Workers as Cogs in a Digital Machine

For many workers, the 21st century workplace means constant, dehumanizing surveillance. This is an excerpt from “The Boss Will See You Now”, by law professor Zephyr Teachout for The New York Review of Books:

….The 1980s and 1990s were a major turning point in surveillance, the period when companies went on their first buying sprees for electronic performance-monitoring. In 1987 approximately six million workers were watched in some kind of mediated way, generally a video camera or audio recorder; by 1994, roughly one in seven American workers, about 20 million, was being electronically tracked at work. The numbers steadily increased from there. When videotape technology was supplanted by digital devices that could scan multiple locations at once, the cameras first installed to protect businesses from theft shifted their insatiable gaze from the merchandise to the workers.

The second big turning point in electronic performance-monitoring is happening right now. It’s driven by wearable tech, artificial intelligence, and Covid. Corporations’ use of surveillance software increased by 50 percent in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, according to some estimates, and has continued to grow.

This new tracking technology is ubiquitous and intrusive. Companies track for security, for efficiency, and because they can. They inspect and preserve and analyze movements, conversations, social connections, and affect. If the first surveillance expansion was a territorial grab, asserting authority over the whole person at work, the second is like fracking the land. It is changing the structural composition of how humans relate to one another and to themselves.

Some long-haul truckers have to drive a fifty-foot flatbed truck six hundred miles a day with a video camera staring them down the entire time, watching their eyes, their knuckles, their twitches, their whistles, their neck movements. Imagine living in front of that nosy boss-face camera for months on end as it scans your cab, which serves as your home most of the time….

Employers read employees’ e-mails, track their Internet use, and listen to their conversations. Nurses and warehouse workers are forced to wear ID badges, wristbands, or clothing with chips that track their movements, measuring steps and comparing them to coworkers’ and the steps taken yesterday.

…  Amazon, which minutely tracks every moment of a warehouse worker’s activity, every pause and conversation, has a patent for a wristband that would, the Times reported, “emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee’s hands were in relation to inventory bins” and then vibrate to steer the worker toward the correct bin. A “SmartCap” used in trucking monitors brainwaves for weariness.

Off-the-shelf human resources software can monitor workers’ tone of voice. One major firm, Cogito, touts its product as “the AI-informed coach [that] augments humans through live, in-call voice analysis and feedback.” While workers are making fifteen dollars an hour fielding angry consumer complaints in a cubicle, they must pay heed to a pop-up screen that starts flashing if they talk too fast, if there is overlap between their voice and the customer’s voice, or if a pause is too long….

In one sense, intimately tracking behavior is old news: the business model of tech companies like Facebook and Google, after all, relies on tracking users on- and off-site. The commodification of data is in its third decade. But surveillance and automatic management at work are different. Workers can’t opt out without losing their jobs: you can’t turn off the camera in the truck if doing so goes against company policy; you can’t rip the recording device off your ID card. And worker surveillance comes with a powerful implicit threat: if the company notices too much fatigue, you might get overlooked for a promotion. If it overhears something it doesn’t like, you could get fired.

The political implications of ubiquitous employment surveillance are monumental. While bosses always listened in on worker conversations, they could only listen rarely—anything more was logistically impossible. Not now. Employees have to assume that everything they say can be recorded. What does it mean when all the words, and the tone of those words, might be replayed? Whispering has lost its power….

Worker surveillance is installed for ostensible safety reasons, like the thermal cameras installed to protect customers and coworkers from a worker who has a fever. But it is not, it turns out, good for our well-being. Electronic surveillance puts the body of the tracked person in a state of perpetual hypervigilance, which is particularly bad for health—and worse when accompanied by powerlessness. Employees who know they are being monitored can become anxious, worn down, extremely tense, and angry. Monitoring causes a release of stress chemicals and keeps them flowing, which can aggravate heart problems. It can lead to mood disturbances, hyperventilation, and depression….

Is it any surprise that truckers’ mental health is suffering? Or that call center employees are breaking down? Truckers and call center workers report a kind of destabilizing fog, a constant layer of uncertainty and paranoia: which hand gesture, which bathroom break, which conversation was it that caused me to lose that bonus? “I know we’re on a job, but, I mean, I’m afraid to scratch my nose,” an Amazon driver told Insider for a story about the company’s driver-facing cameras. She didn’t share her name for fear of reprisal….

The modern promise of tech personalization, building on a romanticized notion of individuality and authenticity, is that we can all live in tailor-made worlds, with newsfeeds adjusted to our preferences and professional and leisure interests. You may be one of few listeners who loves both Kenny Rogers and the Cure, but Spotify knows you, and can bring you songs that speak to your singular soul.

But extending this tailor-made ethos is exquisitely unromantic: these eyes may have the intimacy and memory of a lover, but they lack all affection. Modern surveillance technology means that tailor-made wages are coming for all workplaces [i.e. workers won’t be paid at a fixed rate; their wages will constantly be adjusted depending on their most recent performance, as measured through digital surveillance]. The mass-produced, nonunionized depressed wages of the late twentieth century were already alarming, but the new, specially commissioned AI wages of the twenty-first century enable a new level of authoritarianism. To stop it, we’ll have to outlaw particular forms of spying, and use antimonopoly and labor laws to restructure power.

Tracking technology may be marketed as tools to protect people, but will end up being used to identify with precision how little each worker is willing to make. It will be used to depress wages and also kill the camaraderie that precedes unionization by making it harder to connect with other workers, poisoning the community that enables democratic debate. It will be used to disrupt solidarity by paying workers differently. And it will lead to anxiety and fear permeating more workplaces, as the fog of not knowing why you got a bonus or demotion shapes the day.

This matters because work is not an afterthought for democratic society; the relationships built at work are an essential building block. With wholly atomized workers, discouraged from connecting with one another but forced to offer a full, private portrait of themselves to their bosses, I cannot imagine a democracy.