Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

The Creepy, Intrusive Ways You're Being Spied on at Work

How employers invade workers' privacy.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share
 
 
 
All the planning which under the old system was done by the workman, as a result of his personal experience, must of necessity under the new system be done by the management in accordance with the laws of the science. . . . One type of man is needed to plan ahead and an entirely different type to execute the work.

From this quotation we see that Taylor was attempting to use scientific explanations to justify the subordination of workers and the elevation of managers and engineers. Even today we may perceive managers, who oversee our work, as a natural and necessary component of any organization, but it was men like Taylor who created this “necessity.”

One serious downside to scientific management is that it’s dehumanizing—it treats workers like machine parts that can be manipulated and discarded at will. In 1913 some workers at a military arsenal wrote to their congressman:
 

We object to the use of the Stop Watch, as it is used [as] a means of speeding men up to a point beyond their normal capacity. It is humiliating and savors too much of the slave driver. . . . [h e Stop Watch system] has resulted in accidents, inferior work and numerous abuses such as no American Citizen should be called upon to endure.

In response to opposition by arsenal workers and trade unions, Congress eventually eliminated scientific management programs at all federal installations, but the ideas have continued to shape management practices throughout many organizations.

Ford Had a Better Idea

Taylor wasn’t the only one trying to get more out of workers. Drawing inspiration from the Chicago meatpacking industry, Henry Ford is often credited with instituting a version of scientific management in his automobile assembly lines. Ford’s assembly lines are among the most famous icons of industrial efficiency—they allowed for important changes in the visibility and accountability of workers, who were now in the open, each performing one specialized task, under specific guidelines for speed and quality. But Ford’s surveillance extended beyond the factory walls and into workers’ homes. In 1913 Ford created a Sociological Department (later renamed the Educational Department) to engage in a moral mission of monitoring workers outside the workplace to ensure that they were upright individuals of good character. The investigators of the Sociological Department “visited workers’ homes gathering information and giving advice on the intimate details of the family budget, diet, living arrangements, recreation, social outlook, and morality.” Workers were put on probation or i red if they “refused to learn English, rejected the advice of the investigator, gambled, [or] drank excessively.”

While some of this may sound outrageously paternalistic today, employers still make judgments about employees’ character based on how they look, how they talk, their sexual orientation, or whether they use prohibited recreational substances. Though many forms of discrimination are now illegal, that doesn’t stop these practices from happening behind the scenes. And in some cases, as with drug testing, employees are still held accountable for what they do when they’re not working, regardless of whether it af ects their job performance. (More on this later.)

Surveillance in the Modern Workplace

Taylorism is alive and well in the surveillance society. The electronic systems we use at work automatically log almost everything we do, rendering our activities more “manageable” through analysis and comparison. In other words, workplace technologies simultaneously enable us to do our jobs and create data so others can evaluate our performance. Communications scholar Mark Andrejevic explains:
 

Keystroke monitoring programs, for example, deter employees from using computers for non-work-related activities while they simultaneously provide a detailed record of worker productivity. Bar code scanners in supermarkets serve not only to record prices, making the checkout worker’s job faster and easier; they can also keep track of the checker’s scan rate to monitor productivity, as can portable, networked, GPS-equipped devices for delivery workers and truckers.

Even the American farmer, a long-standing icon of independence, might be driving a tractor with a GPS-computer interface that uses satellites to guide the plowing and provides full reports and maps on   the day’s coverage. We’ve let the stopwatch in the dust. Taylor would be proud.