Workplace surveillance is coming for you

Empricism washing as a form of wage-theft.

Cory Doctorow


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. Image: Cryteria (modified) CC BY 3.0: Scottish Government (modified): https://w

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 accellerant 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…