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Shoshana Zuboff is author of the celebrated classic In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988). This book won instant critical acclaim in both the academic and trade press—including the front page review in The New York Times Book Review– and is widely considered the definitive study of information technology in the workplace. Of particular interest, this book introduced the concept of Informating, the process through which digitalization translates activities, events,  social exchange,and objects into information.

THE RESEARCH

Zuboff’s research consisted of in-depth multi-year studies of office, factory, professional, executive, and craft workplaces all characterized by a recent shift from traditional to computer-mediated task environments. The research demonstrated the tripartite nature of the relationship between information technology and work: 1) technology is not neutral, but embodies intrinsic characteristics that enable new human experiences and foreclose others, 2) within these new “horizons of the possible” individuals and groups construct meaning and make choices, further shaping the situation, and 3) the interplay of intrinsic qualities and human choices is further shaped by social, political, and economic interests that inscribe the situation with their own intended and unintended opportunities and limitations.

OVERVIEW

According to London School of Economics Professor Jannis Kallinikos’s analysis in “Smart Machines,” an invited essay written in honor of the book’s twenty year anniversary for The Encyclopedia of Software Engineering, In the Age of the Smart Machine is “a profound study of the work implications associated with the extensive involvement of information technology in organizations. The book rapidly gained recognition across a wide spectrum of social science disciplines, including management and organization studies, information systems, social psychology, and sociology, and has been debated and quoted extensively. Twenty years may seem an awfully long time in this age of speed and rapid technological change. But, the Smart Machine, as perhaps every great work, holds out remarkably. The central themes of the book are equally if not more relevant today. Key insights the author develops concerning the nature of information and its relation to reality can be brought to bear on the analysis of phenomena such as the emergence and diffusion of the Internet that were not yet manifest at the time she conducted her study. Indeed, later and significant works on the social and organizational implications of information technology draw in one way or another on the legacy the Smart Machine has left…

The distinctive flavor of the book and its enduring significance are inextricably bound up with the masterly ways Zuboff managed to navigate between the potent but tidy worlds of theory and the inspiring yet messy reality of the workplace. Her work represents long-standing evidence of the fact that theory and concepts if skillfully used may sharpen observation, disclosing aspects of reality that might otherwise have escaped attention…

Written in superb prose, the Smart Machine deserves to be described as a landmark contribution to the cross- disciplinary field of the history and social psychology of work. While a book about information and its significance in restructuring and redefining the patterns and meaning of work, the Smart Machine is much more than a treatise on this subject. Out of the pages of this remarkable book emerge with evocative force the history of work as the bodily struggle to master the resistant materiality of the world through skill but also exertion and toil; the mixed blessings of technology and the forms through which technology liberates, enables, and enslaves at the same time; the stratified character of the workplace and the social struggles that have underlain its formation and its persisting role as an institutional pillar of modern societies; the history of administration and the different social connotations white- and blue-collar work came to embody; the developments of managerial methods and techniques and the relentless discipline they impose in the factory and the office; and, finally, the allure of technology in general and information technology in particular to construct a more fulfilling workplace and the rather disappointing outcome in which automation, driven by the dominant elites and their will to control, erodes and undoes the promise of a transparent and multivalent workplace in which information could have played an enlightening role…

It would be reasonable to conjecture that a book written in the pre-Internet age might well be outdated and no longer relevant. This holds undeniably true for many issues, ideas, or debates that took place during the 1970s and 1980s. However, the case of the Smart Machine is rather different. The central theme of the book concerning the hot issue of whether information technology is or will be used as a means to automation and control or as a way to construct new, less hierarchical, and more rewarding forms of collective engagement and an enlightened workplace is equally, if not more, relevant today. The widely diffused fear of the Orwellian big brother is just an indicator of this, as is the debate of how personal data produced from our online habits and Internet site trajectories will be used. Another highly crucial issue evolves around copyright and the efforts of the culture industry to control and shape the growth of the Internet and the patterns of exchanging ideas and culture. To some degree, time has supported Zuboff’s rather gloomy predictions of the appropriation of the promise of information technology by powerful groups and its concomitant use in ways that, by and large, accommodate the interests of these groups. It is thus more than urgent to revisit that issue…

Another central and highly interesting theme of the book evolves around the relationship of information to reality in general and work reality in particular. The production of information is never an innocent description, a literal, point-by-point mapping of a pre-existing world. The comprehensive rendition of work states and processes to information constructs new realities in the workplace, lifts up factors or processes that have gone unnoticed, raises new problems and opportunities, and defines priorities and relevancies that were not there prior to computerization. By the same token, comprehensive computerization samples and assembles reality in a variety of ways and thus shapes the forms of perceiving and acting upon it. The central and timely character of these issues provides evidence of the persistent relevance of the Smart Machine. One could indeed go as far as to claim that in some respects the book is even more relevant and timely today than it was at the time of its publication.”

INFORMATING AND THE ABSTRACTION OF WORK

Of particular interest, In the Age of the Smart Machine introduced the concept of “Informating”, the process Zuboff described as unique to information technology that translates activities, objects, and events into information. Zuboff characterizes computer-mediated work as distinguished from earlier generations of mechanization and automation designed to deskill jobs and substitute for human labor, because information technology itself is characterized by a unique duality. It can be applied to automate operations according to a logic that hardly differs from that of the nineteenth-century machine system–replace the human body with a technology that enables the same processes to be performed with more continuity and control. But information technology simultaneously generates information about the underlying productive and administrative processes through which an organization accomplishes its work. It provides a deeper level of transparency to activities that had been either partially or completely opaque. It can automate tasks, but also translates its action into information. In this way it symbolically renders events, objects, and processes so that they become visible, knowable, and shareable in a new way. Zuboff referred to this unique capacity as “informating.” As a result of the informating process, work processes become more abstract. Computer-mediated work radically extends organizational codification resulting in a comprehensive “textualization” of the work environment that creates what Zuboff calls “the electronic text.” As information systems theorist Jannis Kallinikos describes it, “A continuously accruing electronic text installs itself at the center stage of work and organizational life.”

THE ELECTRONIC TEXT

According to Kallinikos, “The problems, issues, and opportunities associated with the growing involvement of computer-based records and operations in organizations emerge forcefully in Chapter 5 of the Smart Machine, entitled “Mastering the Electronic Text,” one of the most penetrating and evocative pieces ever written in the century-long history of the administrative sciences. The entry offers the conclusions of the first of the two parts that comprise the book, dealing with the history of work, and the role of technology and knowledge in constructing the modern industrial workplace. With force and almost cunning insight into what is yet to come, Zuboff describes what may well be considered the predicament of this age, that is, the construction of reality out of the cognitive forms the technologies of computing avail. The varieties of technological information that computer technology generates construct an expansive electronic text, which is accruing every single moment by the potent recording and storage capacities of computer technology and its inability, as it were, to forget.”

THE DIVISION OF LEARNING

Zuboff concluded that the essence of computer-mediated work consisted in a blurring of the age-old demarcation between what is called “work” and what is called “learning”, suggesting that the focus of authority systems would shift from a “division of labor” to a “division of learning.” Zuboff’s work foresaw a challenge to the concentrated hierarchies of the industrial era. A full exploitation of information technology’s unique potential would require new distributed and collaborative working arrangements and social relations inimical to the old demands of time, place, physical discipline, and bodily presence. She wrote, “The informated workplace, which may no longer be a ‘place’ at all, is an arena through which information circulates, information to which intellective effort is applied. The quality, rather than the quantity, of effort will be the source from which added value is derived…A new division of learning requires another vocabulary–one of colleagues and co-learners, of exploration, experimentation, and innovation. Jobs are comprehensive, tasks are abstractions that depend upon insights and synthesis, and power is a roving force that comes to rest as dictated by function and need.”

SOURCE OF MANY WIDELY DIFFUSED CONCEPTS 

In the Age of the Smart Machine is the source of many concepts that have become widely integrated into the understanding of information technologies and their consequences. These include the abstraction of work associated with information technology and its related skill demands; that information technology can pave the way for more fluid distributed work arrangements; the concept of the “information panopticon”; the duality of information technology as an informating and an automating technology; computer-mediated work; information as a challenge to command/control; the social construction of technology; the collaborative patterns of information work–to name but a few. According to Finnish scholars Hanna Timonen and Kaija-Stiina Paloheimo’s 2008 analysis of the emergence and diffusion of the concept of knowledge work, In the Age of the Smart Machine is one of three late twentieth century books, including Peter Drucker’s In the Age of Discontinuity and Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, that are responsible for the diffusion of the concept of “knowledge work.

A new scholarly article by Andrew Burton-Jones (forthcoming, Information and Organization: 2014) reviews the continuing impact of In the Age of the Smart Machine on IT-oriented organization scholarship.