Workers rights in the age of surveillance capitalism – #FutureofWork – Michelle MillerOn October 16, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
Technology is not simply a product or an object that we use for other means. It is actually the means through which we live most of our lives and it is also the defining characteristic of our current economy. Data can be endlessly repackaged, repurposed, reused. It builds on itself. It is more valuable when it is paired with other data. Data-driven, algorithmically-driven workflow systems really changes what we think of as bargaining or negotiating with employers. We really have to be thinking about something more than just wages and benefits and to think about the data that’s collected from workers as something they should have ownership over. The journalist and academic, Shoshana Zuboff, describes this practice as surveillance capitalism. Essentially, technology products that are built to follow us around the Internet and follow us as we use apps to extract and collect as much data as humanly possible from us. That is why technology products get investment from major firms and that practice was actually created about ten years ago essentially to sell advertising. But over time, what these companies realized was that that data could also drive machine-learning and artificial intelligence. And that is really the heart and soul of what is driving economic development now. So what are the implications of the growth of this kind of technology for workers? One is through the use of entirely automated, algorithmically driven, digital platforms. These are platforms like Uber, or Lyft, or TaskRabbit that manage task allocation, performance ratings, pay, and wage setting entirely automatically. And they do this through this practice of data extraction. The second way is through the proliferation of various digital trackers on people while they’re performing their jobs— like the haptic wristbands that Amazon just patented to follow a worker along as they’re working inside of a warehouse and gently correct them with a buzz when they put their hand in the wrong place. It also will deliver data to their bosses about where they are, how frequently they’re taking breaks, and who they’re interacting with. And the third way is through behavioral analytics data. And mostly in white-collar workplaces, there are these vast, complicated systems that collect all kinds of data on people– the way that they move around the buildings, who they talk to during the day, their tone in emails– and they create data profiles of employees and track them over time for changes in behavior or personality in order to determine what kind of threat they might be to the company. Sometimes this technology is positioned as potentially helpful to workers, and it could be helpful, but what we’ve seen is essentially that this kind of constant watching functions like an old-fashioned panopticon, which is a place where people were imprisoned or tortured by having no privacy— being able to be seen from every possible angle and not being able to have a moment in which they were able to step back and be out of the public view. This technology ends up functioning like a digital panopticon. If you feel like you’re always being watched, even in cases where you might not be, you are much less likely to engage in the kind of things that lead to workplace organizing, or to whistleblowing, or to holding companies accountable to the communities in which they operate. When workers don’t know what the work rules are that are established by the algorithms that are managing them or rating their performance, or judging them a risk, they’re not able to adequately negotiate for ensuring that those systems are actually fair. The good news is that this is not inevitably bad. We have many things that we can do to improve these systems, helping people to have agency over the systems which they’re interacting with, and starting to develop systems where the technology that we use in our day-to-day lives is accountable to us in a real way. One very simple solution is to enact workplace privacy laws or regulations that make it mandatory that workers understand what data is being collected from them, that they are able to opt in or opt out of having that data taken from them that they have some sense of ownership over that data. If people are working for platforms or working in franchises or supply chains, they never see enough of the majority of their coworkers in order to actually leverage that collective into having power. And so we need to create places online, like coworker.org, that enable workers to come together and form the networks that they need to form to negotiate for improved working conditions. We need to invest more in bringing the kinds of people who understand how these systems work, who know how to hack them, to take them apart, to study them, to give back to workers the data they deserve on our side and invested in building the kind of public commons that the Internet could potentially be. We have to understand it as infrastructure that belongs to all of us and is accountable to all of us in order to ensure that it delivers to the common good.