Skill & Digital Degradation

Update: This material on skill and digital degradation was initially a blog-post for a 2013 course on “Being Alive.” Much of the material was originally developed in a book by Tim Ingold titled The Perception of the Environment. I developed similar thoughts in the “Will Machines Replace Humans?” class of Cultural Ecology 2017 and the “Technology” class of Cultural Ecology 2020, as well as this 2022 lecture for the History of Anthropological Thought:

One of the surprises in reading the first chapters of Tim Ingold’s Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description is how much Karl Marx appears. Marx and Engels are partly foils, part of an argument against the traditional separation of mental from material, as later elaborated by Maurice Godelier (see the previous class on Materials Against Materiality). But Marx also provides lucid ways to think anew about the process of production and human skills.

In the section on “Clearing the Ground” Ingold works toward a chapter titled “Walking the plank: Meditations on a process of skill.” The purpose of the chapter is to talk about how sawing a plank can illustrate three often overlooked aspects of technical skill: “(i) the processional quality of tool use, (ii) the synergy of practitioner, tool and material; and (iii) the coupling of perception and action” (2011:53). Marx returns at the end of the chapter:

The essence of skill, then, comes to lie in the improvisational ability with which practitioners are able to disassemble the constructions of technology, and creatively to reincorporate the pieces into their own walks of life. In this ability lies life’s power to resist the impositions of regimes of command and control that seek to reduce practitioners to what Karl Marx (1930:451) once called the “living appendages” of lifeless mechanism. Thus skill is destined to carry on for as long as life does, along a line of resistance, forever undoing the closures and finalities that mechanisation throws in its path. (Ingold 2011, 62).

Ingold is also thinking about the ideas of Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century: “Was American socialist Harry Braverman right to forsee that the increasing mechanisation of industry, driven by the inexorable demands of monopoly capitalism, would inevitably lead to the deskilling of the workforce or–which amounts to the same thing–an impoverished conception of skill (Braverman 1974:443-444)?” (Ingold 2011:62).

Ingold says this is a premature prognosis, for two reasons. First, no machine is perfect, and can never achieve full closure, never fully becoming automatic. Second, and perhaps more importantly, that as François Sigaut puts it, new machines always demand new skills to run and maintain those machines. Sigaut goes so far as to call this the law of the irreducibility of skills (cited in Ingold 2011, 62).
This certainly makes me think: How are skills changing in a digital age? Is Ingold correct to call Braverman’s prognosis premature? Or, as Michael McNally argues in Content Management Systems and the Degradation of Intellectual Work in the 21st Century, is intellectual work being similarly deskilled and degraded? And how about what David Graeber calls The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs?

My initial feeling is that even in the digital age, the emerging technological work may be quite like the skills Ingold describes. We would be remiss not to analyze them as a processional, synergistic coupling of perception and action. And that it is up to us, “to disassemble the constructions of technology, and creatively to reincorporate the pieces into their own walks of life” (Ingold 2011, 62).