The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
Over the past year, I stopped responding to customer surveys, providing user feedback or, mostly, contributing product reviews. Sometimes I feel obligated—even eager—to provide this information. Who doesn’t like being asked their opinion? But, in researching media technologies as an anthropologist, I see these requests as part of a broader trend making home life bureaucratic.
Consumer technologies—whether user reviews and recommendations, social media or health care portals—involve logistical effort that means more administrative work at home. As economic anthropologist David Graeber observes, “All the software designed to save us from administrative responsibilities [has] turned us into part- or full-time administrators.” Companies may benefit when customers create content, provide feedback and do busywork once done by paid employees, but what about the customers themselves—all of us?
Many researchers recognize professional workplaces are becoming more bureaucratic, managing workers through documentation and quantification. But fewer acknowledge the expansion of this logic into private life. It might not feel like a burden to update your Facebook profile, review a business or log in to a web portal to message your doctor. But when you lose time answering customer surveys, setting privacy rules, resetting a password, wading through licensing agreements or updating firmware, it becomes clear how digital technologies increase managerial work at home. In my forthcoming book, I explore this phenomenon, which I call logistical labor.
Digitizing daily life
Here’s a typical example of how this happens at home. I recently received an email from my auto insurance requesting I call. Fair enough; I might not answer if the company called me. But instead of reaching a person familiar with the query, my call fed into an automated system where a synthesized voice asked what I was calling about.
“You told me to call!” I replied.
The automated system was confused: “Sorry, what was that again? You can say auto ‘policy,’ ‘claims’ or ‘tell me my options.’”
Eventually I reached a human, who didn’t know why I’d been asked to call either. “I don’t know,” I told her, “That’s what I’m calling about…” Finally, we figured out what was going on and resolved the issue. Then she asked whether I would stay on the line for a customer service survey. I refused.
Rather than calling or emailing me with specific details, the company made me work through all that automated confusion. Requiring that I call in effectively gave me work previously done by paid employees. And then the insurance company asked for yet more of my time to reflect on how well—or not—my work solved the problem the company had. At what point should I expect to be paid for my work?
Bureaucracy—a term coined in the 18th century to mean “rule by writing desk”—refers to the organization of modern government, desk-bound and hierarchical. Max Weber, a founding theorist of social science, viewed bureaucratic organization as fundamental to modern society. He decried its rigidity as an “iron cage” of rationalization in which social life is managed quantitatively. Since at least the 1970s, bureaucratic management has become common in corporate workplaces.
Sociologist Robert Jackall termed this shift the “bureaucratization of the economy,” in which rigid hierarchy and constant documentation takes over business places, including “administrative hierarchies, standardized work procedures, regularized timetables, uniform policies, and centralized control.” More bureaucracy means relentlessly tracking metrics and performances in the name of productivity—and internalizing the idea that a person’s value can be quantified.
Graeber, the anthropologist of bureaucracy, suggests bureaucratization is becoming more common as Western economies export manufacturing work to developing countries. The work that remains increasingly depends on the finance, insurance and real estate sectors, businesses that make their money from service fees and employ people to do pointless “bullshit” jobs. Graeber contends that—unlike teaching, manual work, health care or the arts—jobs in management, consulting, PR or other “knowledge” fields could vanish with little effect on society.
In the academic world, anthropologists like Marilyn Strathern have described the push to quantify and document university work as “audit culture.” More broadly, this expansion of administrative work, aided by digital technologies, is transforming how American companies operate. For many companies, shifting administrative labor to consumers and “gig-economy” contractors offers a newly “disruptive” business model. As tech companies replace live customer service with online support “topics,” for example, users must spend additional time wading through these articles, or face endless phone trees when they do find a phone number.
Laboring for social media companies
New technologies can generate more pointless work, and not just in professional settings. The logic of tracking and monitoring, for example, threatens to take over American home life as well, from fitness and wearable tech to smart homes that assess when you need toilet paper or milk.
But spending time on new tech platforms doesn’t always seem like work. Young Europeans I have studied, for example, enjoy spending time on social networking sites and describe them warmly. But Facebook, Yelp, Instagram and the rest profit from the posts, photos, reviews and links people create, because they incite the “engagement” that drives ad revenue. As with consumer surveys or user feedback, these firms are harnessing user-generated content to convert people’s leisure time into corporate profit.
As new social network sites are created and become popular, each person spends more time keeping profiles up to date, checking on connections’ activities or chasing down forgotten passwords. Managing these accounts isn’t just time-consuming; it can be mentally taxing. Inspired by Chandra Mukerji’s research on the logistical power of water in civil engineering projects, I consider this cognitive effort “logistical labor.” Logistical labor is in this sense the work consumers do to manage tech platforms, often as companies outsource content creation and streamline their operations.
A new digital divide
The scope of this uncompensated digital busywork—from which companies profit—goes well beyond social media maintenance and taking consumer surveys. Even setting up a home printer requires exploring settings and configurations and troubleshooting, which can be daunting without the right tech know-how. People who are unwilling or unable to do that miss out on some of technology’s benefits.
In my research, for example, one young person in Berlin balked at purchasing a new mobile phone, overwhelmed by the task of sorting through service plans. Another shared wireless internet service with a friend across the street, resigning herself to spotty connections and limited online activity rather than wrestle with choosing, ordering and configuring her own service. Others were concerned about data privacy but were stymied by Facebook’s privacy options.
The scale of these problems is not only about quality of life—but about life itself.
Handling health care
Expecting consumers to be deeply involved expert users is especially concerning when it comes to managing health care. The dysfunctional U.S. health care system is already a Byzantine system of preauthorizations, insurance codes and impersonal treatment. Digitization alone isn’t to blame, but tech platforms like online portals increase administrative work for patients.
Patients, for example, often encounter multiple online portals in the process of paying bills or obtaining prescriptions. Although these systems save time in some ways, they require patients do more legwork like setting up user accounts. This problem is made worse as doctors leave private practice for hospital groups, which often use unwieldy online platforms and automated phone systems that make it difficult to reach a doctor directly.
Although the health care industry touts such portals as better for business—and in theory, for coordinating care—little attention has been paid to the additional work they create for patients, or the barriers to accessing their doctors.
Inequality at home
In all these examples, managing information on computer systems—for health care, insurance coverage or social media interaction—requires a new level of logistical effort, even with access to computers and the internet. This logistical labor adds to the mental work of managing a household.
In most homes, this additional effort, sometimes called “cognitive load,” falls disproportionately to women, who keep track of their families’ needs. For working women, the “second shift” isn’t just about housework or child care, but the cumulative fatigue of planning, delegating and worrying. It’s not a coincidence that many “smart home” technologies effectively replace the care work of mothers. This invisible labor typically goes unpaid, further devaluing responsibilities traditionally associated with women.
Similarly, the logistical labor of managing new technologies entails a cognitive load that can overtake daily life. Of course, I still follow social media, read consumer reviews and sign up for paperless billing. But I’m more aware of how easily my time and labor become new sources of profit, through an unseen exploitation that places the onus on individuals to manage complex systems in the guise of optimizing user “experience.” This broader trend, however, makes individuals complicit in their own exploitation.