Pluralistic: Wellness surveillance makes workers unwell (15 Mar 2024)

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Wellness surveillance makes workers unwell (permalink)

"National conversation" sounds like one of those meaningless buzzphrases – until you live through one. The first one I really participated in actively was the national conversation – the global conversation – about privacy following the Snowden revelations.

This all went down when my daughter was five, and as my wife and I talked about the news, our kid naturally grew curious about it. I had to literally "explain like I'm five" global mass surveillance:

But parenting is a two-way street, so even as I was explaining surveillance to my kid, my own experiences raising a child changed how I thought about surveillance. Obviously I knew about many of the harms that surveillance brings, but parenting helped me viscerally appreciate one of the least-discussed, most important aspects of being watched: how it compromises being your authentic self:

As I wrote then:

There are times when she is working right at the limits of her abilities – drawing or dancing or writing or singing or building – and she catches me watching her and gets this look of mingled embarrassment and exasperation, and then she changes back to some task where she has more mastery. No one – not even a small child – likes to look foolish in front of other people.

Learning, growth, and fulfillment all require a zone of privacy, a time and place where we are not observed. Far from making us accountable, continuous, fine-grained surveillance by authority figures just scares us into living a cramped, inauthentic version of ourselves, where growth is all but impossible. Others have observed the role this plays in right-wing culture war bullshit: "an armed society is a polite society" is code for "people who make me feel uncomfortable just by existing should be terrorized into hiding their authentic selves from me." The point of Don't Say Gay laws and anti-trans bills isn't to eliminate gender nonconformity – it's to drive it into hiding.

Given all this, it's no surprise that workers who face workplace surveillance in the name of "wellness" feel unwell as a result:

As the Future of Work Institute found in its study, some technologies – systems that make it easier to collaborate and communicate with colleagues – increase workers' sense of wellbeing. But wearables and AI tools make workers feel significantly worse:

Workers who reported these negative feelings confirmed that these tools make them feel "monitored." I mean, of course they do. Even where these tools are nominally designed to help you do your job better, they're also explicitly designed to help your boss keep track of you from moment to moment. As Brandon Vigliarolo writes for The Register, these are the same bosses who have been boasting to their investors about their plans to fire their workers and replace them with AI:

"Bossware" is a key example of the shitty rainbow of "disciplinary technology," tools that exist to take away human agency by making it easier to surveil and control its users:

Bossware is one of the stages of the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve: the process by which abusive and immiserating technologies progress up the privilege gradient as their proponents refine and normalize dystopian technologies in order to impose them on wider and wider audiences:

The kinds of metrics that bossware gathers might be useful to workers, but only if the workers get to decide when, whether and how to share that data with other people. Microsoft Office helps you catch typos by underlining words its dictionary doesn't recognize; the cloud-based, "AI-powered" Office365 tells your boss that you're the 11th-worst speller in your division and uses "sentiment analysis" to predict whether you are likely to cause trouble:

Two hundred years ago, Luddites rose up against machines. Contrary to the ahistorical libel you've heard, the Luddites weren't angry or frightened of machines – they were angry at the machines' owners. They understood – correctly – that the purpose of a machine "so easy a child could use it" was to fire skilled adult workers and replace them with kidnapped, indentured Napoleonic War orphans who could be maimed and killed on the job without consequence:

A hundred years ago, the "Taylorites" picked up where those mill owners left off: choreographing workers' movements to the finest degree in a pseudoscientific effort to produce a kind of kabuki of boss-pleasing robotic efficiency. The new, AI-based Taylorism goes even further, allowing bosses to automatically blacklist gig workers who refuse to cross picket-lines, monitor "self-employed" call center operators in their own homes, and monitor the eyeballs of Amazon drivers:

AI-based monitoring technologies dock workers' wages, suspend them, and even fire them, and when workers object, they're stuck arguing with a chatbot that is the apotheosis of Computer Says No:

There's plenty of research about AI successfully "augmenting" workers, making them more productive and I'm the last person to say that automation can't help you get more done:

But without understanding how AI augments class warfare – disciplining workers with a scale, speed and granularity beyond the sadistic fantasies of even the most micromanaging asshole boss – this research is meaningless.

The irony of bosses imposing monitoring to improve "wellness" and stave off "burnout" is that nothing is more exhausting, more immiserating, more infuriating than being continuously watched and judged.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Michael Moore’s publishers bully Soft Skull Press over Stupid White Men title

#20yrsago Stewart Butterfield, the IM Question Answerer

#20yrsago Controlled vocabulary for describing personal relationships

#20yrsago Bruce Sterling talk from SXSW

#15yrsago National day of protest for banking reform instead of bailouts

#15yrsago Get Your War On, the omnibus edition

#15yrsago How British cops are criminalising peaceful protest

#10yrsago NYPD claims its Freedom of Information Act policy is a secret “attorney-client communications”

#10yrsago Homework is eating American schoolkids and their families

#5yrsago The latest Right to Repair battle: fake, corporate co-option of Right to Repair measures

#1yrago Big Business can't stop its illegal, fantastically lucrative gossiping

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