The Tragicomedy of Postindustrial Labor

Office-Refurb-2 (1)

Why do we play the shell game of the so-called “knowledge economy”? The reasons are many, and few of them are quite so intentional as a long con. Since the 1960s, scientists and other intellectuals have warmed to the idea of an information society because it flatters their own sense of personal importance. Intellectual property interests have found this rhetoric useful in their quest for state sanction against technologies of reproduction. Meanwhile, the incorporation of information technology into all forms of production and services has lent prestige to intellectual property and its power, creating new conveniences and advances of productivity (particularly in the 1990s) that cannot be denied (even if the fact that automation and downsizing cost many workers’ their livelihoods in the process of increasing productivity).[1]

Information seemed to provide an appealing, unifying principle to a vast array of changes that diminished the amount of manufacturing employment in the US (due to automation, offshoring and government policy), the expansion of access to higher education, the creation of an ever-multiplying set of service jobs (doggie daycare anyone?), and the incessant need to minister to new human incapacities through healthcare, among many others. The idea of “information society” may not have always perfectly encapsulated these varied phenomena, but it still seemed to conform to the reality of a world of cell phones and celebrity geeks like Mark Zuckerberg—even if the economic heft of healthcare and the ruinous condition of industries like publishing and music seemed inconsistent with its model.

Ironically, the picture of the revolutionary, postindustrial, information economy is based on a shopworn image of the industrial economy. To think economic exchange is principally about the making and getting of information, we have to think of DVDs and CDs rolling off an assembly line, loaded up on a truck, and finally reaching consumers at a retailer. (To some extent, this image is fitting for Apple, which remains a manufacturer and retailer at least as much as an information producer.) This analogy can then be translated into the iTunes or Amazon marketplace where a thing (the mp3) is sold to the consumer along the lines of a dollar store (99 cents a piece). Efforts to protect intellectual property inevitably treat creative expressions as if they were always and necessarily industrial goods—“you wouldn’t steal a car, so why would you steal a movie?” a commercial against movie piracy demanded to know—yet so much innovation, expression and learning today takes place thanks to free circulation. Software such as the Linux operating system and the Firefox browser represent obvious examples. University of Virginia law professor Christopher Sprigman has illustrated how fields such as stand-up comedy, fashion, and cooking function without intellectual property protection, as practitioners apply their skills in a variety of contexts without actually owning jokes or recipes. And the nurse who cares for a sick patient in a telemetry unit is not selling or transferring her knowledge of the circulatory system, even if she applies it everyday in the course of care.[2]

The idea of the information economy, in other words, cannot fulfill the possibilities of postindustrial society—the kind of society that could take so many forms, where people could learn, invent, and care for each other without worrying about physical want or the dark Satanic mill. As historian Howard Brick has shown, many intellectuals and activists sketched such an optimistic future in the 1950s and 1960s, confident in the power of technology, the state, and expertise to provide for human needs over time. I argue that information technology and intellectual property industries hijacked this prospect in the same period and narrowed its focus to a society oriented only toward making, selling, and above all owning information. The consequences of these misplaced priorities remain with us today, and the confused notion of an information society offers little to guide us out of our present economic crisis into a future where human capabilities are enhanced and human needs are genuinely met.

Still waiting…

The American TV show The Office captured this problem better than most pop culture, better perhaps than its British predecessor. In the original program, boss David Brent was a deluded, incompetent menace who seemed to regard his underlings at the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg as his family. Evincing a real tone-deafness to corporate imperatives, Brent somehow believed that protecting the jobs and well-being of his employees was more important than profits or efficiency. In the American version, Brent equivalent Michael Scott does not treat his workers as an extended family. Instead, he seems to want them to be his friends—people he can goof off with on the job because the rest of his life is an arid wasteland. The workplace scenes of the American Office unfold in a kind of timeless ennui, where the detainees of the modern information economy mark time until they die or lose their jobs. Their Godot-esque condition becomes ever clearer in the series’ later seasons, when the 2008 economic crisis hits and the fate of the Dunder Mifflin company hangs in a kind of sustained limbo. The characters on the show are more aimless than ever, wandering amid the corporate wreckage, looking for something to do, knowing that their labor may or may not have any value, and their jobs may or may not exist the next day.

What The Office represents is the illusory promise of the information economy. The employees at Dunder Mifflin employ a variety of skills in management, accounting, human resources and sales, none of which amounts to sellable “information” or “intellectual property” in any tangible sense. The thing they sell is a basic medium, a fundamental input of white collar work and business communication—paper. It is not a book, a report, a film, a song, or any other kind of intellectual property. It is simple, blank paper. It symbolizes the boring and meaningless quality of their existence. If they are selling anything, they sell the ability to do something else—to write, to communicate, a medium for hiring and firing and anything else. The characters of The Office devote their lives, such as they are, to trafficking in an empty cipher of information, a basic substance upon which other people put their words, ideas, images—their information. They live in a world where information is the name of the game, yet they produce little of it themselves, if any; Pam Beasley dreams of being an artist, but she never succeeds; like so many workers, she and her colleagues are not directly implicated in the creative or productive pursuits that supposedly define the economy in which they reside, but in support of which they and the majority of workers toil in their manifold ways.[3]

The Office - Season 9
Information achieved

Part of the appeal of The Office is that its characters are also the refugees of a system that is not designed for them and does not value or celebrate the work they actually do, since only the information product itself can have value and their product is inherently devoid of value. In this way, they represent all the workers in a near-infinite diversity of fields who lack the power and prestige of the true “information workers” or “creative class”—those precious few whose economic value and status is apparently beyond dispute.

In a sense, Pam, Jim, Toby and the other refugees of The Office stand in for all those workers who handle information in some form or fashion without exactly making it. Paper remains the ultimate tabula rasa, even in a high-tech economy with revolutionary “clouds” as far as the eye can see. But their dependence on making, selling, and distributing this “thing” also raises anxieties. Indeed, the workers in The Office live in fear of the fact that a computer and an Amazon-style delivery system could render them useless and uncompetitive, and they strive vainly to make up in service what they lack in cost. But in the end they are not that different from the millions of other Americans and workers around the world who do all the things that make an economy actually work—who make products, make sure they get to consumers, manage relationships, provide expertise, fill out paperwork, and negotiate among competing interests—without actually making information or being “creative” according to any strict definition of the term. The stalwarts of Scranton are not creatives in Florida’s sense—unless the category is stretched to the point of utter meaninglessness—but their lives resemble those of more workers than the arty, techy archetypes of Sex and the City, Silicon Valley, or any other recent paean to the hegemonic class in American life.

This post is part of a four-part series that ToM will be running over the Summer. Earlier installments include “The Thing Called ‘Information’: Understanding Alienation in the Postindustrial Economy,” “Stroking the Platypus,” and “Information Goes to School.”  For earlier pieces on related topics, click here.  The entire essay can be found at


[1] Bix, Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs, 280-4.

[2] For instance, see Christopher Sprigman, “The Piracy Paradox: Innovation and Intellectual Property in Fashion Design,” (with Kal Raustiala), 92 Va. L. Rev. 1687 (2006), and “Intellectual Property Norms in Stand-Up Comedy” (with Dotan Oliar) in Mario Biagioli, Peter Jaszi & Martha Woodmansee, eds., Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in Legal and Cultural Perspective,” (U. of Chicago Press, 2010) .

[3] Notably, when the executive David Wallace loses his job, he is portrayed in a series of pathetic scenes as seeking some El Dorado of do-it-yourself innovation—rocking out with his kids in a band, proposing ludicrous products he thinks will be the next thing, not unlike the dupes who fall for late night commercials promising to help them patent their inventions and get-rich-quick—a vision akin to winning the lottery.