What’s wrong with work? Technology, environment and informality

The present is a time of multiple crises, and these social, environmental and economic crises affect how work is organised, what work is like, and what work does in the world.  

Three features of contemporary life have a particularly strong effect on present crisis: the constant, if not always visible, dangerous promises of technologisation, the inferno of environmental catastrophe, and processes of informal work. 

Borrowing from Tim Ingold, we might think of these as knots, tied into other phenomena, part of the meshwork of life. Each is part of the other, and part of the organisation of work and economic activity but never reducible to one or the other.  

These are knots that matter now, made by the twisting and tangling of multiple threads. In my new book, What’s Wrong with Work? I explore three: the technology knot, the environmental knot and the informality knot. 

The technology knot 

Take technologyHeadlines that refer to the fear and promise of robots replacing human jobs are a dramatic illustration of the more mundane processes through which work is being and will be altered by software and hardware.  

But software has a politics and an ethics that is not always fully articulated, even as it is both worked on and affects others. Change, often poorly understood, is hypefully re-described as disruption, or even less meaningfully, as disruptive innovation. 

Not all technologies are shiny; much is mundane. Simple fuel-efficient stove technologies radically change how much domestic labour women do 

The knot of technology encounters the knots of environment and of informal work in such examples. That is because ‘technology’ is not an abstract, distinct force, but always connected and entangled.  

The environment knot 

Take the environment, for instance. The environmental knot is entangled with technology. On one hand, green technology offers the distant promise of geo-engineering; economic science is offering sustainable development and a green economy. But, on the other, narratives of progress of human lives rely on the fairy tale of technological innovation as a means to solve problems and that the development of technology is connected very strongly to the ideology of growth.   

Within this framework, nature is too easily imagined as a resource for capitalist accumulation: raw materials for extraction, sunshine for the generation of electricity, soil for growingIt is the unspoken base of capitalist activity, and work of many kinds is involved in manipulating, extracting, monitoring and even repairing it.  

Meanwhile, environmental crises are affecting population movements, agriculture, housing, consumption and, of course, work: all the stuff of daily life, the visible and invisible work of existence. There are and will be more struggles over rights and resources.  

Current policy responses are limited by desperate attempts to maintain economic growth via the tried and tested ‘business as usual’ tools, despite the stupidities this involves.   

This ignores crucial questions. How is work affected by climate change? How can tensions between keeping traditional jobs and environmental protection be managed? What kinds of work are needed to ameliorate the effects of climate change? How can the tension between work that does good but damages those who do it be considered?  

The informality knot 

This brings us to the knot of informal work. There’s an awful lot of work-like activity that is not paid but that makes life possible. Not all work is paid work in the formal sector, with a contract, a wage, and set hours of work. An estimated 60+ per cent of all work activity is not formal work. It includes the work needed to care for the very young and the very old. It includes the routine maintenance of the tools necessary to do work, from getting fuel for the stove to updating computer software.  

Thinking about these activities and practices changes the shape of the question about ‘what’s wrong with work’ and looks for different kinds of answers. It weaves work into everyday life.  

Biting back 

‘What’s wrong with work?’ is a question that has to be understood in relation to current crises of environmental disaster, and to the destabilising effects of zombie economic policy, to technological solutionism and to the constant challenge of everyday life.  

Work has changed and will keep changing. It may (differently, in different places) be intensified, become more precarious, and make use of new technologies. Everyday life is affected by how work activities combine, how they are organised and what they do in the world.  

Many, many people make claims as to what the future will bring. The future of paid work is said to be automation and a post-work life; the future of human life, however, could be extinction.  

With no planned exit from quantitative easing in the Global North, financialisation or the privileging of shareholder interest, a future of more economic crisis is plausible.  

It’s easy to focus on the robots coming for jobs, because that seems tangible. It’s what sci-fi has been preparing us for. The poisoned planet, a more subtle and insidious threat, looms larger for me.  

Deep in the thicket it may be, but it is really present, and it has real present effects. Pretending it doesn’t matter, that it won’t affect us, is the less scary option, but a foolish one.  

It is visible to farmers presented with desertification or flooding, to fishing fleets not finding their usual catch, to disaster workers stressed and stretched to get clean drinking water, to women who walk further to get water, to tourist workers in ski resorts with no snow and no visitors, and others going through their daily routines. It’s big.  

What’s a person to do with that set of predictions? Crisis and the feeling of end times can easily generate cynicism and hopelessness, and those feelings get in the way of action. Step one is to imagine some different possibilities.  

Futures and pasts 

Imagining the future is a strange occupation. If you watch sci-fi films from the 1960s, you see lots of robots, but no remote controls, and no internet. Futurologists offered a world free of work, as machinery would increase productivity and give people more leisure. It didn’t turn out like that.  

Will this time be different? The future won’t be what we think it will be, but what could it be?  

Imaginaries are powerful and any imaginary is also an assertion, sometimes a simple one, of unquestionable ‘commonsense’. So the imaginary of cyber-capitalism is that IT will work; the imaginary of greening the economy is that nature can be soothed without loss; the imaginary of flexibility is that it is life-affirming and friction free.  

This kind of commonsense, which seems so logical, needs more questioning. And other imaginaries need building, ones that are more questioning of commonsense and the things we have been told to believe.  

Some plans and solutions for the problems of the present imply a particular view of the past. Nostalgia for what work used to be like is common in every era.  

Today’s crises partly stem from political decisions to reduce welfare state support. In light of this, nostalgia for the European welfare state compromise of the 1950s and 1960s seems reasonable, as its breakdown is a real loss for those who benefited.  

But we are aware now that such allocations (of rights and of economic rewards) were narrowly made. Many were excluded from its rewards: most obviously those living in the Global South and in (ex-)colonies. Breadwinner models and the racialisation of citizenship made for exclusions.  

I don’t want to return to the same welfare settlement if returning maintains those exclusions. Nostalgia is really common in discussions of work, for example, alienating factory work replaced more fulfilling craft work; alienating call centre work replaced factory work where at least you had your mates and your union. It always depends on what comparison is being made, on whose behalf.  

Where are the remedies? 

To say I think there’s a problem with this way of thinking need not imply sayingI know, I can give you a solution. My aim in What’s Wrong with Work? is only to ask new questions.  

I don’t think that the answers to the problem of work will be found in a book. Poisons are best dealt with using specific kinds of cures; universal remedies aren’t that effective.  

Different poisons feed on each other and depend on each other. Something can be a poison in one situation but neutral or beneficial in another. This complicates the question of cures.  

Those Isabelle Stengers calls ‘our guardians’ offer logical solutions and technological fixes. In the context of environmental crisis, geoengineering has started to promise that it has radical solutions – but with a radical uncertainty about its effectiveness. The potential profitmaking opportunities may limit hesitation, with state-sponsored investment to benefit private sector firms. The fictional promise may soon try to impose itself, as the only logical solution, whether we like it or not. 

There are, however, many ways in which commonsense accounts that privilege the economic are on the defensive, and current norms and systems are under question. And even some takenforgranted elements of contemporary life produced by neoliberal, technocratic systems are biting back.  

Structures and systems are being nibbled at, infested by diseases of their own making. They are being destabilised. The resurgence of worker activism is one such bite back; another is that nature has exceeded its position as resource for human flourishing and refuses to be ignored. 

The information and communication technologies, on which governance relies and which gathers and assesses data about populations, communities and atomised consumers, is under question for the unholy powers it has claimed.  

And it is good to remember the essential con of cyber-capitalism: the claim, assumption and certainty that ICT worksand that if it doesn’t work the user is at fault.  

And even though many have talked about the progressive invasion of markets into private spaces, the domestic, the informal and the everyday of care and repair are also spaces for bite-back.  

Here the limits of market reasoning and the complexity of ‘work’ become very visible. There are already diverse economies, where the ethics of work is also an ethics of life itself.  


Lynne Pettinger is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK 

Adapted from the forthcoming book What’s Wrong With Work?, publishing April 2019 

Image Credit: engin akyurt from Pixabay