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The Era of Work Surveillance has Arrived

Thanks a lot, technology.

work surveillance

The most frightening part of the automated workplace isn’t necessarily that robots are coming to steal our jobs — it’s that robots are coming to measure our jobs.

In the 2015 edition of MIT Technology Review’s Future of Work report, economist Tyler Cowen analyzes current trends to project that the real economic threat of automation is constant measurement of worker performance. Before long, even minor slacking-off during work hours will be documented.

In fact, this isn’t really about “the future of work.” The future is already here. Since a large number of workers type at computers, everything they do is being logged, recorded, and measured. Worker surveillance continues to grow, with statistical analysis of large data sets making it more and more easy to track and evaluate individual productivity, even if the employer has a fairly messy data set showing what’s going on in the workplace.

According to Cowen, the workers with the highest performance may see big benefits, but everyone else will be left behind. This will increase present inequalities even further, while also making stress in the workplace much worse. Constant evaluation and measurement, as we know, can mean constant criticism.

“Individuals don’t in fact enjoy being evaluated all the time, especially when the results are not always stellar: for most people, one piece of negative feedback outweighs five pieces of positive feedback,” writes Cowen.

He also notes that we’ve already seen this process at work in journalism. The young writers who were able to muster huge audiences just as new technologies came online to track those audiences (think Ezra Klein and Nate Silver) translated their personal popularity into big paychecks, even as many of their colleagues were swallowed by poor conditions in journalism that just kept getting darker and darker after 2008.

So what’s next? More measurement – what else!

“Looking further ahead, and more speculatively, employers might request genetic information from workers. Anyone who doesn’t want to turn it over might be seen as having something to hide,” Cowen writes.

Good luck out there, less-than-perfectly-productive workers. It’s probably time to stop reading this post and get back to work.

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Emery Reddy