Marble Falls George Orwell’s 1984 may have missed the year, but with the advent of computers and new monitoring software, he was right about the peril of constant surveillance, even if it has turned out to be more pronounced in the workplace than in public space. I say that with a slight modification, because there’s no way that any of us can watch police procedurals on Netflix from the UK, EU, Scandinavian, and Asian countries and not be shocked by the constant eyes in the sky from CCTV. All of this is out of control!
The New York Times produced a long and frightening piece about the rapid adoption of monitoring tools using computer keystrokes and cameras to measure worker productivity during the pandemic lockdown, much of which has continued now and is becoming ever more ubiquitous even in white-collar jobs. The tradeoff of home-based work for many became constant surveillance. Some of this is old hat for blue collar workers. It’s not news on the factory floor where time-motion studies or Taylorism has been with us for more than a century. Amazon warehouses were so aggressive in monitoring workers that they have been forced in this moment of worker activity to dial some of it back, even as other companies are galloping forward to implement similar practices. Truck drivers have been under this gun for years as well, but now it’s coming for many, many other jobs.
As a still developing bit of intrusion these systems have some very rough edges and workers are complaining because those edges are dragging down their pay. It could get worse, if not inevitable, as the Times reports:
Tommy Weir, whose company Enaible, provides group productivity scores to Fortune 500 companies, aims to eventually use individual scores to calibrate pay. “The real question,” he said, “is which companies are going to use it and when, and which companies are going to become irrelevant?”
It’s also creepy! Reading the article on-line while writing this, the Times monitored my reading. Because I had to copy and paste several sections, like the ones quoted here, the Times scored my production as “acceptable” saying they “had seen worse”, because my reading speed was fine, but they counted struggles to copy the quotes as dilatory, which in their tool counted as a break.
Zephyr Teachout, now a professor at NYU Law School, but someone long known to us from times we had her meet with ACORN’s top staff after an earlier iteration of her career as the web and social media maven in former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s long ago presidential campaign, unpacks the deeper problems in the New York Review of Books that we have allowed corporations a totalitarian set of powers in the workplace, even as we have tried to legislate privacy and protections elsewhere. She references a University of Michigan political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson’s arguments about “private government” where “employment is a form of government” with “coercive power”. As Teachout reports,
Many modern “thinkers and politicians,” she [Anderson] argues, are “like those patients who cannot perceive one-half of their bodies”: they cannot perceive the half that takes place beyond the market, after the employment contract is accepted.” As a result, … Many private-sector workers …live under dictatorships in their work lives. Usually, those dictatorships have the legal authority to regulate workers’ off-hour lives as well – their political activities, speech, choice of sexual partner, use of recreational drug, alcohol, smoking, and exercise.
Not that this is new either. Listening to Professor Rob Dunn’s Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future recently on Henry Ford’s Brazilian rubber plantation fiasco, Fordlandia, Ford insisted, just as he did in Detroit when agreeing to a $5 a day wage, that the quid pro quo to the working there were certain diets, hygiene, and moral requirements.
What protections do workers have? Not much in the law, as the Times concedes,
Many of today’s workplace regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, were written long before “bottom performer” dashboard displays were conceivable. A New York law that took effect this spring requires employers to disclose the type of information they collect. But efforts to enact a similar rule in California stalled amid opposition from business groups.
What can I say? If you want any justice in this coming brave new world, it’s just us. Ready for a union anyone? That’s about the only hope workers today, and in the future, will have.