By Andre Spicer
Every technical innovation has brought with it a new way of watching over workers. CCTV allowed nosy managers to keep an eye on the shop when they were not around. Software systems have been used to track the number of keystrokes an administrator makes a minute, how often they move their mouse or how long they spend lurking on the web. GPS technology has enabled transport firms to track their employees and contractors as they move around the city. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is now being used by companies to follow their employers around the building, recording who they interact with and registering if they spend too much time lingering in toilets.Biotracking technology allows bosses to record the number of steps an employee takes in a day, their heart rate, what they eat and drink, how much sleep they get and even their hormone levels. Neurotechnology, such as increasingly cheap EEG scanners, enables overly inquisitive firms to monitor the activity in their employees’ brains. Now, companies are literally getting under their employees’ skin.
Last month, a small Wisconsin-based vending machines company called Three Square Market shot to global prominence when it offered employees the opportunity to implant a small device about the size of a grain of rice under their skin. This RFID-enabled device allowed its proud new owners to do things such as log into their computer, open doors and purchase food in the office cafeteria with a flick of the wrist. Nearly half of the company’s 85 workers had the device implanted when the firm held a “chip party.”
The vending machine company is not alone in using this technology. Back in 2006, a North American surveillance firm implanted chips under two of its employees’ skin. A Stockholm-based technology incubator called EpiCentre offered similar chips to members earlier in the year. There is also a large community of bio-hackers around the world who experiment with implants. Bio-hackers have implanted magnets under their skin, digital earbuds and even a small antenna. Not to be outdone, the US military is now developing brain implants, which they hope will be in use by 2019.
It is not particularly surprising that companies are looking at new ways of tracking their employees. Bosses have always wanted to keep an eye on them. What is really surprising is how enthusiastic employees are about being watched through ever more invasive technology.
We must remember these trackers use the same GPS technology that prisoners are forced to wear
In the past, surveillance was seen as something bad. It intruded on our lives. We were often willing to put up with it because it provided benefits, such as security. But that didn’t mean we liked it. Now it seems we no longer see surveillance as an intrusion on our privacy. Today, many employees think the latest forms of digital surveillance are “cool”. At the Wisconsin vending machine company, they volunteered to be chipped. So did the entrepreneurs based in the Stockholm tech hub. This enthusiasm is shared by the tens of thousands of employees around the world who have voluntarily started wearing fitness tracking devices their firms have given to them. We must remember these trackers use the same GPS technology that prisoners are forced to wear.
This raises the question as to why we are so positive about having our boss watching over us using the latest technology. Most of these new technologies offer some functional benefits. By having an implant, workers at Three Square Market don’t have to remember their passwords. But lurking under these are more existential motives. These new technologies offer us an opportunity to understand ourselves. By generating an endless flow of data about our bodies, we feed our narcissistic urge to explore the most fascinating thing in our lives: ourself.
These technologies also offer the opportunity to improve ourselves. By collecting data, there is a hope we can improve ourself and live up to widespread demands to be fitter, healthier and more productive. And these new technologies offer us an opportunity to expose ourselves. They give us the chance to keep track of our bodies and then put that on display for everyone to see. Think about your Facebook friends who regularly upload the data from their most recent exercise routine. They are sharing intimate information in the hope of getting a few likes in return. A similar motive is probably at play when employees share intimate information with their employer — they want to feel like someone out there is watching them and taking an interest in their life. Somebody cares.
Existential issues aside, there is a wider economic imperative driving the expansion of digital surveillance in the workplace. We live in an age of “biocratic capitalism” where the economy is based around harvesting one commodity — data about our everyday lives. This personal data is absolutely central to the business models of many big digital companies such as Google and Facebook. We have been gradually trained to gleefully give away our personal data to these firms, who then use our data to target advertising back at us. More recently these firms have used it to build up massive databases that will provide a platform for these companies to play a key role in providing public services in the future. Implanting chips under the skin of employees is just one more way that firms can continue to generate the resource they need most — data about ourselves. Having been trained to hand it over without thinking by the web giants, it should be no surprise we don’t object when our employers want the same access.