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‘Hard’ Surveillance and ‘Soft’ Surveillance: The Quantified Self at Work

Christopher O'Neill

09 December, 2016

The Quantified Self is a movement aimed at promoting the pursuit of “Self-Knowledge Through Numbers”. Quantified Selfers are in essence people who really, really, really, really like measuring themselves, and believe that through the analysis of data produced by wearable sensors (things like Fitbit, the Apple Watch, etc.) we can know more about ourselves, and about how to live better lives.

In the past few years we have seen the entry of Quantified Self technologies into workplaces. Firms like Humanyze and VoloMetrix have experimented with technologies like the ‘Sociometer’, which collects data on body motion, gesture, and even fluency of conversation. The idea is that such data can be correlated with productive output, and so managers will be able to predict - based on things like whether you mimic the way your co-workers wave their hands when they talk - your likely productive capacity and value to the firm.

It is not hard to see why this kind of surveillance might be of concern. Evgeny Morozov, in his polemic against ‘Solutionism’ has called the Quantified Self a kind of ‘Taylorism within’, or an intensification and acceleration of the techniques of workplace surveillance pioneered by F.W Taylor in his 1911 Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor railed against the scourge of inefficiency in the workplace, and proposed using time and motion techniques to determine the most efficient way to divide and perform work place tasks.

We might call Taylorism a kind of ‘hard’ surveillance. It involved the schematic and abstract imposition of ‘top-down’ dictates regarding the ‘one best way’ to behave at work. Taylorist methods were hated by many workers at the time, and the success of their implementation was in part due to the vast reserve army of labor available in the United States in the early 20th century.

There is a similarly ‘hard’ surveillance at work in places like the Amazon distribution center in Rugeley, in the depressed West Midlands region of England. Workers there have been subject to intense surveillance, designed to accelerate production towards the breaking point of human capacity. According to an exposé in the Financial Times, warehouse workers hurry anywhere between seven and fifteen miles per shift, their routes plotted by a wearable GPS computer that calculated the most efficient route to take between points on the shop floor, while also monitoring whether workers were keeping up with frenetic packaging schedules and relaying text messages from supervisors telling them to speed up.

Such appalling use of surveillance ‘works’ because warehouse work can be easily monitored in this way, and workers have few options for resistance in a precarious labor market.

The kind of white-collar surveillance that VoloMetrix and Humanyze involve is better considered a kind of ‘soft’ surveillance. Rather than seeking to impose a top-down set of dictates, the Sociometer seeks to mold productive workplaces from the ‘bottom-up’. One of the measures that VoloMetrix uses is what it calls the Organizational Load Index or OLI, which is a measure of the ‘time-tax’ that employees leverage upon other employees, through, for example, scheduling time-consuming meetings, or sending too many emails. Employees are not given ‘hard’ limits in terms of what their OLI should be, but outliers might be gently encouraged to lower it (though how gently presumably would depend on other measures of their productivity and perceived value to the company). Through encouraging the lowering of OLI, the working day is ‘softly’ reconfigured towards a presumably more efficient use of time.

In this situation, surveillance takes on a more flexible, emergent, even 'natural' style, demonstrating the potential for these frequently valorized notions to be recuperated by contemporary logics of worker management and control. Yet this is not to suggest that ‘soft’ surveillance produces a ‘freer’ workforce; this flexibility may end up amounting to the freedom simply to rearrange the bars of one’s cage.

It is a different kind of surveillance to that faced by Amazon’s warehouse workers, however. In Rugeley, the quantification of work certainly seems like a sort of Neo-Taylorism. In my article in the latest issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values, I argue that the work done by Humanyze et al is better compared with the post-Taylorist workplace surveillance techniques that emerged in Europe in the 1910s and 20s, which sought to ‘soften’ Taylorism by producing a more biologically sophisticated picture of the working body. Understanding these differences allows for a fuller understanding of the realities of contemporary workplace surveillance, and potentially for more effective critique and resistance.

Christopher O'Neill is a PhD Candidate and Tutor in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, in Australia. He is a member of the Research Unit in Public Cultures Graduate Academy at the University of Melbourne, and can be contacted via his Academia profile or on Twitter @internet_chris.


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Critical reviews of media, technology, literature, and performances. These are not intended to be book reviews of STS scholarship, but STS-based reviews of cultural works, including material culture, outside of our field.