Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Informating the Subject: Reflecting on Zuboff’s Future of Power and Work

Posted on | December 10, 2010 | No Comments

Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988) was one of the more interesting inquiries into the processes of computerization and electronic communications to emerge out of the 1980s. While suffering from a number of deficiencies that will be discussed later, it nonetheless represented a serious and significant contribution to the organizational and sociological discussion of the new information technologies. One of her contributions, the verb “informating,” provided important insights into the key practice of the new technologies and the construction of modern identities in a cybernetic age.

Applied in pre-Internet computerized environments, informating is the process of registering a wide range of information related to computer tasks. She both connected and compared informating to the processes of automating. Computers are often involved in the processes of automating – the process of replacing human activities and work with machinery. Zuboff distinguished informating from automating because “it produces a voice that symbolically renders events, objects, and processes so that they become visible, knowable, and shareable in a new way.”[1] Consequently, informating is an effective concept for approaching that vast writing project which characterizes the politics of electronic modernity and whose activities determine and aggregate the facts of social existence.

Informating can be a vehicle to understand and politicize the constitution of the self and identity in the modern information society. Like other textual practices, computerized informating is implicated in the ways individuals both know themselves as well as the way they are situated in modernity’s broad range of institutional structures and their disciplines and eligibilities. The data collection processes involved in computerization are significant in that they lead to an accumulation of information that is intimately related to the individual and yet are essential, in aggregate and other forms of “scrubbing,” for the continuance of modern bureaucracy. As they monitor the various activities of everyday life, they also keep a record that can be accessed or fed into larger databases across the Internet. For example, in a supermarket, your grocery’s barcodes are read and fed into a computer. Not only does it tabulate the price but enters the information into other files, database lists for inventory, finance, and marketing. Informating stores data about activities, placing it in files which can later be analysed, examined, and graded.

Her concern with the codification of the work environment into machine-compatible texts opened up a range of inquiry that is applicable to other facets of modern life. Drawing on what she terms the dual capacity of information technology: its ability to both automate and informate productive activities; she was able to analyze how technology changes the practices of work, managerial authority, and the supervision of employees. Although her main concern was how industrial intelligence has been removed from the site of the body and relocated within the electronic space of cybernetic control and communication, her suppositions have applicability elsewhere.

Identities are rooted the institutional and textual structures of society. They are mediated and produced through the predominant modes of signification and understanding and informating provides important data sets which can be referred to again for the examination and further training of the subjectivity of individuals. She drew on Foucault, who focused in part on the procedures of examination that were a crucial strategy for the exercise of modern power. The examination works to hold their subjects of attention “in a mechanism of objectification.”[2] Examination turns the economies of surveillance and visibility into an operation of control. It proceeds by the textualization, the writing of visibility according to a set of prescribed protocols and knowledges. Under this official gaze, the subject becomes a slate to be evaluated, classified, and registered in the official system of files considered by what Max Weber considered to be so important for the organization of bureaucracy.” The examination that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them.”[3] The file is a prescripted event in the sense that it has an agenda and not just a loose collection of random documents.

These cybernetic identities are characteristic of the information age. The proliferation of multimediated information is changing the way people operate in the arenas of their lives. Furthermore, since information technology is largely developed out of institutional requirements, it is inherently political. Cybernetic identities are connected to the great bureaucratic spaces of credit, education, and production. They are the result of types of observation, classification, and registration. They result from a penetrating gaze which codes, disciplines, and files under the appropriate heading. Actions lose their actuality, and bodies lose their corporeality.

Mark Poster used Foucault to think about the consequences of computer databases on subjectivity and its multiplication of selves to feed an extensive array of organizational files. He was less concerned with databases as “an invasion of privacy, as a threat to a centered individual, but as the multiplication of the individual, the constitution of an additional self, one that may be acted upon to the detriment of the ‘real’ self without that ‘real’ self ever being aware of what is happening.” The texture of postmodern subjectivity is dispersed among multiple sources of information production and storage. In The Mode of Information, he warned of the “destabilization of the subject,” a fixed self no more but rather one “multiplied by databases, dispersed by computer messaging and conferencing, decontextualized and reidentified by TV ads, dissolved and materialized continuously in the electronic transmission of symbols.”[4] In an age when Google wants to “organize the world’s information,” we are still trying to determine the implications of that multiplication of identity within the networks of institutional power.

Taking it to the world of the web and social media in this talk by Rachel Botsman, she makes the case for “collaborative consumption,” This is the sharing or exchanging of various goods and services, such as DVDs, power tools, etc. with absolute strangers because the informating capabilities of social media are able to track a person’s “reputation,” We saw this with eBay of course, and she expects it to be a major economic force as more and more people develop their reputation as a type of social currency. Which of course, it always has been.

Notes

[1] Zuboff, Shoshana. In the Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic, 1988. Print., p. 9.
[2] Rabinow, Paul, comp. The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin, 1991. Print., p. 200-201.
[3] Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990. Print.. p. 98
[4] Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990. Print.. p. 15.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

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  • About Me

    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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