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Working Algorithms: Software Automation and the Future of Work

  • Author(s): Shestakofsky, Benjamin
  • Advisor(s): Burawoy, Michael
  • et al.
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Abstract

While some argue that the rise of software automation threatens workers with obsolescence, others assert that new complementarities between humans and software systems are likely to emerge. This study draws on 19 months of participant-observation research at a software firm to investigate how relations between workers and technology evolved over three phases of the company’s development.

The empirical chapters proceed in chronological order, tracking the temporal trajectory of the firm. The company’s strategic direction was guided by its pursuit of venture capital. Executives’ priorities frequently shifted in response to investors’ expectations. Each priority generated new problems that I call “lags” to denote how managers’ vision outpaced technological and organizational realities. At each stage of the company’s development, managers deployed particular types of labor, located in San Francisco, the Philippines, and Las Vegas, to address these lags. As they labored in and around AllDone’s digital machinery, workers at each site affixed particular meanings to their labor and their place within the company.

I find two forms of human-software complementarity: computational labor that supports or stands in for software algorithms, and emotional labor aimed at helping users adapt to software systems. Instead of perfecting software algorithms that would progressively push people out of the production process, managers continually reconfigured assemblages of software and human helpers, developing new forms of organization with a dynamic relation to technology. The findings suggest how the dynamism of the organizations in which software algorithms are produced and implemented will contribute to labor’s enduring relevance in the digital age.

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This item is under embargo until January 8, 2021.