The Dictatorial Workplace08-06-2022
Zephyr Teachout has spoken regularly at Arendt Center Conferences and events. In the latest New York Review of Books she looks at the rapid and unprecedented rise of surveillance of workers. Teachout paints a dystopian picture of workers monitored, oppressed, and harmed by constant tracking, monitoring, and supervision. At the end of this drive to watch workers is, in the end, the desire to fully understand workers that they can be manipulated and exploited. Teachout writes:
At the dozen-plus places I had worked by the age of twenty-four, I punched in and out, sped up my dishwashing when the supervisor came through, weighed the beans I picked, bargained to get off early in exchange for cleaning extra bathrooms, and wrote reports for the third-grade teacher I assisted in the classroom. Even the tips I received while waitressing were my business, not the restaurants’. My bosses knew me superficially—my clothes, my general productivity—not what I thought or felt outside the workplace, unless I chose to share it.
As it happened, 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….
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.