How multi-skilling and deskilling can coexist

The latest issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation is now published. Or at least the contents are up online at and the printers are taking orders but I have yet to hold a hard copy in my dusty hands. However many things one has published before, this is always a tense moment. No matter how many times it has been proof-read, there is invariably a glaring error that leaps out at one only when it is too late to change. There was one occasion when I forgot to add the page numbers to the contents page. And another when, in making some last-minute technical change to the back cover, i managed to drag a whole paragraph sideways, leaving some strange bits of dangling text at its right-hand edges.
I was just writing the words ‘I am too superstitious to send out a mass mailing announcing its arrival until I have seen a copy’ when the doorbell rang and the first batch arrived, so I took a break from writing this to inspect them. I have only spotted one error so far but it is one I will find it hard to forgive myself for, because I have made it before. Apart from that, I have to say it looks great, with some really exciting articles in it. I can say this without boasting because they are very largely the results of the efforts of Vincent Mosco and Catherine McKercher, my co-editors, with whom it has been a delight and a privilege to work. Vincent is perhaps most famous as the author of the classic, now reissued, ‘The Political Economy of Communication’ and has an unrivalled network of interesting contacts around the world, from which this issue has profited. Catherine, before becoming a professor in the School of Journalism at Carleton University, had a background as a journalist and (like me) as an active trade unionist in the media.
This has brought a whole new dimension of reflexivity to the collective editing of a volume which focuses on how communications workers are organising in a global economy.
In 1970, when I first went to work for Penguin Books, the tasks that I have been doing single-handedly on this journal would have been distributed across a multitude of different workers, many in different unions. At the publisher’s office, at the top of the creative chain there were the high and mighty commissioning editors. Then there was a large copy-editing department, mostly made up of recent graduates (for whom, we discovered, the employer was claiming a hefty grant from the Printed and Kindred Trades Trades Federation for ‘training’). There were graphic designers (mostly freelance and many of them ‘big names’ like Derek Birdsall). Working to their direction was a large typography department which, at Penguin Education, at least, included two illustrators. There was a production department, that liaised with the printers and came round once a week chasing everyone up on progress. Then there was a picture research department, a marketing department and a publicity department. At the printers, there were typesetters and proof-readers and electricians and labourers and a number of other people whose trades I didn’t even understand connected with anything from turning photographs into plates to bookbinding (though this was often done by a different company). And we also dealt with innumerable freelance photographers, writers and other creative people. At the time I started, ‘working in publishing’ was considered genteel but was extremely poorly paid. (I was on the copy-editing grade which paid a starting salary of £650 pounds a year, with two weeks holiday, at a time when a semi-skilled factory worker could expect over £30 a week. I was lucky to be started one step up, at £700 a year). The only publishers that were unionised were a couple that were owned by magazine groups (IPC and BPC) where the magazine journalists’ agreements with the National Union of Journalists had been extended to cover book editors, and a couple of university presses outside London where the staff had joined the major white-collar union in manufacturing industry at the time, the ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff – how these old acronyms still trip off the tongue!).
But designers were in a union called SLADE, and other printworkers variously in the NGA and SOGAT, with some clerical staff also in a union called NATSOPA (no I am not going to spell all these out – if you’re anal enough to be interested you can just google them). Most of these workers were really good at what they did. There was of course some jostling, driven I suspect partly be professional pride as well as commercial interests, in the course of which people tried to wrong-foot each other. For instance the galley proofs of a book (long ribbons of text that was already the right width for the page but not yet broken down into separate pages – that came later with the page proofs) had to be proof-read three times, by the author, the publisher’s copy-editor and the printer’s proof-reading, each using a different colour pen, so that the cost of each correction (known as ‘alts’) could be correctly ascribed: if the change was an authorial whim, the cost was deducted from royalties, if it was a typesetting error, the printer bore the cost, with the publisher only picking up the cost of the errors that were the copy editor’s fault. But by and large what I remember is a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect.
I mention all this because, thanks in large part to information and communications technologies, but also to the large-scale defeat of these unions, I now find myself in the strange and ambiguous position of carrying out just about all of these tasks myself plus several new ones that didn’t exist at the time including web-site design (including adding Paypal buttons), manipulating photoshop images and dealing with the faceless multinational companies that do online publishing and print on demand.
You could say, therefore, that I have become truly multi-skilled. But it absolutely does not feel that way. There is none of the satisfaction of feeling that one is learning to do something ‘properly’ from a ‘master’ (or ‘mistress’). Each task involves following detailed instructions, often astonishingly badly written, on how to use a particular software package or use company-specific procedures for preparing and uploading files, organising payment or whatever. These procedures are highly Taylorised: the labour processes that might once have been carried out by employees of these companies, or their predecessors, have been externalised to ‘users’ or ‘customers’ but in such a way that there is no possibility of dialogue between these ‘users’ and the people who design the software packages, websites, online forms and other interfaces which dictate the content and sequencing of our labour processes. The process by which this journal reaches its readers is in fact a perfect illustration of the very topic the journal addresses. I never meet the people all over the world whose labour processes payments and files and turns them into printed and bound books, physically delivered to customers or hyperlinked searchable online files. If there is a need for communication by email or, more rarely, phone, this is because I have failed to understand their instructions (nothing is EVER their fault!) and the encounter is tense and defensive. I am sometimes reduced almost to tears with anger and frustration at failures of communication or technological problems (usually insoluble without the purchase of some expensive upgrade).
The skills I have acquired give only the most ephemeral form of satisfaction because I know how quickly they will become obsolete. Anyone who uses any software package for any length of time develops some tacit skills – short cuts, and workarounds for overcoming its glitches and a memory of the submenu in which a rarely-used command is hidden. But every ‘upgrade’ wipes out this knowledge and reduces one, once again, to a frustrated and fumbling beginner.
I sometimes wonder what happens to all that redundant brain circuitry that contains those ghostly memories of redundant technological knowledge (of how, for instance, to tell one’s fingers to hit ‘control’, ‘O’ and ‘C’ simultaneously in order to centre a heading in Wordstar 2, which in turn replaced the old typist’s trick of setting a tab to the centre of the page, hitting the tab key and then hitting the backspace key once for every two characters in the title). It is a bit like that intimate knowledge one develops of a district (knowing the shortcut to the station; the place you can get a key cut at midnight; the reliably quiet pub; the shop that sells cheap paint) which becomes useless overnight when one moves house. How much of one’s personal hard drive is it clogging?
Oh, not to forget the advertising, if you want to buy a copy of the excellent ‘Getting the Message: communications workers and global value chains’ you can order it as a book from Merlin Press at
or read it online at

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