Is the white collar employee’s labor not appropriated in essentially the same way as an industrial worker? Some industrial workers oversee others (group leaders, foremen) without possessing the same cultural capital, credentials, or status as true managers. White collar workers put their labor into something—a sales report, a legal briefing, a haircut, a massage, a psychic prediction, or counseling a student—that others profit from, even if the output may not always fit the traditional definition of a “product” (tangible, separable from the provider or creator, storable, “something you can drop on your foot,” etc.).[7]

Is it labor, in the Lockean sense of adding value to a material thing (which value is, for Marxists, taken by the employer who buys the labor)? It obviously is labor, but is it of any different character than, say, the physical action that places a piece of metal on a press in a factory, for it to be molded or stamped into a particular shape for later assembly down the line? Is it any different from the McDonald’s worker who puts a frozen piece of beef-like substance on a heating element of some kind, before it is assembled into a Big Mac? The fast food industry is generally classed as a service, in part because its product is presumed to be consumed at or relatively near to the time and place of production (like, say, open heart surgery, a college class, a shoe shine)—although Bhagwati has pointed out that food service is not always produced or consumed at the same time or place. You might get fried chicken warmed over from yesterday, or the food may be delivered some time after it is produced and never literally consumed, like the inconceivable business of Edible Arrangements, which sells baskets of sculpted fruit as, apparently, some kind of gift.[8]

FAST-FOOD-WORKER-facebook

Inedible arrangements

Yet food service, particularly fast food, bears all the hallmarks of a Fordist or Taylorist mode of production—an assembly line, standardized inputs and a division labor, even a tangible product at the end of the line. The factory just happens to be located next to the retail outlet. The example of McDonald’s may reveal the penetration of industrialization into new vistas of life, such as food preparation, that had been primarily the province of home production prior to the entrance of vast numbers of women into the waged workforce, beginning in the mid twentieth century and proceeding apace from the 1960s to today. The same techniques used to make cars and shoes could be applied to food, as the need arises.[9]

This example still does not resolve the question of whether service work (or “information” or “knowledge” work, according to the fashion) is fundamentally different from industrial work as a labor relation. Some would say that the relative autonomy of the professions, particularly law and medicine and academia, set them apart; the attorney not only has his own (recognized, valued, and institutionally defended) expertise, but he may also have his own practice. This says little, of course, for the large proportion of lawyers who work in big corporate firms or as public defenders. The vaunted autonomy of the family doctor has, of course, been eroded by long evolving trends in the provision of medical care, as many doctors work as salaried employees of hospitals, insurance companies, and other businesses. And this is to say nothing of the grossly exploitative conditions that nurses of every rank face in the workplace, as the proletariat of a society with enough ailments and incapacities to take up one sixth of the US gross domestic product (a statistic oft-repeated when conservatives feared a “government takeover” of so large a chunk of the economy during the debate over healthcare reform).

Growing expenditures on healthcare in the last thirty years have done little to deter the master narrative of the information economy and the creative class, of course. Such rhetoric implies that the manufacturer of new high-tech medical equipment is more important than the doctor (while the manufacturing aspect is also less significant than the scientific expertise and intellectual property development that goes into developing the company’s latest MRI model). Likewise, the pharmaceutical industry that applies great amounts of money and research to patent new drugs must be more central and significant than the ever-growing workforce of nurses. The fact that healthcare is, above all, a service, applying the skills and intelligence of medical workers to the physical bodies and minds of human beings, seems lost in the ideological shuffle. That the pharmaceutical industry negotiated an early deal with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party to protect its interests (effectively barring any importation of cheaper foreign drugs in the overall package of healthcare reform) seems to attest to the sector’s priority and influence.[10]

But public debate about the US economy and economic growth in recent years has remained centered on the high-tech and intellectual property-intensive sectors of the economy—the “creative class” of Internet innovators, graphic designers, and so forth who populate the works of Richard Florida.[11] Continuing a research and development tax credit that provides economic advantages to pharmaceuticals and tech firms over other businesses (any firm, large and small, that does not have a vested interest in R&D) was an early priority of the Obama administration, because research is good. Information is good. We are in the intellectual property business, by golly. And we have to innovate our way out of whatever our latest economic predicament may be.[12]

This post is part of a four-part series that ToM will be running over the Summer.  This installment is followed by “Stroking the Platypus” and “Information Goes to School.”  For earlier pieces on related topics, click here

References

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle (1963), 41.

[2] Amy Sue Bix, Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? America’s Debate over Technological Unemployment, 1929-1981 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 252-4.

[3] Chetan Narain, “Economics Professors Critical of Government Auto Bailout,” Daily Princetonian, 10 Dec. 2008, http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2008/12/10/22390/.

[4] Scott Timberg, “The Creative Class Is a Lie,” Salon, 1 Oct. 2011, http://www.salon.com/2011/10/01/creative_class_is_a_lie/.

[5] Thomas Haigh’s epic dissertation provides one of the most in-depth explorations of the emergence of different kinds of information workers and their quest for professional recognition and managerial authority: Haigh, “Technology, Information, and Power: Managerial Technicians in Corporate America, 1917-2000” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2003); see also Haigh, “Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950-1968,” Business History Review 75 (Spring 2001): 15-61.

[6] Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 84-5.

[7] Jagdish Bhagwati, “International Trade in Services and Its Relevance for Economic Development,” in Orio Giarini, ed., The Emerging Service Economy (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1987), 4-8. See also Stephen A. Herzenberg, John A. Alic, and Howard Wial, New Rules for a New Economy: Employment and Opportunity in a Postindustrial America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 21-2.

[8] Herzenberg, New Rules, 25; Bhagwati, “International Trade in Services,” 6; “Continued Existence of Edible Arrangements Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism,” The Onion, 31 March 2011, at http://www.theonion.com/articles/continued-existence-of-edible-arrangements-disprov,19856/.

[9] Hardt and Negri, Empire, 267-8; Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 20.

[10] “Big Pharma Scores in US Healthcare Reform,” Royal Society of Chemistry, 25 March 2001, http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2010/March/25031003.asp; Alan Fram, “Drug Lobby Comes Out a Big Winner in Healthcare Reform: The Influence Game,” Cleveland, 29 March 2010, http://www.cleveland.com/nation/index.ssf/2010/03/drug_lobby_comes_out_a_big_win.html.

[11] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class… And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 8-9.

[12] Dean Zerbe, “Obama Does Right by Research and Development Tax Credit,” Forbes, 8 Sept. 2010, http://www.forbes.com/sites/deanzerbe/2010/09/08/obama-does-right-by-research-and-development-tax-credit/.

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