Around the world, people are sitting with one hand poised over a keyboard and the other going from keys to mouse. They're all staring at dull grey squares labelled File, Edit, View, Tools, Format, Windows and Help - "the ghastly spoor of some aesthetically- challenged Microsoft employee of the late 1980s," according to the teleworking guru and labour historian Ursula Huws in her new book of essays, The Making of a Cybertariat.
"For the first time in history," she says, "thanks to Bill Gates, we are all working with a common language in the form of an identical labour process." This is why, "having designed the creativity and skill out of their information processing jobs, companies can partition what's left into piecework tasks and shunt them around the globe".
Huws is professor of international labour studies at London Metropolitan University and an expert on the global division of labour in the information business. As the director of the multigovernment-funded programme Emergence (Estimation and Mapping of Employment Relocation in a Global Economy in the New Communications Environment), she's also a leading commentator on the implications of the rush to outsource every job under the sun.
Her essays chart the transformation of technology and work since the late Seventies, with the theme that we're using technology to turn every part of our working and personal lives into commodities. On the one hand, she says, we're employing it to standardise paid work processes to squeeze the maximum labour from each other at minimum cost. On the other, we're plundering areas of life in which labour is carried out beyond the money economy (for example, housework, entertainment, communication and sex) to come up with more and more "labour-saving" products. The result is amazingly complex global systems of machines and people that are slowly spiralling out of our control.
"The first shift is typically to a service industry," Huws says. "Then, as technology develops, the service industry becomes automated and goods that are more complex are produced, which spawn new services to deal with the complexity. Then each of these services can be automated, allowing the creation of more new products in a continual cycle of innovation.
"Communication used to be people talking to each other," she says "Then it became writing, and then various electrical and electronic ways of transmitting, like the telegraph and telephone. Entertainment used to be somebody singing; the service industry grew minstrels and then orchestras, then technologies for recording music, which become the basis for mass commodities like the CD or pop music videos."
Mobile phones are a great example of the creeping "commoditisation" of our personal lives, Huws says. "We now walk down the road with friends while talking on our mobiles to other people. We're prioritising the distant person over the near one, which is exactly what the phone companies want us to do because it doesn't cost anything to talk to the person you're standing next to."
Huws shows me pictures taken as part of her Emergence research. One is of a home-based outworker in Vietnam sitting in front of a gleaming computer in a dilapidated shack. Others show Chinese women employed to enter data for credit-card companies; they eat, sleep and work in the same building while being continuously monitored by video from Australia. Huws explains how their work is chopped up so that one set of women types postcodes, another surnames and so on. In India computer operators - often postgraduates - now process medical transcriptions for doctors in the United States for one- eighth of what US computer operators would earn, but four times the salary of an Indian schoolteacher. …