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.
Zuboff’s research consisted of in-depth multi-year studies of office, factory, professional, executive, and craft workplaces all characterized by a recent shift from traditional to computer-mediated task environments. The research demonstrated the tripartite nature of the relationship between information technology and work: 1) technology is not neutral, but embodies intrinsic characteristics that enable new human experiences and foreclose others, 2) within these new “horizons of the possible” individuals and groups construct meaning and make choices, further shaping the situation, and 3) the interplay of intrinsic qualities and human choices is further shaped by social, political, and economic interests that inscribe the situation with their own intended and unintended opportunities and limitations.
Professor Zuboff has been called “the true prophet of the information age”. Her much celebrated classic In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988) won instant critical acclaim in both the academic and trade press—including the front page of the New York Times Book Review—and has long been considered the classic study of information technology in the workplace.
In the Age of the Smart Machine is the source of many concepts that have become widely integrated into the understanding of information technologies and their consequences. These include the findings that information technology related change is biased toward higher skill levels; that high levels of information technology can pave the way for more fluid, social, distributed, and less hierarchical work arrangements; the concept of the “information panopticon”; the duality of information technology as an informating and an automating technology; the abstraction of work; computer-mediated work; information as a challenge to authority; the need for upgraded intellective skills in the informated workplace; and the fact that individuals and groups create the meaning of the information they use —to name but a few. According to Finnish scholars Hanna Timonen and Kaija-Stiina Paloheimo’s 2008 analysis of the emergence and diffusion of the concept of knowledge work, In the Age of the Smart Machine is one of three late twentieth century books, including Peter Drucker’s In the Age of Discontinuity and Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, that are responsible for the diffusion of the concept of “knowledge work.”
In the context of her research about the implications of information technology she stated three laws:
- Everything that can be automated will be automated.
- Everything that can be informated will be informated.
- Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.
In 1993, Professor Zuboff founded the executive education program “ODYSSEY: School for the Second Half of Life” at the Harvard Business School. The program addressed the issues of transformation and career renewal at midlife. During twelve years of her teaching and leadership, ODYSSEY became known as the premier program of its kind in the world. Zuboff’s strategies and thoughts surrounding Odyssey were profiled in a Fast Company article and her short essay, “The New New Adulthood".
According to her account, by the mid-nineties Zuboff had begun to question the vision of the progressive corporation espoused in most management literature. Observing the tendency of firms to utilize information technologies primarily for the limited purposes of automation, cost savings, and control, she began to explore new ways that the technology’s informating power might find its full expression. This led to time out from teaching and publishing for a period of study and reflection and began a decade-long intellectual journey from which she concluded that today's business models based on the frameworks of concentration and control associated with twentieth century “managerial capitalism” had reached the limits of their adaptive range. Once the engines of wealth creation, they had turned into its impediments. The society of the twenty-first century requires a new approach to commerce based on a new "distributed capitalism."
These insights led to Zuboff's most recent book, The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism.
According to The Conference Board, The Support Economy is “in part a history and critique of capitalism, an analysis of corporate function and organization, and a visionary statement of a new economic order. It is that vision that lifts the book from the pack, that will make it controversial, and that may, 50 years hence, be regarded as seminal".
Support economy principles have been the source of significant experimentation in the education sector, particularly outside the US. The innovation work in the UK’s Specialist Schools and Adademies Trust built on support economy principles, as has the work of educational theorist and practitioner Brian Caldwell. It has also been influential in the marketing field. Zuboff has also written about innovations in elder care.
In addition to her academic work, Zuboff brought her ideas to many commercial and public/private ventures in the US and UK, particularly in social housing, health care, education, and elder care. Zuboff became a popular business columnist. Most of her columns developed and disseminated new concepts from The Support Economy. From 2003 to 2005, Zuboff shared her ideas in her popular monthly column “Evolving”, in the magazine Fast Company. From 2007 through 2009 she was a featured columnist for BusinessWeek.com.
In 2009, shortly after her retirement from the Harvard Business School, Zuboff was completing the sequel to The Support Economy along with a book on the ODYSSEY program, when she was struck by lightning in her home in Maine, which then burned to the ground destroying her work along with the entire structure and contents of the family home. Aspects of this experience are described in her Huffington Post essay, “When Global Warming Ate My Life”. In that essay she also introduced the concept of "the error of predictability".
A new publication in 2010, "Creating Value in the Age of Distributed Capitalism", appears in the McKinsey Quarterly.
End of April 2014, Zuboff replied with Dark Google in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to an open letter of Axel Springer AG chairman Mathias Döpfner to Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google.
Zuboff is currently working on her new book Master Or Slave?: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, with an anticipated publication date of fall 2017.