Posts Tagged ‘Workplace Surveillance’

Robotic jobs, robots and the future of work

September 9, 2019

A lot of corporate managers, especially in Silicon Valley, have a goal of replacing workers with automated machines.  The path to that goal is to make work as machine-like and automatic as possible..

I always used to feel sorry for telephone operators 25 years ago because very minute of their workday was monitored so that they always gave a specific automatic response.  Now this has become a pattern.

 Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs recently wrote about how this is becoming the new normal.

[A] feature in the Wall Street Journal … shows how new technologies are enabling employers to spy on a fictitious employee named Chet.

Chet’s boss knows what time he wakes up, because his phone detects changes in his physical activity.  

Chet’s whereabouts are tracked at all times, and his employer can watch him stop for coffee before work, and even knows what part of the building he is in and whether he has strayed into any “unauthorized areas.”

Image via Fast Company

The precise time he arrives at work will be logged, all of his emails will be read, and Chet’s work computer snaps a screenshot every 30 seconds so that the employer can verify that he is staying on task.  

His “phone conversations can be recorded, transcribed and monitored for rate of speech and tone,” his interactions with other employees are recorded and analyzed, and his company even tracks his fitness and can use it to adjust his benefits.

An accompanying Wall Street Journal article indicates that these kinds of employer surveillance techniques are increasingly common, and “there’s almost nothing you can do about it.”

And there are even more invasive possible techniques—I recently read an MIT Technology Review article called “This company embeds microchips in its employees, and they love it,” which I liked because nowhere in the body of the article itself is there any quote indicating that the employees do, indeed, “love it.”  

One of them says that you get used to it after a time, which I do not doubt.

Importantly, though, under the philosophy that Free Markets are fair, there is no actual language with which we can object to these things.  

Unless the employees are being kidnapped and enslaved, this is just “freedom of contract.”

If they didn’t want their employer screenshotting their workspace, or taking pictures of their penis in the company bathroom, they shouldn’t have signed a contract that allowed said employer “all possible latitude to do as they see fit to further the interests of the company.”  Sucks for you, Chet.

In the innocent-seeming paragraph about freedom above, then, we can see the seeds of something perverse and disturbing.

The belief that the state shouldn’t “interfere” in “voluntary transactions” actually means that your boss should get to do whatever they want, and there should be “nothing you can do about it.”  

We can see here exactly how workers can be talked into forging their own chains: A well-funded operation convinces them of the Philosophy Of Freedom, and then they find out too late that this just means they have no recourse when horrible invasive things are done to them at work, and every moment of their life is monitored by a powerful entity that does not care whether they live or die.

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Big Brother and the ‘Internet of things’

August 7, 2014

The ‘Internet of things’ is the next big thing in technology.  Supposedly you will have combinations of sensors, RFID tags and Internet links that will be as much a part of you as your clothes, and will allow you  to control everything in your life, from your thermostat to your garage door.

But this is not just a new technology for people to control things.  It is a new technology for people to control other people as if they were things.

“The next wave is wearable technology, like Google Glass, smart watches, and smart vests,”  [Jason] Prater of Plex systems explained.

internetofthingsThe advantage of these devices is that they “will allow you to continue using your hands without having to input or look for data.”

The data will be sent to the factory’s computer where every movement and drop of sweat will be recorded and analyzed.

In Gartner [Inc.]’s words: monitoring, sensing and remote control … …

“Today, decisions are made instantaneously,” Prater said. “We can’t wait to hear about things after the fact.”

And then the industry insider too had an intriguing forecast: “Turning people into essentially walking sensors is going to be the future.”

via Wolf Street.

“Monitoring, sensing and remote control.”  Hmm.

Engineers will be able to constantly monitor the air temperature, humidity, and working conditions of a factory process, and track employee motions for ergonomics research and safety concerns.

New Internet-based technologies will allow all the data to be managed automatically, so that factory tooling and equipment can be adjusted without human intervention, Jason Prater … said … at the 2014 Management Briefing Seminars.

via Automotive News.

“Track employee motions.”  Hmm.

What the new technology will mean for factory workers is this: Managers will track what every line worker is doing every minute of the day, and make sure that (1) they never let up and (2) they always do things in the “one best way” as outlined in Frederick W. Taylor’s system of Scientific Management.

The key idea of Scientific Management is for industrial engineers to design an optimum way to perform any repetitive task, to teach factory workers to do it that way and to make sure they conform.

This is dehumanizing, but I think it is a bad idea even from the standpoint of economic efficiency—that is, unless you think economic efficiency is the same thing as managerial convenience.

The “one best way” system does not allow workers to use their intelligence and experience to adapt to variability of circumstancs.

And, of course, if you decide to treat employees as if they were machines, there is no reason not to decide to replace them with actual machines.

Telephone operators, data processors and customer service representatives know what it is like to work every minute of the day under surveillance, and to be punished for any slippage from the schedule or deviation from the script.  The new technology would bring surveillance and control to a new level.

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Goal of Becoming ‘Internet of Things’: Monitoring, Sensing, Remote Control – Factory Workers First, You Next by Wolf Richter on Wolf Street. Hat tip to Naked Capitalism.

The rise of the surveillance workplace

February 20, 2014

spying

Increasing numbers of American businesses are using NSA-type surveillance technology to monitor employee behavior on a minute-by-minute basis.  The data gathered by these monitors will be used to create algorithms for judging in advance which employees will be productive and which won’t.

One striking example of this technology is the Hitachi Business Microscope, a device that resembles an employee name tag.  An HBM can generate data on how an employee spent their day, when they stood up and sat down, when they nodded their heads, waved their arms, pointed their fingers or stretched, who they talked to and in what turn of voice, when they went to the bathroom or coffee machine and how long they spent doing it.

Hitachi says this data can be used to maximize “employee happiness.”  I can think of less benign potential uses.

The HBM is part of a new industry of manufacturers and consultants that purport to use surveillance technology to improve employee productivity.

I question how much improvement will actually take place.  Data is only useful to those who know how to interpret it correctly.  Having more data than you can comprehend is counter-productive.

What the new surveillance technology will do is to increase managerial control, which most managers fail to realize is an entirely different thing.

Developments like this make me glad I’m 77 years old and retired.   The great thing about being a newspaper reporter during the 40 years I worked in journalism was that you were free to do your job as you saw fit, and were judged by results.

I remember talking to some machinists for Eastman Kodak Co. in the late 1970s, who marveled that I in my job as a newspaper reporter was not only free to go to the bathroom without asking permission, but also to get up at will and go to the vending machine for cup of coffee.

Later on I was thankful not to be a telephone operator, telemarketer and customer service representative, who was monitored on whether he or she followed scripts and completed calls within an allotted time, or a data processor, whose work was measured keystroke by keystroke.

But the new technology takes workplace surveillance to a whole new level.   It is like the difference between Tsarist Russia and Soviet Russia.

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