Capital and Computers – Observations on IT Innovation and Inequality | The Socjournal

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Here is an assignment/essay by a student in my Sociology 460 Technology course. I’m including it here because of the great way this student highlights the ambivalent impact of technology on our lives. As he clearly identifies, it is not all wine and roses. Many people are impacted negatively. In fact, when you consider it carefully, the overall impact may be decidedly negative. As evidenced by the growing gap between rich and poor, and as Warren Buffet has recently admitted, technology has allowed the rich and powerful to win the class war.

Dr. Michael Sosteric

Department of Sociology Athabasca University

For the past few years, I have worked as a freelance IT systems analyst and designer. In practice, I am hired by businesses to create or overhaul their ICT infrastructure. Most often this entails working with a pencil-and-paper business over the course of several months or even years, with the goal of transforming the entire organization into an online, highly automated, and optimized entity. I have general knowledge of a wide range of relevant technologies, such as coding languages, hosting configurations, network arrangements, encryption protocols, computer hardware and software solutions, and so forth. As an example, I cannot create a program in C#, but I can develop the specifications that will tell a programmer exactly what must be done, and I can offer insight into why Java or Python might be a better choice for a particular project. Thus, I end up working closely with numerous vendors and professionals in various fields to deliver a tailored, complete package to the client business.

From what I have seen, businesses of all kinds are increasingly acting as information factories, where input data is received, stored, analyzed, altered, and outputted. This seems to be occurring even for businesses whose primary product is not information. A coffee distributer, for example, may find that they need a consolidated system to manage inventory, shipping, customer communication, and accounting in order to remain competitive. The market seems to demand maximum profitability, which in turn requires maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of commercial activity, whether that takes the form of the manipulation of information or the assembly of a physical product. In my work, I see ICTs used universally to control the means of production more tightly. Rarely are businesses actually interested in monitoring their employees more closely; in general, they are more interested in not having employees at all. People are imperfect workers for most tasks: they get sick, they have bad days, they can’t work around the clock, they make careless mistakes, and even quit, taking years of experience with them. A computer program has none of these flaws, and intrinsically allows for closer surveillance and absolute control without complaint. ICTs can be purchased and owned, while workers must be retained. Accordingly, if a computer can do a person’s job, and this can be accomplished at reasonable cost, there is absolutely no reason to employ the person.

The root of the issue is that a partial ICT infrastructure is useless to a business: it is a wasted investment and can even be a liability. When ICTs are brought in, all information flows must be collected and used. A full-scale effort to integrate flesh-and-blood employees inevitably follows, and just as inevitably takes the form of Orwellian monitoring and control (Devinatz, 108-9). If a person must be used, then they must be hooked into the same overall structure that a computer would be. It is often not possible to offer a commercially feasible human-friendly system: one that does not rely on static performance metrics and merciless error tracking. Ultimately, I feel that authoritarian levels of control and monitoring can be seen at any level of the production pyramid, and are necessitated by the free market model. The widespread use of ICTs enables and perpetuates these activities to a fantastic degree.

I personally don’t feel particularly monitored by technology in my workplace. I am not really accountable to my employers in terms of how or when I work, and while government and corporate encroachments on personal privacy are an increasingly ubiquitous occurrence, I have the technical skills to circumvent these efforts if I need to. I am controlled in the sense that I am always linked up to an alert system that monitors several servers. If my alarm goes off, I have to get online and fix the problem, no matter what. But overall, such tethering is not unusual in my life: infrequent vacations aside, I am always plugged in, for work and for pleasure. It’s just the way I live. But while I don’t feel myself to be a victim of technology in any sense, I do have some opportunities to make observations as it pertains to others. To that end, I want to examine my most recent project, which was to completely overhaul a medium-sized business, which I shall call X-Corp.

When I started the project in late 2010, X-Corp employed about five people, relied very little on computers, and had very healthy annual revenues. X-Corp had a few reasons for wanting a metamorphosis. The owners saw technology as a way to help X-Corp grow faster, while reducing costs and keeping them competitive in a market that had changed dramatically over the last decade. Image was a factor as well, since client complaints about lack of online presence resources had been increasing in frequency.

I won’t go over the details of the transformation, but after the project was finished X-Corp was a very different beast. Today, all of its operations occur on a virtualized private server cluster. Workers connect to the server remotely over a highly-secured VPN, and about ninety percent of the workload previously done by hand is now performed by a custom-built web application that generates and delivers documents, handles bookkeeping, reporting, and manages customer follow-up and other day-to-day communications. Even the task of answering phones and routing calls is performed by an automated virtual PBX application.

I feel it is important to examine how X-Corp changed as a business. Efficiency increased significantly, and X-Corp was able to take on additional volume. Operating costs decreased, because X-Corp was able to let go several full-time employees, and because they no longer maintain a physical office. In short, X-Corp simply gets more done at less expense. The cost of the overhaul was significant, but these costs will be amortized over the next several years. X-Corp will never again require such an extensive transformation. Having taken the leap, all future changes will take the form of small updates and incremental improvements. Even in the unlikely circumstance that they decide to start from scratch, the underlying logic and structure of an incredibly light-weight organization now exists and is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Originally, the business required the regular efforts of a half-dozen people to run. Now, the owner could run the majority of the business from her smartphone or laptop, and the few remaining employees spend the majority of their time in sales and other interpersonal tasks. Even my participation in the ongoing business is less than normal, since the nature of the IT industry in general has changed in the last few years. Many of the services that used to be “in-house” are now handled by large, specialized firms. For example, the infamous Slashdot article “The High Tech Sweatshop” offers a peek into the life of a systems administrator. A few years ago, X-Corp would have needed a part-time system administrator, a role I might have filled. Now, their servers are fully and remotely managed by the hosting company, as part of their service package, for a fraction of the price I would have asked. Hosting companies are able to do this because administration software has advanced to the point where a few people in Eastern Europe can manage hundreds of servers simultaneously.

Here I can see some of the concerns which thinkers like Herbert Schiller have discussed: In Marxist terms, the application of ICTs directly benefits those who own the means of production, at the expense of the working class (Webster, 147). X-Corp’s owners don’t have to pay as many salaries and the company’s revenues increase at the same time. While X-Corp’s few remaining workers are freed of much of the drudgery their jobs previously entailed, most of X-Corp’s employees have literally been replaced. It is striking that commercial inefficiency seems to support so large a number of people. It used to require six people to run X-Corp, and now it takes perhaps two and a half. By myself, I can maintain a half-dozen systems that do the work of fifty people. Where these obsolesced workers go, I cannot say.

The systems I design usually replace people, and do not create an equivalent number of new employment opportunities, while the increases in commercial efficiency are rarely passed on as savings to the consumer. In essence, it seems that ICTs generally serve concentrate and expand the power and wealth of the already-wealthy. Even for IT workers like me or the programmers and other specialists who worked on the project, the situation is a little unbalanced. The value of our compensation is not commensurate with the actual value of the systems we create. In other words, if a programmer is paid a thousand dollars for a product that will earn five thousand dollars a year for ten years, then it seems reasoable to say that he is being exploited just the same as a factory worker assembling IPhones at fifty cents an hour. The rate of exploitation is simply different. Moreover, every system brought into existence is one more oil well, tapped and drained. The demand for IT solutions is not infinite, and the few services required after the systems have been delivered are far less exciting or lucrative than what came before. To be sure, there will be niches that remain, or others that open up, in which work will be pleasant and engaging. Yet the very nature of the ICT ecosystem is such that there will be a diminishing need for such people, indeed for people in general. In light of these trends, the fate of the working classes seems uncertain.

Another way to look at the situation is that ICTs allow the upper classes to directly own and completely control the means of production. So long as workers are needed, the working classes have some say in the production process, and benefit from economic activity continuously, if not commensurately. This reduces the efficiency of the production process, and thus market forces will favor the elimination of workers wherever possible. As evidenced by X-Corp, ICTs can be used remove workers from the equation almost entirely. It is easy to mystify computers, but in function, application, and effect, they are quite similar to the hydraulic presses and power looms of the industrial revolution. In commercial use, the benefits of these machines are largely enjoyed by a few, and directly result in a quantitative decrease of employment opportunities for the working class. The so-called benefits available to the rest of society are convenient, such as Dropbox and Gmail, or entertaining, such Netflix or Xbox, but they do not help the majority of people earn a living. Put a different way, the development and deployment of ICTs is controlled by those who are wealthy, and these parties naturally shape the results to their benefit. Every system I have created has been designed to increase the amount of money that can be earned while reducing the amount of work needed to do so. It is hard to see how this can result in anything other than an overall devaluation of traditional human labor.

In my own life, my experience of ICTs is overwhelmingly positive. It provides me with a career in which I have significant independence, and it empowers me to be creative and play a part in the shaping of the world I inhabit. In my lifestyle, I use technology and computers to enrich my life with art, music, entertainment, and literature. But I am not so enraptured that I cannot see that others have much harder time of things. The devices I use are often built by wage-slaves laboring in sweatshops in Asia, where conditions are so utterly miserable and dehumanizing that workers regularly attempt to kill themselves (Randall). The technologies I control with hardly a thought frustrate my parents and some of my peers, who become increasingly dis-empowered as technologies proliferate and infiltrate every aspect of life while their ability to utilize these new tools lags behind. Even for me, there is a constant pressure to keep my knowledge and skills up to date. I enjoy learning new things and tackling new challenges, but I don’t know if I’ll feel that way in twenty years. I imagine it must have been quite reassuring for people in earlier eras to be able to learn how to do something and then be able to rely on that skill for decades. A great deal of what I learn is out-dated in a few years’ time. It is my sense that this hectic speed of innovation will eventually slow to a more manageable level, but I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime.

In the end, I can say with certainty that waiting with baited breath for ICTs to simply transform our civilization into a utopian technocracy is foolish. I build such systems from the ground up, and most often they don’t make the world a better place. The widening wealth gap in developed countries indicates that wealth is indeed concentrating at the top of the social pyramid (OECD). The recession that shook global markets and its effects on the middle and lower classes has, to me, highlighted the instability of an economic model that depends on widespread consumption while simultaneously depriving people of the means to be consumer. Even the prosperity enjoyed in first-world nations is a bit of a façade. We have simply re-arranged things so that the real lower classes are tucked away in the third world. To understand a globalized economy, one’s perspective must be global; It is no longer sufficient to examine class relations and overall prosperity within a single nation-state.

I am optimistic about the future and the potential and actual benefits of ICTs, but I am realistic enough to recognize that the wealthy inevitably benefit first and most. Similarly, I see first-hand that the shapes these technologies take in the real world are heavily influenced by the priorities and desire of those who can pay for them. I believe that ICTs can play a major role in ensuring a more equitable, prosperous, and healthy society for everyone. This outcome, however, will not simply materialize due to the supposed innately beneficial nature of technology or because we simply wish it to be so. As always these kinds of improvements must be fought for in the streets and courts and parliaments, every step of the way.


Devinatz, V.G. (1999). High Tech Betrayal: Working and Organizing on the shop floor. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.
Webster, F. (2006). Theories of Information Society (3rd ed.). East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press.

“Morrigan” (1999, July 26). The High Tech Sweatshop [online community post/article]. Retrieved from

OECD (2011, May 2). Growing Income Inequality in OECD Countries: What Drives it and How Can Policy Tackle it?”. Retrieved from

Randall, T. (2012, March 30). Inside Apple’s Foxconn Factories. [Multimedia Article]. Retrieved from