IT: A modern window into the historical dislike of bosses against expertise.

Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. ...
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I was sent via email an interesting article by computerworld looking into the gap between management’s impression of IT professionals and what is actually happening. What struck me as I was reading it, was how very much the same arguments could be used against any possible professional who likes what they are doing and take pride in their work. This is pretty much the impression any manager or boss will have:

[Geeks] are smart and creative, but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring. To overcome these intractable behavioral deficits you must do X, Y and Z.

One can easily replace “Geeks” with “Engineers”, “Mechanics”, “Artisans” or whatever else an profession might be that retains any amount of skill. As much as I’d like to toot my own horn as a geek, I can’t in good conscience accept it as a fact that there’s simply something special about geeks that causes this. Or rather, there is something special related to geeks, but it’s in fact something external. It’s the environment they work in.

You see, what makes geeks maintain such a behaviour is the fact that their profession has not yet been deskilled. The job of an IT Geek thus still retains a very large amount of necessary creativity in order to get done. One needs to know their craft in order to get the respect of one’s peers, very much like the article explains. And this expertise, this witholding of respect for those who are not skilled is part of management’s dislike for them. The other part is the fact that the skilled worker maintains power over the executive.

And they hate that.

How does the IT Geek maintain power? By being the only one who can get the job done. No matter how much management is pissed by their attitude, if that person or group are the only ones keeping the machines running, there’s not a lot they can do. There’s even less they can do if they ever decide to band together to resist (which fortunately for the bosses, the Geeks are not prone in doing…yet). This feeling of not having absolute power over your employees, over your subordinates is not something easily tolerated, therefore the whining you see above.

You see, there is nothing special about geekdom. We’re nothing special as far as humans go, no matter how much your parents praise your intelligence and your high income make you believe your superior skills are being accurately rewarded by the free market. Any human, working on any skill can achieve a similar level of expertise. Any human allowed similar amount of freedom can be as creative in their chosen area. And anyone who’s job involved similar amounts of talent evolves a similar take on respect. That is respect for thos who know what they are doing.

Take an experienced car mechanic and see how he treats fellow car mechanics as opposed to people who think they know about cars or a corporate boss. You’re likely to find the same kind of attitude as IT geeks express. Take a fisherman, a lumberjack1 or as the Computerworld article mentioned – doctors. Any job that still requires skill will create the same kind of mentality of mutual respect for the worker, and resentment from the management.

Thus the drive to deskill.

Why? Because a skillful worker means a worker with more power, and therefore a worker that can demand higher wages for the increased production and quality they can deliver. However the capitalist mode of production has always been firstly about domination and then about profits. If your workers cannot be dominated, then profits will be sacrificed to find methods that they will. Thus the introduction of machinery which replace skilled labour with unskilled labour. The primary role being to replace skilled employees with power with unskilled ones who can be easily threatened with layoffs (as they are easy to replace) and thus can have their wages managed to the benefits of the capitalist.

And this is not a random thought but actual historical reality. From the early times of the capitalist production, bosses have been always looking for ways to deskill labour. And this unfortunately has become a reality in all areas of human labour, from textile workers, to car makers, to fishermen. And slowly but surely it’s happening in IT.

You can already see it in many sectors of the profession already. Programming has become a codified structured task which can be followed methodically, and thus outsourced to cheap but uncreative workers in third world nations such as India. Telephone support has followed the same path, with formulated responses and scripts replacing actual troubleshooting and thus making call-centers a horrible workplace of call-quotas and Orwellian monitoring. Hardware setup and replacement has become so simple, one can now do it with an IKEA manual. And System Administration and Networking, the final bastions of IT skill are slowly being eroded by the mediocrity of Microsoft products whose purpose is not so much to improve productivity (they’re notoriously bad at that) but rather to make the task so easy that one can easily do it with the minimum of effort. It’s no wonder that for one to become a Microsoft “Engineer” it takes at most a few months of study, while actual engineering requires years.

All of these have the same cumulative effect for IT that automated looms and huge fishing barges had for textile workers and fishermen respectively. The average skill a workers requires drops and the power moves further and further from the worker to the owner of the capital.

So what we see still in management whining about the “bullheadedness” and “business-challenged” attitude of IT Geeks now, are the obvious symptoms of the hated equality in power between skilled workers and managing bosses. Such a situation cannot of course last but since the IT sector is still young, we have the rare opportunity to witness the actual effects skilled requirements have on wages and worker-boss relations, as well as the undeniable progress towards deskilling.

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  1. OK, note that I’m not absolutely certain all the jobs here are as skillful but I’m speaking mostly from common knowledge and common sense. Perhaps I am missing some better examples or used some bad ones []

13 thoughts on “IT: A modern window into the historical dislike of bosses against expertise.

  1. You see, what makes geeks maintain such a behaviour is the fact that their profession has not yet been deskilled.

    EXACTLY! I've been saying this for years – and as soon as they can deskill us, they will. Fortunately, even with all the outsourcing, IT is still such an unknown quantity for most pointy haired bosses that we have a chance to organize.

    1. Unfortunately most IT Geeks are far more prone in falling into vulgar-liberarianism rather than considering to unionize.

  2. I wasn't sure where to post this, but I was curious to hear you opinion on this story:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchiv

    The article emphasizes the right-libertarian position that employers need to be able to fire unneeded employees. What's your take on the French situation? When I read at the end of the indignity that Le Bras felt at having to write up a CV and show up at interviews as if he was a new hire, I could almost hear Walter Block suggesting that workers always need to have a CV ready to give to an interviewer!

    1. I wasn't sure where to post this, but I was curious to hear you opinion on this story

      You can always send me an email 😉

      As to the story, I don't have much to say. Classic Apologetics/Tool

  3. (I missed this when it was first posted.)

    Interesting that you take this stance, yet you support GNU. Stallman has repeatedly said that he thinks that programmers are overpaid and that skilled laborers should do their jobs for free or for a pittance (and therefore unskilled management is the only way to justify large salaries from technology), and it isn't too hard to draw the inference that the GNU license, the philosophy of which makes it much harder for coders to get paid for their work, is his way of acting on his opinions.

    1. Interesting that you didn't comment on the Windows experience which was far far worse than the GNU/Linux one. At least I managed to fix the Netbook and it seems the NEW PC I bought will be to install GNU/Linux on it as well since Win7 doesn't seem to be able to avoid having one BSOD after the other.

      Your nonsense about Stallman only shows how misguided you are.

      1. Huh? How "by abusing state privilege"? If you're going to argue that all intellectual property is theft enforced by the state, then you have already parted company with GNU — the license would not be enforceable without patent and copyright law, and the SFLC does in fact sue people under that heading. None of the major GNU figures wants patents to go away.

        As for "giving many more people the opportunity to take part in the IT profession" — that's just an outright lie. If you ain't gettin' paid, you ain't a professional — and that's by definition; go look up the word "profession" in a dictionary if you don't believe it. All those coders putting stuff out for free? They aren't professionals. Even if they lived up to what are laughingly known as professional standards (which they certainly do not), they wouldn't be professionals.

        You could possibly make the case that by lowering the cost of "a computer" more people are able to learn to use a computer — but learning to use a computer does not make you an IT professional. Even learning to write code doesn't make you an IT professional. Finding someone who will PAY YOU to write code is what makes you a professional, and GNU has made that harder with a few exceptions. (The Linux kernel is an exception: IBM and Google deploy very very large amounts of basically homogenous hardware which they use as servers. It is cheaper for them to throw a few paid kernel hackers at Linux to keep their homogenous hardware ticking over than it would be to license even the cheapest of non-free OSes. They aren't doing Linux development out of the goodness of their hearts; they're doing it so they can squeeze as many skilled workers as they can out of their workforces. For corporations which have heterogenous hardware, or aren't selling server time, that just doesn't work, which is why you don't see many corporations paying for the development of, say, compiz.)

        Suppose you spend four months working 10 hours a day on a single-user program which is software only (and therefore you won't be paid by a hardware vendor). That's actually quite a short time for any significant real application, yet this is the scenario for nearly any game, for example. You will spend, at a conservative estimate, a few thousand dollars during that time keeping yourself housed, fed, and clothed, to say nothing of paying for the power used by the computer or any medical care you need or any entertainment you may take in during that time, etc. etc. etc. If you are stupid enough to release under GNU, you will not make that money back — you'll get a very small number of sales (which will become even smaller if you raise prices to compensate), and then someone will write a script which compiles your program directly from the code which you are required to publish, and maybe make a trivial fork which includes the script, and then you will be lucky to make another dime. That's just the harsh reality of economics. If you had more than just yourself working on it — if you had, say, a project manager, several programmers, a couple of graphic designers, and someone doing publicity — then you've just created a mountain of debt which will never be paid off, or at least not by sales.

        Usually the two comebacks to this are that developers should make money by charging for distribution or for support or new features.

        With the Internet, distribution is dead as a source for income. I can post all my source, and all my compiled binaries for that matter, online for free. Nobody will pay me for it if they know I could do it for free. Charging for Linux distro CDs has been a dead end since about 1997.

        As for support: well-written GUI programs don't need much support (at least not on OSes where binaries are distributed — maybe Linux, where everything is built on demand, breaks down often enough to make this necessary) and the Internet has again dramatically reduced the need for help with even poorly-written programs. I can't remember the last time I had to contact a software vendor. And feature requests create a terribly uneven cash flow — assuming people are willing to pay for them in the first place.

        (And even that is assuming that I want to make a career out of technical support and feature requests; maybe I'd rather release my program, do a bare minimum to keep it working, and move on to something else.)

        So basically, there's a whole class of IT work which GNU would knock the bottom out of, if people were stupid enough to publish using it. (This is probably why there are next to no games which are released under the GNU license.) Stallman's reply to this is that developers should support themselves by working at McDonalds (and although I'm paraphrasing him, he did say something like "flipping burgers" as a suggested means of support); in other words, GNU is basically designed to eliminate independent coding as a profession.

        1. Huh? How "by abusing state privilege"? If you're going to argue that all intellectual property is theft enforced by the state, then you have already parted company with GNU — the license would not be enforceable without patent and copyright law, and the SFLC does in fact sue people under that heading. None of the major GNU figures wants patents to go away.

          It doesn't matter because then all copyright claims would not exist and the spirit of free software would continue without the need for enforcement. The GPL (and the Creative Commons) are there to work around a byzantine system that leaves no options.

        2. As for "giving many more people the opportunity to take part in the IT profession" — that's just an outright lie. If you ain't gettin' paid, you ain't a professional

          A lot of people get the opportunity to learn to code with free software. A lot of popular applications only exist because their developers did not have to pay an arm and a leg for the development tools. A lot of people can get a lot of useful applications because they do not have to pay for them dearly and thus can learn to use a PC with a low starting cost.

          Yes, Free Software does provide the opportunity for many to become self-taught and then work for IT as a profession. This has been the case since the start of open sourced with the MIT licenses.

          If Free Software became more popular, people would be able to work as a service rather for selling the copyrights. They would paid to develop something that doesn't exist rather than develop something and then rely on state granted monopolies to sell it. That you keep bringing the games example is funny since even without free software, there's a thriving ecosystem around freeware and flash games you can play on the net. I'm sure all those developers are just fools of course.

        3. in other words, GNU is basically designed to eliminate independent coding as a profession.

          yeah, I'm guessing this is why Free Software has made independent and quality SW thrive. I'm sorry but you've got it wrong. People would code no matter what but unfortunately it's the capitalist system which allows only a few to survive doing it.

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