Subordinated to Oneself: The Switchboard Operator as Early Self Manager

Junctions 4(2), 2019

As the ‘voice with a smile’, the telephone operator was the human interface for a complex telecommunications infrastructure, recalling voices, conversing with customers, and carrying out requests. Such service had to combine cognitive and affective labor in a way that felt natural. Drawing on workers memoirs, training manuals, and managerial rhetoric between 1890 and 1940—an era of taylorist rationalization—the article tracks how the operator highlighted the limits of such rationalization. Rather than the mold of management, the operator required a more supple regime of self-management. This labor form initiated a shift from a prescriptive, mechanical worker to a more holistic, self-directed model. Anticipating by several decades Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’ and Rose’s ‘enterprise of the self’, these theories nevertheless provide insight into this more flexible, more economic form of power. The operator thus provides a precursor for the contemporary subject who must also deftly combine cognitive and affective labor into an always-on, always-improving performance. In setting goals, auditing activity and integrating feedback, self-management proves more effective than any managerial intervention.