The hosts cobble together a conversation about the changing nature of the workplace, from the household economy of colonial America to the 21st-century remote office.
PETER ONUF: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the history of the workplace, and specifically, about technologies that have helped make our workplaces what they are today.
BRIAN BALOGH: In the first part of the show, we heard about a couple of attempts to create a more ideal workplace. We’re going to take a few minutes now to put that impulse into a broader historical context– the impulse to make life better for workers. And so Peter, Ed, when I think about the sad history of introducing technology into the workplace and all of the hopes for that technology that go along with it, but, you know, I think that the humble, everyday technology of email, which today we just take for granted– it’s been around for, what, 25 years now or so. I think that email really has accomplished, at least in that short period, many of the things that these technological Utopians had hoped for. I think–
ED AYERS: Like what, Brian?
BRIAN BALOGH: Hold on. I’ll email you, Ed. It has definitely leveled tasks. I think back to the movies about the 1950s. And you got the boss smoking a cigar and he’s dictating to the female secretary. And she’s stuck typing this up. And it’s very hierarchical. Today you have the boss clicking away on her mobile device.
And you’ve got the lowly custodian emailing an idea to a supervisor three levels above himself. But there’s more. I know, Peter. And here’s the biggest more. I agree that people got locked into their mousehole-like cubicle. But intellectually, email has allowed people to communicate at work with all kinds of fellow workers levels above and levels below, and workers who aren’t even in the same company– unheard of even 30 years ago.
PETER ONUF: OK, Brian. I’m almost swept away. And I think there’s an element here that’s really significant. And that is, you’re talking about the psychology of workers and coping with work– if they don’t love it, at least coping with it. And where it all goes is to the explosion of the workplace, and leaving it into a virtual workplace.
I think the direction you’re going with this is that with the internet, and then with the possibility of working at home, we can just get rid of the workplace and get back to something. And I say back advisedly, because I think what this evokes is a kind of nostalgia for working at home, which is where artisans in the past worked, where farmers worked. It was a household economy contained within the household, whether it was agriculture or small scale manufacturing.
And it was based on those primal, familial relations, either within the family or apprentices who were legally part of the family or the household. And it was all natural and satisfying. It’s something that we have a sense of loss that work would be meaningful if it were directed towards some kind of collective enterprise that we could identify with. That is the family. That’s I think what people want, is to get back to something that feels authentic and real.
ED AYERS: Yeah. Well, that sounds awesome, Peter, but too bad that we had to dismantle it all.
PETER ONUF: It dismantled itself, Ed.
ED AYERS: Well, we actually began by dismantling shoes. Back in your day, you had the journeyman master who could make a pair of shoes from a cow, all the way up to the beautiful boots that a lady would wear. And the shoemaker would make every part of that. But here’s the situation. Everybody needs shoes.
It’s not a model that’s going to work for a rapidly expanding and rapidly diversifying population. If everybody has to have custom shoes made by the local shoesmith, cobbler– so here’s an idea. What do you say we let each place, each family, make one part of the shoe.
And they can specialize. They can make it more efficiently. They can make it better. And then we gather all those pieces together and make shoes that everybody can have because they cost less.
PETER ONUF: You’re making my point. When you do that, you’re leaving the home. You’re beginning to make the move away from the home first. You do parts of the shoe production in different houses, right? But then it aggregates, and eventually the people who do the work come together with machines.
ED AYERS: And what I’m saying, we’re doing that for a reason, Peter. And that it’s not–
PETER ONUF: Debase the worker.
ED AYERS: No, to make cheaper stuff so that all workers– and I think this is Taylor’s vision, right, Brian– is that everybody can benefit from a consumer society in which we all specialize, in which we all make what we are best suited.
PETER ONUF: We do it more efficiently, so it’s lower cost. More people can benefit.
ED AYERS: That’s right. And we make a specialized workplace. The house is not a good workplace, Peter.
PETER ONUF: Except that’s where Brian’s going to end up working.
ED AYERS: Yeah, but when he does, here’s the difference. It’s the technology, which we now carry around in our pockets, allows the workplace to go everywhere. So on one hand, that’s great. You don’t have to be stuck in a cubicle.
On the other hand, it’s terrible is that you can never escape from the workplace. So I think we call it work for a reason. It’s stuff we don’t want to do to get money. And if we think that it’s always going to be positive, we’re just fooling ourselves. There’s a coercion built into the very nature of work, and therefore into the very idea of the workplace.