They Call It Fun, But the Digital Giants Are Turning Workers Into Robots
“Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft.” So run the three Orwellian aphorisms at the heart of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, whose film version – starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks – will arrive in cinemas this spring. Given that the story centres on an omnipotent hybrid of Google, Twitter and Facebook, and asks exacting questions about their shared vision of the future, the timing is perfect – chiming with rising angst about the digital giants’ imperial approach to information, and the sense that their power and recklessness is now having so-called real-world impacts, and huge ones at that. Such, perhaps, is the zeitgeist of early 2017: tech-fear fusing with terror about Donald Trump and Brexit, leaving millions of us in a state of twitchy anxiety.
At the heart of the novel and film is the Circle corporation, whose logo suggests a stylised panopticon, and whose leaders want to shape the world in the image of their Californian HQ. There, privacy and autonomy count for almost nothing. Under a veneer of feelgoodism, employees are complicit in their own constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.
The details of their online and offline lives are judged according to “an algorithim-generated number” that measures their activity. “It’s just for fun,” a company high-up tells the story’s principal character. But, of course, it isn’t: that’s just one more example of the passive-aggressive ways of Silicon Valley, underpinned by the insane demands summed up in one of the Circle’s slogans, “Let’s do this. Let’s do all of this.”Even when it was published, The Circle – whose plot is driven by the drive to make the whole of humanity “clear”, or subject to constant online scrutiny – felt less like satire than a pretty accurate portrayal of where advanced societies were headed, particularly in relation to workplace surveillance, and the way it is blurring into the monitoring of the whole of people’s lives. Of course, from the punch-clock to the tyranny of time-and-motion studies, businesses have always tried to maximise control of their workers, usually under the auspices of efficiency. But the digital age has long since allowed this tendency to take mind-boggling forms.
I spoke this week to a trade union organiser who works in two key fields: the huge warehouses run by online retail giants, and driver deliveries. In the former, she told me, employees are often tracked so closely that their managers can see if they pause between tasks or, even more unthinkably, stop for a chat with their fellow workers – something betrayed when dots on a GPS machine cluster together. Socialising becomes all but impossible; the idea of meeting a partner at work looks like a laughable relic.
Meanwhile, when it comes to anything that involves a human being and a car, van or lorry, the same tracking means productivity must be squeezed out of every second: even stopping at Tesco for a sandwich can be an unwise decision. Fighting all this, I was told, is usually viable only in workplaces with a strong union – and besides, people used to their work being constantly monitored tend to now expect it: as my contact put it, “They don’t think it’s that bad. It seems normal.”These long-standing techniques are now creeping into supposedly higher-ranking jobs. PartiRank may be fictional, but there are no end of real-life equivalents: “platforms” companies can buy in that allow them not just to track their employees’ movements and interactions but to install exactly the kind of continuing, neurotic-looking peer appraisal Eggers wrote about.
If you hear the term “people analytics”, worry. Some systems are straightforwardly intrusive: Worksnaps, for example, is an application that can take repeated screenshots of workers’ computers, count their mouse-clicks and take webcam images. Others are more passive-aggressive: BetterWorks uses a Facebook-like application that depends on employees publicly posting their supposed workplace goals, and regularly issuing “cheers” and “nudges” to their colleagues. “In the office of the future,” says the chief executive of the company responsible, “you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it.”
The increasing ubiquity of Fitbits – the wearable devices that track how much you walk, the quality of your sleep, your heart rate and more – is of a piece. The US retail chain Target announced in 2015 that Fitbit trackers were to be offered to its 335,000 workers, as part of its embrace of what the business vernacular calls “corporate wellness programmes”. As things stand, workers who opt to have their metabolisms monitored are organised into teams who compete to raise money for charity. Just for fun, then. Until, perhaps, it’s not.
If you doubt the sinister elements of what’s going on, consider the case of Myrna Arias, who worked for a Miami-based money exchange company that insisted she download a tracking app on to her phone that logged her whereabouts 24 hours a day. She deleted the app and was fired, leading to legal action that was settled out of court. Or maybe have a look at the story of two parking inspectors in Sydneyrecently sacked for the content of conversations picked up on their body cameras.
Closer to home, according to reports last weekend, a US-based company called Humanyze – nice, that – is working with British businesses including a high street bank and the consulting firm Deloitte, as well as parts of the NHS. On first sight, it is hard to shake off the feeling that what they do must be some sort of joke: their methods are all about “sociometric” badges worn by employees to record their movements, interactions and “speaking patterns”.
To quote one account of what that entails: “Humanyze’s badge can track physical activities in real time, capture ‘nonlinguistic social signals such as interest and excitement’ without recording actual words, locate wearers and their proximity to other wearers, and communicate with other electronic devices.” The company says that its work helps companies “enhance teamwork and employee engagement, improve processes, and plan for growth”. What it does to the people who have to wear the badges is so far unclear.
In the context of the automated future, what all this means is pretty obvious. On the way to being replaced by a robot, you will have to become one, and tumble into a mode of existence glimpsed 20 years ago on the amazingly prescient Radiohead album OK Computer, in the sound-collage titled Fitter Happier. Intoned by a Stephen Hawking-like speech synthesizer, the words long ago became a grimly funny signifier for modern living: “Fitter, happier / More productive / Comfortable / Not drinking too much / Regular exercise at the gym, three days a week / Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries.”
And here we are – with, unbelievably, the selfsame vision now enforced by wraparound surveillance. Judging by the way the idea is sold, the people responsible, for reasons that speak volumes about the tech world’s endless naivety, they see it as a kind of super-efficient utopia. Anyone with a grasp of what makes us human should surely recognise it for what it is: Stasi capitalism, apparently furthering its dominance at a terrifying speed, with only the faintest murmurs of protest.