Fans of the 1999 movie Office Space will have surely noticed the recent front page above-the-fold article in last Sunday’s New York Times on working conditions at Amazon has stirred up a lot of interest, including a response from Jeff Bezos himself (who states, somewhat incongruously, that he has “zero tolerance for lack of empathy”). One of the reasons that this article gained so much traction (as opposed to the steady drip-drip of articles about work conditions at it’s warehouses), is that it focused on the changing work environment of many upper-middle-class white-collar workers all over the country (which is, let’s face it, the readership of the New York Times). The rise of the 24/7 work culture, constant e-mail, tethering to our smartphones, and now the micro-surveillance of work “productivity” has now passed some kind of rubicon, where more and more people are increasingly asking, like the Peter Gibbons character in the film: what’s the whole point of it?
It’s somewhat unfair to single out a single company, because many of these big companies are travelling on exactly same path towards complete office surveillance, as noted in the article, they’re just not as advanced as Amazon. But in the absence of concerted efforts to oppose such tendencies, a passive acceptance of corporate doublespeak, and driven by the inexorable logic of neoliberalism and it’s attendant artificial construct of the “ideal worker” (young, male, unmarried, no children, identifies corporate goals as personal goals, disinterested and uninvolved in their local community), and a metric-obsessed culture, this is where we’re heading. This is true whether you’re in business, government, journalism, or even academia (more on that maybe in another post) and it’s not pretty.
It would be one thing if this workplace data was under the complete control of the user (and under strong encryption), in other words it was up to the worker to decide whether to share this data with their boss (this is the mantra of the “Quantified Self” movement). But these technologies are not really being designed with feedback to the user in mind; ultimately these are technologies are being instituted for top-down command-and-control, no matter how much they are cocooned in the warm fuzzy language of contemporary corporate HR speak. They might be optional at first, but as we all know from experience with other kinds of technologies, they soon become mandatory, and then they become background, beyond questioning. A case in point (as noted in another The New York Times article in that same week) is that of Southern California saleswoman for a company called Intermex, Myrna Arias who:
was required to download an app on her cellphone that tracked her whereabouts 24 hours a day, she claims in a lawsuit now pending in federal court. Ms. Arias’s suit quotes her manager as saying, perhaps jokingly, that he knew how fast she was driving at all times.
This article notes that many companies have regularly been introducing more and more surveillance technology in the guise of “workplace productivity apps”. It’s testament to how much the culture has tilted towards the uncritical acceptance of these kind of Orwellian practices that a CEO of Silicon Valley start-up can say things like this with a straight-face:
In the office of the future, you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.
Really, you couldn’t imagine that? Well, gee, how about deciding for yourself? Can’t you tell whether you’ve enjoyed your day, had encouraging and warm interactions with your co-workers, felt like you’ve done a good job, or helped people, do you really need an app to tell you these things? Because those things are just as much part of what makes a job meaningful to most people as lines of code written or number of emails answered. Maybe if you genuinely can’t tell, and you’re running from meeting to meeting and living in conference rooms, it’s entirely possible you’re holding down one of those, as the anthropologist David Graeber has so delicately described, “bullshit jobs“.