We’re All Freelancers

In this day of increasingly corporatized higher ed, where we sometimes interact with students through the medium of learning management systems, and in which scholars’ relationships with publishers is equally mediated through online submission systems, it’s worth mulling over for who benefits from such systems.

For whom are they designed and to what effect?

Yesterday I was at a store with a friend who was returning an item — wanting to swap it for one of a different size. The two items cost the same and both were in stock so it was a pretty simple transaction. That is, it was simple until we realized that our time and patience was needed so that the store could process the exchange through their computer system (what was once just called a cash register).

The returned item needed to be scanned.

Buttons needed to be pressed.

The new item needed to be scanned.

Buttons needed to be pressed.

“Do you need my credit card?”

“No.”

A new receipt was issued nonetheless.

(Have you noticed how weirdly long these printed receipts have gotten in the past few years?)

It’s at that point that I realized that we were actually being called upon to assist the store; in the old days they’d close and their staff would annually “do inventory” — counting every item by hand. But now the inventory is live and computerized, 24/7 (not just in the so-called bog box stores), and our time was needed to help them to adjust their records so that someone in the back, or at head office, knew that they now had one more Medium and one less Large than they did a moment before.

In other words, the system wasn’t designed for us, the customers. If it was then we would have been on our way a while back. No, it was designed for them, the store. Why order too many Larges and waste capital on stock sitting on shelves? While it would be nice to think that this savings then drove down prices or drove up wages for the people doing the scanning at the register (or is it now called a terminal?), that’s likely pretty naive of me.

But one thing it didn’t save was our time.

So, without knowing it, we’re now employees, for the systems that mediate our shopping require us to participate in managing the store’s internal processes. Sure, waiting for change at an old school cash register meant you were participating in the vendor’s accounting system, to some extent, but at least you weren’t asked to hang around and tally up the daily receipts and cross-check that it matched the cash on hand (as I recall my mom and dad doing nightly, after their gas station closed each night — “doing the books” they called it).

But now, with each purchase, we’re doing inventory.

I thought of this experience returning the sweater as I uploaded an article for publication not long after — using one of the online content management systems that all journal publishers now seem to use. I can’t tell you how many passwords I have for these differing systems — in fact, each time I now use them I just make one up. Most recently it was “ihateusingtheseonlinesystems88%”; for I know I’ll forget it the next time I go in (if I ever go into this particular one again). So my default now is just to hit the “I forgot my password” link as soon as I get there and then make something up when it gives me the chance to change my earlier password, since there’s far too many to keep track of, and each system has it’s own required parameters (“Your password must be at least 8 characters with two numbers and one symbol”). It’s the same experience submitting reference letters for grad school applications, no? Much like standing at the counter while the sales people update their inventory, it’s pretty clear that none of these systems are designed for those of us who log in to enter the content; no, we’re now doing the data input for free and the system is designed for the ease of managing that data, which someone on the back end is doing.

It’s their system, after all, addressing their interests.

Much as the invention of desktop computers meant the end of typesetters — since authors now became the publisher’s freelance typesetters, whether submitting “camera ready copy” or not — so too these systems have turned us all into unpaid employees, working for whomever is on the other end of the many different system we’re required to use in our daily lives.

Since neither students nor faculty designed them, it makes you wonder about what’s going on with learning management systems a little, no?

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