Harvest Time on the Whirlwind Farm

To some extent, people turn to omnicompetent forms of conspiracy theory when they cannot believe that anybody could be THAT incompetent.

People who are always and invariably against conspiracy theories tend to be that way first and foremost because omnicompetent conspiracy seems both impossibly improbable and because it is a futile theory (you can’t oppose omnicompetence by definition; in fact, if omnicompetence is real, then being allowed to voice the conspiracy theory is part of the conspiracy).

In some cases, the two kinds of theories of improbability and futility cross. It is truly hard to believe that four years after a deeply contested election that featured credible accusations about malign interference (including hacking attempts) in election security and four years after an election revealed bitter divides within the Democratic Party that threaten the stability of a coalition required to defeat a man who is endangering democracy itself, the Democratic Party would turn to a small tech company called Shadow, a company with no real track record, to hastily build an app of questionable usefulness even IF it actually worked as planned, to be used in the first primary elections of the 2020 campaign–and given reports that the app wasn’t working well and hadn’t been stress tested a month ago, would fail to build an alternative procedure should the app fail. The chain of miscalculations involved does seem almost impossible to believe in.

And yet so too is believing that any candidate actually running for the nomination could be so omnicompetently operating as a Manchurian candidate so as to make that chain of miscalculations occur as part of a plan, or that the DNC leadership has suddenly achieved this kind of omnicompetence after decades of evident managerial fecklessness and gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight mistakes. I mean, if you’re really omnicompetent conspirators, aim high–just steal the election seamlessly, plant evidence to discredit them that you wants discredited, etc.

Somewhere in that intersection there may be improvident forms of hidden coordination, self-interested incompetence that might be called cronyism, perfectly innocent misplaced trust in technology, and a kind of structured helplessness that the tech industry has sought to produce in all of us. That may deserve to be called something other than conspiracy or incompetence. It is, unfortunately, gravely consequential, in a way that demands both heads should roll and that reforms should be made, some of them far-reaching and substantial.

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Ilana Gershon’s excellent book Down and Out in the New Economy offers an analysis of the “gig economy” that is both subtle in its grasp of our historical moment and hugely consequential in its implications. Among other things, it gives me an unexpected window into understanding what may have happened in Iowa as the caucus officials turned to the app developed by Shadow.

When faculty talk about the damage done to our institutions and our profession by the rise of contingent labor in academia, we sometimes overlook that we are here, as in many things, only one piece in a larger puzzle. Two things have happened to most of the major professional workplaces that were a centerpiece of mid-20th Century life around the world (the university, the secondary school, the hospital, the law firm, the advertising agency, the major corporation, the governmental bureau or civil office). On one hand, governance and authority over the mission and operations of the institution and its employed professionals have been increasingly transferred to a series of dislocated, dispersed administrative organizations devoted to particular kinds of compliance. Some of those are statutory, some are a consequence of institutional membership in associational networks, and some are effectively from off-site or absentee owners of some of the operations of the institution. The authority of these external organizations over the institution is often projected into the institution via specific professionals on the institutional payroll whose work is largely the maintenance of compliance. The organizational chart shows those individuals working within the institution’s hierarchy and procedures, but in many ways they are equally subject to and solicitious of the separate external organization. The hospital manager who is the primary point of contact with insurance networks, the corporate executive who represents the private equity firm that recently bought the business, the academic dean charged with meeting the demands of an assessment organization, the investment manager who works as much for a hedge fund partner as he or she does for the institutional portfolio, the government official who is charged with managing procurement or who is the liason to a PAC or other source of extra-governmental influence on policy-making.

At the same time, most those professional institutions are off-loading much of the labor they once did and could still plausibly do out of their own staff and payroll onto outside consultants, facilitators, software developers, contract workers, and so on. In its early crude forms, this was “outsourcing”, the segmentation of the organization into geographically dispersed subsidiaries who could produce some labor very cheaply outside of the US or EU. I think now this wave has moved on to something more dispersed, less transparent, and more punctuated and uneven. This is the classic “gig economy” that Gershon has set out to investigate. From inside the institution, part of the logic of the gig is financial efficiency (the shedding of staff off the payroll) but I think it is more than that. I think it is also the management of risk, often by lawyers or legal professionals: necessary operations that entail risk if done incompetently or imprecisely are protected from claims of liability to some extent if they are devolved onto individuals and firms whose inner workings are private and to whom legal responsibility can possibly be redirected, along with less financially tangible forms of blame.

Gershon’s analysis is that as people transition into the gig economy, their relation with employing institutions changes. They no longer are offering their distinctive mix of intrinsic skills and human insight to the employer via a long-term contract. The gig workers are, Gershon observes, increasingly narrating their economic relations as if the gig worker were a business who is engaged in a business deal with another business. The worker is no longer identifying with the purposes and mission of the institution while employed by it, but is instead always thinking about the interests of their own “gig” brand, which align for as long (or short) as they may with the other business that pays them for services rendered.

There are ways in which this is neither bad nor good but simply different. But it has implications for the outcomes that institutions seek (or claim to seek), whether that is educating the next generation, healing the sick or injured, or delivering profit to shareholders. As an institution increasingly employs people who are essentially the intrusion of some other institution into its framework (the compliance professionals) and expels functions and tasks to be served by networks of consultants and subcontractors, it loses most or all control over the outcomes of its operations. It is subject to extra-institutional dictate in a way it is almost helpless to resist–“the call is coming from inside the house!”–while it has protected itself from both the expense and the risk of directly supervising (or being shaped by) people who carry out many functions that its mission or purpose require.

In fact, many institutions end up pairing another class of internal worker with the intruding compliance managers: the contact point for networks of consultants, facilitators and subcontractors. Much like the compliance worker, this person is not responsible to the institution. They’re responsible to the network that they manage. This has huge implications. It is not in the interest of the “internal gig manager” to put the institution’s needs or functions first, not the least because the internal gig worker knows that tomorrow they could be back out in the network again, and it is the network that matters, the network that secures the next gigs. But more potently, if the internal gig worker wants the gig to continue, they actually have to actively degrade the capacity of their employing institution to carry out some functions. Because that’s what makes consultants and subcontractors necessary: the institution has failed, is failing, will fail to do this work on its own–it lacks some form of expensive expertise or some form of knowledge about the nature of the labor function that it formerly handled on its own.

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And here we return to the catastrophe of the Iowa caucuses. Whatever the specificity of the ways in which Shadow was employed to build an app that was designed to report the results of the caucuses–specifics that hopefully we will learn more about in the days and weeks to come–the ways in which both the national and state Democratic Party and an associated electoral administration has lost control of a vital function that once resided entirely within its organizational purview is familiar and haunting. And here I am no longer in equanimity about the implications: this is an actively commissioned outcome deriving from a web of systemic shifts in political, economic and social life over the last forty years. Call it neoliberalism, or find a better name. Argue it’s three things, not one thing. Argue it’s intentional or incidental, interested or unexpected. That’s all fine. One thing it is not is good.

All over this country (and the world) for the last twenty years, tech companies have worked with increasing intensity and sometimes desperation to actively produce in other institutions a state of learned, professed helplessness, a proposition that everything they do must be transformed (or “disrupted”) by tech in the name of some underspecified (or wholly unspecified) better end. Along the way, tech companies and the managerial clouds that swirl around them like courtiers have appropriated languages of fairness, of equity, of objectivity, of efficiency, of empowerment and attached them to cycles of tech adoption and to endless, vague ideas about process and ‘best practice’. If you understand tech as being more than just an app or a digital tool or a computer, you can even see that some of these processes and adoptions are of rules, procedures, codes that are themselves a kind of organizational technology.

And it is the change in institutions overall that make this ubiquity possible while amplifying the disastrous forms and modes of helplessness and surrender that comes with that ubiquity. The tech to worry about here is not really first or only the big companies we all love to hate (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). It is the tech of the gig economy: the small firms (who are often using, in ways acknowledged and obscured, the product of the big companies). This is the tech that we subcontract for and assemble. What it does and how it is put together is a black box–a Shadow indeed–and that is often part of its value, as Cathy O’Neill observes in her book Weapons of Math Destruction. Bias, unfairness–or a miscounting of electoral outcomes–that happens algorithmically in a product developed by a small firm using the proprietary technologies of three big firms is protected by multiple layers of secrecy and obscuration, even from the subcontractors who delivered the product. All of us in institutions hire the consultants and facilitators and subcontractors because they’re former students, former associates, former (or present) parts of our gig networks. As we all become gig workers, we all think about the gig, not the mission or the purpose.

If that means a food company loses the ability to know why the romaine lettuce it buys is frequently infected by e-coli, bad for its customers and likely bad for the company. If that means all food companies sell a product that is composed of ten different layers of subcontraction, bad for everyone who eats commodified food. The compliance officers inside the company aren’t truly protecting the public interest–they’re hidden inside the institution and yet not answerable to it. The gig contact points inside the company aren’t really responsible to the company, and neither are the contractors they’ve hired. Nobody’s really responsible. Maybe some individual will be unlucky enough to be identified in a viral video and hashtagged into temporary oblivion, but the structures live on.

Iowa is all of this made truly and horrifingly manifest. At the beginning of a national election that many citizens plainly feel is the most important election in their lifetime–and possibly one of the three or four most important in the history of this nation-state–a party organization lost control of one of its most important functions. It will be tempting to say that this must be a cunning, purposeful, self-interested conspiracy by a few, or a punishable kind of professional incompetence that was contingent, e.g., that could have been avoided. I strongly suspect instead that the Shadow we will uncover has fallen on us all, that all of us are involved in forms of labor towards valuable, important ends that our institutions have lost control over, and that none of us know quite how to walk back into the light of sovereignty and authority over the missions we value, the purposes we are called to, the responsibilities we revere.

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