Her credentials were impeccable. Studying the history of work for her doctorate at Harvard in the 1970s, and later working as an organizational change consultant, Professor Zuboff had become fascinated by, and developed expertise in, the effects of technology on people and processes in different types of work environments. Consulting to a Wall Street bank, she observed clerks accustomed to a manual assembly line for processing loans and letters of credit adjust to using computers for the first time. At another client, a daily newspaper, she examined the effects of computerizing typesetting. She visited large pulp mills around the United States to research the impact of installing IT systems to automate pulp production. In these settings and others, she witnessed employees’ excitement and curiosity about new technology, as well their anxiety. She chronicled how, in some places, technology robbed employees of meaningful involvement in work processes.
In 1988, she had published her findings in the book In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (Basic Books), a sweeping analysis of how information technology would transform the workplace. Smart Machine held out the promise that progressive, “informating” organizations would use technology to help employees become more effective and engaged, enlisting their criticisms and insights to improve organizational performance and the quality of life on the job. This would make corporations more agile and creatively responsive to their customers — ultimately making them more successful.
But that day on television, Professor Zuboff found herself at a loss for words to make the case that “enlightened” companies would be the force for widespread improvement in the nature of work and output. “I suddenly had this out-of-body experience,” she recalls. “I didn’t believe a word I was saying.”
That realization triggered an intellectual crisis that affected both her personal and professional life. She started to question the tenets on which she had built her career. She moved to a farm in a remote town in Maine, and for several years commuted to Boston to teach at Harvard. But by the late 1990s, Professor Zuboff had virtually disappeared from the Harvard campus. She said — publicly and controversially — that she could no longer teach in Harvard’s MBA program because she regarded much of its curriculum as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
“I decided I had two choices,” recalls Professor Zuboff. “I would either have to find a new field, or I would have to look at my field in a new way.”
She chose the latter. Her journey of disillusionment led to The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism (Viking Penguin, 2002), which she cowrote with her husband, Jim Maxmin, the former CEO of Laura Ashley, Thorn EMI Home Electronics, and Volvo U.K. The book, a strategy+business Best Book of 2003, states that the capitalist system is currently undergoing an “epochal” shift, facilitated by information technology, from mass consumption to individualistic consumption. At the heart of Professor Zuboff’s argument is a belief that she shares with other management thought leaders: People living in a complex and stressful world are seeking more “control over the quality of their lives, not just the quantity of their stuff.” A new society of individuals, she says, not only want a consumption experience that is attuned to their individual needs, but are seeking what Professor Zuboff calls “psychological self-determination” — power as individuals to define what is valuable in our lives and a part in creating it.