Machines and tools

by John Q on May 1, 2024

It’s International Workers Day, still celebrated as the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, at least when the Labor party is in office. So, it’s a good day for me to set out some tentative thoughts on work and its future.

Via Matt McManus, I found this quote from Marx ‘Fragment on Machines”.

The hand tool makes the worker independent — posits him as proprietor. Machinery — as fixed capital -posits him as dependent, posits him as appropriated

Reading this, it struck me that, whereas mainframe computers were archetypal examples of impersonal and alienating machines, personal computers are, or can be, regarded as extensions of their users, that is, as tools. Employers have long struggled to exert control over office computers and the workers who use them, making them extensions of the machine that is corporate IT. But these efforts have always been resisted, and have broken down, to a large extent, with the shift to remote work. My intuition, following Marx, is that this development presages a bigger shift in the relationship between between workers and bosses.

As far as neoclassical economics in the strict sense is concerned, it makes no real difference whether workers work on machines owned by their employers or using their own tools. In the first case, the wage is a simple payment for labour, and all the surplus from the enterprise goes as capital income to the employer. In the second case, the workers’ wage will include a ‘rental price’ for the use of tools, along with the ordinary labour wage. All that matters is that each factor of production should earn its marginal product.

Economists, including those classed as ‘mainstream’, have long recognised that the simple neoclassical model is inadequate. Beginning with a classic paper by Chicago economist and Nobel award winner Ronald Coase, it has been recognised that if the neoclassical model was a complete description, there would be no reason for firms, with their internal command structures, to exist. There is now a huge literature on transactions costs, principal-agent relationships and other ways of understanding the relationship between workers and bosses.

But as far as I am aware, the machine-tool distinction hasn’t been addressed in this literature, at least not explicitly. For bosses, a central feature of the machine, exemplified by the Taylorist time-and-motion expert, is the capacity for detailed control over the work of those employed to tend it. With a skilled worker using their own tools, such detailed control isn’t possible. In simple forms of production, where output can be measured easily, control over work can be replaced with production quotas or piecework payments. But in with collective products and where quality is hard to measure, such straightforward methods of control are no longer feasible. Workers can demand, and receive, more autonomy and require more motivation than simple monetary rewards and penalties.

In the case of computers, bosses have done their best to fight back with various forms of spyware and remote control. But this has turned out to be costly and counterproductive. As far as I can tell, most of these attempt have been abandoned. Similarly, despite repeated ‘back to the office’ announcements, backed up by dire threats, working arrangement seem to have reached an equilibrium of 2-3 days a week as the median, with the weekend increasingly starting early on Friday afternoon, rather than at the traditional 5pm.

The direct effects of these changes are confined to those workers (around 50 per cent of the total) for whom computers are the central tool. But when these developments coincide with a period of low unemployment, and with the new opportunities for organization offered by an era of universal Internet access, there are signs of a broader shift in the balance of workplace power, including a resurgence in support for unions.



David in Tokyo 05.01.24 at 8:23 am

I know: this is too nuts and bolts for the main points of this thread: sorry. I’m just not good at the philosophy. But anyway…

Two comments:

The PC/Mac as the user’s own tool has the problem that, like the Uber car, the user is going to be responsible for purchasing it and maintaining it. But, see below, actual computation is mostly done at the employer’s computers.
Currently, we’re back to the mainframe era. Server farms, purchased or rented by the megacorporation, or even medium-size employer, is where most computation currently happens*. User-owned PC/Macs aren’t capable of handling modern datasets, especially in the US where internet speeds are often glacial.

Just to reiterate the above, as someone who grew up in an historical period where a 1 MIPS machine allowed one to happily do AI research, the peecee this is being typed on is seriously insane: it’s easily 10,000 times faster than what I used in grad school. And it has a GPU that’s an off-the-wall amazing supercomputer by the standards of those days.

*: Sure, software development can be/is usually done on the local peecee, but the programs are stored on Github or the like. But for the non-software developers (e.g. my 30-ish nieces and newphews who work for law offices and server-farm cooling system builders), the peecee is just a terminal.


Phil 05.01.24 at 9:28 am

[workplace discipline through spyware]
“As far as I can tell, most of these attempt have been abandoned.”

I think they’re still out there, but their effect is limited. My daughter works for a company that was “100% remote” before the pandemic and still is – highly unusual then, still pretty unusual now – and frequently stays with us for a week or so. Her management have put the fear of God in employees as to their ability to watch, and even control, what employees do with company machines. Her solution is to travel with her own laptop as well as the company laptop – machines are small enough and light enough now to make that feasible. Even if it wasn’t she’d still have her Switch, and of course her phone.

…including a resurgence in support for unions.

Here’s hoping. If the experience of Autonomia taught us anything, it’s that even quite well-developed & genuinely empowering forms of worker autonomy, practised without large-scale organisation, can be recuperated, reeled back in and used to build a more creative and flexible (and hence more resilient) capitalism. Collective muscle is the missing piece.

Paolo Virno (from 1997): “The truly decisive competences, when it comes to the optimal performance of post-Fordist work routines, are those formed outside production, in everyday life. . . . And so the movement of ’77 gets put to work: its ‘nomadism’, distaste for predefined jobs, a certain self-reliant entrepreneurism, even the taste for experimentation and personal autonomy, all this meets the requirements of the organisation of capitalist production.”


Trader Joe 05.01.24 at 10:46 am

As others have alluded to, the corporate PC is in fact a piece of corporate equipment. Its rare that these boxes aren’t loaded with proprietary software that are either internally developed or licensed (or both) that would be as impractical as a day laborer bringing his own cement mixer to the job.

The OP mentions spyware, but that’s not really where the control lives. The control lives in the security software which is basically mandatory to keep bad actors out of the company controlled systems. Sometimes spyware is part of it – but the basic security protocols (multi-factor ID including biometric, logging and often keystroke mapping) are really the more vital tools and this is where control is or can be exercised.

I think the point is well made that for the modern information worker the PC is an extension of the intellect much as a hammer or screwdriver is an extension of the worker. Where the analogy becomes strained is the notion that these tools make him a proprietor. Its really a marriage or union between the worker’s skill and intellect and a vast array of data and analytic tools, customer information software and a range of other specific (often proprietary) applications that makes the magic and efficiency. Few workers could replicate this as an independent contractor – hence the corporation.


oldster 05.01.24 at 12:19 pm

” There is no a huge literature on transactions costs, principal-agent relationships and other ways of understanding the relationship between workers and bosses.”

I’m thinking “no” is a typo for “now”?


M Caswell 05.01.24 at 2:47 pm

Though the internet has appropriated our minds. The connected software I use doesn’t really feel like “my own tool.”


grumbles 05.01.24 at 3:00 pm

As an IT manager for a division of a large US company that is fully remote, I can tell you tools of control are absolutely in place and in use. We’re pretty “liberal”, only clamping down on things for security or legal reasons, and we try to err towards enabling folks and not surveilling.

That said, a company laptop is a panopticon – we log everything, deep packet inspection is in place for “loss prevention”, we MITM browser certificates, etc.. We just don’t look unless there’s a security, HR or legal risk. I’m an old-timer from when we were a startup, as more of us leave, I rather expect that to change for the worse.


engels 05.01.24 at 3:19 pm

I think David is right that PCs are now mostly used like dumb terminals now. Even if they weren’t I think this would be wildly over-optimistic. Marx didn’t think that operating a hammer as opposed to a lathe on a production line made you autonomous. The typical knowledge worker can’t produce independently of the firm that employees her regardless of whether she owns her laptop and where she can (Mechanical Turk etc) this has hardly been progressive anyway.

Marx attached much positive significance (for labour organising) of workers communing in factories btw.


John Q 05.01.24 at 11:12 pm

These are good points, but I’m not convinced that they are as significant as claimed.

Doubtless, the IT department can monitor just about everything, but unless their information is fed back to line managers, it doesn’t make much difference to worker-manager relationships. As Trader Joe says, the main concern of IT is to protect system security, prevent misuse etc, not to manage work.

And, coming back to Marx, he wasn’t idealising the putting-out system, the WFH system that factories replaced. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, after all. The point is that the nature of struggle changes radically when one mode of production replaces another.


engels 05.01.24 at 11:38 pm

Not an economist but afaics Mechanical Turk etc is just digital age putting out. WFH is just white collar wage work with slightly altered conditions: mote convenient, more isolated, different forms of surveillance—which may turn out to be less or more intrusive than a corporeal manager. In my first (bullshit) job I used to play games on my PC for hours on end and only had to stop when the Director of European Operations in the office behind me was replaced, possibly with a guy with better eyesight.


Chip Daniels 05.01.24 at 11:40 pm

But in with collective products and where quality is hard to measure, such straightforward methods of control are no longer feasible.

This reminds me of the turn of phrase Matthew Crawford used in “Shopcraft As Soulcraft”, where he termed much of modern office work as “ghostly forms of work” where the output and quality was impossible to quantify or measure.

For example, with an electrician or plumber, the lights either turn on or they don’t, the toilet either flushes or it doesn’t, the output is straightforward and obvious.

But with much of the middle management office work, your work product is only validated by other’s opinions or arbitrary and ephemeral metrics like keystrokes and forms processed.


John Q 05.02.24 at 2:58 am

Engels @9 Mechanical Turk is indeed the low end of digital putting out. But it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. This Pew study found around 59 requesters per day, whereas tens of millions of people are now WFH at least some of the time.

Airtasker in Australia is significantly bigger (around $75 million in revenue). It has made agreements with unions on recommended rates, but these are voluntary guides rather than binding rules


John Q 05.02.24 at 3:10 am

This has been very helpful for me in clarifying thoughts. It would be good to find out how much time information workers spend on tasks that are handled inside corporate networks (for example, programs like Workday, and accessing corporate databases) and how much outside (for example, Web browsers). Does anyone know where I could find evidence on this?


engels 05.02.24 at 12:10 pm

I didn’t know about Airtasker. Btw the British WFH labour force is about to get a big boost when thousands of housebound invalids are kicked off benefits.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing they will be doing:

…Erica spends 30 hours a week filling out personality questionnaires, answering surveys, and performing simple tasks that ask her, for example, to press the “z” key when a blue triangle pops up on her screen. In the last month, she’s made an average of $4 to $5 an hour, by her calculations. Some days, she’ll make $7 over the course of three to four hours. Erica, who has a GED and an associate’s degree in nursing administration, says the work for Mechanical Turk is the only option in the economically struggling town where she lives….


Andy Stow 05.02.24 at 4:28 pm

Now I wonder is the cost of some of the third party tools I use that are required by my employer (programming languages, CAD programs, simulation software) is a feature to them, not a bug. Some of these programs have license fees of over $20k US per year for an individual business license, making it much less likely that I’d find it worthwhile to buy license a copy and strike out on my own.


Zamfir 05.02.24 at 7:20 pm

Some observations that might or might not be of interest:

at the start of covid, our remote access systsems were a bit overloaded. In that period, I would often work on a personally owned computer and a work computer at the same time. I would look up or send information from company systems in the work computer, but spend most time “doings or ” making” on my private computer A decade earlier, I would take files home, do work without access to conpany systems, then bring the results later. This suggests that the time spent on company IT systems might be the wrong metric – it can as little as a few percent in some situations, but those percents are crucial to link the other hours into the wider company effort.
I have an old laptop that I sometimes bring to work, if I want to run software that doesn’t play nice with IT. As an alternative, IT will give out extended admin right to a company computer, but in return they fix less issues on it and you still can’t do everything. That’s more flexible than company IT is usually.
my wife’s a teacher, and she got so fed up with her work computer that she bought a fancy one.and uses that without ever touching her work computer. I asked, how do you access X, Y or Z. The answer was typically that high schools don’t do X, Y or Z.
I recently had a colleague, hired from an external company for a day a week or so. The guy had a rolling suitcase with 5 company laptops in it, 1 for each client and 1 for his employer.


JimV 05.02.24 at 7:32 pm

I stopped working as a mechanical engineer in 2006, and maybe things have changed radically since, but most of the work I did then (calculation spreadsheets, Power Point slides, word processing, Fortran and C++ programs, some graphics, small finite-element models) I could do (and have done) on the $500 Windows 7 laptop I am using to submit this. There are high-end laptops costing many thousands of dollars that could do much more (locally), much faster. The companies I worked for additionally provided me with connections, to their data systems (although I mostly still used paper records as more informative), time-allocation systems to record my worked hours, and a main frame to run large finite-element models on.

I know of some people who played Solitaire and Minesweeper on their company PC’s, and at least one who downloaded porn on a company PC and was caught and fired, but for the most part, in my (perhaps obsolete) experience, PC’s were a useful working tool, for engineers.

An issue with them and the computerized work force is that the systems keep changing, every six to 24 months. I tried somebody’s Windows 11 laptop the other day, and nothing worked as I was used to, including the shutdown procedure. I hope to die before my backup Window 7 PC stops working.


KT2 05.02.24 at 10:25 pm

Compared to Woolworths or Coles/Westfarmers in Australia, Workday is a private cash cow. For 2 people.
i) “Duffield holds voting rights to Workday shares that are worth $3.4 billion and Bhusri holds voting rights to shares valued at $1.3 billion. Collectively, they hold 67% of the company’s voting shares.” Wikipedia.
ii) They have been aquiring ai & niche software companies – 17 since 2008.
Workday has an RoE of <3%. It is owned by 2 guys, even though a publically listed company. Greylock Partners, T. Rowe Price, Morgan Stanley Investment Management, Janus, and Bezos Expeditions. Tightly held. Private equity play box. As is Dayforce.
iii) They obviously don’t invest unless necessary in updating software yet are aquisitive.
“Think about that. Workday is an older technology today than PeopleSoft was at the time it was acquired by Oracle.”. [2004] (applaudhr dot com employee-experience why-your-employees-no-longer-love-workday)

iv) Considering 30,000+ software vunerabilities, Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures
CVE’s (see below) software and ai experts may be more necessary than either economists or HR experts. Workday seems likely to he compromised.

Shortened to a readable length – JQ


nicopap 05.03.24 at 9:52 am

This relates to the idea of “centaur” and “reverse centaur” dear to Doctorow. A centaur is a system where the human takes decisions and their agency is extended by the machines. While the reverse centaur is the system where the machine takes decisions and the human does what we don’t know how to automate yet. Mechanical Turk is an example of a reverse centaur, while a search engine is a centaur.

In what you describe, in the “capital owns the machine” model, it’s the machine that leads, and workers are here as “modular extensions” to the system, so reverse centaur. In the “worker owns the machine” model, the machine is a tool of the worker, with which the worker is intimately familiar, it’s a technical mean that extends their agency, so we have a centaur.


scott hampton 05.04.24 at 1:29 pm

I re-read this after spending an hour with a lovely long piece in Construction Physics about how modern chip fabs are built, and how they work.
One of the small ironies that I believe Marx appreciated is that in order to make good tools that are relevant to a task, usually a number of factories are required. One does not mine and smelt ore to make a hammer.

And also: a commenter above said something about how most middle management work is hard to qualify as good or bad. Perhaps in some industries, but I can promise you that the work of a mid-tier person in a logistics role is not ambiguous, nor that of a line quality manager, or any of the people working to make sure that the intertubes stay up, or those accountants grinding on compliance…

To the larger scope – when it costs huge amounts of money to build a pharmaceutical factory and unimaginable amounts to build a chip fab, it’s hard to consider alternative political and economic models – hard for those of us in the trenches, anyway. The rhetoric of class struggle and unionization are uplifting, the reality of our desperate need to eliminate the oligarchs is clear, what isn’t clear is how to get from here to Democratic Socialism 2.0

Comments on this entry are closed.