The Alienation of IT Workers

Photograph Source: Yuya Tamai – CC BY 2.0

Ever since German philosopher Hegel discussed alienation and Karl Marx converted it into the sensible framework of the economics of capitalism, alienation isn’t really a new subject – many might even think, all has been said. In “Marx and Digital Machines”, Mike Healy argues that recent developments in alienation can be seen on two groups of workers – IT workers and academics.

Many might think that alienation today is signified when iPhones control our lives – we no longer control them – as many still believe. While the iPhone connects people to the Internet, one of the founders of the Internet, Berners-Lee warned of the loss of control of personal data.

Very likely, the hallucination of Internet privacy has always been an oxymoron, as Edward Snowden has shown us. Yet, processing our data has even worse implications as data centre contributes 19% of total carbon footprint using 30 billion watts and wasting 90% of the energy they use. Perhaps, some might better think twice about this when carelessly checking tonight’s cinema schedule again, watching an online video, and reading a newspaper half-way around the world.

Beyond all that, Marx’s view of alienation still provides the greater explanatory power and clarity than other theories of alienation as well as the contradictory nature of work under capitalism. Next to Hegel and Marx, Seeman has constructed five categories of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation, and self-estrangement.

One of the advantages of Marx is that he makes clear that labour itself becomes a commodity in capitalism. As a consequence, alienation is inextricably linked to capitalism – there is no escape and no change of work arrangement can alter this as long as capitalism exists.

Yet, alienation does not only take place at work as capitalism reaches beyond the workplace. One might indeed argue that alienation is everywhere. It exists at work in production, at home in consumption, and it dominates much of politics and daily life. Worse, alienation reaches even into human intimacy.

On the other side is Blauner who trivialised Marx’s concept of alienation reducing it to a study of job satisfaction. This is important for management studies, business schools and Managerialism. It downgrades alienation to job satisfactionand through that, it becomes, in the minds of business school professors, a manageable category.

All this aids the hallucination of the possibility of overcoming alienation within capitalism. This chimera remains a vital step in sustaining capitalism through the ideology provided by business schools and management studies.

The alienation of IT workers can be seen in many multi-national IT companies even those ranked in the top ten computer manufacturers, employing 155,000 workers worldwide in over 100 countries. Such empirical evidence comes from a wide range of ICT activities such as project managers, database software engineers, asset administrators, system design and development engineers, risk management experts and quality control specialists.

IT workers are often a mixture of women and men with ages ranging from mid-thirties to early sixties. In many UK IT companies, workers are involved with their trade union. Still, there is no common definition of the 15 million people who work in IT. Nonetheless, global IT spending could total close to $3.9tr in 2020 – $3,900,000,000,000.

Strangely, there is a narrowing of focus by businesses and consumers in traditional tech spending on just four platforms: cloud, mobile, social and big data/analytics, while the expansion of new technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), robotics and AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) will represent a significant investment.

On the empirical side, one IT software engineer in the UK said,

I don’t have any control over that at all and I have no control over what might be in store in … a cloud provision … companies can use this as a pretext to reduce pay and benefits … to lower the status of the job … people are being squeezed quite severely.

While a systems designer said, “customers are running the project who will give you stuff to do … you are simply told “this is what we need” … in theory you can pick … your own assignment but in practice you get pressurised to do certain work.” Yet, it has been getting worse as the economic crisis of 2008 intensified competition within the IT sector.

This is reflected in statements made by many IT support workers. One worker said,

once upon a time … there was a lot more support from the company … this had been whittled away … I used to have a career as a development manager … now you have to battle against the business imperatives.

Beyond that, there is always the threat of outsourcing. A systems designer noted, “there was one case recently where the change of location was to India.” Simultaneously, there has been pressure on IT workers to travel domestically. A network engineer mentioned, “contract tendering can have travel implications. The need to travel has obvious ramifications … the stress, the pressure and working away from home which is crap.”  In other cases, it boils down to – do companies want workers who do not want to travel or not.

Beyond that, the much acclaimed “customer-is-king” ideology contributes strongly to alienation. On this, an IT worker revealed,

the primary contractor said I don’t want this gentleman on site anymore. Within a week I was gone … that adds to the stress in that you can’t even sneeze the wrong way for fear of being let go from a particular piece of work … I have at least three managers … we are micro-managed … a direct management mechanism to control staff.

Inevitably and just as IT support workers said,

it creates stress because people are forced to come into work and there is nothing to do. It is humiliating and degrading; their skills are deteriorating. It is horrible … workers are locked into a seemingly unstoppable process of alienation employed in the industry.

Virtually, the same applies to academics who now work under anti-democratic despotism of Managerialism. As a consequence, 54% of UK academic staff are employed on insecure contracts as the rise of Managerialism results in a diminishing influence of the academic choice.

In many cases, it is Managerialism that sets out what has to be achieved. It renders academics incapable to function as academics. This phenomenon is known as “Academentia”. Academentia confines academics to quantification, standardization, and surveillance while simultaneously destroying academia as they become incapable of functioning in their traditional surrounding.

One of the old and now managerialist-enforced issue remains: “publish-or-perish”. Yet, academia’s free labour – creating an idea and a plan to realise it, getting funding, getting ethics approves, conducting research, writing scholarly articles, etc. – feeds a gigantic profit-making machine. Not surprisingly,

For-profit academic publishing is a $25bn industry with profit margins reaching between 35–40% … consequently, five major for-profit publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage) own over half of the world’s academic material … with an estimated three publishers, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley Blackwell, controlling 42% of all published articles.

It is just as the former Harvard Business Review editor Magretta once said,

business executives are society’s leading champions of free markets and competition, words that, for them, evoke a worldview and value system that rewards good ideas and hard work, and that fosters innovation and meritocracy. Truth be told, the competition every manager longs for is a lot closer to Microsoft’s end of the spectrum than it is to the dairy farmers. All the talks about the virtues of competition notwithstanding, the aim of business strategy is to move an enterprise away from perfect competition and in the direction of monopoly.

Magretta’s accounts testified to what Karl Marx once said, capital strived to create monopolies – even in academia.

Typically for Managerialism, it reduces human action to performance and competency and it does so to obliterate the humanness in human action – just as Klikauer’s “Managerialism” predicted. Worse, university Managerialism forces academics into the obligation to fill in time-consuming grant applications creating an even heavier workload leading to frustration and stress as Managerialism becomes omnipresent.

This is a gigantic waste of time and money. It is engineered through the games played by managerialist-funding managers, and university apparatchiks. Their grant announcement of, let’s say, $50,000 in research funding, leads many academics to apply – let’s say fifteen academics apply for the grant. In the end, only one gets the $50,000 and fourteen academics do not. This creates heavier workloads, stress, and frustration.

But wait, there is more. University apparatchiks can announce the winner in an imposing university setting and announce the winner on university websites. They can show off that the university hands out money while encouraging aspiring academics to join the game in to the next round of managerialist “fun-&-games” with grant applications.

In the end, one academic, Managerialism, and university apparatchiks win while research and plenty of academics are the silent, unrecognised, and unseen losers – a near perfect system. And best of all, the system goes on.

In the end, alienation is a constant feature and is experienced as a norm rather than as an aberration. Indeed, it is just as Hegel and Marx had predicted – there is no capitalism without alienation and there is no alienation without capitalism, well hopefully.

Finally, Marx’s theory of alienation offers much greater explanatory power than any other current theoretical approach. Once again, my old neighbour from Trier was right and so will be everyone studying alienation when sticking to Hegel and Marx. Yet, all this is shown in Mike Healy’s recent book on Marx and Digital Machines – Alienation, Technology, Capitalism.


Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.