Pluralistic: 21 Aug 2022 The Shitty Technology Adoption Curve Reaches Apogee

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A four-quadrant rectangle depicting four vintage workplace photos: an industrial assembly line, a typing pool, a phone switchboard and a private executive office. In each quadrant is a figure of a scientist in a labcoat, whose head has been replaced with the staring red eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Workplace surveillance is coming for you (permalink)

If you want to do something terrible with technology, you can't just roll it out on people with money and social capital. They'll complain and your idea will tank. Successful shitty tech rollouts start with people you can abuse with impunity (prisoners, kids, migrants, etc) and then work their way up the privilege gradient. I call it the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve.

The point of the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve is to normalize technological oppression, one group at a time. 20 years ago, if you were eating your dinner under the unblinking eye of a video-camera, it was because you were in a supermax prison. Now, thanks to "luxury surveillance," you can get the same experience in your middle-class home with your Google, Apple or Amazon "smart" camera. Those cameras climbed the curve, going from prisons to schools to workplaces to homes.

The pandemic was a great accelerant for late-stage capitalism, converting our homes to rent-free annexes of our employers' facilities, and turning "work from home" into "live at work." Bossware, a fringe technological category, experienced a massive boom, rocketing up the privilege gradient.

For most of its history, bossware was used to police the most marginalized, oppressed workers, like the mostly Black, mostly female workforce at Arise, a company that charges workers for their own training and then fines them if they quit.

But when lockdown turned high-status white collar workers into home-workers, their bosses rolled out incredibly invasive spyware, including tools that watched them through their cameras, listened to their microphones, logged their keystrokes, scoured their hard-drives and read their text messages.

This was the second coming of Taylorism, AKA "scientific management," an early 20th Century pseudoscience practiced by high-priced, unaccountable consultants who would fan out on factory floors in literal science cosplay, including lab-coats and clipboards, and loom over workers, watching their every movement, often going so far as to film them.

Then the consultants would go back to their workplace, soup the negatives, and produce completely arbitrary workplace rules about how workers must stand, hold their limbs and heads, and move – it was a kind of corporate anti-yoga whose asanas were designed to make workers look productive to their bosses, who often had no idea how to perform or evaluate their jobs.

The pandemic's new Taylorists do not confine themselves to the factory floor. Thanks to digital tools, they can come right into your home, and they can take high-frequency measurements of unimportant things in great detail, and then produce scores that your boss can use to decide whether and how much to pay you.

Bossware is the subject of an excellent New York Times feature by Jodi Kantor, Arya Sundaram, Aliza Aufrichtig and Rumsey Taylor, which documents the ways that "Worker Productivity Scores" undermine the workers' ability to perform their jobs, while also allowing their bosses to steal their wages:

Their case-studies are a trip up the Shitty Tech Adoption Curve, and includes $200/hour finance exec Carol Kraemer, who discovered that her boss was tracking her time in 10-minute increments and docking her pay for stretches where she took her fingers off her keyboard – to think, say, or make notes with pen and paper.

Kraemer discovered that the only way to avoid wage-theft was to do "mindless busywork" that produced the clicks that her bossware demanded, even if it got in the way of her work. This is yet more proof that "you treasure what you measure," or, more formally, "any measurement becomes a target" (AKA Goodhart's Law).

The decline of worker productivity in pursuit of metrics is an inescapable failure mode of bossware. In 2020, I reported on a reader's experience working in an engineering shop where her boss evaluated her performance based on the number of trouble-tickets she closed, turning her into "a ticket-closing machine."

Being an engineer, this worker applied herself to the problem in a methodical fashion, and realized that she could juke her stats by closing tickets prematurely by marking them "did not respond" – and also that she could close and re-open the same tickets over and over, racking up points.

She closed by saying, "Your execs should fucking well know this: how would THEY like to be evaluated based on, like, how many emails they send in a day? Do they believe that would be good for the business? Or would they object that they are tasked with the holistic success of the org, and that their roles are too complex to reduce to a set of metrics without context?"

The irony, of course, is that bossware is now coming for execs, and, what's more, they lack the engineering skills to optimize their work so they can get a high score and do the job, so they have to settle for just getting the score – and hang the job itself.

In the NYT story, the authors profile a wide range of people who are deliberately doing a worse job in order to get higher scores, including a group of hospice chaplains who are given points based on their work with dying patients and their families, scored in a way that is utterly disconnected from providing compassionate care.

Activities are scored based on their priority to management, without regard to the comfort they provide: 0.25 points for a phone call with a grieving relation; one point for a visit with a dying patient, 1.75 points for presiding over a funeral.

Chaplains' ability to accumulate points was undermined by patients – who would take longer than anticipated to draw their final breaths, or break down in tears, or cancel appointments as they made their peace with their impending deaths. To maintain their wages, chaplains resorted to "spirtual care drive-bys" – like sticking their head in a room where a patient was unconscious, exchanging a brief word with a nurse, and marking it down as a "patient visit."

Healthcare offers a fascinating window into the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve, as doctors' and nurses' work has been transformed by the electronic health record and its relationship to billing – so that now these high-paid, high-demand, high-skill professionals have to organize their work around data-entry on a system designed without their input and without regard to their priorities.

The Times reporters dig into the social workers, therapists and addiction counselors at Unitedhealth, a private-equity-backed healthcare monopoly. They get marked as "idle" if they stop typing to talk with their patients. If those conversations go on too long, they are marked as "derelict" and risk employment sanctions.

Social workers with masters' degrees are compensated based on the number of keystrokes they generate on the job. For Unitedhealth admin workers who work from home, glitches in the system can imperil their jobs, for example, if the system hangs when you log out for the day, it can mark you as "idle" all night, killing your average score. Workers facing these problems are advised by their managers to jiggle their mouses periodically to keep the division's score from falling.

One of the most interesting part of the Times feature is the work it does profiling the pseudoscientists who created and marketed this junk software. There's Federico Mazzoli, co-creator of Worksmart, who explained the benefits of his product: "Once you see those metrics, those insights, something changes: You realize how much you waste doing nothing, or just multitasking and not accomplishing stuff."

Mazzoli seems to have either not used his product, or, if he did, did so under conditions where he was in charge of it – using it the way an athlete might use a stopwatch to time their own sprints, and not the way a boss might: to decide whether to dock your pay or fire you.

This inability to understand the difference between using a technology and having the same technology used against you is endemic to the industry. Take Crossover, which bills itself as "the Fitbit of productivity," but whose customers rhapsodize about the product giving them "powers of near X-ray vision." The point of a Fitbit is to help you improve something that matters to you – but Crossover's customers want to use it to punish other people for failing to follow orders. It's the difference between a Fitbit and a prisoner-tracking cuff – which make crossover "the ankle-braclet of productivity."

Ironically, the Times reports that Crossover's own employees so resented the company's intrusive monitoring of them (as they created and sold intrusive monitoring tools) that Crossover hemorrhaged employees and struggled to hire replacements. Eventually, Crossover had to turn off its most intrusive features so that it could keep the employees needed to make and sell its bossware product.

One major focus of "productivity trackers" is measuring bathroom breaks and punishing workers for pissing. Piss-tracking tools are another shitty technology that has been racing up the privilege gradient, making the leap to white-collar workers after being imposed on blue-collar workers, like the Amazon warehouse workers and drivers who have to piss in bottles to satisfy their bossware:

The next step on the gradient was students – children have slightly more privilege than nonunion blue-collar workers, it seems – with 1,000+ US schoools handing public money to E-hallpass, a company that tracks children's urination:

As the metaphor of corporate personhood has become more and more concrete (for example, through the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision, which ruled that limits on corporate political spending violated their corporate persons' free speech rights) many have pondered the question, "What sort of person is a corporation?"

The 2003 documentary "The Corporation" investigated this, declaring the if corporations are people, they are psychopaths – remorseless and totally lacking in empathy. Science fiction writers have claimed that corporations are "slow AIs" (Charlie Stross), or Skynet (Ted Chiang) or immortal colony organisms that use humans as gut flora (me):

But the rise and rise of bossware implies another personality archetype for the corporation: the abusive alcoholic dad, whose own life is spinning out of control and who finds comfort by seeking to control the lives of others in humiliating ways that ultimately leads to his own destruction.

Because bossware doesn't just radically reduce productivity by shifting the point of work from getting the job done to getting the boxes ticked – it also exposes the businesses who use it to existential risks. Take Office 365, the cloud-based word processing/spreadsheet/email system from convicted monopolist Microsoft.

Office 365 went from being an online version of Microsoft Office to being a bossware delivery-system. The Office 365 sales-pitch focuses on fine-grained employee tracking and comparison, so bosses can rank their workers' performance against each other. But beyond this automated gladiatorial keystroke combat, Offce 365's analytics will tell you how your company performs against other companies.

That's right – Microsoft will spy on your competitors and sell you access to their metrics. It's wild, but purchasing managers who hear this pitch seem completely oblivious to the implication of this: that Microsoft will also spy on you and deliver your metrics to your competitors.

Even wilder is the further implication: that Microsoft might use the data its product gathers on your business – every keystroke made by every worker in the entire company! – to compete with you.

A century ago, "scientific management experts" tricked bosses out of fat consulting fees by promising to turn managers' preference for "a smartly turned out workforce" into a scientific best-practice. This is pure empiricism-washing, where an irrational bias is encoded in mathematics and declared to be scientific truth.

Bossware companies target employers' insecurity about their workers' power to actually undermine the employers' businesses, transforming productive workers into efficient metric-satisfiers, while raiding the company for valuable market-intelligence.

The bossware problem is a boss problem, in other words. It follows that fixing the bossware problem is the workers' job, and indeed, the Times feature notes that Amazon has been dismantling its bossware surveillance in a bid to reduce its workers' support for unionization, which promises to ban bossware from Amazon workplaces.

Bosses deride unions as reducing "freedom" – but just the threat of unions delivers more freedom to workers than any right-to-work law ever could. Bossware-infected jobsites are Stalinist dystopias, where workers are punished for looking in the wrong direction or failing to hit the keys fast enough, irrespective of whether they're getting the job done.

Back in 2019, I wrote about this in "Affordances," a short story for Slate Future Tense, which set out to explore how the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve may start with the most downtrodden and immiserated among us – but how, left unchecked, it will come for each and every one of us:

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0; Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0, modified)

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Colophon (permalink)

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