Outsourcing, Self-Service and the Telemobility of Work



This essay offers labor's advocates and ethnographers a conceptual and historical framework for outsourcing. Jobs being moved abroad are less the focus than work being transferred from the processes of production and distribution into the realms of consumption and everyday life. Call centers in India have attracted tremendous attention recently in the U.S. and have become an iconic site of outsourced jobs. The cultural politics animating these reactions are discussed, and comparisons are drawn between reactions to call centers and initial encounters with ATMs, in order to elaborate how we have approached outsourcing and automation as problems for labor. Both outsourcing and automation are analyzed in terms of the mobility of work, distinguishable from the mobility of labor and capital. Call center calls and ATM (automated teller machines) transactions are described as genres of outsourced work and as instances of customers working to serve themselves. Finally, self-service is conceptualized as collaborative, and some political implications of pursuing solidarity in call centers and at ATMs are noted. One upshot of this framework is that customers serving themselves emerge, alongside discounted labor and the newly unemployed, as another key group of outsourced workers who demand our ethnographic attention.