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Life Under the Algorithm

How a relentless speedup is reshaping the working class

Henry Noll was one of the most famous workers in American history, though not by his own choice and not under his own name. Employed at Bethlehem Steel for $1.15 a day, and known among workmates for his physical vigor and thriftiness, Noll was—as the somewhat embellished story goes—selected by an ambitious young management consultant named Frederick Winslow Taylor for an experiment in 1899. One day on the job, Taylor approached Noll—whom he later made famous under the pseudonym “Schmidt”—and asked him, “Are you a high-priced man?” As Taylor rendered the story in his book The Principles of Scientific Management, “Schmidt” replied to the obvious trick question cautiously: “Vell, I don’t know vat you mean.”

“Oh yes, you do,” insisted Taylor. “What I want to know is whether you are a high-priced man or not.”

“Vell,” repeated Schmidt, “I don’t know vat you mean.”

“Oh, come now, you answer my questions,” smirked Taylor. “What I want to find out is whether you are a high-priced man or one of these cheap fellows here. What I want to find out is whether you want to earn $1.85 a day or whether you are satisfied with $1.15, just the same as all those cheap fellows are getting.” 

Schmidt then responded that yes, obviously, he would accept the additional 70 cents (“I vas a high-priced man”). Then, the rub: “You see that pile of pig iron?” Taylor explained that a high-priced man did exactly as told, “from morning till night.” Schmidt, whom Taylor compared unfavorably to an “intelligent gorilla,” would be timed and—as we would put it today—optimized in his every movement. “He worked when he was told to work, and rested when he was told to rest.” In this way, Taylor boasted, Schmidt’s output increased from twelve tons of pig iron moved every day to 47. 

This was the primal scene of “scientific management,” versions of which spread rapidly across the world’s workplaces. The bargain between Schmidt and Taylor represented the explicit formulation of what would become the defining compromise of twentieth-century American capitalism: Increase your output, get paid more. Wages go up with productivity.

Until, it turns out, they don’t anymore. The unwinding of this agreement in recent decades, such that workers must continue to produce more without expecting it to show up in their pay stubs, has now been the subject of a good deal of discussion and debate. The decline of unions, the rise of inequality, the crisis of liberal democracy, and the changing face of American culture all, in one form or another, relate to this transformation. We work and work and barely get by, while wealth pools up in obscene quantities out of view. Pile more pig iron, but don’t imagine you’re high-priced. What, ask new books by Emily Guendelsberger and Steve Fraser, is this colossal insult doing to our heads? No wonder, Guendelsberger observes, the country is collectively “freaking the fuck out.”

In her new book, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Guendelsberger re-creates a version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous experiment in Nickel and Dimed. Guendelsberger, a reporter for the alt-weekly Philadelphia City Paper until it was sold off and shut down in 2015, went undercover at three low-wage workplaces: an Amazon warehouse in Indiana, a call center in North Carolina, and a McDonald’s in San Francisco. Whereas Ehrenreich’s main discovery was that there still existed an exploited working class—a controversial point in the late 1990s and early 2000s—Guendelsberger takes inequality and exploitation as given, asking instead what these jobs are doing to the millions who work them.

by Emily Guendelsberger

Little, Brown and Company, 352 pp., $28.00

What does the phrase “in the weeds” mean to you? In the professional-managerial class, “in the weeds” signifies knotty detail (as in the Vox public policy podcast, The Weeds). In the working class, Guendelsberger points out, “in the weeds” means the same thing “swamped” does in professional-speak: overwhelmed and stressed out. And America’s working class, Guendelsberger argues, is in the weeds all the time, increasingly subjected to an automated neo-Taylorism. Workers are scheduled by algorithm, their tasks timed automatically, and their performance surveilled digitally. This was what she learned on these jobs: “The weeds are a terribly toxic place for human beings. The weeds make us crazy. The weeds make us sick. The weeds destroy family life. The weeds push people into addiction. The weeds will literally kill you.”

by Steve Fraser
Verso, 272 pp., $24.95

What Guendelsberger found in her experiment was that employers now “demand a workforce that can think, talk, feel, and pick stuff up like humans—but with as few needs outside of work as robots. They insist their workers amputate the messy human bits of themselves—family, hunger, thirst, emotions, the need to make rent, sickness, fatigue, boredom, depression, traffic.” The results are “cyborg jobs,” and they account, by Guendelsberger’s reckoning, for almost half of the American workforce. The hidden moments of reclaimed freedom that make any job bearable are being discovered and wiped out by bosses everywhere: That trick you used to use to slow down the machine won’t work anymore; or that window of 23 minutes when you knew your boss couldn’t watch you is vanishing. Whatever little piece of humanity survived in these fragments dies with them.

In her first job, at an Amazon “fulfillment center,” Guendelsberger finds a regime that is Taylor’s “vision incarnate.” (One co-worker, sensing Taylor’s ghost, theorizes that Amazon is “a sociological experiment on how far a corporation can push people.”) Guendelsberger, a “picker,” is made to carry on her waist a scanner gun, which monitors her location, tells her the precise item among the hundreds of thousands in the warehouse that she is to go pluck from the shelves, its location, and how much time she has to do it. A sliding bar counts down as seconds go by, haranguing her. When she’s identified the shelf in the vast facility, dug through the bin, and scanned the item, the next one appears right away. 

While Amazon warehouses—generally in the ruins of economically depressed cities—often offer better wages than whatever else is around, it’s the time-discipline that kills you. The job is extremely monotonous. (To cope, Guendelsberger sews earbuds into her cap in violation of company policy.) When it’s time for breaks, it takes her so long to reach the exit of the massive warehouse that she must almost immediately turn around and go back to work. On top of the stress, it’s physically painful. The company’s time-off policy, she observes, is literally worse than Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol. Amazon dispenses free painkillers to workers, and Guendelsberger quickly loses track of how many she is taking. At one point, as she squats down to retrieve an item from a low shelf, her body “mutinies,” she writes. “Stand up, I order my legs for the hundredth time today, but it’s as if they’ve gotten fed up with all the abuse and hung up on my brain. Stand up, you idiot, my brain screams as I slowly topple backwards into a sitting position.” Another worker complains, “My feet are, like, mincemeat. I used to walk twenty miles a day with a backpack on and not change my socks, and they never looked as fucked up as they are now.”

The other jobs more or less go this way, too. At the call center, Convergys, Guendelsberger learns she is the human shield between the frustrated customer and the disdainful, predatory company. (And it turns out you can get MRSA at your workstation if you’re not careful.) At this job, the staff are required to try to push sales on callers throughout the interaction, although customers have generally picked up the phone to try to solve a problem with a cable bill. The aggravated callers take it out on the workers, who must multitask among dysfunctional, incompatible computer systems while empathizing and upselling. Guendelsberger begins imagining herself as multiple personalities: Helper Emily, Sales Emily, Protocol Emily, Scribe Emily, Conversation Emily, Short-Term Memory Emily, Awareness Emily, Journalist Emily, and Boss Emily—who has to monitor all the other ones. “Her job sucks.” Her worst call comes from another call-center worker, using her own lunch break as her only opportunity to try to sort out some service problem. 

Call center workers are monitored, disciplined, and reprimanded for time theft if they try to switch the system off between calls. Guendelsberger, admirably widely read and eclectic, introduced the reader to Taylor in the Amazon section of the book; here she provides a brief lesson on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, tossed in with a bit of evolutionary psychology. How would you act if you knew your supervisor might be watching at any time, or that any customer might blow up at you for reasons you can’t control? You’d be on hair-trigger—all of every day. And your body and brain aren’t built for that. Stress response is supposed to be short-term, fight-or-flight. To do it all of every day is to take a soak in an acid bath. (Guendelsberger conveys this by a parable about a backyard-dwelling, rapidly evolving hominid named Wanda; unaccountably, it works.)

The final workplace, a McDonald’s, leaves the least impression—if only because it’s the most familiar. It’s not hard to imagine why serving fast food is terrible work, even setting aside the poverty wages. “There’s always a line,” writes Guendelsberger. “We’re always in the weeds.” As at the call center, she must interact directly with customers, and attempt to fit their demands into the more-or-less preprogrammed pace of production, which she must also keep moving. She gets cut at one point checking on the coffee—you can never let the coffee run out—when the handle breaks and the pot falls on her. Had she not been wearing pants easily removed from her legs, she’d have been burned badly also, since McDonald’s holds its coffee at near-boiling so it will keep longer. “It frequently feels like we’ve been understaffed at the precise levels that will maximize human misery on both sides of the counter.” 

If McDonald’s is like Convergys in that it involves handling people, it differs in that the unruly customers are right there, in person. They can get in her face. An impatient, bossy one (“Hurry up hurry up hurry up”) demands extra honey mustard from her, which technically she’s not supposed to give. (“Honey mustard! Get me honey mustard!”) Guendelsberger breaks the rule to avoid confrontation. But she’s unsteady with anger, and a packet of condiment slips from her hand and over the counter. “Quick as a shortstop, [the customer] scoops it up and wings it at my chest, hard. The packaging explodes; honey mustard splatters all over me and the surrounding area.” The customer, backed up by a friend, accuses Guendelsberger of having thrown the mustard first. Of course—more victim-blaming. It’s the 2010s.

Seen from Guendelsberger’s point of view, America’s working class is quivering in stress and fear, hurting from torn-up feet, and all covered in honey mustard. The economic miseries inflicted on working-class people are bad enough, but here Guendelsberger has identified something deeper and arguably worse: “Chronic stress drains people’s empathy, patience, and tolerance for new things.” We’ve been brutalized, bullied, and baited into being trained work-animals and not even afforded a corresponding pay bump. No wonder our society fell apart.

“Moloch” is the name Steve Fraser gives to this situation in his new essay collection, Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History. Citing Milton and Ginsberg, he writes, “The Moloch of capitalism is as deadly and merciless as its Canaanite ancestor. But its altars are everywhere, virtually invisible yet part of the warp and woof of everyday life: at one moment prayed to on Wall Street, at another configuring the most hidden desires and anxieties of everyone’s emotional life.” These prayers, desires, and anxieties—their histories, their infernal dynamics—are the subject of the book’s eleven essays, which touch on virtually the full sweep of American history. Where Guendelsberger, the plucky reporter, came at the problem up close, Fraser—an eminent labor historian—stands back to try to size the whole thing up. Echoing an old-fashioned style of American Studies scholarship, he’s interested in origin myths and in something like a national psyche.

The essays in Mongrel Firebugs summarize and build on two of Fraser’s recent books, The Limousine Liberal and, especially, The Age of Acquiescence—a late-career magnum opus. While the new book’s contents were largely written for magazine readerships over the last ten years and Fraser approaches them in the loose way of a storyteller, they display his encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. history, especially working-class history. (Fraser’s early career was characterized by pathbreaking original scholarship on the labor movement of the early twentieth century, including a masterful biography of garment workers’ leader Sidney Hillman, Labor Will Rule, and the 1989 edited collection The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, which continues to set historians’ agendas today.) 

In his recent work, and especially in the essays collected here, Fraser traces a distinct arc across the history of American capitalism. The nineteenth century was the age of capital’s ravenous growth, consuming all in its path. “It proceeded relentlessly,” he writes, “appropriating land and resources both human and natural that had once been off limits because they were enmeshed in alternative forms of slave, petty, and subsistence economies.” In the face of this social apocalypse, people resisted vigorously, turning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into a period of protracted and often violent social conflict, which he calls a “Second Civil War.” “The legions of the displaced became charter members of an American proletariat. Their new existence was both a promise and a reproach,” writes Fraser.

This is the age of the mass strike and the general strike, events that escaped the confines of any particular employer-employee relationship and became instead the cri de coeur of a whole new world, as for example in the national crusade for the eight-hour day.

It’s likely that Henry “Schmidt” Noll saw some of this action himself: Bethlehem Steel had fierce strikes in 1910, 1918, and 1919.

Decades of such struggles culminated in the New Deal. Workers at Bethlehem Steel, for example, struck again in 1937 and 1941—alongside millions of others around the country in these years. Finally, they won recognition, and they were quickly co-opted into the American mainstream. The conservative compromises that initially stabilized this new order—reinstitutionalized racial and gender hierarchies, coercive deradicalization of labor, private administration of the incomplete welfare state—also left it riddled with contradictions, ultimately producing its decay into neoliberalism in the 1970s.

Here Fraser arrives at his new great subject, the psychic economy of our time. Where the first “Gilded Age” saw enormous resistance to inequality, Fraser argues, ours has seen a distracted, demoralized culture of compliance. Economic risk-taking, positively stigmatized after the Great Depression, is now spoken of in heroic terms: To the risk-taker go the spoils. (Google “risk-taker” and try not to shudder at what you see.) De facto debt servitude and penal labor are back, too, although neither is met with the outrage one might have expected based on earlier historical experience. (Coal miners in Tennessee took up arms in the 1890s to free convict laborers, grasping what the practice portended for themselves.) Unemployment, understood through the late nineteenth century as a grotesque and unacceptable social phenomenon and resisted in spectacular episodes of collective action, is now accepted as natural—cyclical, like the seasons.

Painfully, the most potent strand of resistance instead has been the right-wing populist outrage of the petit bourgeois against the “limousine liberal.” In the book’s later entries, Fraser explores this American demagogic tradition, finding Donald Trump’s clearest predecessor in William Randolph Hearst. Though here, too, he notes, irresponsible populism a century ago required a pro-labor posture. “Today’s right-wing populists are hardly about to invoke the anti-capitalism that impassioned the people Hearst counted on. On the contrary, what draws them to The Donald is that he is an übermensch risen atop the capitalist order.” Trump in this way only exemplifies the phenomenon of the ascent of the family capitalists—like the Kochs, Waltons, and so on—in whose hands enormous wealth has accumulated in recent years, and who, liberal and reactionary alike, manifest “godlike desire to create the world in their image.” The worship they receive, at its apex in Trump’s presence in the White House, suggests that their apotheosis has been successful—“the genie grown monstrous,” as Fraser puts it.

For Fraser, the cause of this deep ideological transformation lies in the altered “metabolism” of capitalism. Where once it produced upheaval by swallowing everything it could chew, today its systems are basically expulsive: unemployment and exclusion, rather than coerced assimilation and employment. “The gears of Progress, that demiurge of the first Gilded Age, were set in reverse,” Fraser writes. Capitalism “autocannibalized” itself, and the spirit of the new age was accordingly the dejection of the social reject, not the outrage of the unwilling conscript.


Indeed, Fraser can’t help but telegraph his own dejection. “There is abroad in the world the spirit of Moloch,” he concludes, “luridly lighting up the abyss out of which Trump has emerged.” While his last lines call for renewed dreams of emancipation, he hasn’t devoted much space to searching out where such dreams might come from, and doesn’t seem to have much faith that they’ll materialize. Here the gap between Fraser’s defeated New Left generation and Guendelsberger’s defiant Millennials looms large.

The generational difference is political, but it’s also sociological. Guendelsberger, unlike her direct predecessor Ehrenreich, isn’t exactly slumming it—she doesn’t have as far to fall. Through much of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich is tormented by the ethical implications of the social distance between herself and her co-workers. Guendelsberger, on the other hand, is fairly unbothered on this count; she was already unemployed when she embarked on her project. She sleeps in her car for significant portions of the narrative, and accepts the charity of her workmates gratefully. She began the book, in fact, on spec—she only got her contract during her second stint, at Convergys. “Even if nothing came of it, I figured, I would at least bank a couple thousand bucks.” 

The contrast with the conception of Nickel and Dimed—brainstormed over salmon with Lewis Lapham—is a perfect index of what the last 20 years have done to the once-secure professional strata. Ehrenreich set out to rediscover the lost land of the working class as a self-conscious representative of the complacent middle class, in order to send word back and stimulate the numbed yuppie conscience. After another generation of neoliberalism, the line between these two groups has blurred, so this interpreter act seems less urgent. Guendelsberger herself straddles the line, and she imagines her reader does, too. “Yeah, you, mamá,” she writes in her afterword, hailing the reader the way workers addressed each other at McDonald’s. “You’re a worker too—just like me and Jess and Zeb and Candela and Kolbi and Miguel and the Mustard Lady.”

To be sure, the places Guendelsberger went to work are saturated with the poisonous ideologies Fraser explores. The Convergys staff are continuously surveilled for “time theft” while the employer steals time from workers left and right. The “Amazonians” are told repeatedly that they’re making history, and many seem to believe it. Complaining co-workers are often dismissed as ingrates. (“if You think Amazon is bad, try McDonalds you McBitches,” an online commenter scolds.) One warehouse workmate, “Blair,” both frets constantly about following the rules and aspires to beat the world record for fastest picker. She hopes in this way to prove that humans will always beat robots. As Guendelsberger observes, Blair resembles John Henry, the mighty, tall-tale figure who raced against the new steam drill, blasting through mountainside with only his hammer—winning, but dying with his hammer in his hand.

The Steel-Driving Man—likely a black convict laborer, and a slight physical figure in reality—was memorialized in what became one of the most popular American folk songs from the turn of the twentieth century through the Great Depression. Around the country, laborers kept pace with their machines, intoning, “I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.” John Henry, threatened and ultimately killed by the machine, yet still triumphant, became one of the most potent symbols of workers’ explosive resistance to primitive accumulation. His legend, as the historian Scott Reynolds Nelson shows in his extraordinary book Steel Drivin’ Man, resonated across sectors of the new proletariat that shared nothing but a common hostility to the new order.

On the other hand, you may bet safely that Uber drivers, adjunct professors, and home health aides will not pass away their own toilsome hours by singing songs about Blair’s race with the algorithm. Blair is doing what John Henry did, but the act’s meaning is inverted: It signifies the power of the boss’s ideology, not its rejection. She’s the perfect example of Fraser’s argument. 

Because Guendelsberger is herself a precarious journalism worker, she has little trouble discovering and slipping into the currents of solidarity that flow under the surface in almost all workplaces. Labor in capitalism is nearly always, in some way, social. Subdivided over and over by Taylor and those who came before and after him, capitalist production requires that people work together. No matter how hard management tries to keep them from getting to know and trust each other, they always will, at least a little. “We’re all in this together against the stopwatches and the sharks,” writes Guendelsberger. (She deploys an extended shark metaphor at one point.) “And we may be only human, but there’s a whole lot of us.” It is this social aspect of labor that is the key to unlock the ideological prison that Fraser describes. Guendelsberger concludes the book with a prediction: “You’ll meet other people who think the status quo is cruel and ridiculous—they’re literally everywhere.… You’ll come to feel a bond with them that’s stronger than friendship. You’ll become part of something bigger than yourself—and weirdly, you’ll feel more in control of your life than you have in years.”

Guendelsberger worked at Amazon during early winter. She writes of the stress of the holiday season as a horrible speedup, a kind of waking nightmare: She can’t control her tormented body, she’s bored, stressed, and depressed all at once. But, it turns out, this isn’t the only way to experience the busy season. With a week to go until Christmas, she finds her way to a tent village where a group of temporary workers are staying. They have mini-pizzas, and she brings beer and some cookies. They tell Guendelsberger she’s got it all wrong—she’s been working much too hard. You only need to make rate if you’re trying to get promoted and stick around for a long time. Explains one named Matthias, “They need us there more than they’re paying us.” Testing the limits, he managed to take 48 extra minutes off before lunch recently before they came and talked to him. He points out, “‘The facility as a whole was already operating at 110 percent—at that point, what the hell does it actually matter?’” Matthias says, “affecting a cheery, brainwashed tone, ‘We’re Making History! Exceeding Expectations!’”

A group of transient temps taking long breaks and mocking Jeff Bezos around a campfire isn’t a revolution, but it’s not nothing either. As Guendelsberger says, some version of this is, necessarily, everywhere. On your own, it’s hard to know whether you really do need to make rate, or what to do when someone throws mustard at you and they say you started it. It’s easy to crack under this pressure: Moloch is powerful and frightening. But the thing about false gods is that they truly cannot abide being mocked, and there’s always someone else who sees through it, too—more, in fact, every day. The boss may have an all-seeing panopticon, but the prehistory of every strike begins when one worker catches another’s eye.