From Quantified Self to Quantified Other (and back to the panopticon)
I quite like self-tracking. I loved my Fitbits and Shine activity trackers (but kept losing them, putting them through the dryer, etc) and using them really did help me stay more active. But self-tracking is one thing. Having other people require you to track yourself and to share that data is quite another.
Forbes reports that BP and other companies give their employees Fitbits or other activity trackers and then give them a discount on their health insurance if they get enough steps. Actually according to Forbes, BP needs to use a data broker so they don’t have direct access to their employee’s activities (thank goodness) but this is extremely murky territory.
Another example of workplace surveillance that the worker is aware of (“transparent surveillance”?) is UPS’s use of “telematics” to monitor its drivers. Back in 2009, the UPS union posted an interesting piece explaining the system:
These reports track how many of the following safety “events” occur during a driver’s day: Seat Belt Off in Travel, Recording on DIAD While Traveling: Delivery While Idling, Bulk Head Open In Travel, Harsh Braking, Total Backing, and Backing First Exceptions.
Management can print up reports with the data superimposed on maps. For example, one map might show every backing event on a given day, its location, and speed. Another might show the same data for seat belt occurrences.
A recent NPR piece explains how this is used to increase productivity. For instance, UPS “figured out that opening a door with a key was slowing their drivers down. So drivers were given a push-button key fob that attaches to a belt loop.” Apparently drivers get paid more due to that increased productivity. That’s great, but the union piece also talks about how the technology is used to discipline drivers:
“When they first brought in telematics, they said it wasn’t going to be used for discipline. That’s changing over time,” said John Virgen, a shop steward in Sacramento Local 150. “They’ve had people in the office for these telematics reviews—questioning them about every stop over five minutes. They’re looking for stealing time.”
The union gives drivers advice on handling telematics reviews: always make sure they have a union representative with them in such meetings, not to get into specifics (there’s no reason why a driver would remember a particular stop if nothing special happened) and to should keep a log of their own days for themselves. But ultimately, drivers should just relax into the panopticon:
Drivers who only follow the methods when management is watching need to adjust because telematics lets management watch you all the time. The best response is to work every day like a supervisor is in the jump seat.
That doesn’t mean being nervous. It means maintaining a safe, even pace, using the methods and strictly following EDD and PAS—even if it slows you down. Focus on doing your job correctly—not taking shortcuts to make up for delays or problems created by the company.
Your stress level will go way down and you won’t have anything to worry about whether management is watching you with telematics or while sitting in your truck.
It’s kind of like religion used to be. That might as well have read “work every day like God is in the jump seat”, as Sean White noted on Facebook.
Siva Vaidyanathan has argued that we have moved away from Foucault’s panopticon, where the whole idea was that you knew you might be being watched at any time and therefore behaved as the watchers desire. Vaidyanathan proposed the term nonopticon for today’s – or at least 2008′s – surveillance situation:
Second, what we have at work in America today is the opposite of a Panopticon: what has been called a “Nonopticon” (for lack of a better word). The Nonopticon describes a state of being watched without knowing it, or at least the extent of it. The most pervasive surveillance does not reveal itself or remains completely clandestine (barring leaks to The New York Times). We don’t know all the ways we are being recorded or profiled. We are not supposed to understand that we are the product of marketers as much as we are the market. And we are not supposed to consider the extent to which the state tracks our behavior and considers us all suspects in crimes yet to be imagined, let alone committed.
we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled– we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance. Instead, we don’t seem to care. (page 112)
That’s just not the case with company-mandated (or at least encouraged) Fitbits and UPS driver tracking. The BP employee wearing a Fitbit to lower her or his health insurance costs is most certainly aware of being watched, and can also see every bit of the data being collected herself. The UPS driver can’t see their own data, but knows perfectly well that it is being collected, and may collect his or her own log as well.
The UPS union even sells log books for drivers to keep their own log of their day. That is the only way to fight back, it seems. Quantified self, laborious self-tracking, becomes necessary for self-protection. It can be hard to prove that you are innocent, as danah boyd found when the state of Massachusetts required proof that she had moved to New York in the middle of the tax year. It’s far worse for those who are already at a disadvantage due to their social status, income, race, nationality. In Chicago, they even have a list of people who have never committed a crime but are still heavily surveilled because they are likely to commit crimes.
Maybe the leaks and our increased awareness of the extent of surveillance in the years since Vaidhyanathan wrote this have laid the foundation for us to return to Foucault’s panopticon.
If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ The Circle yet, please do. In a way it’s nothing you haven’t already imagined, but it makes it visceral, real. And it makes reality look even more like fiction.
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