Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The rise and rise of the surveillance society

The Guardian carries a story about the use of mini computers that workers in warehouses, which can also be used to track the movements of workers and how many "unauthorised breaks" they take and so on:
"Under the system workers are asked to wear computers on their wrists, arms and fingers, and in some cases to put on a vest containing a computer which instructs them where to go to collect goods from warehouse shelves.

The system also allows supermarkets direct access to the individual's computer so orders can be beamed from the store. The computer can also check on whether workers are taking unauthorised breaks and work out the shortest time a worker needs to complete a job.

Academics are worried that the system could make Britain the most surveyed society in the world. The country already has the largest number of street security cameras."
With this government persisting with the introduction of ID cards, it's easy to forget the extent to which much of the constant surveillance that workers have to put up with comes directly from their employers. In my own case, all outside calls and emails are monitored by the council and like the vast majority of workers, I have to account for all time spent working on a time sheet. (Despite this, I feel my liberty is reasonably secure; this council couldn't organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery.)

By all accounts, the private sector is worse with grown men and women having the length of time it takes to relieve oneself recorded by their employers. For those in customer service, the surveillance of all telephone conversations is perfectly normal. I once worked in an agency where the number of key-strokes you made per hour was automatically recorded.

If what the Americans do tends to be imitated elsewhere, the future's not looking good: workers being randomly tested for drugs in their blood-stream; cases of workers being dismissed because they've been unable to stop smoking and the like.

The problem with this form of illiberalism is those on the receiving end tend not to gain so much attention from those one might normally expect to speak up for them: the "bruschetta" liberals get (rightly) very animated about detention without trial and ID cards but tend not be be so tuned into these sorts of infringements of liberty simply because the overwhelming majority of well-meaning middle-class liberals have never worked in these sorts of environments - except, possibly, when they were students. The hard left, on the other hand, tend not to take these very seriously, preferring instead to shrug its shoulders and say, "Well - that's capitalism for you". (It's worth pointing out that many of them don't have much experience of a monitored workplace either.)

The only people taking this seriously are the workers themselves and their trade union representatives. And we all know what they get called if they dare to question the brave new world of technological progress on the shop-floor, don't we? Luddites. The use of this term drives me and my fellow historians mad (our HT uses it all the time): Luddism is used to denote an irrational fear of technological change - one step away from being the unabomber, in other words. But the real Luddites were engaged in a rational defence of their economic interests. That the term is still used in the former, incorrect sense is, perhaps, significant.

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