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Living by the Code

Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalisation by A Aneesh; Duke University Press, 2006; MONICA PRASAD The computer programmers on the cover of A Aneesh

Living by the Code

Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalisation

by A Aneesh; Duke University Press, 2006; pp 208, $ 21.95.

MONICA PRASAD

T
he computer programmers on the cover of A Aneesh’s book Virtual Migration sit in clusters of four. Each programmer faces a computer, behind which is a low partition screen, behind which is the right arm of the next programmer. Seen from above, the four partition screens form a swastika. If the computer programmers want to get anything done, they have to sit in the swastika; they can’t avoid it, and they probably don’t even notice it.

It is an appropriate cover for Aneesh’s book, which explores the oddities and mistranslations of transnational social life, and argues that computer code – the programmes that run more and more of the world – channel our behaviour. Like the chairs in which the programmers sit, the era of computerised everything forces us to behave in certain ways by encoding the rules and regulations into the programming itself. We cannot avoid it, and we do not really notice it. But according to Aneesh, it has dramatic consequences: computer code, Aneesh argues, is the modern-day analogue of the technologies that produced the nation state. Just as “censuses, maps, railways, and post and telegraph networks” (p 26) knit together territorial expanses into “nation states”, thereby producing a new spatial form of governance, so, Aneesh writes, computer code is knitting together far-flung work-sites into something that threatens the boundaries of the nation state and that will lead to some new kind of governance.

He suggests that this new form of governance is rule by code itself, or “algocracy”. Aneesh identifies several specific ways in which code “rules”: it narrows the permissible range of work behaviours (e g, by removing ambiguity in definitions of tasks, providing continuous surveillance of workers, and translating an increasing number of tasks into tasks that can be performed through manipulation of code); it leads to different organisational designs, particularly flatter hierarchies; and the integrated global workplace it makes possible has important consequences for social life. In the Indian computer industry this global integration through code has led to two distinct work practices which Aneesh compares: body shopping, in which programmers migrate to the US for short periods of time, and outsourcing – what he calls “virtual migration” – in which programmers located in India communicate with American clients through the internet.

These suggestions are fascinating, but unfortunately, in this book they remain no more than suggestions. Aneesh’s attempts to demonstrate his argument are extremely thin. For example, he interviewed over a hundred people, but the sum total of his evidence from these interviews for the thesis that code constrains workplace behaviour is exactly one quote of actual work behaviour being constrained by code (p 114). As for the consequences of code for organisational design, Aneesh does not give even one example from his own research, much less examine other reasons why organisations might be adopting flatter hierarchies (he contents himself with describing the technology and suggesting how it might affect organisational design). Regarding the consequences for the lives of the workers, the comparison of body shopping with virtual migration produces little that is not obvious: actual migration can be emotionally difficult; virtual migration may require you to stay up odd hours.

Compounding these problems is an unfortunate writing style, characterised by jargon-soaked tangents that bury the author’s insights.

One can certainly imagine important instances of rule by code in the workplace, particularly the growing online workplace: for example, online workers might be prevented from organising for better pay

– despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly– through simple software designs that prevent workers from knowing each other’s contact information. This line of thinking will be familiar to readers of Lawrence Lessig. Lessig’s Foucauldian formulation “code is law” drew attention to the ways in which legal protections and regulations can be circumvented through software design. For example, Lessig argued that decisions in the design of the internet enabled anonymity online; this was not an inevitability, but a political decision with political consequences, such as the ability of citizens to evade the laws of their states. Other coding decisions would have had different consequences, regardless of the legal environment.

Aneesh is not the first to call attention to the social consequences of code, but he may be the first to have brought together the analysis of the consequences of code with the sociology of organisations and the workplace. One hopes that in his next book he will be able to demonstrate the possibilities that he has sketched out here.

EPW

Email: m-prasad@northwestern.edu

Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007

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