The concept of computer-mediated work was first introduced by Shoshana Zuboff in a 1981 MIT Working Paper, “Psychological and Organizational Implications of Computer-Mediated Work”, elaborated in a 1982 article, “New Worlds of Computer-Mediated Work”, and brought to full expression in the 1988 book In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. Her early observations of “computer-mediated” work captured a new and rapidly growing phenomenon at that time: the experience of accomplishing a work task through the medium of a computer interface. In 1980 it was estimated that about 10% of the US workforce interacted with a computer display during their daily tasks. By 1984 that number had risen to 24% and by 1989 to 37%.
According to Zuboff, the history of work is also a history of its gradual abstraction into activities less dependent on the body and materials, more on the mind and understanding and communication. The computer-mediation of work is, in historical terms, the most recent substantial and irreversible shift from the embedded and analogical to the abstract and conceptual. Today the experience of a “virtual reality” is so widespread that it is habitual, thus making its qualities more difficult to appreciate. But this shift was initially encountered as profoundly disorienting and disturbing. Computer-mediation substitutes a symbolic medium for a physical one. It requires the manipulation of symbolic electronically presented data—an experience that has gradually overshadowed, and frequently eliminated, earlier working conditions that required physical activity with things and people. During the first wave of the transition from traditional work contexts to computer-mediated work, most people expressed a sense of frustration that the objects of their work had become invisible and intangible. Zuboff referred to this as “the abstraction of work”, and it proved to be a ubiquitous and enduring feature of computer-mediated work.
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