Knowledge Work, Emotional Labor

As a graduate student and “knowledge worker,” most of my life revolves around processing information. One of my academic fields–information science–deals with how people gather and disseminate information, and how people turn it into knowledge, while the other–history–involves gathering and interpreting a vast amount of data to craft an argument about the past. I use these skills Monday through Friday in a fairly specialized way solving (more or less) complex real estate questions for the State of Florida, while the rest of my time is devoted to academic work. So, on the whole, I spend a lot of time working, and a lot of time simply thinking about thinking. A couple years ago, I was vaguely unsettled by a tension between thinking materially and thinking digitally. Simply put, is it better to work with a pen and paper, or with computers? This tension has only grown as I’ve thought more about the problem, and now in my mind it has come to resemble a sort of civil war with the comfort and rigor of paper on one side and the flash and pomp of circuits on the other.

Maybe “civil war” is a little dramatic, but let me explain at least how these seemingly simple thoughts really do conjure up feelings. Electronics seem to wrap me in this warm sense of capability and convenience. I call it a siren song. Simply entrust your information and time to their care, they promise in honeyed tones, and your life will be both enriched and simplified. It feels good, like I’m firmly planted in The Now and remarkably productive. Pens and paper feel more active, more rigorous — like they allow me to channel some kind of Indiana Jones-style, rugged individualism in my work. It’s up to me to recall what I wrote yesterday, or last year, but I’m more likely to process the information because I had to embody the process by writing it down. 

But are either of these things true? I’ve spent the last several years wrestling with this question, straddling a line that is just as much emotion as it is intellectual, and I do not know. It is not a question I will answer today. But in the spirit of blogging through my confusion, as Gregory Gunderson proposes here, what I’m curious about today is the emotional dimension of this question. Ideas engender feelings, of course, and this one is no exception; but why should it be that I have feelings about paper and computers? And why do these feelings compete with one another?

I think these feelings have a lot to do with marketing. Marx rather famously argued that capitalism reduces human relations to commodity fetishism. In this view, producers and consumers do not see each other as humans in the round, but rather as inputs and outputs in the market. To the President of Samsung, in this view, I am not Chris, the graduate student and government employee struggling to understand why he has feelings about a cell phone, but Chris, a once and future customer with needs, fears, and desires that can be used to encourage me to buy another phone or tablet. It’s not the person who matters in this view, but the exchange.

Emotions smooth this exchange. For the last century, the market has carried out this act of reduction through significant psychological warfare. It is not a coincidence that the inventor of propaganda was also the inventor of modern public relations–a man who convinced women to smoke in the 1920s by suggesting that cigarettes were symbols of liberation before aiding the CIA in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in the 1950s. Making people associate products with their identity brings them to the exchange. 

These emotions work toward marketing’s ultimate goal: segmentation. Tech not only benefits from segmentation–it is a several trillion-dollar market built on the inchoate promise of eternal “improvement”–it is now the primary platform by which segmenters work on our emotions. Like pretty much everyone born in the last forty years, I’ve been remarkably susceptible to this segmentation. I like tech, I think it is good; but as events over the last few years called this enthusiasm into question, there was another consumer identity ready-to-wear: the bohemian scholar, the rugged individual, whatever.. I won’t even get into how the culture of tech contributed to this workaholism in the first place, because the responsibility is all on me. But, really? I’m basing my identity on how I like to read and take notes? Something is wrong there.

Maybe that’s the breakthrough. I suspect it is just a detente, though, because tech and paper are just a synecdoche for the deeper problems that trouble us all. Is this smartphone spying on me? Am I free to read and think without being surveiled and manipulated at all hours of the day? Is the digital future really better than the analog past? I don’t know. Let me check my notes. 

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