Thursday, March 28, 2019

Democracy ends at the factory gate

The key distinguishing feature of capitalism is the existence of a labor market, i.e. in capitalism human labor is commodified — it is bought and sold in a market place. From the point of view of employers, purchasing labor represents a production cost, and their objective is to make sure that it is utilized to the maximum of its productive potential. This, in turn, requires surveillance and it may be observed that capitalism as a socioeconomic system has always involved workplace surveillance for this reason... 

Capitalism has always been “surveillance capitalism” because in this system the main objective of any business activity is to maximize profits — to make sure that the resources purchased and employed — including labor — are used with the maximum efficiency. The function of new technologies, as this has always been the case with respect to workplace surveillance, is to seek to maximize worker productivity. This may be achieved in two ways: by extending the amount of time that employees work (e.g. by reducing the duration of breaks, by extending hours of work in the workplace or encouraging employees to work from home after the end of the working day, etc.), or by intensifying the labor process (the speed with which workers move, the number of tasks they complete per unit of times, etc.). Modern workplace surveillance technologies have the potential to enable employers to do both: to monitor more precisely and continuously the time employees spend to actually work, including the timing of lunch and toilet breaks, as well as to better scrutinize and measure their performance (continuously measuring output, developing performance scoring systems and rankings, etc.).

The main difference resides in the shift from surveillance based on the “gaze” — on the capacity of supervisors, foremen, managers, etc. to visually monitor workers — to surveillance that is digitalized, i.e. that goes beyond the “gaze” and involves the collection of all kinds of data. This shift greatly enhances the capacity of employers to monitor employees. Thus, if in the past workplace surveillance was limited to the time that supervisors were actually looking at workers, today the use of different types of new equipment (RFID badges, handheld devices carried by employees, and even implanted microchips) makes surveillance continuous. The data may be processed in real time and managers on their KPI [key performance indicators] screens may see not only the productivity of each employee, but his or her ranking in comparison to others. For employees this means that there is no breathing time and there is no place to hide — everything may be monitored, recorded, processed and analyzed.

It is common to cite Melvin Kranzberg’s dictum that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” with reference to technological innovations, and to add that it all depends on the context and the use to which they are put. Surveillance technologies are no exception. They may be enabling and liberating (e.g., using wearable technology to locate miners unable to get back to the surface after an accident, monitoring health of patients at a distance, filming police brutality, etc.), but they may also be used to increase subjugation, oppression and exploitation. What we may say is that, overall, surveillance technology is more likely to serve the interests of the powerful (because they have bigger capacity and means to put it to use that they desire), be it governments, corporate managers or digital platforms.

Full interview here

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