The Future of Work

David Hakken had a profound influence on anticipatory anthropology and continues to shape the study of emerging forms of work, from robotic coworkers to algorithmic sociality.

If you review the headlines of magazines such as the Atlantic, Forbes and the Economist, you will discover an obsession with the future of work. Will labor become automated, even beyond manufacturing? Will bots replace white-collar human resources workers? Will vehicles need drivers? Will we have work, or have to work? Our hopes and fears for the future are amplified as we imagine what livelihoods will look like for our children or even ourselves.

Portrait of a gray-haired man in front of a bookshelf.
David Hakken. Indiana University

Over the last three decades, anthropologist David Hakken asked questions about the future of work and provided provocative insights. A man of deep convictions and profound integrity, his intellectual curiosity led him to think critically about the nature and impact of information technology in the world of work. Although he passed away in May 2016, his legacy continues to shape how anthropologists and other scholars understand work, technology, and the future.

Hakken laid the foundations for three areas of anthropological inquiry that resonate in the field. First, he helped bring Marxian approaches to theorizing work through the tumult of the late twentieth century, disentangling the collapse of political empire from one of the core ideas of Marxian thought: work, as a practice and an institution, is based on the social relations of production. Hakken asked what the world looks like from the point of view of the wage laborer, especially those whose work is tangibly or intangibly intertwined with the information economy. Second, he collaborated with a nascent group of scholars, anticipatory anthropologists, who were trying to bring futures thinking into anthropology. Since the creation of futurist think tanks such as the RAND Corporation at the beginning of the twentieth century, economists and psychologists have dominated forecasting. The intellectual tradition in these institutions stresses isolating variables and creating causational models. Such models invoke the tired trope of prediction, assuming a world in which the power structures of the present are viewed from the top and remain intact. However, rendering the complex systems of society through static models strips culture of its rich complexity. In contrast, socially nuanced forecasting imagines grounded alternative futures, anticipating a variety of scenarios as imagined from different points of view. Anticipatory anthropology’s approach to futures thinking fit naturally into Hakken’s anthropological appreciation of the experience of labor as seen from a less privileged perspective. Third, as the nature of labor changed, Hakken was at the forefront of explorations of what the entanglement of labor and technology meant for the future of work. Beginning in 1980, he studied the people who designed such technology and worked with it in factories and cubicles, as well as in technologically mediated spaces he called cyberspace.

Hakken began to delve into information technology in England, both as a site of anthropological investigation and as a catalyst for changing work. Much of his thinking about the connection between work and technology was shaped as he did research for and wrote the book Computing Myths, Class Realities: An Ethnography of Technology and Working People in Sheffield (1993) with Barbara Andrews. At the time, the central question was whether computerization would change work. In his book, Hakken points out that new technology can catalyze or accelerate changes in work, but the social forces of ownership and dependent labor are not rewritten. Hakken continually challenged anthropologists of work to commit more intentionally to a consistent theory of work, one based on an understanding that material production, wealth generation, and the moral landscape of labor must be viewed transculturally and in particular historical contexts. He drew attention to information technology’s potential to delegitimize wages and change the very institutions in which labor takes place.

Hakken’s research on the changing nature of work illustrated the aims of anticipatory anthropology. Coined by a group of people that included Stanford anthropologist Robert Textor and Marion Lundy Dobbert, the term refers to those scholars whose insights look forward to the possible, as well as backward to the past. The ability to see the future from different points of view takes the notion of the anthropological imagination to a new level. From whose point of view would a particular future be desirable? Which futures should be avoided? Hakken drew on a deep understanding of historical and material processes to consider possible outcomes and engender civic conversations on what futures are desirable. His seminal book, [email protected]: an Ethnographer Looks to the Future (1999), along with his participation in a dedicated issue of Futures (2000), opened a path for anthropologists of work and the technology entangled with labor to forecast the consequences of new forms of work. Hakken was the inaugural recipient of the AAA’s Robert B. Textor and Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology in 1999. His final book, co-authored with Barbara Andrews and Maurizio Teli, Beyond Capital: Values, Commons, Computing, and the Search for a Viable Future (2015), offered a consideration of alternative futures in a post-capital economy. If social relationships had shifted dramatically in the past as pre-capitalist production was reconfigured, but not completely replaced, by capitalism, what might come next?

David Hakken was an unapologetic humanist fascinated with the devices we build in our own social images. He advocated for a culture-centered design that did not view humans as individualized neoliberal beings interacting with artifacts, but as rich cultural entities, who will use these objects to amplify their own social values. Some of those values would perpetuate systems of inequality while others would subvert them. One way to look at the impact of technology was to unpack the way we talk about it. Anthropologists need to trace how those utopian and dystopian discourses connect to the ways in which we educate and work. How we, as cultural beings, approach technology says something about our own biases and values. With this in mind, Hakken sought out like-minded anthropologists, linked them together into networks and helped them find common ground. He was part of the original group of scholars that peered into the social worlds of computing. That network became the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing (CASTAC). He became a link that connected this interest group in the General Anthropology Division (GAD) with anthropologists fascinated by the ever-changing work of science and technology.

The pattern of inquiry that emerged from Hakken’s corpus of scholarship continues to inform the scholarship of anthropologists of work. His intellectual legacy is the focus of the June 2018 special issue of the Anthropology of Work Review. His recognition that “cyberspace” constituted a new work environment remains potent. Digital work mediated by physical devices and hidden algorithms merges life on both sides of the screen. Doing ethnography in digital environments is increasingly relevant and necessary to understanding those whose labor is less tangible. Contract- and gig-based assignments increasingly pervade knowledge work. And the sociality of work now includes virtual cooperation, self-management, and qualitatively different forms of social interaction (Hakken 2000). That shifting sociality has been re-examined, critiqued, and reinvented. All these changes are fodder for anticipatory anthropologists of work. Rather than retreat to technological determinism, or romantic rejection, these emerging forms of work, some of which signal imminent futures, invite close scrutiny.

J. A. English-Lueck is a professor of anthropology at San José State University, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck is the author of four ethnographies about Silicon Valley including [email protected], now in the second edition, which explore the way in which work reframes regional life.

Cite as: English-Lueck, J. A. 2018. “The Future of Work.” Anthropology News website, July 19, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.928

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