▶ listen to this post
Deskilling of workers and 'consumers'
A couple of weeks ago I talked about market-driven deskilling. I did this after thinking about declining literacy skills on the one hand, and the rise of ever more sophisticated ways to replace human cognitive activity with profitable tools. The examples I had in mind included relying on a search engine’s ‘suggested answers’ to resolve queries, and using ChatGPT for reports and analysis. I called this branch of business ’thinking as a service’, and suggested that it cultivates and promotes a cognitive form of deskilling.
The idea of deskilling seems a good lens through which to get some of the major changes in society into focus. But I had never looked into if and how deskilling in society had already been discussed by other writers. Do people talk about how capitalism promotes deskilling? And if so, what do they say about it?
The degradation of work
To be fair, from the outset I was pretty sure deskilling must have been discussed at length. It is just too prominent to go unnoticed by many. After some searching on Google Scholar I traced the way authors in sociology and economics currently approach deskilling. It led me to the work of economist Harry Braverman.
In his book Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), Braverman argued that in a capitalist economy, there is a drive towards reducing skill in the labour force. Deskilling characterises the fate of the modern labourer. This idea has its root in Marx’s concept of alienation, but Braverman elaborates it specifically for the way skills become a pivotal element in the struggle for power.
Braverman sees two main reasons for why capitalism should lead to deskilling. First, the capitalist rat race for profit will motivate those who own and profit from the production process to break up complex and skilled tasks into simple and and inexpensive ones.
But more importantly, deskilling is a strategy for those who own and profit from the production process to maintain their power. This is the more crucial reason Braverman identified in 1974. By keeping the conception of products separate from the process of execution of products, the actual knowledge of how to produce goods is kept among a select few, while the production itself can be done by workers who lack this knowledge, and who only perform highly specific tasks.
Those workers, as a consequence, become increasingly dependent on the powerful few who manage production and control the available opportunities to work. Instead of resisting, workers will be forced into a docile and subservient role—anything in order not to be shut out from work.
In other words, Braverman says that by controlling the distribution of skill, capitalist enterprises control who is in power. Sounds familiar? I think so. And, spoiler alert: the power stays with the capitalist.
Criticism of Braverman’s deskilling thesis
Although Braverman’s work has been influential, his main claims about deskilling have been questioned and watered down.
One criticism voiced soon after Braverman published his thesis is that he portrays workers too much as helpless victims of a capitalist determinism. Where workers have managed to resist the capitalist logic in an organised way, his critics argued, deskilling has not taken place in the way Braverman predicted. Hence, it is not inevitable.
Another critical response looks at the way computers and micro-technologies got introduced into the workplace after Braverman published his thesis. Far from being simple to operate, these technologies required a higher level of skill to operate, and hence an upskilling of the workforce. For example, Paul Attewell has argued that this in part makes it that deskilling does in fact not characterise the fate of the modern labourer, even though it does occur in some professional sectors (1987).
Consumer deskilling in the food sector
How useful is all this for me and what I was thinking about? The impression I get is that, so far, the bulk of the discussion about deskilling has been about labour and the workforce. The workers are losing their skills. But the more dramatic form of deskilling I see in society right now happens outside the workplace. It’s the strategic replacement of skills with newfangled products that happens in people’s everyday life.
In 2006 JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler wrote an article about ‘consumer deskilling’ and the transformation of food systems. Their main claim is that there is an increasing gap between what consumers know and are able to do, and what those who more and more own the means of producing food and profit from food manufacturing know and can do.
Now, I don’t like the term ‘consumers’ here. I don’t like it because it plays along with an image of society in which the citizen is first and foremost a consumer. But Jaffe and Gertler have an interesting observation to make. They see that fewer people have extensive knowledge of specific foodstuffs and their preparation, and fewer people are able to discern the quality and sustainability of certain foods. (Of course, much of your supermarket is devoted to promoting ‘quality’ and ‘sustainability’, but those choices are made for you by those who profit from them. Think about that.)
Jaffe and Gertler write that the food industry has cultivated and encouraged a change in how people understand what they do in their own kitchens. Instead of being engaged in autonomous production of food from raw materials, you are in your kitchen and at your dinner table consuming products that you have bought from food producers. Gradually, you slide into a rhythm of consume, consume, consume…
Deskilled by the market
I think this idea of ‘consumer deskilling’ is important, although as I said I think you should be weary of being thrown into the dreary role of the consumer. Especially when you consider that in many cases, it is precisely this type of deskilling that forces people into consumerism to begin with. So it’s not deskilling of consumers, but deskilling into consumers.
I like to call what’s going on here market-driven deskilling. That places the emphasis on the market. It is a form of deskilling that is driven by attempts to secure and generate profitable sale of commodities.
What I’ve been able to find tells me that this form of deskilling has mainly been discussed in the context of the capitalist food industry. taking off from Jaffe and Gertler’s paper. However, I think that it has a much wider application. Let me give you one example close to home.
On the shoulders of giants
Earlier I said that I used Google Scholar to look for the origin of discussions about deskilling. Google Scholar is owned by, you guessed it, Google. Although the Wikipedia article on Google Scholar describes it as a ‘freely accessible web search engine’ and a ‘bibliographic database’, it is good to keep in mind that Google Scholar is part of Google’s profit-seeking monopoly on the internet. Google sells ads and products that exploit your data.
Consequently, that you can find scientific publications easily through this service is not a friendly gesture, but a way for Google to make researchers and knowledge producers dependent on its services, so as to continue its nefarious business of selling ads and products that exploit your data profitably. You may find this a cynical take on a very useful tool, but only pause and think what Google Scholar is actually doing.
Yes, I have been trained to use libraries and know how to use cataloguing systems. But Google Scholar has made such knowledge largely redundant. It seems to have everything, and it has it in an easily searchable form. The ability to scan through publications using ‘full-text’ search enables you to find uses of a phrase or concept much more quickly, often without having to study and read. Scholar does this work for you.
Indeed, it is a marvellous feeling to have the world of knowledge at your fingertips, without having to go through the frustration of finding that one volume among kilometres of library shelves, only to learn that the paper you wanted to consult does not discuss the topic you were interested in after all. “Stand on the shoulders of giants”, Google Scholar tells you when you visit the site.
But the convenience Google Scholar offers comes at an uncomfortable price. I don’t have figures for this, perhaps I will look into this some time soon. But I worry that increasingly many people will not be able to do bibliographical research without Google. This is something I certainly have seen in several generations of students. And it is something I notice in myself. It’s market-driven deskilling. Market-driven, because Google is able to exploit my and your loss of skill to sustain and increase its power. By gradually replacing our abilities with its service, the company can control people, governments, and society, and make sure they will continue to secure its profits.
Because of these created dependencies, people who should be critical of Google’s business model may be the first in line to celebrate and defend its oh-so-convenient services. Anything in order to not to be barred from climbing the shoulders of giants.