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Big Capital Is Watching You

Large corporations are increasingly using dystopian technologies to monitor every aspect of their workers' days – it marks a new wave of 'digital Taylorism' designed to maximise control.

Recently, Barclays walked back a new spyware programme that it had begun piloting on its workers after they complained about its “Big Brother” tactics. The investment bank had contracted the services of Sapience, a Texas-based data analytics company, to intensively monitor its employees — everything from what apps they clicked on to how often they were away from their desks. Barclays’s promise to collect only anonymised, aggregated employee data in the future is a win for its employees, but the case is just the latest example of how digital tech advances are being used to perpetuate modern-day Taylorism.

Frederick Taylor’s crusade against “loafing,” which he operationalised at Bethlehem Steel at the turn of the twentieth century, was a single-minded drive to adapt labour to the needs of capital.  The resulting model of “scientific management,” also known as Taylorism, fundamentally changed labour-management relations. As Harry Braverman argued in the 1970s, “it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the scientific management movement in the shaping of the modern corporation… [Taylor’s] teachings have become the bedrock of all work design.”

In the Gilded Age Taylor’s scientific management meant stopwatches and time and motion studies to determine precisely how much pig iron should be scooped into exactly what size shovel, or which direction a man should turn to pick up a part for the assembly line. In the New Gilded Age scientific management is companies like Sapience promising to “provide enriched activity data from devices across the organisation and turn it into actionable information.”

There’s nothing special about Sapience; it joins a crowded field of tech companies peddling their wares to corporations determined to increase profitability and worker productivity. Teramind, StaffCop, and ActivTrak are just a few of the companies selling software to employers that allows them to track when workers are completing their TPS reports and when they’re scrolling through their Twitter feeds.

Twenty-first-century scientific managers promise complete control over digital workspaces. Computers can be loaded up with hidden software designed to monitor workers’ application, web, and network usage. Live feeds, timed screenshots, and screen capture with playback are bundled with advanced keystroke logging (which capture everything from IM chats to passwords) and keyword alerts to quickly flag “deviant” behavior.

Office jobs are already ripe for surveillance, but digital advances over the past decade have given bosses unprecedented scope to track and control the productivity of workers in all sectors.

In the 1990s Walmart pioneered the use of computerised headsets to direct its forklift operators. Throughout their shifts, operators had a voice in their ear telling them what to do, and often as not, warning them that they had better do it faster. Today Amazon has taken this technology to the next level. Each of its “pickers” carries a handheld device that tells them precisely which way to walk in the company’s cavernous warehouses to find the item they’re looking for and how many seconds it should take them to get there. If workers are too slow, deviate from their algorithmically generated path, or take too many breaks during their grueling shifts, they are punished.

Employers are also intensively tracking workers on the go. A decade ago UPS in the United States rolled out new “smart” trucks, equipping their delivery vehicles with thousands of sensors to monitor vehicle health. But these sensors were also used to monitor drivers, tracking how long their trucks idled, whether drivers were wearing their seatbelts, if they put their trucks into reverse in residential areas, and how often they opened and closed their truck doors.

These days mobile workers are tracked by their smartphones. Home health aides, plumbers, truck drivers, salespeople — millions of workers carry phones that contain apps installed by employers to keep an eye them, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. Many workers aren’t even aware that they are being monitored because their bosses aren’t legally required to tell them.

The Taylorist vision of control that permeated labour relations, particularly in the United States, in the twentieth century went beyond increasing productivity. It was, and is, a vision of obedience and acquiescence.

In 2018 Walmart filed a patent for “sound sensors” that could be installed in strategic locations throughout its stores, giving bosses the ability to pick up and store conversations happening, for example, between employees stocking shelves, or between cashiers and customers. The company claims the technology is intended to create “performance metrics” for its workers, but one can’t help but recall its fight against OUR Walmart back in 2012. When the worker group ramped up for a strike to win better pay and more predictable schedules, Walmart hired Lockheed Martin to gather intelligence and instructed store managers to document exchanges involving OUR Walmart organisers. The ability to listen in on conversations throughout the store would make surveilling workers a lot easier.

Indeed, most of the digital tech that companies use to boost productivity doubles as an anti-union technology. Spyware that enables bosses to track the application, web, and network usage of employees also allows them to see if workers are linking up with other workers through social media while eating lunch at their desk. Screen capture, keystroke logging, and keyword alerts quickly demonstrate who is seeking information about union benefits online. Workers’ phones are transformed into pocket-Pinkertons, indicating which employees are spending time together outside of work and where they go.

Sometimes workers become so inured to the incursion of digital monitoring devices into their lives that they volunteer to be surveilled. At Three Square Market, a Wisconsin company that sells self-service mini-markets, workers elected to have microchips inserted into their hands. They use the passive RFID chips to scan themselves into the building, log in to their work computers, and even buy snacks from the vending machines.

Microchips, mobile spyware, and perpetual, individualized monitoring are all part of capital’s fantasy of twenty-first-century scientific management — a future in which our movements, impulses, and rhythms are perfectly adapted to the needs of profit-making.

The 1930s sit-down strikers took a stand against their dehumanising workplaces and in the process struck a blow against the nightmarish reality of scientific management. As the Barclays workers have shown today, it’s time to take a stand against digital Taylorism.