söndag 8 april 2012

I am health personified!

And none of my children have ever been sick either - although my eldest once broke his leg and had to stay home for three weeks. Confused? Read on. This blog post will give some insights into working conditions and the administration in a large bureaucracy (KTH).

We have a new system for self-reporting ("Egenrapportering"):

"You as employee at the CSC School can now do your vacation application/care for sick child/sick leave/etc through the web in the self-reporting system."

An administrator came over and gave a run-through of the system this past week.

In the same way my bank can make me do parts of the work that bank tellers did before (withdraw money, pay my bills, transfer money between accounts), the system for self-reporting makes me do (part of) the work that administrators did before. But that's ok, because even if it is one more system to keep track of and handle, it also gives me increased control. In short - there are pros and there are cons and it's a tradeoff. It might or might not be the case that the cons are bigger than than pros for me, but perhaps the pros are huge compared to the cons for someone else (the administrator tasked with keeping track of these things). In other words, it doesn't "cost" me too much to use the system, but what I do might be "worth" a lot to someone else - and that's OK.

My problem is elsewhere. My problem is that we live with two different systems of what work is at the university and these systems (or rather, only one of them) is "embodied" in software. When the model of work (as coded in the software I have to interact with) is different from my actual work, the result is tensions and sometimes perhaps even an occasional "breakdown". The best paper I have read about such mismatches is John Bowers (et. al.) 1995 academic paper about the discrepancy about how work is actually done in a printshop and how a computer system (working on behalf the company's accountants) perceives, classifies or "codes" work. The huge discrepancy actually created a lot of suffering (like overtime every single day for six months after the system was implemented). The paper is available online (pdf).

It is difficult to protest against software and the code that constitutes it. This is exactly the point that Lawrence Lessig made in his book "Code and other laws of cyberspace". When we write code, we do the equivalent of rewiring the physical architecture that guide our actions. You might not like a specific wall, but that wall still does affect you (it limits and restricts your behavior, but it also increases the privacy for those who are behind the wall). One of Lessig's lessons concerns how the balance of power (in the US) has shifted from (exclusively) east-coast code (laws, texts) to west-coast code (computer code, software). Code regulates what we can and what we can not do just as effective as speed bumps, guard towers and other architectural "features" of the built environment.

It is thus possible and interesting to look at power relationships that are embodied in software, and to be on the lookout for built-in "biases" in computer systems (pdf of Friedman and Nissenbaum's great "Bias in computer systems" paper). I wrote a paper together with Jacob Palme where our argument was that the Internet is biased in favor of English-speakers and against all other language-users (especially those languages that use non-roman characters). Look for the reference to a book chapter on "ASCII imperialism" in my academic texts on this webpage - and do note that we would like to write an extended version if you happen to be the editor of a special issue in a suitable academic journal :-).

With a sensitivity to bias in computer systems, it is clear that the new self-reporting system is clearly designed for people who have stable tasks and stable working hours (like the administrators at my university) or perhaps for consultants (who need to be able to account for every hour of their time). My job is not like that. My time is "unregulated". That means I can do my work more or less whenever and wherever I choose to. I can sit at a cafe half a day grading exams - or at a library or in my home. I don't have to do my work in my workplace or during regular/regulated hours (although I most often do that and my employer prefers for me to be at my job as often as possible during office hours).

I personally often work for an hour or two late at night (or in the middle of the night). I can also choose to sit in a summer cottage and grade exams or write an academic paper. In short, where and when doesn't matter as long as the job gets done. But if I have a cold and I have to stay home, there is on the other hand no-one who can easily take over my tasks, so I will basically have twice as much work waiting for me when I get back to my job (and I "naturally" don't get paid any overtime for doing it). So if I'm home and in bed for two days, I will have to work harder and "make up" for lost time when I get back. So should I still use the self-reporting system and report that I am on sick leave? My salary will take a hit, but I still have to make up for lost time and can't "shed" anything I'm tasked with doing at my job. It thus seems to not make a lot of sense to report that you are sick.

Another strategy is of course for university teachers to continue to work even if they are sick (still go to your workplace, or work as much as you can from home). Yet another strategy (already mentioned) is to just not report that you are sick and work extra hard when you are well again. This week I talked to a teacher who was home with her sick child - and then went to work in the evening instead... I would guess that using these strategies is not the exception but rather the norm for university teachers. Working within a system that contained many different kinds of "tensions", it was said in the Soviet Union that "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work". University teachers don't "pretend to work", but I think we often "pretend" never to be sick or even to never (or seldom) have sick children. We just make do and make up for lost time during evenings and weekends. I believe it's thus fair to say that our administrative systems are not suited for a job with unregulated time. But we "should" still use them. Go figure.

In fact, the self-reporting system is designed not for university teachers, but rather for (university) administrators. So me as a teacher sort of becomes "the exception" rather than the rule!? Could you remind me again about the core tasks of a university once more? Is administration among the top-three tasks or was there something about... perhaps research... and perhaps teaching...? And for whom should our computer systems then be designed...?

When I listened to the run-through of our new system for self-reporting, I tried to think of an occupation where a self-reporting system would make absolutely no sense whatsoever. I can up with an artist. Or better yet, an author who writes a new book every second year. Would a system for self-reporting make sense for an author with very free and unregulated working hours? The answer is clearly "no, it wouldn't". So, is my work more like that of an author, or more like that of an administrator? In the subsequent discussion, Joel who has extensive experiences both from the academic world and working as a "consultant" in a streamlined (non-academic) research organization said that my work was definitely more like that of an author. If so, there is a big-time conflict between the reality and the map; between on the one hand the computer system (and the underlaying rules and embodied ideas about work), and on the other hand the actual content of my job (tasks, pace etc.).

I've used illness and sick leave as an example here, but it would be possible to find other examples, for example the issue of vacation, or of acquiring further training in order to be able to do your job (keep the courses you teach current for example). To read up and learn more so that I can update the courses I teach is - I suppose - a "hobby" of mine since I don't really have time to read books or academic papers at work, but rather have to do it in my "leisure" time. This is also one of the premier reasons why my work time is "unregulated". How would you regulate a knowledge-intensive job with so much freedom and also so much responsibility in any sensible way? I guess you could do it in some way, but it would have to be done with care and sensitivity to real work practices - instead of pretending that the work is something it really isn't. It would probably involve not formalizing many aspects of the work in great detail.

What can I do when official job routines differ from the characteristics of my day-to-day job? Suffer in silence and perhaps try to ignore or skirt the system. What can I do to change the system? Very little as far as I can see. I do want to point out that it's not all my employer's fault though. I'm sure that my trade union is also is doing its best to formalize my work (on my behalf of course, but not necessarily always to my benefit).

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