The workplace Panopticon, or beware of companies whose names end in yze

Posted: 19 September 2015 in Uncategorized
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Just the other day in class, we discussed Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, “A story of industry, of enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” Remember the scene in which The Tramp (a Factory Worker in the credits) sneaks away into the restroom to grab a smoke and the boss catches him via video surveillance?

Well, the modern workplace goes far beyond that.

As Lynn Stuart Parramore [ht: ja] explains,

It’s obvious that wearable tracking technology has gone mainstream: Just look at the explosion of smart watches and activity monitors that allow people to count steps and check their calorie intake. But this technology has simultaneously been creeping into workplace: The military uses sensors that scan for injuries, monitor heart rate and check hydration. More and more, professional athletes are strapping on devices that track every conceivable dimension of performance. Smart ice skates that measure a skater’s jump. Clothes measure an athlete’s breathing and collect muscle data. At this year’s tryouts in Indianapolis, some NFL hopefuls wore the “Adidas miCoach,” a device that sends data on speed and acceleration straight to trainers’ iPads. Over the objection of many athletes, coaches and team owners are keen to track off-the-field activity, too, such as sleep patterns and diet. With million-dollar players at stake, big money seems poised to trump privacy.

Now employers from industries that don’t even require much physical labor are getting in on the game.

Finance is adopting sophisticated analytics to ensure business performance from high-dollar employees. Cambridge neuroscientist and former Goldman Sachs trader John Coates works with companies to figure out how monitoring biological signals can lead to trading success; his research focuses on measuring hormones that increase confidence and other desirable states as well as those that produce negative, stressful states. In a report for Bloomberg, Coates explained that he is working with “three or four hedge funds” to apply an “early-warning system” that would alert supervisors when traders are getting into the hormonal danger zone. He calls this process “human optimization.”

People who do the most basic, underpaid work in our society are increasingly subject to physical monitoring, too — and it extends far beyond the ubiquitous urine test. Bank of America has started using smart badges that monitor the voice and behavior patterns of call-center workers, partnering with the creepily named Humanyze, a company specializing in “people analytics.” Humanyze is the brainchild of the MIT Media Lab, the fancy research institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dedicated to the “betterment of humanity,” which, incidentally, receives a quarter of its funding from taxpayers. Humanyze concocted a computer dashboard complete with graphs and pie charts that can display the location of employees (Were you hanging out in the lounge today?) and their “social context” (Do you spend a lot of time alone?).


This brave new world of workplace biosurveillance is, of course, reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, whose major effect, as Michel Foucault explained, is

to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. . .

It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.

That’s exactly why, in these modern times, we need to be aware of companies whose names end in yze. And, of course, of all the employers who use the mechanisms of biosurveillance invented and sold by those companies.

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