Specialization breeds alienation
Specialization breeds alienation. Marx covered this. But I want to extend on the idea a bit further, and place it in the context uf the ultra-modern capitalist economic machine.
Specialization in profession leads to strange alienation between the customer and the service worker, between the client and the clerk. In some “simpler time” (which one that is depends on what profession we mean), the customer comes expecting to have some understanding of what the world of the specialist is like. The designs of their buildings and the motions they go through make some sense, and convey mastery, or deliberateness, or care. But under a hyper-specialized profession the motions seem foreign, almost distant, to the customer, because the system that has engendered them is so vastly complex that hardly even the people managing it understand how it came to be.
How could the call center worker at Big Corp trigger any empathy in the the angry customer, when the customer is angry because they believe Big Corp tricked him in to signing a subscription they didn’t want – when actually, the shady salesman was from another company working on commission, evading responsibility by being unreachable and mostly invisible, while working under the big name brand of the call center worker, and the only job of the call center worker is to take the abuse and never route the caller to a manager, or someone who could actually solve the problem. The worker is an extremely specialized part in a complex machine that bears no resemblance to what the customer would call “service”.
Or take the physician, working in a strange Moloch of a hospital with arcane procedures and flows, making complex calculations of benefit in their head, struggling with questions of philosophy – when is life not worth living? is this person’s life worth more than that person’s? – that the customer has been increasingly shielded from by the very same complex system. By virtue of modern healthcare being so efficient and magnificent, it has simultaneously become more scary and arbitrary-seeming for anyone it tries to heal, while also shielding that person from disease and death and the mechanics of their own body for most of their life.
Our alienation from each other under current conditions goes beyond just workers competing, and commodifying themselves. It’s even more strange, even more confused, and even more invisible than that. Any single worker may glimpse their own personal alienation. But to the customer (or client, or citizen), trying to make the strange machine do his bidding, the worker becomes doubly alienated by being both a cog in that machine, and being an incomprehensible cog, because the machine is so darn complex.
- Slate Star Codex: “I Aten’t Dead” and “Who By Very Slow Decay”
- the description of call-center work in this podcast (in Swedish)