Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Social deskilling

I picked up the term social deskilling from sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's book Consuming Life. It's a variant on Harry Braverman's concept of labor deskilling (outlined in Labor and Monopoly Capital), management's effort to control knowledge of labor processes and thereby make labor itself more abstract and workers interchangeable. Jobs are deskilled when management controls the division of labor and restricts individual workers' understanding of the total process, reducing them to minutely defined job functions and training them to rely entirely on following orders.

Social deskilling is an erosion of the skills necessary to maintain relationships. As with labor deskilling, social deskilling involves a radical simplification of what individuals are expected to do to fulfill their role in denoting the existence of a relationship. Social media facilitates this streamlining in the name of convenience (think friending, push-button liking, etc.). Social media commodify friendship, encourage us to consume it as though it were a quantified, reified good rather than engage in it as an ongoing practice. Social relations no longer are supposed to require reciprocal co-presence and attention; instead they are timeshifted like TV programs and consumed at each individual party's convenience. They are expected to provide novel sensations and not fall into the routine cycles of human association, the mundane frailties that drive us to seek comfort from one another.

Bauman links deskilling to the commodification of life necessitated by the "society of consumers." Because consumer goods embody our culture's values, we are driven to emulate their form and commodify ourselves to receive the kinds of recognition we are familiar with from consumer society. Once we have commodified ourselves, friendship occurs as exchanges in markets. Bauman points to online dating services as paradigmatic:
Clearly, the people turning to internet agencies for help have been pampered by the user-friendly consumer market which promises to make every choice secure and every transaction one-off and without obligation, an act with ‘no hidden costs’, ‘nothing more to pay, ever’, ‘no strings attached’, ‘no agent will call’. The side-effect (one could say, using the currently fashionable expression, the ‘collateral casualty’) of such a cosseted existence – minimizing risks, heavily reducing or abdicating responsibility and carrying an a priori neutralized subjectivity of the protagonists – has proved however to be a considerable amount of social deskilling....
Internet agencies derive most of their attraction from recasting the sought-after human partners as the kinds of commodities which well-trained consumers are used to confronting and know how to handle. The more seasoned and ‘mature’ their clients become, the more they are taken aback, confused and embarrassed when they come ‘face to face’ and discover that the looks must be reciprocated and that in ‘transactions’ they, the subjects, are also objects.

I think social media have picked up where dating services leave off (remember early social networks like Friendster were rooted in dating), subsuming as much of social experience as it can cajole its users into performing within their confines. Social media supply a structure for social experience that seems to absolve it of its necessary awkwardness. But this leaves us less equipped to deal with the inevitable friction involved in forming groups or any other social interaction, making us more reliant on technological interfaces to mask tensions and obviate the need for negotiation. This doesn't seem to bode well for political organization, let alone intimacy (the friction and tension is the substance of the relation, ultimately, not its unfortunate by-product -- meeting and accepting the reality of the consciousness of the other is difficult). It does bode well for commercial interests and intensified consumption. The explosion of online pornography and its growing acceptance is another aspect of social deskilling -- maybe what you might call sexual deskilling. The complexities and unpredictability of sexual intercourse is replaced by the rapid consumption of images in an instrumental fashion. The skills of seduction and alert sympathetic attention to the other are replaced with a passive ability to process images, attenuate visual fetishes.

Bauman is a bit mechanistic in his description of how advertising works to brainwash us into accepting this, but I think his account of commodified social relations and their emphasis on convenience over caring is otherwise apt:
As the skills needed to converse and seek understanding dwindle, what used to be a challenge to be confronted point blank and then coped with turns increasingly into a pretext for breaking off communication, for escaping and burning bridges behind you. Busy earning more for things they feel they need for happiness, men and women have less time for mutual empathy and for intense, sometimes tortuous and painful, but always lengthy and energy-consuming negotiations, let alone for a resolution of their mutual misunderstandings and disagreements. This sets in motion another vicious circle:the better they succeed in ‘materializing’ their love relationship (as the continuous flow of advertising messages prompts them to do), the fewer opportunities are left for the mutually sympathetic understanding called for by the notorious power/care ambiguity of love. Family members are tempted to avoid confrontation and seek respite (or better still a permanent shelter) from domestic infighting; and then the urge to ‘materialize’ love and loving care acquires yet more impetus, as the more time-consuming and energy consuming alternatives become ever less attainable at a time when they are more and more needed because of the steadily growing number of points of contention, grudges to be placated and disagreements clamoring for resolution.

When friendship is commodified, it becomes subject to the acceleration pressures built in to consumer-capitalist ideology: that is, it must be up-to-date, collectible, easy to use, easy to deploy as a signifier, and it must complete with all the other packaged experiences that we must consume to experience and enrich our status and enhance the fullness of our lives. Technology is often sold to us with this implicit agenda: it will allow us to consume more faster, turning experience into information that can be processed and rebroadcast for our own identity-constructing purposes. Consumerism presupposes that the purpose of life is to "experience" as many consumer goods as possible by buying them or at least by exercising our vaunted freedom of choice to select them. What matters is not the sensual experience to be derived from goods but the signifying power they have in networks to communicate our status -- how much we know and can access. At the same time, the accelerated rate of exchange (of goods and information, or increasingly, informational goods, the only sort there is) increases the circulation of goods and allows for more money to change hands and more opportunities for profits to be realized.

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