Beyond technological determinism: revitalising labour process analyses of technology, capital and labour

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  • 1 University of Stirling, UK
  • | 2 Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus–Senftenberg, Germanyand University of Stirling, UK
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Technological determinism is a recurrent feature in debates concerning changes in economy and work and has resurfaced sharply in the discourse around the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. While a number of authors have, in recent years, critiqued the trend, this article is distinctive in arguing that foundational labour process analysis provides the most effective source of an alternative understanding of the relations between political economy, science, technology and work relations. The article refines and reframes this analysis, through an engagement with critical commentary and research, developing the idea of a political materialist approach that can reveal the various influences on, sources of contestation and levels of strategic choices that are open to economic actors. A distinction is made between ‘first order’ choices, often about adoption at aggregate level and ‘second order’ choices mainly concerned with complex issues of deployment. This framework is then applied to the analysis of case studies of the call centre labour process and digital labour platform, functioning as illustrative scenarios. It is argued that the nature of techno-economic systems in the ‘digital era’ open up greater opportunities for contestation.

Abstract

Technological determinism is a recurrent feature in debates concerning changes in economy and work and has resurfaced sharply in the discourse around the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. While a number of authors have, in recent years, critiqued the trend, this article is distinctive in arguing that foundational labour process analysis provides the most effective source of an alternative understanding of the relations between political economy, science, technology and work relations. The article refines and reframes this analysis, through an engagement with critical commentary and research, developing the idea of a political materialist approach that can reveal the various influences on, sources of contestation and levels of strategic choices that are open to economic actors. A distinction is made between ‘first order’ choices, often about adoption at aggregate level and ‘second order’ choices mainly concerned with complex issues of deployment. This framework is then applied to the analysis of case studies of the call centre labour process and digital labour platform, functioning as illustrative scenarios. It is argued that the nature of techno-economic systems in the ‘digital era’ open up greater opportunities for contestation.

Introduction

The rise of an intellectual and policy discourse around a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ has predictably been accompanied by a resurgence of technological determinism. A common prediction across mainstream and some leftist commentators is of a wipeout of jobs by automation. Such narratives are conceptually flawed and empirically underpowered (Thompson, 2020) and the resultant hype and gloomy catastrophism (Wajcman, 2017) obscures causation and agency. Before proceeding further, it is worth being clear on what we mean by technological determinism. It refers to the assigning of causal powers and effects to technology that belong to or are mediated by institutions and agents. Determinism in the work sphere assigns technology (whether hardware or software) the decisive powers to initiate and shape work and broader economic relations.

Other than call the technological determinism out and remind people that we have been here before in previous periods of disruptive technological change, is there any alternative? Answering calls for conceptual frameworks that capture the relationship between technology, workplace regimes, capitalism and human agency (Howcroft and Taylor, 2014; Spencer, 2017), this article argues that a revitalised labour process analysis (LPA) offers the best means of addressing and transcending technological determinism. We recognise that LPA is not the only source of anti-determinist arguments. The most influential comes from social shaping of technology (SST) approaches. Indeed, SST analyses how various cultural (especially gender), institutional and economic factors shape technology development and inform ‘scripts’ that are written into technologies, enabling or constraining how they are used (Williams, 2019).

We want to focus more specifically on the underlying political and economic pressure points and sources of contestation that shape the strategic choices surrounding design and utilisation of technology at work. While these referenced articles share many of these goals and themes, our focus offers a distinctive contribution, as it revisits and renews LPA in the light of contemporary changes and challenges. Drawing on Marx’s analysis in Capital, LPA seeks to illuminate the appropriation of science and technology that takes place apparently ‘behind the backs’ of workers. Many scholar’s understandings of LPA and technology derive largely from what is sometimes called ‘second wave’ LPA that developed extensive case-based research that built upon and applied the central propositions around skill and control strategies developed by Braverman and others. We argue that while this literature provides invaluable insights on the concrete utilisation of different technologies at work and their consequence for workers, it suffers from a workplace-centric focus and a limited theoretical engagement with the political economy of technology. In revisiting LPA, we take a step back and focus on earlier ‘first wave’ contributions (for example, Braverman, 1974; Greenbaum, 1976; Rosenberg,1976; Noble, 1978; 1984), emphasising the ways in which they sought to break from technological determinism in the Marxist tradition.

We are by no means blind to flaws and ambiguities in LPA and technology and seek a productive engagement with critical readings of early LPA and technology. This includes Vidal’s (2020) substantial challenge that is informed by a ‘classical Marxism’ perspective and promotes the neutrality of productive forces that are fettered by the relations of production (see also Adler, 2007). Earlier in the article we also engage with Hall’s (2010) commentary on LPA and technology and offer a reworking of his idea of a political materialist perspective. Based on these discussions and combining first and selective second wave LPA, we present a theoretical framework that conceptualises the relations of technology as a productive force, focusing on institutional and agential mediations and the kinds of business models and control regimes through which technologies are embedded in the workplace. To illustrate such frames of analysis, the article utilises two extended ‘scenarios’ of labour process and technology: call centres and platform-based working.

Early LPA on technology and work

In the 1980s second wave LPA established the variations in patterns of skill usage and work organisation associated with new technology cases and changing managerial control regimes, emphasising both worker and managerial agency as mediating factors (Glen and Feldberg, 1980; Knights and Wilmott, 1988). One of the most neglected studies comes from Barry Wilkinson (1985). Informed by Braverman’s position on the relationship between forces and relations of production, Wilkinson refutes the idea of technological innovation as a neutral force of production. Instead, he stresses the political interests of capital and sectoral dynamics which have shaped decisions to invest in the design, choice and implementation of technology. Based on multiple-case study research, his analysis points towards junctures in the subsequent stages of choice and deployment of technology in organisations where unions, workers, as well as social policy, can shape how technology is utilised and affects the labour process. Wilkinson’s work is particularly strong in his focus on the political dimensions of various levels of technological innovation and their interplay with the agency of different parties and their interests. Yet his work pays less attention to the dynamics of the broader political economy, including aggregate-level technological trends within accumulation regimes and supra- and national institutional factors that intervene in the process of technological development and its application in the workplace. These limits were somewhat typical of the period.

Workplace centric approaches of LPA remained influential throughout the 1990s and beyond, while a political and materialist concept of technology was not consistently advanced. Instead, case study approaches utilising LPA tended to converge with the influential strategic choice perspective. Such framing considers the selection and utilisation of technology in the workplace as a political process in which the power of different groups are the primary explanation of outcomes (Child, 1972). The emphasis on power and agency is usefully anti-determinist, ‘choice’ is not to be understood as the outcome of single or simple, temporarily-specific decisions by a narrow group of rational decision makers. Technological systems merge over a period of time as a result of competition, compromise and struggle. Earlier conceptions of strategic choice focused too much on ‘local’ managerial and worker agency and too little on the aggregate-level pressures that constrain and shape choices concerning the nature and implementation of technological systems. Against this backdrop, the article differentiates later on between first- and second-torder strategic choice to keep the focus on agency, while strengthening the understanding of political, technological and economic constraints and enablers for decision processes at the macro-, meso- and micro-levels. This allows us to formulate a conceptual architecture that better captures the relationships between capital, science, technology, institutions and workplace actors. Indeed, we suggest that such a perspective got lost in the accumulation of case studies, leaving the field vulnerable to the next wave of technological determinist arguments. In his informative re-evaluation of LPA and technology Richard Hall (2010) makes a similar observation. With a standard nod to this tradition, he observes that LPA has ‘lost its way and retreated to offering empirically rich but theoretically modest studies of technology at specific worksites and particular industrial settings’ (2010: 159). Hall’s solution to the impasse is to reframe LPA technology studies as a ‘political materialist’ project. The ‘politics’ dimension appears to combine two aspects. The first dimension is the contested nature of technology uses in the workplace embodied in the control-resistance ‘paradigm’. Second, the idea of ‘political interests’ is asserted to understand the actions of key actors, notably that new technology is used by management to ‘increase its control over the labour process’ (p. 160). The ‘materialism’ dimension seems to be primarily a corrective to influential constructivist perspectives that overstate the capacity of social shaping. Reference to the materiality of technological artefacts thus re-asserts its ‘objective characteristics’ and ‘decisive’, but not ‘determinant’ or ‘predictable’ effects. These points are well made and Hall offers an interesting rewrite of the core theory to include technology. However, while there is some useful theoretical repositioning advanced by Hall in a context where technology debates had become too agent-centred, they do not resolve the limits of (second wave) case studies and their workplace-centric bias. We suggest that the ‘materiality’ of technology becomes ‘decisive’ when it is embedded in specific business models and their distinctive logics of value creation and extraction. These exist prior to and frame the control purposes to which management seeks to adapt and deploy technologies. Without that understanding, ‘political interests’ are reduced to a power struggle between management and labour stripped of context and the constraints on agential choices. If political materialism is to be a credible concept, both elements need some reworking. We will return to this theme later.

As we suggested earlier, the re-appearance of technological determinism in the context of digitalisation of work and employment, the political and materialist nature of technology and its grounding in political economy is increasingly considered important (Holtgrewe, 2014; Edwards and Ramirez, 2016; Spencer, 2017). In order to restore some of the broader theoretical context it is helpful to go further back, to ‘first wave’ contributions.

Braverman and beyond: context and content

Focusing primarily on the dynamics and principles of mechanisation through technological innovations in the twentieth century, Braverman illustrates how technology was utilised and designed under capitalism to deskill large parts of the labour force. By the early 1980s academic debate settled into a familiar framework of spot the difference – using cases to test whether deskilling was happening and whether Taylorism was the dominant control strategy. While the empirics were useful, the theoretical significance was largely lost. Braverman was recovering and renewing Marx’s analysis of the role of science and technology in the transformation of modern industry laid out in Capital (Thompson and Smith, 2017)

For Braverman, the appropriation of technology and science were crucial in the Taylorist labour process as it transformed not only the nature of work, but also the work of management. Central to Braverman’s conceptualisation of technology under capitalism and its impact on the labour process was the way it was understood to reduce agency from workers. This is encoded in Taylorism where assembly lines were designed to dictate the pace of work and how and when specific parts of the labour process were complete. Richard Edward’s dubbed this ‘technical control’.

What is less understood is the way that Braverman’s perspectives marked a rupture with an orthodox Marxism within which science and technology were deemed to be part of the neutral forces of production, and Taylorism (as Lenin argued) a part of an efficient organisation of the labour process under socialism. What Braverman had done, essentially, was to make the labour process and the role of science and technology within it, a legitimate object of class politics. Rosenberg’s essay (1981) ‘Marx as a student of technology’, published in a Special Issue of Monthly Review edited by Braverman (1976), is pertinent to our theme, utilising a close reading of Marx’s Capital I and II and firmly refutes the idea that Marx was a technological determinist. The transition into ‘modern industry’ allowed for a reorganisation of the labour process into separable and measurable steps which, in turn, paved the way for an incorporation of these principles into machinery. Therein, the application of science and technology to the re-structured labour process enabled the ‘real subordination’ of labour, putting the planning and coordination of the process in the hands of capital. The dialectical interplay between the forces and relations of production that is encapsulated in Marx’s analysis were at the heart of first wave LPA that understands technological innovations as the result of a ‘collective, social process in which the institutional and economic environments play major roles’ (Rosenberg, 1976: 57).

Yet, what Rosenberg and Braverman were seemingly unaware of was that a similar and parallel critical investigation of the forces of production had taken place among some European Marxists, especially in Italy. From at least the mid-1960s, contributors to Quaderni Rossi and other forums associated with the emergent workerist developed ‘a challenge to the productivist conception of orthodox Marxism that science and technology were part of neutral productive forces’ leading to an unquestioning attitude to work relations’ (Thompson and Smith, 2017). Nor was it confined to Italy. Gorz (1976: 172) aptly argued that science and technology are subordinated to and integrated within the capitalist production process and have ‘helped to turn work into a strait jacket’. Connecting technology and science to the particularities of the accumulation regime in the beginning of the twentieth century, Gorz suggests that technology and science played a central role in enabling monopolistic expansion, while also meeting the timeless interest of capital to ‘expand a greater amount of physical and mental labour’ (Gorz, 1976: 169–70). The work of Gorz and others avoids technological determinism and stresses the role of human agency, illustrating that integration of science and technology into the productive process is never complete, as technical workers and scientists possess irreducible core autonomy that can inform on a small scale oppositional practices, and on a bigger scale the development of alternatives to the capitalist division of labour.

The various strands of thinking on technology and the labour process were also brought together in the Conference of Socialist Economists and most explicitly in the Radical Science Journal. For example, a volume in the series Science, Technology and the Labour Process (Levidow and Young, 1981), combined labour process-inspired commentaries on the industrial purposes of science and technology with analyses of the labour process of science itself. One of the key contributors was Mike Cooley (1987), a union leader who led the struggle for alternative production through the Lucas Plan. As with other contributors, the critique of the capitalist rationality within the design of technology led to a concrete workplace politics that got lost as the technology-work debate became academically mainstream (Thompson and Smith, 2017). A key figure in such debates was David Noble and as his book The Forces of Production (1984) was the most detailed and authoritative account of science and technology produced within foundational LPA, we focus some attention on it here.

A noble effort?

Noble’s work conceptualises technology as a ‘historically specific’ product of unequal social, political and economic relationships within a capitalist society on the one hand and its institutions and actors on the other.

The social relations of production shape the technology of production as much as the other way around. Given different social relations, one sees different designs, different deployment. These relations are themselves shaped by larger conditions – the political – economic and cultural climate, the labour market, trade union traditions and strength, international competition and flow of investment capital. But whatever the social conditions, the technological possibilities remain. (1984: 135)

Based on the analysis of the development and implementation of ‘numerical control’ (NC) technology, Noble showcases how the ideology of engineering ‘mirrors the antagonistic social relations of capitalist production’ (1984: 115), putting the spotlight on how the forces are intermeshed with the relations of production. This is particularly evident in the way he utilises the conceptual dimensions of the horizontal relations of production (for example, the dominance of the US military whose political interests shaped science and technological innovations) and the vertical relations of production (for example, owners’ primary aim to increase control over the labour process and limit dependence from skilled workers). Thereby Noble analyses how science, stages of innovation, technical design and implementation are shaped by the social, institutional and political context that favours the interests of owners. Even though Noble puts a strong emphasis on the tendency of the appropriation of workers’ skills by technology and the development of more sophisticated managerial control techniques, his case studies refute the apparent completeness of technical control regimes. Instead, the various informal and formal resistance practices workers engage in are highlighted, suggesting that ‘management still remained dependent upon the workers in the plants, upon their skills, their cooperation, and their willingness to work’ (1984: 247). In this way, Noble, like Wilkinson and others, goes beyond Braverman, emphasising labour agency and the incompleteness of control practices.

Vidal’s critique of noble and foundational LPA

Vidal is writing in broad sympathy with LPA and like others, pays tribute to its empirical and conceptual insights. In his contrast between his own ‘classical Marxism’ and the ‘neo-Marxism’ of LPA, Vidal raises two main objections to the latter. First it has no ‘compelling and coherent’ account or recognition of the trend towards upskilling and empowerment associated with post-Fordist labour processes, either because it dismisses such changes as token or is stuck on a deskilling perspective.

Second, LPA is ‘obsessed’ with managerial control of the labour process at the expense of a focus on valorisation. This is a familiar orthodox Marxist criticism of LPA. It is applied in detail by Vidal to the question of technological innovation and application. He formulates that foundational theorists such as Noble and Richard Edwards (1979) have failed on the one hand to demonstrate that capital introduces technologies to enhance managerial control, as opposed to efficiency grounds. On the other, he suggests that these authors did not provide convincing arguments that there were equally or more efficient techno-economic system choices available.

Of these two criticisms, the former is misleading. It is certainly possible to find the kind of dismissive attitudes towards ‘post-Fordist’ new management techniques and production systems. Yet, as Thompson and Smith (2009: 91) argue, organisations that strive to be a high performance workplace need to move beyond Taylorism and Fordism to enhance labour creativity and continuous improvement.

While being highly sceptical of managerial claims concerning upskilling and empowerment, LPA has been at the forefront of a theoretical and empirical attempt to understand new forms of labour power in the service of capital, including emotional and aesthetic labour in services. Taken together, Thompson (2010: 10) dubbed this a qualitative intensification of labour power that accessed tacit knowledge and labour power such as emotions at the cost of increases in work intensity, constituting a wider palate of skills rather than upskilling or deskilling. Strangely, in a footnote, Vidal endorses and references this concept. Equally important is Vidal’s underpinning perspective about the relation between these trends and technology and the productive forces. Vidal’s account is not blind to negative aspects. However, he suggests that post-Fordist labour processes reflect long-run technological progress and the productive socialisation of the labour force in education and the workplace. Here, technology plays a key role, as the ‘technological frontier shifts from a detail division of labour using semiskilled workers to multiskilled, substantively empowered workers, there is an emergent, tendential threat to capitalist management’ (2020: 185).

On the other hand, such advances are held back by contradictions inherent in the capitalist relations of production. ‘In response to these intensified contradictions, capitalist management is systematically generating inefficiency and increasingly impeding the growth of the productive forces – namely, the multiskilling and substantive empowerment of labour’ (2020: 187). We are back to the kind of Marxism critiqued by Braverman, Italian and French theorists in which the basic contradiction is located between the forces (technology, labour power and other means of production) and the relations of production (ownership and control). Yet, without adequate recognition that the relations of production are not merely fetters on, but formative of the productive forces, any capacity to be critical of the design and deployment of science and technology significantly diminishes. Further, the idea that there is a progressive trend in the forces of production, even allowing for contradictory pressures, does not stand up to scrutiny. There is no single, linear trend. There may well be some progressive opportunities, but as empirical studies illustrate, contemporary appropriation of science and technology by capital tend to result in higher levels of work intensity, lower levels of discretion due to tighter managerial monitoring and longer working hours, the latter being particularly the case for remote work (Felstead and Henseke, 2017). These tendencies are acutely visible in the retail industry in general and warehouses, such as Amazon, in particular, where workplace regimes have been characterised as ‘quantified workplaces’ (Moore and Joyce, 2020) and ‘digital taylorism’ (Gerber and Krzywdzinski, 2019).

We now move to the second issue – the valorisation–efficiency–control triangle – in order to illuminate some of the issues around the drivers of technological systems and the space to make choices about them. In his criticism of Noble and other foundational LP theorists as indicated earlier, Vidal uses two slightly different arguments. They are accused of asserting that ‘capitalist management’ chooses ‘valorisation’ over efficiency and that it has a ‘world view’ that is based on ‘total control’ for its own sake.

As these points are not identical, let’s take each in turn. Noble, among others, argued that employers and managers made choices over design and deployment of technology that were not based on perceived efficiency criteria alone, but also by increasing options to organise work in the interest of capital. In addition, they wanted to highlight possibilities of alternative ways of organising work. Both motives are valid, but relative efficiency claims are hard to make and establish. In part, this is grounded in the way that firms operate, as these two goals and processes are difficult to separate. Vidal casts doubt on Noble’s and Braverman’s take on technology by raising the issue of how one technology, relative to another, can simultaneously have higher capacity for extracting labour effort but lower efficiency. This is a fair point, but simultaneity is unlikely. Workplaces and companies are not isolated entities where comparability tests can be or are run as a scientific experiment. Nor is it simply a question of which technology system extracts more labour effort. There are different pathways to profitability and criteria for efficiency.

Moving to the second issue, the argument that research in an LPA tradition has put too much emphasis on managerial control with respect to technology has some weight. In fact, it is a point we have made earlier in the article when discussing the workplace-centric bias of many case studies. However, it is important to understand that the question is not whether science and technology are used to control and discipline labour, but of sequence and drivers. Vidal discusses LPT core theory sympathetically, but remarks that ‘it has largely been divorced from the classically Marxist question of the contradictory nature of technological change’ (2020: 186). This is true and a point also made by Hall (2010). However, the core theory is very clear on one pertinent point – control is not the driver of firm behaviour, nor pursued for its own sake (Thompson, 1990), but a means to the goal of profit generation. The opening principle of the five components that are at the heart of core LPT (Thompson, 1990) is the logic of accumulation, encoded in the search for surplus value that compels capital to constantly revolutionise the production of goods and services. Only then does labour control enter the picture. Control mechanisms are required to reduce the indeterminacy of labour. Science and technology have always been integral to this task. The next section brings together the insights developed so far in summary form.

Choice and constraint in technology under capitalism

First-order strategic choices refer primarily to the development and adoption of technological systems. With respect to the former, technological innovations geared to the world of work arise through interactions between corporate, state and scientific-professional domains (Gorz, 1976), adoption processes, however, are steered primarily by corporate actors. While technological innovation can bring a variety of options to the fore that bear different potentials for impacting on work and employment and various institutional actors can influence these choices, the technologies that are financially and politically supported tend to be those that meet the interests and intentions of groups that have the power resources and possess the capital to determine investment (Noble, 1978; Rosenberg, 1976).

To return to the earlier concept of ‘political materialism’, such innovations achieve ‘materiality’ when they become embedded in the business models of lead firms, initially often within a specific sector. Meanwhile, the ‘political’ refers to the prioritisation of capitalist interests that are written within the technology, granting them the power and authority for directing and organising human labour in particular ways. Such systems, whether Ford’s assembly lines, the call centre or the algorithmic processes underpinning platform working become intrinsic to the value logics of those business models. Yet, the extent to which technology can manifest and enhance power and authority of management at work over workers is subject to the concrete realities and struggle over the labour process. Indeed, the observation of LPA, that the managerial focus on profitability and efficiency is not a determinant, but rather a justification for particular actions, is clear. Therein, the technology is not the totality of the model, as it has to be integrated with employment, spatial and other institutional relations which all offer spaces for negotiations over the technical and social organisation of work.

Once this is accepted, it helps us clarify issues of strategic choice. Vidal’s term ‘capitalist management’ tends to obscure agential boundaries. Indeed, Wilkinson’s (1985) work illustrates how managerial agents at firm or workplace level are working within the constraints of first-order strategic choices concerning adoption of technological systems, often on a sector basis. Following Thomas (1994), who argues that ground-breaking technological innovations have the capacity to shock industries and compel organisations to react, Vidal (2020:185) refers to the adoption and diffusion of the Toyota production model as an example. At this kind of aggregate level then, the scope for strategic choice is limited for managerial agents. However, that does not end the conversation about choice or more specifically the contested politics of technology. At the stage of deployment, second-order strategic choices become available at the level of detailed control or specific configurations of the division of labour. There are two main reasons for these choices. The first is that there are different configurations of technology system and business model (that we have labelled ‘techno-economic’) within similar aggregate-level developments. Second, technologies vary to the extent to which they have a systemic character. The flexible nature of software means that it can be discrete or detached and integrated with hardware in different ways and may be constrained by laws or bargaining arrangements. We know that the ability of warehouse logistics managers to utilise wearable technologies to track and direct labour may be constrained by laws or bargaining arrangements in some locations (Briken and Taylor, 2018). These second order strategic choices thus become more open to influence or contestation by a variety of agents. These kinds of choices tend to be overlooked by Vidal, whose research evidence is drawn overwhelmingly from lean production and manufacturing.

We have tried to capture some of these observations in Figure 1. The first line is a general picture of inter-connected domains that builds on Thompson’s (2013) disconnected capitalism thesis. It asserts that the control regime is the primary empirical object of LPA, but moves away from workplace-centric accounts that locate labour process dynamics solely within capitalism in general. Using concepts such as accumulation and regulatory regime adapted from regulation approaches, minus the functionalist assumptions of system cohesiveness, it seeks to specify some of the central characteristics and connections between the three domains that act as broad influences on technological innovation and choice.

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Contexts and influences on strategic choices for technological systems

Citation: Work in the Global Economy 1, 1-2; 10.1332/273241721X16276384832119

The second line makes a preliminary attempt to identify parallel characteristics and connections with respect to technological systems across these three domains.

The next two sections use extended scenarios of sector-based embeddedness of innovative technologies in business models to illustrate the nature and dynamics of first and second order strategic choices.

The political economy of the call centre industry

Market liberalisation, deregulation and the emergence of shareholder value capitalism under neoliberal–political regimes set the context for first-order choices in the 1970s and placed finance at the core of the US and the UK (Fligstein and Shin, 2005). In a similar vein, labour institutions were systematically weakened and labour markets flexibilised, increasing the marketisation of labour. Here, the relationship between the financial industry, the state and science and technology research centres is characterised by long lasting cooperation and intermingled interests. The first order strategic choices were anchored in the cooperation between US and UK government-funded research centres in which public universities were incentivised to work closely with financial institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. The aim of these long-lasting research and development projects was to develop and implement second- and third-generation computers that would allow banks in combination with tailor-made software to pursue rationalisation strategies, increasing efficiency of transactions while cutting labour costs (Booth, 2004). In the process of technology development and its adaption and diffusion, the financial industry became the sector who utilises soft and hardware most intensely, placing technology at the heart of financial institutions’ value capture and creation. Against this backdrop, second order strategic choices of financial service firms culminated in the dominance of a business model that focused on fixed cost reduction via standardisation, outsourcing and the heightening of a sales and aggressive marketing culture (Laaser, 2016).

The call centre industry is a product of this dominant business model, pioneered by Midland Bank who, in 1989, launched the first branchless call centre bank (Booth, 2004). Again, collaboration between state funded research institutions and financial service organisations resulted in information and communications technology (ICT) innovations that were essential for the development of call centres. The most important innovations were optical-fibre and telecom digitalisation technologies that allowed the creation and processing of significant quantities of data (Miozzo and Ramirez, 2003), while ‘the integration of computer and new voice technologies’ (Ellis and Taylor, 2006: 109) fostered the development of sophisticated automated call distribution devices. The profitability of Midland’s call centre resulted in the adoption and diffusion of call centres throughout the financial sector.

Research on call centre service work provides ample evidence that the majority of call centres utilise the business model of mass customer service, encoded in the cross-marketing and pro-active selling of products to customers based on relational databases. The labour process in the mass customer service model features a combination of tight technological, bureaucratic and normative managerial control practices (Callaghan and Thompson, 2001), low investments in training and development and repetitive work practices (Taylor and Bain, 2003). Here, ICTs are utilised by the organisation to collectively assign and pace work, directing calls to workers in case of inbound call centre work. Crucially, extended and intensified control and utilisation of labour is integral to the call centre labour process. Indeed, the specifically tailored soft- and hardware which allows management greater opportunities to automatically collect and analyse individual and collective work effort data in combination with the demand to perform emotional labour has been captured by the strong metaphor of ‘an assembly line in the head’ (Taylor and Bain, 1999).

Yet, the mass production business model is not unrivalled. Batt (1999), among others (Frenkel et al, 1999), points to the existence of different second order strategic choice, such as the relationship management business model (RMB), that is set out to focus on customisation and choice, prioritising quality of service and targeting different market segments. Meanwhile, the labour process is characterised by higher levels of discretion and autonomy and investments are made to build up professional and knowledge-intense skills of staff. Thereby, this group of researchers point towards different configurations of technology-driven workplaces within the same aggregate-level context. While call centres negotiate the tension between a focus on quality of service and quantified performance aspects in different ways (Korczynski, 2002), there is widespread acceptance that the dominant business model in the call centre industry is the mass customer model.

Yet, the novel ‘politics of production’ in the call centre industry has not been unchallenged, even though the degree and nature of contesting varies across institutional settings. For example, Taylor and Bain (1999) showcase how in the UK unions contested and re-negotiated the pace and intensity of call centre work, establishing off-screen times, while challenging draconian disciplinary policies. A stronger testimonial of institutional mediation and resistance at the aggregate level that feeds back into first order strategic choices is visible in other European countries. In Germany, unions and works councils used their codetermination rights and bargaining power to limit employers’ use of technological monitoring and top-down performance target setting in call centres (Batt et al, 2009). Yet, a significant proportion of German call centres did not negotiate union agreements (Doellgast, 2008). In cases where institutional mediation is weaker, the call centre labour process is contested at the workplace level. Examples of this include cases of individual or collective but informal resistance, such as workers using loopholes in the hard- and software to extend their autonomy at work by making out or working around scripted conversations (Callaghn and Thompson, 2001), or deploying workplace humour to express solidarity among workers and challenge managerial decisions (Taylor and Bain, 2003). It is the value logic in the business model of mass production in the context of a competitive industry and shareholder value pressure in combination with the transferability of the techno-economic system of the call centre that informs the second order strategic choice to horizontally segment services and offshore standardised processes into low-cost countries. Indeed, as offshoring has become a popular strategy in the last two decades, Taylor and Bain observe that the labour process in offshored call centres in India can be understood as ‘low-cost replications of the most routinized processes in the west’ (2005: 277). While the techno-economic setup of offshored call centres and its labour process offers strong similarities to western call centres, national institutions mediate some of its content. The dynamics of the call centre in the light of the proposed model is captured in Figure 2.

Figure 2:
Figure 2:

Call Centre Industry

Citation: Work in the Global Economy 1, 1-2; 10.1332/273241721X16276384832119

Platforms, automation and algorithmic control

Platforms are generally seen as digital networks that mediate or coordinate transactions for on-demand services and products operating through a technology driven by algorithms (see Warhurst and Hunt, 2019). Recent discussions untangle the relationship between digital technology, platforms and the wider political economy. Here it is highlighted that changes in the accumulation regime, encapsulated in the heightened importance of financial channels for profit making and changes in governance, fuelled by loose monetary policies, informed investment in and direction of ICT innovations (Schiller, 2014; Zuboff, 2019). In this light, financial institutions and their reliance on enhanced digital infrastructure and ICT products for high-volume trading have resulted in significant financial investments in the development of computing power and artificial intelligence in general and algorithms in particular. Accessibility and operationality levels were heightened when these innovations were moved to the ‘cloud’ (Kenney and Zysman, 2016).

This was accompanied by a stark rise of venture capital that invested in tech-start-ups and digital platforms, allowing them to invest and improve their technological infrastructure despite low rates of return (Srnicek, 2017). Digital labour platforms such as Uber embrace the business model of labour market intermediaries, using the technological infrastructure and footloose nature of digital platforms to scale ‘at speed in global markets’ (Howcroft and Bergvall-Kåreborn, 2019: 30) and exploit institutional and legal voids at regulatory regime level (Gillespie, 2010). Once critical mass was reached, platforms coalesced, and the new form of economic organisation expanded rapidly (Moore and Joyce 2020).

Against the backdrop of these structural pressure points, first order strategic choices encode the adoption and deployment of the technological infrastructure to pursue new platform business models. The value logic of these models are based, in part, on establishing a critical mass of users, workers, transactions and, essentially, data, from which value is derived (Howcroft and Bergvall-Kåreborn, 2019; Srnicek 2017). Broad definitions referring to the software bringing together producers and consumers conflates quite different business models between capital platforms that mediate the sale or rental of property or goods, such as eBay or Airbnb, and labour platforms, which mediate the performance of paid work, such as Uber, Upwork and Amazon Mechanical Turk (Farrell and Greig 2016). Even digital labour platforms encompass significant variations, notably between global gigs that link ‘requesters’ with remote online freelancers in ‘crowdwork’ (Wood et al, 2019) and spatially-bound ones whose services rely on a collective labour force.

Our focus is primarily on the latter. Here, the value proposition is more than extracting and processing data. The core business model also rests on the cost advantages of shifting risk from capital to labour. Some of this accrues from the designation of workers as independent contractors, others from ‘outsourcing’ key aspects of supervision, coordination and performance management functions to ‘the app’ and evasion of employment rights and costs such as holiday pay. There is also the issue of extraction of commission on every transaction mediated by the platform, usually between 10 per cent and 30 per cent. However, it is misleading to assert that employer and managerial agency is absent in some kind of automatic, self-regulating software system (Zuboff, 2019).

Labour controls and second order strategic choices are enacted at two levels. Given the centrality of independent contractor status, some controls are established through contracts themselves (see McDonald et al, 2020), setting the terms of the trade. This includes legal and regulatory arbitrage concerning terms of workforce engagement and regulation of services provision; setting of prices and pay rates for services provided; requirement for workers to wear platform-branded uniforms and to use platform-branded equipment; and, less often, exclusivity clauses. At a second level, as Gandini (2019) illustrates, digital platforms encode a digitalised point of production, a virtual but nonetheless materialist and political arena in which capital–labour relations unfold, transforming the social relations of production. That is where the second order strategic choice and relatedly, the indeterminacy of labour, unfolds. The key mechanism through which this occurs is the algorithmic allocation of work, with the app designed to organise, direct and manage the distribution of work, often via bidding or booking functions (Kellogg et al, 2020). Beyond allocation, the app can be used for digital tracking and monitoring to enforce and control pace and standard of work, or minimum acceptance rates. Reputational rankings also play a central role, with integration of customer ratings into performance management systems. Productivity and reputational metrics can be made visible to workers, with the aim of rewarding, disciplining or ‘ gamifying responses to the app controls.

Given that recent empirical evidence reveals the value of logics and managerial decision making central to platforms, and that algorithmic control systems can be programmed and reprogrammed for different outcomes, Moore and Joyce (2020) are right to critique the widespread metaphor that algorithmic control systems are a black box as a species of technological determinism. Such controls are knowable and contestable, and that also applies to those who work for platforms and Moore and Joyce provide a useful overview of increasing evidence of various kinds of resistance. Far from the use of algorithms in platforms obscuring the role of labour in production, workers are making it visible, whether through legal challenges to independent contractor status or to aspects of the reward–effort relationship through various forms of digital activism (Kellogg et al, 2020). Of particular interest are those examples, from the UK and China, where labour or its representatives have contested the design as well as the operation of the algorithms themselves.

Meanwhile, digital labour platforms are not disembedded entities, but are intermeshed in the institutional environment. Forms of regulation of work conditions and labour markets create different entry points for intermediation that offer opportunities to contest various practices and strategies of platforms. For example, in more liberal labour markets where employment status is central for the social security of workers, such as the US, legal disputes in tandem with union actions focus primarily on battling the categorisation of platform workers as independent contractors (Vallas and Schor, 2020). As a recent ILO article makes clear, the outcome in terms of case law and legislation across national jurisdictions is highly variable (Di Stefano, 2021). The recent success of unions in the UK and elsewhere enforcing Uber to treat the labour force as workers with access to some employment rights and collective bargaining is a significant challenge to the previously outlined business model, the consequences of which are at this stage unclear. In more regulated labour markets, such as Germany, lawsuits against platforms are less common and the key focus is on the provision of better pay, adequate work scheduling and transparent labour management practices, resulting in a voluntary agreement between a wide range of digital labour platforms and the union IG metal (Gerber and Krzywdzinski, 2019). Furthermore, what is contested and at which point depends also on the particular industry in which the platforms operate. As Thelen (2018) illustrates, Uber faced significant opposition in many European countries at the legal and policy level when trying to enter the market, resulting in a delayed market entry and a significantly altered business model in many countries, subject to national laws. The relationship between digital technology, platforms and the wider political economy in the light of our model is captured in Figure 3.

Figure 3:
Figure 3:

Platform working

Citation: Work in the Global Economy 1, 1-2; 10.1332/273241721X16276384832119

Conclusions

The latest wave of technological determinism associated with the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is more than a mere irritant or abstraction. At a time of significant transformations of work, now refracted through effects of the pandemic, it diminishes our capacity to understand those changes and the choices that precede and follow them. It is not enough to counter determinism by emphasising restoration of human agency and a sense of social shaping. By examining past debates and contemporary evidence, this article has attempted to plot a more precise path for understanding the complex relations between the political economy of technology, the embeddedness of technological systems in the business models of lead firms at sector level and the contested deployment of associated practices in the workplace.

We have argued that a renewed LPA, building on the rich tradition of post-Braverman contributions such as David Noble (1978; 1984) is a central resource for this task because it places the structural imperative of capital to appropriate science and technology in the service of value extraction as the recurrent centrepiece of theory building, without losing sight of strategic choices informed by different business models, institutional pressures and power resources available to economic actors. In order to renew that tradition, LPA needs to continue to move beyond the workplace-centric focus of ‘second-wave’ case studies that neglected or underplayed the structural constraints and the economic and political dynamics that impact on the design, development and deployment of technology (Boreham et al, 2008).

In seeking to update and re-apply some of the foundational perspectives of LPA, we do not do so without appreciation of limitations. Though critical of Vidal’s (2020) continued separation of the forces and relations of production and assertion of a positive trajectory in technology and the labour process, we have used an engagement with his work to develop a clearer framework for analysing the mechanisms and processes that underlie what we have called first and second order strategic choices about technological systems. Technological innovation as part of the development of the productive forces are not neutral, but once they reach critical mass in terms of adoption and integration into dominant business models at aggregate level, the scope for strategic choice is limited for managerial and other agents. A similar point is made by Howcroft and Taylor:

[T]he technological baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The intrinsic properties of these technologies certainly portend significant change, even if the extent of their adoption, the precise manner of their implementation, their organisational effects and their consequences for workers will be the product of human agency. (2014: 2)

There is still considerable room for contestation and variation in second order choices on both configurations of technology systems and business models within similar aggregate-level developments, as well as variations in the character and consequences of deployment. We have also suggested that this kind of analysis is best expressed through the concept of political materialist perspectives. This reworks part of Hall’s (2010) commentary on labour process theory and research on technology. The ‘political’ seeks to identify the contested appropriation of science and technology by capital and its managerial agents, and the conflicts of interest which that engenders. However, it is also compatible with recognition of other competing constructs and interests on the character of technology, especially concerning gender, as highlighted by the SST tradition. ‘Materialism’ refers not merely to the real ontological nature and impacts of technology, but to the decisive difference made when innovative technoeconomic systems are embedded in dominant and distinctive business models and value logics.

Finally, we sought to illustrate these perspectives through a brief consideration of such embeddedness in two ‘sector’ contexts: call centres and financial services, and digital labour platforms. Without repeating those observations, one point deserves particular emphasis. Though it was always in part illusory, technological design and deployment in manufacturing often appeared to be immutable – a case of ‘hard luck it’s the hardware’. As production systems have become software driven, the hidden hand of capital has become more visible and therefore more open to challenge. Sometimes this takes place at the general, social level, with criticisms of the purposes and practices of data analytics pursued by the likes of Facebook. But while the technology is not the totality of the model, workers in platform companies are increasingly challenging the design as well as operation of algorithmic management.

In a legal bid filed recently in Amsterdam, Uber drivers have demanded that the company hand over the computational algorithms and data collection practices that shape how they work (Osborne, 2020). This would mark a major step forward for labour and will be strongly resisted by employers. However, the commonalities as well as the differences in algorithmic controls provide fertile ground for cross-sector, cross-national learning by labour and its organisations, as indicated by Wood et al (2019) in their comparative research on labour platforms. These common characteristics, challenges and opportunities emerge due to the interplay of power resources, technologies and the embeddedness in institutions against the backdrop of the nature of the labour process and the workplace as a contested terrain, which in itself constrains the methods of organising and controlling work (Wood, 2020). If the lid on the ‘black box’ can be lifted, labour as well as capital has the possibility of making strategic choices in the ‘digital era’.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Batt, R. and Holman, D. and Holtgrewe, U. (2009) The globalization of service work: comparative institutional perspectives on call centers, Introduction to a Special Issue of Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 62(4): 45388. doi: 10.1177/001979390906200401

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Boreham, P., Parker, R., Thompson, P. and Hall, R. (2008) New Technology @ Work, Basingstoke: Taylor and Francis.

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    • Export Citation
  • Callaghan, G. and Thompson, P. (2001) Edwards revisited: technical control in call centres, Economic and Industrial Democracy, 22(1): 1337. doi: 10.1177/0143831X01221002

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Cooley, M. (1987) Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology, London: The Hogarth Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Edwards, R. (1979) Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century, London: Heinemann.

  • Ellis, V. and Taylor, P. (2006) ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’: re-contextualising the origins, development and impact of the call centre, New Technology, Work and Employment, 21(2): 10722. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-005X.2006.00167.x

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Felstead, A. and Henseke, G. (2017) Assessing the growth of remote working and its consequences for effort, Well-being and Work-life balance, New Technology, Work and Employment, 32(3): 195212. doi: 10.1111/ntwe.12097

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fligstein, N. and Shin, T.J. (2005) The shareholder value society: a review in changes in working conditions in the U.S., 1976–2000, in K. Neckerman (ed) Social Inequality, New York: Russell Sage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Frenkel, S., Korczynski, M., Shire, K. and Tam, M. (1999) On the Front Line: Organization of Work in the Information Economy, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gandini, A. (2019) Labour process theory and the gig economy, Human Relations, 72(6): 103956. doi: 10.1177/0018726718790002

  • Gerber, C. and Krzywdzinski, M. (2019) Brave new digital work? New forms of performance control in Crowdwork, in S. Vallas and A. Kovalainen (eds) Work and Labor in the Digital Age (Research in the Sociology of Work), vol 33, Bingley: Emerald Publishing, pp 12144.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • 1 University of Stirling, UK
  • | 2 Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus–Senftenberg, Germanyand University of Stirling, UK

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