Surveillance and Resistance

As the electronic record grows and we conduct more and more of our business and our conversations on company servers, more analytical firms will spoon through our digital soup. Their job is getting harder. E-mail has gotten much shorter and terser over the past eight years. In the workplace, we switch from IM to telephone to BlackBerry and often don’t use any proper names. It’s difficult to stitch these conversations together so that they make sense to outsiders. Yet some people still assume that anything they write will be lost in the giant sea of e-mail. Charnock says she still sees messages like: “I probably shouldn’t put this in e-mail, but …”

Yes, it’s lame if a manager needs to rely on an algorithm to figure out who her most valued employees are. Yes, the Big Brother-ish aspect of all of this gives one pause. But if you set aside that reaction, most of what Charnock is talking about is common sense. Are you in the mainstream of your workplace or off in a little eddy of your own? If so, why? Are you being productive in your own time and style or just getting really good at Desktop Tower Defense and wishing you did something else? Your electronic tracks don’t indicate your true value as an employee—Who cracks better jokes in the weekly meeting? No one!—but it’s naive to think they don’t reveal anything at all.

Sent Mail- Does your outbox reveal how productive you are? Michael Agger, Aug. 26, 2009, at 7:04 AM ET

My old economics professors, Dr. Harry Cleaver, used to talk about “chipping away at the working day” as one of the important ways that we resist capitalism. We come in late, take an hour instead of an hour and a half for lunch, leave by mid-afternoon on Friday. Surveys tend to show that people are working more and getting paid less, but there’s a lot of this hidden resistance.

It’s never so simple, of course, because employers are always looking for ways to do the opposite: to get us to work more, and more productively, for the same amount of money. Here’s the class struggle in an industrialized country writ small. We push for more money and more time to do what we want; the bosses push to take more and more of our time while paying us less and less.

If you work in a factory, the time-clock (and the motion study) govern your world. In education, and many other professions, things have always been looser. We are just now seeing the dawn of a new age in this basic struggle, one in which companies take full advantage of new communication technologies to monitor and shape employee behavior. It’ll be fun to see how folks fight back.

Agger gives us a hint of what’s next. If an employer uses the GPS on your phone to track your comings and goings, we’ll develop a application to fudge the data. If your boss uses email to check to see that you are on the job, someone will design clever automatic response software that will pass any Turing test. Students and professors are likely to be at the front of this wave of resistance.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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  1. Pingback: Surveillance and Resistance in New Communication Technologies … | Watk ins live today.

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