XXVIII.4 July - August 2021
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Bridging knowledge and labor

Jonathan Bean

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Enzo, an experienced machinist quoted in a report prepared by the Forrester consulting firm, felt out of place when he joined a new shop at age 56. He knew that he had changed over time, "but the machines had changed a lot more. They had gotten very high tech. The work had changed; there's now a lot more prep: setting up the machine for the job, putting in codes, programming. But I wasn't interested in learning the new machines. I hated coming every morning. Putting in the codes scared me; I thought I'd break something. For decades, I'd been a top performer at a top shop—but here, I was a slacker" [1].

As computational technology and artificial intelligence continue to seep into all aspects of everyday life and work, it's not uncommon to hear concerns about robots replacing humans. This, according to the same Forrester report, is a misplaced fear. Not only do we lack the industrial capacity to produce enough robots to displace the world's 340 million workers, robots lack the agility to deal with tasks involving fine motor skills, which are easily done by humans. Some jobs will surely be replaced by machines. My garbage and recycling, for example, are picked up by a robot arm, almost comical in its articulation, that is mounted to the side of a garbage truck. The two workers who used to wrangle the bin from the curb and hop on the truck between houses are no longer in sight, though there is still someone who at least appears to be driving the apparatus. Will this human, too, disappear, or will their presence be necessary to calm fears about such a massive and potentially destructive machine operating of its own accord?

Putting a legitimate fear of physical safety aside, even highly skilled humans such as Enzo are not necessarily comfortable interacting with robots. While this is often attributed to a lack of skill, it's a problem that's equally rooted in Western culture, where what's often referred to as knowledge work is held in tension with a broad category of work considered manual labor. Anyone who has watched a machinist in action knows that manual labor is only part of the job. A machinist draws from a robust knowledge base to configure the machines that cut thread into pipe, stamp and fold sheet metal, or operate a lathe, regardless of whether these tools are controlled by the direct manipulation of a skilled set of hands or the indirect manipulation of hands on a keyboard. The way these differences ripple into broader culture is especially apparent in American culture, where class status is inextricably linked to one's work. The further the work is from manual labor, the higher the status. Elsewhere in the world, such as in India, this distinction is built into caste systems, where low-caste people have long been incorrectly regarded not only to be less intellectually capable than those born to a higher caste but also to prefer manual work. Aside from the deeply consequential problems engendered by caste and class, the fact remains that much work must be done by hand, and that leaving this work undone is simply not an option.

The line between manual labor and knowledge work is unclear.

The artificial boundary between knowledge work and manual labor cuts two ways, affecting both the contours of the labor force and the potential for much-needed innovation. This boundary is artificial because even those in jobs that involve so-called menial labor do knowledge work. Grocery store cashiers, for example, interact with database systems (checkout registers) and perform calculations on the fly when products are mispriced. And this is in addition to the emotional labor involved in many service jobs: the cheery smile and small talk that can be creepy when replicated by a robot. For those who can choose, a career in knowledge work typically holds the promise of a higher income and greater status, bringing with it the trade-offs of geographic distance and potentially reduced job security. Meanwhile, the social ties in communities where jobs revolve around manual labor have been weakened, in part because younger generations have opted for a higher-status future doing knowledge work in distant cities. This pattern, while pronounced in the context of the U.S., is also visible in global flows of migrants for whom the wage differential for manual labor—as a housekeeper, construction worker, or health aide—leads many to earn money in another country, leaving family and community for years and sometimes decades.

The other impact is not as immediately visible as geographic dislocation. As the example of Enzo illustrates, the line between manual labor and knowledge work is unclear. The explosion of cheap, everywhere computing, which futurists say has only just begun, suggests that it's likely most jobs, if not all, will involve a nonnegotiable element of human-computer interaction. The labor of housekeepers and custodians, for example, is now regularly tracked using smartphone apps. The apps automate scheduling, which eases the burden for companies that manage large numbers of housekeepers, while expanding the market for casual services that offer one-off cleaning services. The housekeepers and cleaners who find work with the apps, however, are often required to submit proof of their labor: photos of clean toilets, beds made according to precise instructions, and kitchen cabinets organized according to a given rule. As the Forrester report makes clear, this is work that is unlikely to be automated in the imaginable future. Perhaps we'll see a toilet-cleaning robot, but human labor will be needed to keep the packages in our pantry cabinets sorted by type of noodle. And not everyone wants to be scheduled, let alone monitored, by a computer. For workers in these industries, whose work is often already dehumanizing, a human touch is especially helpful in times of duress, such as when one is forced to give up a day of earnings to stay home to care for a sick child. Yes, tapping a smartphone can yield the same result, but it strips out a pathway to build an emotional connection between an employer and those doing the labor.

Let's take a look at another occupation to consider how the distance between manual labor and knowledge work produces negative outcomes for people and our world: the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) technician. You probably don't think about an HVACR tech until you need one, meaning you're too hot, too cold, or your refrigerator has stopped working. But the labor these people do is essential to all humans, and especially for those in the field of HCI. Not only do refrigeration systems make your home livable and keep your food fresh, but also the server farms that make today's Internet work require enormous amounts of cooling. Furthermore, the refrigerants these systems typically rely on are potent global-warming agents that leak at rates much higher than previously estimated [2]. Freon, which has the most name recognition, is no longer used. But its replacements, such as 410a, for example, which is often touted as an "eco-friendly" refrigerant, are still pretty bad—410a has a global-warming potential 2,088 times greater than carbon dioxide. It's not an overstatement to say that HVACR techs are the only line of defense between these problematic, but essential, chemicals and our shared environment. So why isn't there more interest in this important, well-paid, and stable line of work? Studies show that the cultural bias against blue-collar work is a prime reason people choose not to become an HVACR tech [3].


Studies show that the cultural bias against blue-collar work is a prime reason people choose not to become an HVACR tech.

So even though wages have been rising, the problem is that there aren't enough HVACR techs for the work needed. One immediate consequence is that systems go unserviced, leaving leaks unplugged and people in uncomfortable buildings. The longer-term outlook is more dire, especially as climate change will continue to make cities hotter. In New York City, the increased use of air-conditioning alone is projected to be responsible for almost 1 degree Fahrenheit of temperature rise. And while there is a significant amount of physical labor involved in servicing a broken AC unit—clambering around on a hot roof is no joke [4]—the complexity of today's highly efficient, computer-controlled units means that the diagnostic and repair processes require not only more knowledge but also a broader set of soft skills, including problem-solving, persistence, and communication.

Those soft skills are core elements of academic programs in interaction design, design thinking, and HCI. These programs, though, tend to be well insulated from direct exposure to manual labor behind the academic bulwark of knowledge work. I have seen few student projects or academic research efforts in these disciplines that focus on the prosaic subject of air-conditioning. In the disciplines of architectural engineering and building science, on the other hand, where there is an established focus on optimizing the efficiency and operation of these systems, the blind spot to the ongoing skills that are required to make them operate are only starting to be addressed [5]. In addition to the need to build hard skills and grow programs, the cultural division between manual labor and knowledge work has also undermined trust. Those who do the work in the field often feel, quite justifiably, that the knowledge they've learned through on-the-job experience is not valued by the knowledge workers in the office. Kimberly Llewellyn, performance construction technical lead at global manufacturer Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US, claims this lack of respect of the knowledge gained through labor and the value of labor in general is the core problem facing the construction industry [6].

Given its deep cultural roots in the privileging of knowledge work over manual labor, this lack of respect for the value of labor is surely a problem in other fields. And it is one that will continue to grow unless we can figure out how to build viable and durable bridges between those of us whom Llewellyn calls "credentialed professionals" and those charged with building, repairing, and maintaining all the digital-material things that make our world work. How can you build these bridges in your own HCI practice? Consultants and researchers can ensure that those whose jobs involve manual labor are well represented. Research questions should specifically address the moments of transition between knowledge work and manual labor. For example, what strategies does the HVACR technician use when a diagnostic sequence fails to produce a clear result? For my colleagues in the classroom, we need to find more opportunities to introduce our students to the critical work performed by those trusted to do manual labor. One way to do this would be to introduce those who do this kind of work to our students, remembering that we will likely need to visit the work site. A guest lecture works when the topic is abstract, but when the point of the lesson requires understanding the effort, skill, and hard work that go into jobs we are culturally patterned to overlook, nothing beats being there in person. Business, too, has a role to play, not only by investing in training programs—upskilling and reskilling the labor force—but also by making transparent to the broader public the value of all kinds of labor.

back to top  References

1. Le Clair, C., Gownder, J.P., and Higgins, S. Future Jobs: Plan for the Impact of Automation on Your Workforce Now. Forrester, 2020, 10.

2. Eilperin, J. and Butler, D. There's an invisible climate threat seeping from grocery store freezers. Biden wants to change that. The Washington Post. Feb. 15, 2021;

3. Heinemeier, K., Saucke, M., Bannor, K., Valenzuela, I., Harmon, G., and Howe, M. California Community Colleges: Attracting Students to the Skilled HVACR Trades. Barriers and Opportunities: Final Report. UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, 2016.

4. Lueders, E. Boiling point: In Tucson, not everyone is equal in the face of heat. The Guardian. Aug. 31, 2019;

5. Mukhopadhyay, J., Kalonde, G., and O'Toole, L. A review of relevant practices for the O&M of high-performance buildings. ASHRAE Transactions 126, 2 (2020), 532.

6. Bean, J. (Re)building respect. Medium. Mar. 17, 2021;

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Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He studies taste, technology, and market transformation. [email protected]

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