When you ask somebody to fill in a form the message you are actually giving them is as follows: I am in charge; My time is more valuable than yours; I get to decide what is important and what is not; I have a right to information about you; I control what sense is made of this information.
Most of us have learned that filling in a form is a precondition for getting most of the things we want in life, whether this is a job, a bank account, a passport or an online delivery and have learned, with reluctance, to weigh up the value of gaining this benefit against the cost (in terms of time, effort or loss of dignity) of filling the wretched thing in.
Yet the underlying power relations are ever present. The injunction to fill in a form is experienced as particularly pernicious and coercive when it is embedded in a larger relationship of control, for example when it lies between you and being able to claim a state benefit, or is commanded by an employer. It becomes an important way of reinforcing that power, sometimes giving it, in addition to the sanction of withdrawing entitlements if its requirements are not complied with, an additional symbolic ritual force that becomes evident when the filler-in is required to provide (often in duplicate or triplicate) documents whose contents are already known to the form-setting institution or a repetition of information that is already available. The overall effect is to humiliate and demean.
The disrespect for the time of the filler-in is amplified when set in the context of other imbalances – when, for example, a young fit bureaucrat requires an elderly or disabled person to go through processes that are painful or time-consuming in order to supply the requested information (to sort through years worth of records to find old payslips or contracts or receipts; to find the reference number in tiny print below the bar-code on the base of the appliance; to knock up a neighbour to witness a signature; to plead with a doctor to provide a letter). The excuse is mistrust. How can they know that you are really you, really live at your address, really own the object or policy in question, without such evidence? In other words the assumption is that you are guilty unless proven innocent. In the telephone version the call centre workers need you to confirm that you are you even when it was they who initiated the call. The French authorities (for example) do not just require copies of innumerable documents (already held on file in sister departments) to accompany an application but also, if these are foreign, require them to be translated and stamped by a government-authorised translator, for whose services a fee has to be paid. Similarly, they don’t just need a copy of your birth certificate each time but this has to be a copy that has been issued within the last three months (again requiring the payment of a fee).
The illusion of impartiality created by the standard nature of the form, and the mistrust that refuses to recognise one as anything other than a potential criminal with intent to defraud often falls apart in subsequent face-to-face encounters with the bureaucrats, who make it clear by their speech and body language what particular prejudices they hold against people of your age, weight, sexual identity, ethnicity, dress style or accent. Usually this personal encounter with the bureaucrat does not mitigate the effects of the impersonal form-filling that preceded it but makes it worse, adding yet another dimension of disempowerment to the experience. The recipient may end up feeling not only unheard and misunderstood but also guilt-tripped – the silenced victim of a peculiar kind of unfairness that cannot be named as such because of the way that it is dressed up as fairness. A fairness that is, moreover, often cemented in place as part of a broader equality agenda that includes protection of workers’ rights, proclaimed for example in notices that remind customers not to use abusive language to staff. Service users are thereby positioned as anti-social, or, worse, racist or sexist, if they try to express their anger or frustration at the way they are treated. The anger therefore remains suppressed and unspoken, though liable to be redirected explosively into who knows what unexpected irritable outbursts against who knows what innocent scapegoat.
So far, so familiar; these are assertions that would have been recognisable in the early 20th century, say to Max Weber, or Kafka. Digital technologies have multiplied them and added extra twists but the role of the form in propping up existing hierarchies is still fundamentally the same.
What is exercising me today is the way in which the form also provides the means to introduce new hierarchies or (to coin a phrase) formalise existing ones or – even more perniciously – to strip relationships of the mutual respect and understanding that they traditionally entailed: the way its relentless expansion is smuggling these power relationships into areas of life that were previously the preserve of free, open and often creative communication. This is especially outrageous when the underlying relationship is one in which one the form-filler is someone who is being asked for, or generously offering, a service as a favour: to review an article, to provide a character reference, to volunteer to help out in a charity, to give up one’s intellectual property for publication (unpaid or poorly paid) or one’s time to contribute to a public event.
There are probably many different ways this comes about. For example you might get somebody who is new to his or her job who is frightened or bored by the prospect of having to have open-ended conversations with each one of a group of colleagues, clients or subordinates with which he or she will have to deal. This person might be wondering Where might these conversations lead? Might they expose my lack of experience? How can they be managed in a way that preserves my authority? Then comes the brainwave. I know, I’ll design a form for them to fill in. That will really look good as far as my boss is concerned; it will present me as efficient and innovative and, furthermore, provide me with standardised data that I can use to measure the progress I am making and make into charts that will look good in powerpoint presentations. Or the pressure to standardise may be imposed from above – by an employer or funder or the need to comply with a new regulation. But the consequences are similar. A new level of bureaucracy has been created. Real time human interaction has been removed from the relationship. Opportunities for the communication to become the basis for developing new ideas have been removed. Form setters (with all the prejudices, inexperience, youth, ignorance and arrogance they may have) have claimed a right to dictate the terms of interaction to form fillers (however much wiser, more experienced or more insightful they may be) in the process depriving themselves of any opportunities for real learning and development. And in the process left an awful lot of people mightily – and often needlessly – pissed off. This is how social solidarities are destroyed. And this is how the voracious algorithms that increasingly shape our lives are fed with data. (At which point I should inform you that the next issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation, the contents of which I delivered to the publisher last week, will be on ‘the algorithm and the city’)