Big Brother's Corporate Cousin : HIGH-TECH WORKPLACE SURVEILLANCE IS THE HALLMARK OF A NEW DIGITAL TAYLORISM

By Parenti, Christian | The Nation, August 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

Big Brother's Corporate Cousin : HIGH-TECH WORKPLACE SURVEILLANCE IS THE HALLMARK OF A NEW DIGITAL TAYLORISM


Parenti, Christian, The Nation


Winston must log on to the computerized phone system at Charles Schwab brokerage firm no later than seven minutes after 8, or she'll be harassed by a supervisor, called a "team lead." Once her computer is up and running, a message appears announcing yesterday's "productivity scores" in the form of a list ranking the performance of all thirty technicians at Schwab's tech-support call center from best to worst. Arranged in clusters of cubicles, the technicians work beneath a series of huge, elevated computer screens that display each person's name and a minute-by-minute productivity ranking.

"You look up and see who's cleared the most calls, who's done the least, whose phone is 'engaged,' whose is 'idle.' It brings out the worst. You want to win. And everyone just works constantly," says Winston, who prefers not to use her real name.

Such is life on the new shop floor, where surveillance and constant psychological pressure to work harder are increasingly common. According to the American Management Association, 80 percent of US corporations keep their employees under regular surveillance, and that percentage is growing all the time. From the low-tech body and bag searches at retail stores, to computerized ordering pads at restaurants and the silent monitoring of e-mail and phone traffic in offices, the American workplace is becoming ever more transparent to employers and oppressive for employees.

Along with being invasive and increasing the rate of exploitation, on-the-job surveillance makes it easier for supervisors to fire or harass restive workers. Rather than "freeing workers" and "flattening hierarchies"--as the New Economy hype would have it--computers, databases and high-speed networks are pushing social relations on the job toward a new digital Taylorism, where every motion is watched, studied and controlled by and for the boss.

The combination of software and hardware that keeps tabs on Winston is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system made by Aspect, the market leader in high-tech "contact servers." With 3 percent of the country's work force employed at call centers, Aspect's market is huge. Along with ranking workers against one another in real time, Aspect's system allows managers to listen in on calls, search for key words and archive all e-mail and voice traffic. This data can then be aggregated or disaggregated in almost any fashion. As one Aspect manager put it, their technology can "drill down" into stored data to retrieve a single, year-old call just as easily as it can search a massive databank for keystroke or call-time patterns that might indicate theft, drug use, pregnancy illness or union organizing.

But most important, Aspect's gear allows Schwab managers to create an intricate and invasive corporate culture based on measuring, ranking and intimidating the line staff. Schwab rituals are liable to send Foucault fans into paroxysms of "I told you so." Take, for example, "Normalization," a three-day, quarterly retreat in which managers collectively evaluate their subordinates and then publish a list of who gets bonuses and who gets discipline. Inevitably, this ritualized "benchmarking" of "best practices" raises the productivity bar ever higher. "A year ago we had three minutes after each call to write up what happened. That was called 'wrap.' Now there's no wrap time, we have to write notes as we handle calls," says Winston.

The regime at Schwab is just one example of the office as panopticon. According to federal law, all communications that occur on employer-owned computers and phone systems are automatically open to employer monitoring. Some states impose mild restrictions on workplace eavesdropping, and many corporations give new employees some, usually obscure, warning about surveillance in the fine print of their contracts.

Nothing has advanced surveillance in the workplace so much as the Internet, which creates both the reasons and the means for surveillance. …

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