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An illustration depicting people at work making pins

Pin factory engraving from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1762.

Out of my somewhat varied interests, the one that pays nearly all of the bills is software engineering. I’ve been putting together small web sites and applications on my own for almost two decades, and collaborating with others to create larger ones for at least half that time. Since I’m also quite interested in the organisation and politics of work, I’ve been watching the way these and other projects were managed, and have been able to observe how broken models of cooperation have affected their outcome or strained relationships in the workplace. Of these, one idea in particular has caught my attention for its double-edged consequences and controversial history, and that is the division of labour.

The concept of dividing labour is almost as old as work itself. Mastering a trade is difficult enough, let alone several, so as people drifted to their preferred or mandated occupations they became specialised.

But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that aggressive optimisations to the manufacturing process began to take place, leading to explosive boosts in productivity and profit. These gains were so significant that Adam Smith dives straight into a panegyric for the division of labour at the start of his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations:

[A] workman not educated to [the pin-making business], could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations.

Its benefits are indeed striking, at least from an economic perspective:

Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day.

It would be absurd to deny the advantages of specialisation in manufacturing. After all, we do owe it the plenty and comfort in our lives. But it would be just as ridiculous, not to mention dangerous, to ignore the cost of such optimisation.

About a century later, art critic and historian John Ruskin would take stock of the damages wrought by the division of labour on the human spirit during his discussion of the Gothic in The Stones of Venice:

It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail.

Ruskin is especially concerned with the separation between the thinker and the manual labourer, wherein one is removed to a desk while the other is turned into ‘a machine for rounding curves and sharpening edges.’ As thoughtfulness became unnecessary to complete a job — and, in some cases, even an undesirable trait — workers were given no incentive to question or step outside their assigned tasks.

Since manual labour was considered degrading, it was generally held that a talented designer was wasted at the factory floor, while common workers could not be trusted to provide thoughtful feedback on the work they were required to perform. So the connotation of manual labour with misery was reinforced: if you sought to diminish and devalue a person, you gave them only jobs that were smaller than them.

Inevitably, job satisfaction decreased as resentment grew. Ruskin, again, put it best:

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Specialisation and standardisation also conspired to make workers less skilled. With training made cheap, and in some cases irrelevant, firing an employee became a more likely and serious threat because its cost slid towards negligibility.

This introduced an even greater deal of stress, and unmotivated workers responded to these pressures by ‘soldiering’ — that is, performing the least amount of work that wouldn’t get them in trouble.

This trend towards creating a class of barely skilled, unmotivated workers is particularly troublesome when combined with automation. First, workers are compelled to function like machines — then they are replaced by actual machines. This has been a reality for manual labour for a couple of centuries, with computing now making significant inroads into other professions as well.

Take a company like Uber, whose drivers must meet stringent performance goals under unfavourable conditions while they perform the only job they’re allowed: to drive from point A to point B. At the same time, Uber has engineers working hard to perfect autonomous vehicles, while corporate lawyers and lobbyists jump the regulatory hurdles that will one day allow Uber to put both their new cars and their former drivers out on the streets.

Even professionals in creative areas would better watch out. A startup company called The Grid recently announced its plan to automate website construction using artificial intelligence, and render human designers unnecessary.

The Grid hasn’t yet released a product, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if it fails to live up to its promise, or if it turns out to be absolute vapourware. The fact that designers can be viewed as a disposable commodity should tell you something about the state of web design today. Jokes abound about how often sites are mild variations on a theme or two, a sign too many people have been unwilling or unable to imbue their work with even a modest spark of authenticity. We’ll soon be able to replace it with the output of a machine and no-one will be the wiser.

To be clear, it is not the introduction of artificial intelligences in the workplace that bothers me — it’s the process of deskilling or dehumanising workers that precedes and accompanies it.

As with the division of labour, automation isn’t inherently or entirely evil. Yes, there is much pointless output made abundant through automation, but many essentials, from food and medicine to the nuts and bolts that hold our infrastructure together, are widespread only because automation has also made them common and affordable.

Automation also frees workers from repetitive, soul-crushing labour and affords them extra time for leisure and enrichment. In the past, this privilege was usually within reach of a ‘leisure class,’ to borrow from Thorstein Veblen, but it has since become increasingly available. Time to cultivate a hobby or an education is spread unevenly, though, with people on both sides of the unemployment divide unable to take meaningful advantage of it. In his essay In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell illustrates this imbalance with a familiar image:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralising. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

I should point out that Russell takes a similar stance towards work as Smith: for them, work is not enjoyable or virtuous, but rather a sacrifice of your freedom and your happiness. I can think of a few very horrible professions, but in general this assessment begs the question — Russell goes into In Praise of Idleness by presenting it as a self-evident truth, but it reeks of false dilemma and exemplifies a ‘leisure class’ mentality towards labour under which having to work implies enslavement and subservience. Ask instead, is work degrading in and of itself, or is that because we have made it that way?

While Bertrand Russell is more concerned with the inequality of access to leisure, I worry that a considerable slice of that time is still spent feeding people back into the grinder. For example, a lot of effort is put into leading students and job-seekers down easily marketable career paths. An all-encompassing education has become secondary to developing narrow technical skills with a clear path to profit — the liberal arts, once seen as essential disciplines worthy of a ‘free person’ (hence the name), are now frequently derided as useless.1

I’ve been writing with little regard for the distinction between physical and intellectual labour because attributes shift when it comes to the services and knowledge-based industries. This is the case with software engineering: you wouldn’t call programming ‘physical labour,’ but you’ll see professionals in the field turned into operatives not unlike those hired to toil mindlessly on the pin assembly line.

For all of our egos, and the ‘rockstar guru ninja’ titles made to appease them, many software developers are cut off from making decisions, and are either powerless or unwilling to bring them into question.

Consulting for the enterprise in particular is a minefield that forces us to navigate byzantine internal politics and an ossified corporate culture. Enterprise requirements for software projects tend to be just as rigid and abstruse. An environment like this doesn’t lend itself to carrying out fulfilling work, and while money and job security may be enough to convince you to go about your business with your head down, they’re poor motivators for excellence and happiness. A few people may be able to rationalise a way into enthusiasm, at the risk of finding themselves alone or faced with enough obstacles to burn them out completely.

For example, designers — who ought to be strategists as well as craftspeople — are not always allowed to interact freely with the client whose problems they would be hired to solve.2 Having a designer possibly question a client’s business during the courtship phase is ill-advised, so a sales representative does the talking, and a business analyst gathers the requirements, and the bigger the client and the juicier the contract, the more rigidly enforced are these layers of separation.

If all goes well, a contract gets signed and a production pipeline assembled: analysts, designers, programmers, testers, all liberally interspersed with layers of management.

By this time they should have already been given a tediously detailed shopping list of features to complete and design around. There’s little debate about whether these features are germane to the problem, or how they affect the lives of those who will use them. Few team members are given the opportunity to contemplate the big picture, and fewer still are allowed to shape it. Someone somewhere in the upper floors already thought it up — they may have a big bonus riding on their thinking job, so it’s unwise to resist it and chance losing the client.

The problem is compounded when team members are not encouraged to step outside their domains. Many won’t, except to bicker about their teammates as a project goes sideways, and with no involvement and no appreciation for another’s work, it becomes all too easy to deny or shift responsibility. Programmers will blame designers, designers will blame programmers, both will blame management, and so the division of labour devolves into a division among the labourers.

For all of its benefits, the division of labour has made us less skilled, less adaptable, less ethical, and less cooperative. It has also made work (whatever your opinion of working) less enjoyable than it ought to be. Even Smith himself admitted the division of labour would lead to ‘corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people.’ And having automation ride in on the devastation caused by overspecialisation only makes matters worse.

So, would we be able to have our highly productive cake and eat it too? I don’t know, but we can try.

I’m a firm believer that professionals should at least cultivate what people call ‘T-shaped skills.’ This means that if you were to plot their expertise on a chart, they would a spike in a particular area but still demonstrate enough working knowledge to get by at most of the others, forming the shape of a T.

In other words, we should be capable — to abuse a by-now familiar and increasingly inadequate example — of making a whole pin on our own.3 Perhaps not well, perhaps not efficiently, but we should be able to understand its design and the fundamentals of its production, then take that knowledge and contribute meaningfully towards an improvement of both the pin and the work surrounding its manufacture.

This effort to become more involved, more knowledgeable and self-sufficient, is not necessarily to relieve others of a job, but to better understand and collaborate with them. Complex work requires cooperation and communication, so allowing skills to blend across a team can be a determining factor for success.

Additionally, we should allow the richness and warmth of our lives to bleed into the work we do, so that it’s delightful as well as thoughtful. Let’s take pride in our achievements and the positive effect of our efforts, and put to bed the idea that work cannot possibly lead to happiness.

The nastiest consequences of the division of labour will continue to plague us into the 21st century if we allow our work — and by extension ourselves — to be stripped of value and humanity. Through learning and empathy, we must rethink the way we collaborate and make ourselves whole again.

  1. Or, as the employed philosophy major says to the unemployed philosophy major, ‘Would you like fries with that?’ ↩︎

  2. Clients have their own divisions working against them. Those who decide are the same people writing the checks; not the hapless ‘end users’ about to have some dreary, convoluted software application foisted on them. ↩︎

  3. You’d think the pin shortage would be solved by now, right? ↩︎