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 []