High-tech workplace or modern-day satanic mill?


The high-tech community offers flexibility, creativity and independence in the workplace. But with these benefits come problems of job insecurity, long work hours, and isolation from co-workers. Seán Ó Riain, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis, studied the characteristics of workplaces in high-tech communities, and uncovered a fiercely competitive climate that diminishes the benefits.

Ó Riain’s study, from the fall/winter issue of the American Sociological Association’s Contexts magazine, is on the precarious life of technical workers. “When the economic crisis hit, they found themselves with few collective guarantees; they were cast to their individual fates,” he says.

While the task-oriented atmosphere in the tech community is one that involves group collaboration, Ó Riain’s study finds that there is an intense competition. This leads to strenuous deadlines, long hours, and often frustrating work, which one engineer characterized as a “white-collar factory.”

On one hand, these workers transcend the company’s geographic boundaries by working with people across other locations. “At the same time, they face the lonely insecurity of the individual entrepreneur in a marketplace and culture that stresses, with macho imagery from war and sports, that they are ultimately alone,” says Ó Riain.

“For many, this may be the shape of work in the 21st century.”

Social relations among the technical communities become defined by common technical interests rather than by a common employer. While the technological work can be done from any location with a modem, it is still important to talk face to face in order to remain current and stay on top of the job.

Ó Riain says that within the tech community, “firms choose workers based on the technical task, lure them with ‘cool technology,’ and use peer pressure to ensure their performance…. The autonomy of expertise is compromised by the need to sell expertise to customers.”

While the software engineers reap rewards such as stock options, starting firms of their own, and control of their intellectual property, they must face insecurity. This need for security or employability creates an enormous pressure to constantly update skills and to look toward prospects on the open market rather than at the firm. The worker is the product to be bought and sold.

“Although high-tech workers are relatively free from supervision,” says Ó Riain, “peer pressure and deadlines drive them to extreme labor.”

The individualistic, macho attitude that defines success within technical communities and the demands for total dedication raise the barrier for entry for some, notably women. Ó Riain finds that time pressures are unpredictable and demanding, putting increased stresses on family life and undercutting patterns of civic and political engagement. These same pressures reinforce the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering generally and obstruct their advancement.

Ó Riain finds that technical communities provide a potential, widespread model for the future of work: creativity with cooperation, responsibility with flexibility, and autonomy with community. To provide a desirable model, these communities must resolve critical problems, such as intense pressure, job insecurity, inequality, and exclusion. Future outcomes depend on whether the politics of the technical community are resolved in favor of individualist or collective solutions.

“Cooperative relations within technical communities must ultimately be supported by collective institutions if they are to persist,” says Ó Riain. “If such collective institutions assuring security of income and long-term learning were strengthened, technical communities could emerge as an important alternative model of economic organization to increasing corporate dominance of the workplace.”

For further information contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office (+1) 202 383 9005 x332, [email protected]

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.