Automatons, sales-floor control and the constitution of authority

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Workplace authority in contemporary contexts is increasingly being constituted through online automatons, internet platforms whose logic is diametrically opposed to the notion of hierarchical knowledge. They govern the organization of work and derive legitimacy from three principles: (1) the streaming of information into a network composed of all workers; (2) the transparency of the information and measurements they provide to workers; and (3) their automatic self-regulation, which obscures the role of management in their design. Via interviews and on-site observation in a large computer chain store, I examined how one automaton controls workers through a complex system of sales contests. To lure workers into active engagement with the automaton, management offers hefty prizes to contest winners and also strives to legitimate the automaton’s operation by presenting the contests as fair and just. Through the behavioural scripts inscribed into it, the automaton fosters belief in markets as efficient means of resource allocation and promotes self-interested behaviour and arm’s-length social ties. Smart artefacts like this automaton, which foster belief and generate authority through workers’ prescribed engagement with them, are, I argue, emerging as effective managerial tools in a variety of work contexts, part of a pattern of increasing automation of workplace authority.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)889-909
Number of pages21
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018.


  • allelopticon
  • automation of workplace authority
  • automatons
  • internet and work
  • new technology
  • objects of belief
  • organizational theory
  • sales and service work
  • workplace authority

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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