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Big Employer Is Watching

by Molly Ivins

The pressure is endless and oppressive
Big Brother was at the American Bar Association convention this week, selling his wares. Lawyers, look out: Your firm does not want you in the bathroom when you could be posting billable hours. And Big Brother is at every other business and professional convention these days, peddling the means for employers to snoop on employees and to ratchet up standards of efficiency in a sort of Taylorism gone berserk.

F.W. Taylor, you may recall, was the original time-and-motion study guy: How many seconds to sew a button hole? How many minutes to split a cow carcass? More efficient when done with the right hand or the left?

We have gone from check-you-at-the-door systems designed to stop store employees from pilfering to a chilling and insane degree of electronic supervision, keystroke by keystroke. So much of this is either ridiculous or counter-productive -- not to mention cruel and inhumane -- that you keep wondering why employers do it. "Because they can," replied one computer expert.

Getting other people to work harder has ever been a preoccupation of the powerful. From the Pharoahs through Simon Legree, employers everywhere agreed the best incentive for workers was the lash. Next came the production line, and now they've found the computer.

The Aug. 6 issue of The Nation magazine calls it "digital Taylorism." Dilbert meets high-tech spying systems -- no more time at the water cooler. Taylorism was an industrial age notion trying to make workers like machines. Digital Taylorism is now trying to make them like computers, with tasks timed down to the nanosecond.

The irony is that it was computer companies themselves who proudly claimed to have discovered the true key to greater productivity. Remember all those stories about how, in the computer industry, people were allowed -- nay, encouraged -- to sit staring out the window or at the wall, just thinking? As a longtime starer-at of windows and walls, I can testify that one's brain is not often teeming with brilliant ideas: It's usually just in idle, going, "Uuuuuuuuuh." (Although, naturally, boss, somewhere in my subconscious I'm working on difficult quadratic equations.)

The Nation reports 80 percent of U.S. corporations now keep their employees under regular surveillance-by-computer, including retail stores, restaurants, trucking firms and hospitals. Nor do they have to notify the employees that they are being snooped upon.

In one brokerage firm, an employee must log on to the computer by seven minutes after eight to read yesterday's "productivity scores" on a list ranking all the workers from best to worst. They work under "a series of huge, elevated computer screens that display each person's name and a minute-by-minute productivity ranking." At some firms, employees are evaluated monthly, with the poor performers getting fired.

The pressure to ratchet up performance is endless and genuinely oppressive. E-mail, telephone calls, computer files, Internet logs, even keystrokes are all monitored.

Telecommuters and business travelers, this means you, too. The Nation also reports a case of a union activist being relentlessly hounded by surveillance until he was at last discovered taking an 18-minute bathroom break because he was sick, and getting fired for it.

According to The New York Times, the first-ever job action protesting this constant psychological pressure came from ... a group of federal judges. This spring, the judges of the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco got crossways with the Administrative Office of the Courts, a small bureaucracy in Washington. The judges got so mad they ordered their tech staff to disconnect the monitoring program, pulling the plug on two other districts at the same time.

The Office of the Courts had sent out a memo announcing a survey of the court's employees "has revealed that as much as 3 to 7 percent of the judiciary browser's traffic pattern consist of streaming media such as radio and video broadcasts, which are unlikely to be related to official business."

Nonsense. In the first place, we're all impressed to learn that government employees are farting around only 3 to 7 percent of the time; and second, if the judges weren't "streaming" the arguments in Bush vs. Gore, they must be brain dead.

The technological changes are coming so thick and fast, the law (except for the Ninth Circuit) is falling behind. There are some excellent organizations trying to save what remains of our privacy, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an excellent outfit (, also try and

At the Federal Trade Commission, the new Bush-appointed chairman has put on hold a plan to seek more authority on privacy issues, He says he needs time to study the issue. And we need to raise hell again.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 9, 2001 (

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