This was originally posted on the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research blog.
On 12 May 2015 I attended a research seminar at the University of Leicester with Melissa Gregg, whose work has been particularly useful for my own research on social media, especially the book Works Intimacy (2011), about mobile technology, the internet and how it impacts the boundaries between personal and professional life. Currently she works as a principal engineer for Intel Corporation.
For this presentation Melissa talked about some research for her forthcoming book Counterproductive, which aims to offer a history of time and self-management in the workplace. In the talk she focused on the cinematic origins of productivity, using the films by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth to examine the performance of productivity. The Gilbreths studied productivity by filming workers carrying out repetitive tasks, and identifying ways in which physical movement could be decreased to increase productivity. The films are a fascinating insight into this work.
Melissa explained how productivity nowadays is a common sense ‘good’, a guise for ‘professionalism’ and how there is a social pressure for everyone to be productive. She questioned the rationale for this, and interestingly she asked whether being productive is a neoliberal replacement for being happy.
There were many points in the talk which resonated with my own research. For example drawing attention to productivity as a guise for professionalism, which is a term I have been thinking about in relation to expertise. I’m noticing in literature and in talks like this that there are so many different ways to talk about expertise, what do they mean? How are they different or similar? Gregg’s work on performing professionalism continues to be useful for me, and has paralells with my own work on performance of expertise. How to analyse performance of expertise is something I’m thinking through in my pilot study and I’m delivering a paper about it next month at the Cultures in Disarray conference. There are again many ways to look at performance, such as drawing on the work of Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) which may be the approach I will take.
Melissa’s approach to performance draws from the work of the the field Science and Technology Studies (STS) which I have also looked at recently. She called it the ‘performativity of scientific knowledge’ and made an interesting point about how the Gilbreths themselves were performing their own brand as scientists through the use of film. We could say they were performing their expertise! Melissa also noted the way metrics were measured were a performance, for example how the films were overlaid with grids.
Next she talked about the Hawthorne studies, in particular the women in the relay assembly test room, a study where groups of women working in relay assembly were subjected to varying working conditions to ascertain the best environment for productivity. Melissa revealed some shocking practices in this research, particularly the medical examinations the women took between tests, and the judgments made about these women in the records (using phrases such as ‘normal body type’). Melissa identified how scientific authority was performed by the men running the study, and the competing forms of authority, which again resonates with me because I’ve been thinking about hierarchies of expertise, particularly creative industries expertise and how it is perceived in comparison to scientific expertise, which is traditionally known as the “default agent of public meanings” (Durant, 2008).
Melissa then brought us back to the present, and the growing popularity of productivity apps (for example Trello and Evernote, both of which I use myself), which she argues packages productivity as a lifestyle, and this has tensions with the ability to effectively segment personal and professional life. Though I’ve spoken much about expertise, the role of social media use in the personal and professional lives of creative workers is the second major issue I am looking at in my PhD. Melissa argued that such productivity apps give people the impression that they are taking control of their lives, but really “we’re not empowering people to determine what they want, algorithms to it”. This is an resonant point, because when looking at platforms and apps, their architechture and what they allow the user to do are important, and this is a particular theme coming from my pilot study, and i’ll make the paper about this available next month.
Melissa’s talk was enlightening and thought-provoking, and I felt privileged to be there. There were a lot of interesting crossovers with my own research, and I look forward to her book.