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Mara Mills: Overload: Telephone Operators and Digital Labor c. 1913
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Overload: Telephone Operators and Digital Labor c. 1913
Mara Mills, New York University
This talk considers the long history of “tech work” and automation through a focus on the telephone switchboard, to which Claude Shannon famously applied Boolean algebra for streamlining in 1938. Labor historians point to the Bell System/AT&T (the largest company and private employer in the world throughout much of the 20th century) for developments in managerial capitalism, industrial psychology, quality control, and electronics that continue to influence the workplace today. Telephone operators made up more than half the Bell workforce in the early 20th century, and labor historians suggest that operator management issues as much as technical innovation drove switchboard automation after 1913, when the Bell System consolidated its power as a legally sanctioned monopoly. Thinking alongside Frantz Fanon’s mid-century insights about telephone operators, madness, and surveillance capitalism, in this talk I highlight another 1913 shift—workers’ compensation in New York and in the Bell System—as an overlooked factor in labor management and early automation. I consider the restrictive definition of “disability” as it emerged in this moment, especially the ways this concept was gendered and racialized. I also discuss the paradox of industrial capitalism requiring uncompensatable fatigue and occupational illness from “overload”—a new term that spanned circuits and bodies.
Mara Mills is Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University where she co-founded and co-directs the NYU Center for Disability Studies. Her book Hearing Loss and the History of Information Theory is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Mills is currently working on the history of optical character recognition and, with Jonathan Sterne, she is co-authoring a book titled Tuning Time: Histories of Sound and Speed. In addition to co-editing several books and journal issues (most recently, Testing Hearing: The Making of Modern Aurality, published by Oxford in 2020), she has articles in Technology & Culture, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Grey Room, differences, Social Text, and PMLA, among many other academic journals. Her writing has been translated into German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. More at maramills.org.