THE TECHNOLOGICAL PANOPTICON

THE TECHNOLOGICAL PANOPTICON
(This essay is part eight of the series ‘How Jobs Destroyed Work’) 
Some observers, among them Noam Chomsky and Jaques Fresco, have noted how corporations tend to have the same organizational structure as fascist dictatorships. In other words, there is a strict hierarchy that demands tight control at the top and obedience at every level. Granted, there may be a measure of give-and-take, but the line of authority is usually clear. Others, perhaps most notably Michel Foucault, have argued that prisons and factories came in at more or less the same time, and their operators consciously borrowed each other’s’ control techniques. 
For example, in the late 18th Century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the ‘panopticon’. ‘Pan’ means ‘inmates’ and ‘opticon’ means ‘observed’ and so the panopticon was a prison designed in such a way that all inmates could be kept under surveillance by a single watchman. True, it was impossible for a single observer to keep an eye on all inmates at once, but the panopticon was designed in such a way as to make it impossible for any inmate to know if he was being watched or not. The inmates only knew that it was possible that they could currently be under surveillance. Bentham’s belief was that, under such conditions, inmates would effectively mind their own behaviour.
So what became of the panopticon? They are everywhere, only we now tend to refer to them as ‘offices’. Many a white-collar employee (those below the executive level, at least) spend their in-office hours in a cubicle, most likely of a one-size-fits-all, institutional-gray design that can be set up, reconfigured, and moved at the whim of those higher up the line of authority: A constant reminder of the employee’s own lack of security and importance to the corporation. Moreover, cubicles are (in the words of one employee) “mechanisms of constant surveillance”, lacking doors and usually arranged so that managers can spy on whoever they like at any time. The employees are usually made to work facing a wall, so cannot know if they are being watched unless they look over their shoulder. The message such an environment sends out is clear: We can see what you are-or are not- doing. So work harder or we’ll replace you.
With IT technology, bosses have access to surveillance possibilities that Bentham can hardly have imagined. There is, for example, the ‘Investigator’ program. This software can be installed, without the employee’s knowledge, on the company’s PCs. It records everything the employee does- every mouse-click, every keystroke, every command. Through appropriate programing of their internal computer networks and security systems, businesses have the power to impose constant surveillance on their employees, tracking precisely when they start, when they finish, how often and for how long they take a toilet break, and so on. If they so choose, bosses can adjust the ‘Investigator’ program so that any time an employee types an ‘alert’ word (‘union’, say) the document in which it appeared will be automatically emailed to the appropriate supervisor. Given all that, is it any wonder that Bob Black was moved to write:
“There is more freedom in any moderately de-Stalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary American workplace…The boss says when to show up, when to leave, and what to do in the meantime. He tells you how much work to do, and how fast. He is free to carry his control to humiliating extremes, regulating, if he feels like it, the clothes you wear or how often you go to the bathroom…He has you spied on by snitches and supervisors”. 
BRING ON THE TEMPS
By creating environments that constantly monitor worker behaviour and reduce, so far as is possible, reliance on employee skillsets, businesses increase the commodification of labour power, creating a just-in-time workforce that can be increased or decreased with all the impersonal efficiency with which a business may manage its inventory. As might be expected, this has lead to an increase in the number of temporary employees. In the mid 1980s, there were around 800,000 temps employed daily across the US. By the late 1990s, that number had increased fourfold.
In labour terms, temporary employees are often indistinguishable from their full-time counterparts. The job functions they perform are the same, and they frequently put in the same 50, 60, 70 hour schedules expected of noncontingency staff throughout the high-tech sector. What really sets them apart from the full-timer are the benefits to which they are- or rather are not- entitled. While agency fees mean temps are more costly than full-time staff in terms of their salaries, they can save up to 33% of an employee’s paycheck, thanks to those skipped benefits. The benefits they are not eligible for are often discounted-stock-options or corporate retirement plans. As one Microsoft temp put it:
“People who started at the same time as I did are cashing in their options and paying for their houses in cash…I’m still paying $200 a month for healthcare”.
The advantages to business in hiring temps over full-time staff does not just consist in saving costs through denial of benefits. A workplace heavy on contingent workers has the added bonus of creating an environment of fear. We saw earlier how office floorplans that rely on quickly reconfigurable cubicles underscore the precarious, temporary nature of employment within the lean-and-mean model, and this is only enhanced as more job categories get converted to contingent status. The underlying tension created by workplaces such as these means full-timers are less likely to make demands upon management and more likely to submit to more labour for fewer rewards. 
THE MOBILE PRODUCTION LINE
Here, too, technology helps business while negatively affecting workers. Blue-collar workers have long known the monotony of working on production lines that micromanage every aspect of the working day but they were at least able to walk away from such dehumanizing environments at the end of their shift. The white-collar worker in the modern IT sweatshop is not so fortunate. Because white-collar employees can be issued with web-enabled company phones, laptops and other such devices (perhaps loaded with software that can surreptitiously spy on them) businesses now have the ability, in effect, to set up portable assembly lines wherever they please, be it in former recreational places or private homes. This results in what Jill Andresky Fraser called ‘Job Spill’- the phenomenon of one’s job demands growing and taking over more and more of one’s ‘out-of-office’ existence. So, not only can smart and spy technologies enable employers to create efficient workplaces that can cut down on the quality and quantity of staff they employ, there is also the opportunity to squeeze more labour out of the remaining staff (‘voluntarily’, of course, if you ignore the coercive pressure imposed by harsh corporate and financial conditions). As Fraser put it:
“The balanced and secure 9-5 work lives of their parents’ generation belongs to a utopian past…they struggle to fulfil job demands that require them to work after dinner and during lunch hours…on Saturdays and Sundays…during summer or winter vacations…while waiting in line at movie theatres”.
As technology and management techniques reduce or eliminate the judgement, flexibility, and challenge work needs to become a calling, we can perhaps explain why many employees feel they have ‘bullshit jobs’- that is to say, labour that seems to perform no beneficial function, either for the person doing it or society. ‘The Economist’ explained how the complexity of today’s economy has compelled businesses to impose production-line techniques at ever higher-levels of the professional ladder. In the case of much white-collar labour:
“You end up with the clerical equivalent of repeatedly affixing tab A to frame B: Shuffling papers, management of the minutiae of the supply chain and so on. Disaggregation may make it look meaningless, since many workers end up doing things incredibly far-removed from the endpoints of the process”.
Now, ‘meaning’ and ‘boredom’ are subjective states of mind. Following Sartre, we might say that the individual is always free to find meaning in what they are doing. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, but I also think it’s fair to say that, for most people, finding meaning while doing their job happens in spite of- not because of- what they are doing. This is because so many of us end up employed in jobs that have had autonomy and creativity designed out of them in the interests of reducing the bargaining power of employees so the executive classes can take advantage of economic coercion and grab a larger slice of the pie. 
Coming up in part nine, false beliefs regarding human nature and work.

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