The Dystopian Technologies Being Used to Control Workers

By Thor Benson, a contributor to Truthdig, Slate, Vice, Fast Company, and many other publications. Follow him at @thor_benson. Originally published at In These Times

You’ve been fired. According to your employer’s data, your facial expressions showed you were insubordinate and not trustworthy. You also move your hands at a rate that is considered substandard. Other companies you may want to work for could receive this data, making it difficult for you to find other work in this field.

That may sound like a scenario straight out of a George Orwell novel, but it’s the future many American workers could soon be facing.

In early February, media outlets reported that Amazon had received a patent for ultrasonic wristbands that could track the movement of warehouse workers’ hands during their shifts. If workers’ hands began moving in the wrong direction, the wristband would buzz, issuing an electronic corrective. If employed, this technology could easily be used to further surveil employees who already work under intense supervision.

Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, recently instituted a complex and punitive inventory system where employees are graded based on everything from how quickly and effectively they stock shelves to how they report theft. The system is so harsh it reportedly causes employees enough stress to bring them to tears on a regular basis.

UPS drivers, who often operate individually on the road, are now becoming increasingly surveilled. Sensors in every UPS truck track when drivers’ seatbelts are put on, when doors open and close and when the engines start in order to monitor employee productivity at all times.

The technology company Steelcase has experimented with monitoring employees’ faces to judge their expressions. The company claims that this innovation, which monitors and analyzes workers’ facial movements throughout the work day, is being used for research and to inform best practices on the job. Other companies are also taking interest in this kind of mood-observing technology, from Bank of America to Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.

These developments are part of a larger trend of workers being watched and judged—often at jobs that offer low pay and demand long hours. Beyond simply tracking worker performance, it is becoming more common for companies to monitor the emails and phone calls their employees make, analyzing personal traits along with output.

Some companies are now using monitoring techniques—referred to as “people analytics”—to learn as much as they can about you, from your communication patterns to what types of websites you visit to how often you use the bathroom. This type of privacy invasion can cause employees immense stress, as they work with the constant knowledge that their boss is aware of their every behavior—and able to use that against them as they see fit.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute at Cornell University, tells In These Times that the level of surveillance workers are facing is increasing exponentially.

“If you look at what some people call ‘people analytics,’ it’s positively frightening,” Maltby says. “People analytics devices get how often you talk, the tone of your voice, where you are every single second you’re at work, your body language, your facial expressions and something called ‘patterns of interaction.’” He explains that some of these devices even record what employees say at work.

According to some experts, this high level of employee surveillance may actually harm the companies that use these techniques.

“In general, people experience more stress when they feel that someone is looking over their shoulder, real or virtual,” Michael Childers, director at the School for Workers, tells In These Times. “There is a large body of research documenting that stressful workplaces can potentially lead to many problems that reduce company profits, including increased turnover, more sick days used, higher workplace compensation costs, and ironically, even lower productivity.”

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, tells In These Times that this type of surveillance “deepens the antagonism, mutual suspicion, and hostility of employer relative to employee. It degrades worker morale and will probably fail—leading employers to conclude not that such surveillance is a bad idea, but rather than they need to automate to get rid of workers altogether.”

While this level of worker surveillance may be alarming, it has so far gone largely unchecked. Congress has never passed a law to regulate employee surveillance, Maltby says, and he doesn’t think it will any time soon. However, he says that either Congress or the Supreme Court could finally decide that employers have gone too far when they start tracking employee movement during a worker’s time off.

“The fight we’re gearing up for is [tracking] behavior off duty,” Maltby says. “Every cell phone in America has GPS capabilities baked into it,” along with cameras and microphones. Maltby worries that employers could soon begin using this technology to track the behavior of their employees outside of work. If this were to happen, Maltby believes U.S. lawmakers could be compelled to step in.

One the of the fears that labor and privacy advocates hold is that, over time, workers could get used to these types of invasions, and begin accepting them as a normal part of the job.

“The first time people hear about the newest privacy invasion, they get extremely angry, but eventually they just get used to it,” Maltby says. For example, at many jobs drug tests are now seen as standard, despite the fact that they invade employees’ private lives by monitoring their behaviors outside of work.

At a time of soaring inequality, low-wage workers are bearing the brunt of efforts to increase productivity and profits. The rise of these new tracking techniques show that companies are moving toward increasing their control over the lives of their employees.

While workers at the bottom of the wage scale may be the first to face such dystopian working conditions, other industries could soon embrace them. If we don’t want to live and work under the constant supervision of a far-away boss, now is the time to speak up and push back.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. nervos belli

    This will totally self-select for psychopaths in the workplace. They are excellent at hiding their inner thoughts and moods from the outside world, only they will thrive and be able to constantly have a cheery face outwards while inwardly plotting how to kill their supervisor.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I recognize what principle is at work here. This is the McNamara fallacy ( Well it didn’t work for Robert McNamara during the Vietnam war and it didn’t work for Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq occupation so I doubt that it will work here. A quote from that page-
    “The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”
    nervos belli was right. Only psychopaths will do well here. The same sort of people that can do well in the corporate scene so, future recruitment pool for MBAs?

    1. Synoia

      1. Us shareholders want feedback on the Management of our investments. The management of all companies are required to prove their value to shareholders minute by minute.

      2. Our elected representatives also must report them movements and actions daily, including a telephone log. Especially time spent of their business raising money on the phone at our expense.

      In addition:

      All MBA students should be subject to such surveillance.

      We taxpayers are providing them loans for their degrees, and we want feedback on their use of our money.

  3. Michael

    I recently came across a project where a company wanted to build a solution using facial recognition during interviews to enable the interviewer to detect lying (and other emotions) in candidates’ responses. All in real time. Besides the obvious ambiguities and false positives yielded by such a system, it seemed certain to lead to a change in the way the interviews were conducted, the types of questions, what the interviewer thinks is important, etc. Unfortunately, companies seem forever obsessed with the risks and costs of hiring “bad employees” while ignoring their role in providing a healthy workplace where workers can thrive.

    1. Jen

      One of the best ways to overcome the risk of hiring bad employees is to make the inevitable hiring mistakes and learn from them. The two worst hiring decisions I ever made were more instructive than any training sessions, possibly because HR cannot offer a class entitled “how to tell when your candidate is a toxic pathological liar and certified nut job.”

      The second best way to overcome that risk is to get rid of the bad employees when you find them, which is also an important part of providing a healthy work environment. And by get rid of, I mean fire them rather than pass them off to some other hapless department in ones own firm, which happens all too frequently.

      1. Michael

        The key idea here is that the term “bad employees” or “bad candidates” is rarely objectively measured or measurable. Management by Objective, often done hastily without reflection, distorts how employees should or would otherwise prioritize their activities. Management rarely spends time developing employee skills. Overly rigid processes lead to adaptive behavior that prevents better approaches. Hiring managers rather hire someone who can “hit the ground running” (i.e. deep contextual experience) rather than an employee who can learn and/or challenge with new ways of working. In my experience, “bad employee” is usually as much a management and company failure as it is the employee’s fault.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            No, there are bad employees, such as people who are lazy and backstabbing. They aren’t amenable to being “managed” into being better. I’ve had to fire that sort.

            1. Michael O

              Yeah – some people are just bad. Some aren’t a good fit for a particular job but, if they’re an otherwise good employee, they’ll raise the issue before the problem becomes obvious. Same with good employees who are burnt out or turned off doing something: they’ll bring it up and figure out a plan. But some are just liars, jerks, or all around creeps. They create a poison environment for the rest plus bring down overall work quality. They gotta go.

    2. Craig H.

      The last I heard the world’s leading authority on picking up lying from microexpressions was Ekman and he was saying that the many experiments so far had practically proved this was impossible. Some humans could (.5% or a number like that) do it but nobody could tell how and for all practical purposes it could now be considered as a psychic power. I searched on (Ekman lying microexpression) but could not find the piece I remember reading.

      1. Steve H.

        Ekman ‘wizards’ were about 1/10,000. The cues are there, they just don’t have the bias blinders the rest of us have. One I followed used to have a blog called ‘Eyes for Lies’, but even she said she could identify signs of deception but intent was far harder to determine.

        1. ambrit

          One of the tricks used to discover falsehood and or bias is to repeat the question several times during the questioning.

          1. Craig H.

            I went to a citizens police academy and they had a Columbo guy explaining how you get through a cover story quick. You interrupt the liar and ask him about some other point in his timeline. He can almost never go to that exact point and talk straight. He always has to back up to his memory key which is two or three or four events previous. And horrible liars have to go all the way back to step one and start all over again.

            He had a few other interrogation tips but that one was the bomb. If you can examine the liar the job is a lot easier than just trying to spot one-off lying interactions. That is a very very tough problem.

            1. ambrit

              Ah. If only certain politicians would use such techniques in public debates.
              After all, the purpose of a public debate is to winnow wheat from chaff, policywise.

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        I’m not sure it will matter if the test results are all that accurate. It’s a system of oppression and it creates its own reality. If it says we are lying, then we are lying. If someone objects, such as suggesting they be allowed to argue their innocence rather than not even knowing they are being judged, they become a potential threat, someone to keep an eye on (ha, ha – as if they won’t already be keeping an eye on everyone). It won’t take long before we believe in the system ourselves.

        Biometric analysis will become more accurate over time, but that may well be of secondary importance. Who knows where this nasty trend will stop. We are already juggling way too many life and species threatening balls at once.

        1. Andrew Dodds

          If we use it to optimise for overall productivity.. we could end up with the computers telling us to turn off the surveillance. Would we?

      3. Altandmain

        If there was actually a reliable way to determine lies, then the first people we should apply this to are:

        1. Politicians
        2. Public relations workers
        3. Corporate executives
        4. Rich people in general

        I’m sure you will figure out what we would want this. Then we would have to figure out among the honest people who was crazy delusional.

  4. Lemmy Caution

    What ever happened to the old “Our people are our most valuable resource” sentiment from the company brochure?

    This whole move to employee surveillance is terrifying, but employee bracelets that issue “electronic correctives” when someone moves the wrong way? Wow. Isn’t that pure operant conditioning that turns the workplace into one giant Skinner box?

    I guess if you’re a CEO yearning for the day when you can replace employees with AI, the next best thing is a bunch of meat robots.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Wage and debt slavery … creates a slave mentality, in both the slaves and the masters. This produces paranoia in both parties … is that the Nat Turner syndrome?

    2. Comradefrana

      “What ever happened to the old “Our people are our most valuable resource” sentiment from the company brochure?”

      I don’t know. To me, this kind of surveillance seems perfectly compatible with viewing people as ‘resources’.

      1. Doug Hillman

        HR = Human Recycling. “Soylent Green is people!”

        This digital panopticon is now as omnipresent and omniscient as God … and equally vengeful. Alas, for many the threat of eternal torment is a highly effective method of ensuring genuinely worshipful submission. Thou shalt love the lord thy employer with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves.

      2. Synoia

        Our people are our most valuable resource

        That’s so 20th century.

        Our people are our most costly expense

        Is the 21st Century mantra.

        Personally I cannot wait for AI to take out top management. Be nice to have some intelligence up there.

        1. J Sterling

          “Our people are our most costly expense”. Yes, oil is a valuable resource, but if it costs, you strive to use less of it.

          The big picture is that the post-war labor shortage forced employers to be actually attractive. Then, as the labor shortage went away, governments were forced to institute minimum wage laws, so employers turned to other expenses of employing workers, especially educated workers. The personal secretary went away, then the personal office, then the personal desk. Somewhere along the way the reserved parking place at the office disappeared, then any car parking on company premises at all.

          This is part of the same trend; can’t slash the wages fast enough, so squeeze every other part of the employment experience.

  5. Karen

    This was all brilliantly foretold by Marshall Brain in his short story Manna…back in 2003! That’s the year I had my daughter. If I had only known then what I know now…

  6. cnchal

    . . .“Every cell phone in America has GPS capabilities baked into it,” along with cameras and microphones. Maltby worries that employers could soon begin using this technology to track the behavior of their employees outside of work. If this were to happen, Maltby believes U.S. lawmakers could be compelled to step in.

    Considering that US lawmakers are owned by the elite any “compelling” will no doubt occur at the peasant level and it will become illegal to escape electronic monitoring. For your own “protection and safety” will be how it’s justified.

    I think nervos belli and the rev kev are wrong about psychopaths doing well within this system. Psychopaths are the ones imposing it, with Amazon being a prime example of gratuitous cruelty towards it’s employees. It’s a Gresham’s dynamic all the way down.

    Globalization is a disaster, no matter where one cares to look. What I am looking at is that Chinese peasant sweat shop standards are here, now. The elite here want the same control and extraction potential that the Chinese elite get out of their peasants.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Globalization was never to make the rest of the world like the US, but to make the rest of the world, including the US … to be like China/India. International capitalism was pioneered by the East India Company. Globalist wars were pioneered by the British in the Opium Wars. History repeats, but on a larger scale. What they fear is another Indian Mutiny or Boxer Rebellion.

          1. sierra7

            To, “…..crush American labor to a world level playing field”….was the Reagan mantra in the 1980’s. For those who espouse(d) this objective, it has been fairly successful. Labor is almost always treated as a liability and “business” has been forever trying to substitute something “other”. What Amazon is doing is truly inhuman(e). But, who’s gonna stop them??

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      My phone does not have GPS. Plus you can use Faraday bags and leave your phone at home a lot (I take it only when I am expecting a call or going to meet someone where they might need to give me a status update, otherwise my attitude is They Can Wait). But yes, most people are not willing to go to the trouble of not being geolocated.

      1. Bukko Boomeranger

        I do the same thing, Yves — leave the mobile phone at home most of the time, because I LIKE being out of touch. I’m too tightarse to buy a Faraday wallet, so I’ve been known to wrap mine in aluminium foil occasionally. (I do NOT wear the stuff inside my hat, I swear…) Using a shiny-inside potato chip bag does not work at blocking signals (recommended by one of my psych patients), just makes the screen all greasy. I can get away with my out-of-touchiness because nobody likes me. How does an internationally renowned media personality such as you pull off the disappearing act, though?

  7. Clive

    Many studies have demonstrated a strong link between motorway (freeway) accidents and passing — as in moving rather than stationary — police patrol vehicles.

    The reason? It is obvious to one’s common sense — a surveillance of any sort makes you nervous and wary, even if you’re not doing anything wrong. When you’re nervous you’re preoccupied. This means you’re prone to making mistakes and unforced errors.

    Any sort of initiative such as the ones described will be counter productive. But some employers don’t care about that. They simply hate their workers. Getting back at them for being an unavoidable cost is more important because of some inexplicable motive for revenge (not quite the right word, but the best I can come up with). I think a lot of CEOs need professional help.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Thats an interesting factoid, I hope to throw that into conversations in future.

      I wonder then is there a knock on effect of cyclists and motorcyclists wearing those ‘POLITE’ gilets that make people think for a moment you are police, and so drive more carefully around you. I’ve noticed that beyond doubt drivers are more cautious around me on my bike when I wear the while helmet and yellow gilet the bike mounted police here use. I find it oddly satisfying to know there is a significant chance that I may be causing fender benders behind me through the sheer force of psychology.

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        A friend mounted a ( very illegal) wig-wag circuit on a pair of PIAA lights he had on his Pan-European/ST1100. I was lane-splitting through rush hour in California years ago. He was following behind me, as if giving chase, when he switched them on. Was like parting the Red Sea.

    2. ambrit

      “I think a lot of CEOs need professional help.”
      They do indeed but they keep firing the ones who get any good through experience in favour of younger cheaper replacements. Alas, for many managers, a ‘yield curve’ is code for a scraping bow. That or, “assume the position!”
      The age old solution to offsetting obviously diminishing returns from a dodgy strategy is to describe it as “Magic!” Fantasy based frames of reference will trump rationality much of the time. Most people don’t ever conceive of themselves as having biases. It’s built in.

    3. diptherio

      Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson once commented that in trying to convince business owners of the benefits for their own profits that could be had by implementing more democratic management practices, it became clear that they were more concerned with maintaining their power vis a vis their workers than they were with their bottom line. Status is relative, afterall…

      1. Altandmain

        Yes Michal Kalecki noted something very similar and I’ve quoted this one before:

        4. We have considered the political reasons for the opposition to the policy of creating employment by government spending. But even if this opposition were overcome — as it may well be under the pressure of the masses — the maintenance of full employment would cause social and political changes which would give a new impetus to the opposition of the business leaders. Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.

        This is about power and domination. Businesses if they had to choose would rather make less money if it meant they had dominion over the rest of us.

        Marx wrote something very similar about the reserve army of labour.

      2. Dirk77

        If someone could suggest the motivation for this I’d appreciate it. Are they taught this at school? Are they picking it up reading those business books one sees at the airport? Or are they being selected for these qualities? I ask bc a former manager of mine (I quit) I hear made recent moves in his organization. They appear to harm the orgs effectiveness with the only result I can think of is to increase his grip on his employees. As if it’s not about results anymore. It’s puzzling to me.

  8. crappy

    “people analytics” A sugar-coated way to say surveillance.

    Where are these terms cooked up? “Gaming” instead of “gambling.” “Legacy media” instead of “MSM.” I could go on. Wish I knew.

    As for surveilling workers going about their day, what a creepy society we’re becoming.

    1. Lemmy Caution

      A work bracelet that buzzes when you move your arm in a non-productive way! The last thing I need is my boss pulling me aside to talk about how to streamline the wiping process when I take a dump on company time.

  9. JTMcPhee

    Will there be a point where things tip over into something like that Butlerian Jihad that Frank Herbert coined in “Dune”?

    I mean, before one of the many other mass vulnerabilities our inventive, disruptive species has created kills most or all of us?

  10. roadrider

    Two comments:

    1. I’m glad I’m less than four years away from retirement.

    2. Yes, cell phones are ready-made surveillance devices that can be (And already are being) exploited by corps and govt.. SO STOP (family blog)ING BUYING THEM AND USING THEM! As long as people continue to indulge in this mindless, lemming-like behavior with respect to these silly, grossly overpriced electronic toys then corps. and govt. will happily continue to exploit the surveillance capabilities of those devices.

    When I tell people that I don’t own a cell phone the most common reply is “Smart guy!”. It’s like telling smokers that you never started.. I’m just amazed by the mindless addition that people have to these devices which seem to buy used primarily to relieve boredom by engaging in mind-numbing activities like anti-social media. What’s the point?

    I also object to the presumption and expectation that everyone has one of these devices, products and services that are built around those presumptions and the disappearance of public phones – all of which practically coerces people into thinking that they can’t survive without them.

    So throw away those cell phones. You have nothing to lose except a useless device addiction, huge, unnecessary bills from sociopathic telecom providers and intrusion into your personal affairs by corps. and govt.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Excellent advice, but alas, we are a global society of convenience now and it’s unrealistic to imagine everyone will just put down the tracking mobil phones, and stop driving to and from work in the tracking cars and on tracking intersections, and stop buying tracking TV’s and tracking light bulbs, and tracking speakers and on and on, especially as these devices become the only things available.

      1. roadrider

        especially as these devices become the only things available.

        Yes, this is real problem – forced conformity. But I don’t think the situation is as hopeless as you do. Its only a matter of time before lower cost devices that don’t track you will be available. For example:

        Once people find out that they can get the “convenience” (which I still find to be a vanity-driven, pseudo-need) without the tracking then the current device-makers will be forced to compete. Of course that still leaves the ISPs and app makers but they’re ripe for being taken down too.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Yes, there are some positives and it’s likely that much of the AI currently being developed and misused, will provide a platform for the opposite to occur, but for the moment the overwhelming majority of these projects seem to be oriented toward goals that are not people oriented, but rather people control oriented. For one, they require huge investments as many aspects of AI are still very long term ones and that kind of money usually doesn’t come from the enlightened and compassionate.

          Thanks for that link, btw, that is potentially really good news! I hope it pans out. The model is so different from the current “norm” that I wonder if the PTB won’t try and throw sand in the works.

        2. Tom G.

          GPS-equipped or not, ALL cell phones are tracking devices. Without the local GPS receiver, the cellular network can still log which cell tower receives your signal and the signal strength. With a little number crunching that’s sufficient to determine your location to within a 1,000 foot radius, especially in urban areas where multiple towers may hear your phone at the same time.

          ANY cell phone that is connected to the network and can receive calls is a tracking device.

          1. vegeholic

            There are a number of geometric signal processing techniques such as “time difference of arrival” by which interested parties can locate your phone with surprising accuracy, without requiring GPS. It just makes it a slightly more challenging, and rewarding!, technical problem.

    2. bob

      “1. I’m glad I’m less than four years away from retirement”

      “As long as people continue to indulge in this mindless, lemming-like behavior with respect to these silly, grossly overpriced electronic toys then corps. and govt. will happily continue to exploit the surveillance capabilities of those devices.”

      It’s more or less impossible to find a job these days that doesn’t require a phone. For the very lucky, the phone may be furnished by the employer. Most require the employee to buy and use it.

      Is it explicitly stated? In many cases no. But try telling an HR person during the hiring process that you don’t have a phone, and will not use one.

      You won’t be employed. I’m glad that you’ve reached the seniority where you can make these life choices, without being fired. Most don’t have that luxury. Retirement it self is now in jeopardy for most. You are clearly very lucky.

      Also, the idea that you can become an example of “freedom” from a phone, while sitting under a bridge, unemployed, is comedy. I’m sure there will be legions of workers following your lead.

      I’m very sorry, but this advice is completely impractical. One might say OLD.

      “So throw away those cell phones. You have nothing to lose except a useless device addiction, huge, unnecessary bills from sociopathic telecom providers and intrusion into your personal affairs by corps. and govt.”

      You also lose any chance at employment, which is sort of a big deal, if you want to eat, or have a home, much less family, or any hope of ever being “4 years from retirement”.

      This is just a bootstrap argument from an old guy, to distill things down.

      1. jrs

        Well many jobs do require one to be on-call so it does come off as judgemental to judge people for using cell phones they may have to use to keep their jobs. But realistically it’s equally silly to pretend ALL jobs have an on-call component. They don’t. And if they don’t even a landline will suffice.

        1. bob

          “But realistically it’s equally silly to pretend ALL jobs have an on-call component.”

          No, it’s not. It’s social custom these days. 91% of adults in the US have cell phones. Your argument is along the lines of “no one requires clothing for work…”

          “And if they don’t even a landline will suffice.”

          Which is cheaper and easier? A landline, if you can still find one, or a cell phone? Cell phone plans, with a cell phone, start at less than $15 a month. You can pick one up at a walmart and be using it in 10 minutes.

          Price the “phone line” out, realistically. Keeping it real would also require the time to shop, the time to “order” the phone line, the time to be at home while the phone line was installed, the phone, and the answering machine. $30 a month for a phone line is what it used to cost, minimum. Before any “add on services” like long distance, voicemail and caller id.

          Email? Not in that century.

          Go to the interview naked, claim the ad didn’t say you need clothing, see how far you get, realistically.

          1. Bukko Boomeranger

            I have a $50 burner dumb phone with a pre-paid service plan. Last year, $70 Australian in credit lasted me almost the entire year. And I get the majority of my shifts (I’m on-call) via my phone, so it brought AU $50,000+ in revenue to me. Great cost/benefit ratio! Trick is, I mostly use it for incoming calls. Outgoing, I call from phones at work, or Skype from my laptop if I have to chat from home. Wrap phone in foil, leave it home, call out minimally — beat the telcos at their game, while still being able to provide a mobile phone number to demonstrate that one is not a Neanderthal. Winning!

      2. witters

        Try harder at doing it rather than arguing against it. My job involves lots of distance communication and I only wish I could retire in four years, and I got no phone. And I don’t need one. I stress email and business hours; and that’s no real stress at all. Of course everyone else finds them absolutely indispensable, as they surf the next dopamine hit, often dribbling from the corner of their mouth.

        1. bob

          Try harder at doing it rather than arguing against it.

          Bootstrap defined-

          “My job involves lots of distance communication and I only wish I could retire in four years, and I got no phone.”

          Then how do you do it? Share your secrets! With what equipment and services? Smoke signals carried by the wind? Even that fire requires fuel.

          “and I got no phone”

          You’re an editor? You couldn’t possibly type for a living.

          ” I stress email and business hours;”

          Try stressing that at a job interview. See how far it gets you.

      3. Yves Smith Post author

        You do not need a phone with GPS to have a phone. Triangulation is way less accurate plus the cell companies retain that data only related to calls unless the police have a warrant. So while you can be located by triangulation all the time, in practice you aren’t unless specifically surveilled.

  11. Pelham

    Granted these awful monitoring measures may actually cut into worker productivity. But that won’t matter. All that the market and shareholders will demand is the application of the technology, regardless of actual results.

  12. Summer

    I remembered the post from yesterday about jobs and bots that started:
    “….Google’s study of the differentiating characteristics of its best managers. This list is ranked in order of importance. Note where technical skills fit in.

    Be a good coach;
    empower your team and don’t micromanage;
    express interest in employee’s success and well-being;
    be productive and results-oriented;
    be a good communicator and listen to your team;
    help your employees with career development;
    have a clear vision and strategy for the team; and
    have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team.

    Then I look at the management “techniques” being used and discussed in the article.
    Who’s fooling who?

    An important thing to remember about a Panopticon is this:
    “Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. This scheme effectively compels the inmates to constantly control their own behavior…”

    It’s talking about a panopticon prison design, but it’s been with offics workers for a long time. Example:Open space seating for employees with executive or management spaces encircling them. Some places have dressed these up as”play”  or “living room” type areas.

    With the technologies in the article, I’d also guess that much of the data is being collected to further develop AI and automation. 

    1. Synoia

      You need to understand the difference between PR and Management.

      On my first job after graduation we worked Mon-Ffi (40 hours) and then Fri-Sun another 48 hours continuously. Because deadlines.

      For the first week we go paid 48 hours overtime.

      On the second week we were paid 24 hours overtime, and 24 hours of accrued vacation time.

      On the third week we discovered the 24 hours vacation time had to be take while the project was “current”.

      On the twelfth week I emigrated to South Africa.

      Thanks for the lesson, Center File.

  13. Brooklin Bridge

    While this level of worker surveillance may be alarming, it has so far gone largely unchecked. Congress has never passed a law to regulate employee surveillance, Maltby says, and he doesn’t think it will any time soon. However, he says that either Congress or the Supreme Court could finally decide that employers have gone too far when they start tracking employee movement during a worker’s time off.

    But, but, most people are already being tracked and the data they generate being stored and analyzed. You can’t even buy a non tracking TV anymore. Light bulbs (of all things), speakers, every appliance in your house, are potentially able to listen to what you say and watch what you do and monitor how much you perspire and on and on. Granted, for the time being the wired in devices are advertised as such (though you are expected to know this for things like TVs), but how much longer is that fig leaf going to last?

    I’m not sure the horse isn’t already out of the barn as far as employers (to mention but one interested party) being able to monitor, store and analyze our biometric data at all times. The perceived sense of control, if not the economic advantage, is so great it hardly matters where our political and judicial system comes down on this any more than it matters what local authorities tell Google or other automated and self driving car developers/testers that they can and can’t do. It at least seems that they just do it anyway.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Should create quite a market for older, “dumb” appliances (we have a 20-odd year old TV), and for service to keep them functional.

      Given a little time, it should also create a market for NEW “dumb” appliances. Looks like a business opportunity to me. Not that I’m about to go into it.

      1. Bukko Boomeranger

        “Mr. TV repairman, how much will it cost to make my set deaf and blind?”

        Only that won’t be possible, because it would void the warranty/cause the TV not to function or activate the exploding device within the set. (Small enough to wipe out the machinery; not so powerful that it puts someone’s eye out or worse. For the time being…)

        And don’t forget the GPS tracking devices in new cars! To thwart theft and enable On-Star to rescue you in case of emergency, of course. Orwell never dreamt that proles would PAY Big Brother for the privilege of being MiniLuvved up.

  14. Tinky

    “The technology company Steelcase has experimented with monitoring employees’ faces to judge their expressions.”

    Oh, for the days when a company called “Steelcase” was only associated only with excellent, substantial office furniture…

  15. Bobby Gladd

    My last job prior to retiring in 2013 was that of a workflow and HIPAA security analyst / ambulatory practice consultant in the (now much-derided) federal “Meaningful Use” EHR program. Clinical workflow assessments remain mired in the dated “clipboard surveillance” era. It was immediately evident to me that the HIPAA-requisite metadata user audit log is in large measure a “workflow database.”

    As I observed elsewhere:

    An EHR audit log is essentially an information workflow record that should be mined to analyze routine tasks times-to-completion and variability. Analysis can also reveal the “pain points,” i.e., iterative, recurrent “flow” barriers. You then couple these data with data taken regarding concomitant physical tasks to flesh out a more useful picture for systematic improvement activities.

    The very word ‘workflow’ has become a cliche. Rolls readily off the tongue with little thought given to what it entails. A more apt analogy might be a traffic copter shot of the jerky stop-&-go freeway traffic of rush hour. In most clinics, it’s nearly ALWAYS rush hour…

    A decade ago I was working in credit risk and portfolio management at a relatively small privately-held issuer of VISA/MC subprime credit cards (roughly a million active accounts). I had free run of most of the internal network. I got to looking at our in-house developed collections call center system (~1,000 collectors assiduously working the phones every day), and knew the source language and data tables architecture, so I started importing the data into SAS and mining them (it was basically a Collections “audit log,” though I was the first to audit it, on my own initiative).

    I was able to rather quickly show management that their staffing deployment and call volumes were egregiously misaligned. We were typically spending $1,000 to collect $50 (or less), hounding delinquent customers with sometimes up to 140 calls per month, at all hours of the day and night (the classic, hated subprime M.O.).

    It was a lava flow of waste. I issued a snarky monthly report on these activities, dubbed “The Don Quixote Report.”

    On the basis of my rather simple call log analytics we were able to save the bank about $5 million a year in Collections Ops cost, dragging the VP of Collections kicking and screaming all the way (his annual bonus was tied in part to his budget, which was the largest in the company — he did not become My Friend).

    “Workflow” tactics deployed in healthcare remain stuck about 10-15 years behind the times, as they don’t drill down into time consumed and error rates. Mining the EHR audit logs might be of great utility here — though the datetime() stamps are gonna need to be more granular than just down to the second. SQL now supports time capture down to the microsecond, though tenths or hundreds might suffice.

    Another barrier here in general might be “once you’ve seen one audit log data dictionary, you’ve seen one audit log data dictionary.” Recall that we have at this point nearly 1,800 “complete Certified EHR systems” [March 2014]. How many differing audit log architectures we have is probably unknown outside of ONC CHPL — if they even bother to look…

    Of course, this kind of stuff in the hands of Bezos et al, quickly reeks of uberdystopian Taylorism 2.0

  16. Jean

    “Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, recently instituted a complex and punitive inventory system where employees are graded based on everything…the system is so harsh it reportedly causes employees enough stress to bring them to tears on a regular basis.”

    We know managers, women in their fifties who gave their life to building W.F., worked long hours, postponed family time and were dumped as expensive human commodities when Amazon took over.

    Friends don’t let their friends shop at Asswhole Foods.

  17. Chauncey Gardiner

    Re “This type of privacy invasion can cause employees immense stress, …”

    As with any new technologies, the social, economic, political and legal implications are not completely foreseeable.. Besides violations of the right to privacy, I expect the potential adverse effects on employees’ psychological health caused by pervasive use of these technologies could become an Occupational Health & Safety issue and a basis for compensatory and possibly punitive damages in instances of extreme abuse by employers. I would not be surprised to also see a related reemergence of labor union movements and political change.

  18. Octopii

    There is currently a mad rush (a gold rush perhaps) by business consulting firms and building construction engineering firms to integrate analytics into the buildings themselves. Everyone is trying to figure out the business case and find clients willing to fund projects, and also to figure out how to specify systems so they are buildable in the contracting and construction process. The focus has moved from energy efficiency a few years ago, now to employee security and productivity. A lot of the technologies are occupancy-based and identity-based, involving networks of sensors throughout the building. I have yet to see a fully functional implementation – I suppose that’s good news – but eventually it will get figured out and we’ll all have a few more chains around our necks.

  19. Rates

    I think this is too much. On the other hand, I wish there’s a technology that can make waiters/waitresses more friendly in Murica so they can earn that 15% or more tips. Nowadays the tipping culture is so out of control, food truck workers expect 15% plus just to take and prepare what are essentially to go orders.

    Do I need to mention Japan again? Super friendly service, genuinely welcoming smiles, and no tipping.

    Maybe Murica deserves all this with the crazy entitlement culture.

    1. JBird

      Maybe Murica deserves all this with the crazy entitlement culture.

      Please don’t be an self-righteous ignoramus. From my personal experience, tips sometimes been the difference from eating or not.

      People usually live on that 15% as the actual pay is not enough to live on; tipped employees in some states can be, and often are, paid less than three dollars an hour before tips. Even in states that require at least the federal minimum wage for not tipped employees for all workers, the minimum wage is almost never enough, and the IRS expects and taxes employees as if they are being tipped.

  20. Altandmain

    What’s noteworthy is that nobody is asking for this to be done to corporate CEOs and other executives. Surely what happens at the executive or Board of Directors meetings are of far greater consequence than say, the actions of a low level employee?

    This is class consciousness. Imagine if this were. CEOs like Dick Fuld (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lehman Brothers who ran the company into the ground) would have been dismissed years ago. The “shareholder value” argument cannot be used as a bad CEO can destroy billions of dollars worth of market cap value easily. What’s the worse thing a minimum wage worker in some store can do?

    Same with politicians. We would have the truth exposed on Hillary Clinton years ago instead of having to wait for Wikileaks to expose the truth.

    1. JBird

      In America, like in the anciens régime of France, or in England the value of a person, and therefore what justice they are worthy of is tied to wealth, nevermind that in the modern United States it is often stolen wealth, or in the other cases, inherited wealth, if you have it you are worthy of merciful and mild justice. If you are not a “job creator” you are scum and deserve not mercy. This regardless of any personal responsibility.

  21. JBird

    Once all the workers are only capable of the Party Chairman appoved goodthought what then? Just about every article, program, book, and class as well as some limited experience indicates that individualistic participation and support is the most productive and profitable way. Even burger flippers can have individual ways of doing things.

    This has the feeling of the “boot in the face” and not for profit. The facecrime aspect alone is suggestive.

    The Chinese Empire’s similar new panopticon surveillance game also seems to be based not only on control but on fear as well.


Leave a Reply

  • Keep it constructive and courteous
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Flag bad behavior
  • Follow the rules

Please read our Comments Policies here.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *