Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

We are the robots!

Categories: Gayle Rodda Kurtz, ZiLL


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As reported in “The Spy Who Fired Me, The human costs of workplace monitoring” by Esther Kaplan, in March 2015, Harper’s, the company Cornerstone OnDemand provides software that tracks the every move of a company’s employees.

Companies that use its platform can quickly assess an employee’s performance by analyzing his or her online interactions, including emails, instant messages and Web use. . . With the rise of the global workforce, the remote workforce, the smartphone and the tablet, it’s time to “manage people differently.” [According to Cornerstone’s CEO Adam Miller.]

To be assessed by Cornerstone . . . is to have scads of information swept up about what you do each day, whom you communicate with, and what you communicate about.  Cornerstone converts that data into metrics to be factored in to your performance reviews and decisions about how you much you’ll be paid. . . . A survey from the American Management Association found that 66 percent of employers monitor the Internet use of their employees, 45 percent track employee keystrokes, and 43 percent monitor employee email.

In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces, an effort that pushes employees to their mental, emotional, and physical limits; claims control over their working and nonworking hours; and compensates them as little as possible. . .

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These systems are called Telematics, one word combined from two—telecommunications and informatics. Telematics describes technologies that “wirelessly transmit data from remote sensors and GPS devices to computers for analysis.” Kronos is another leading telematics company and one of its slogans is “Workforce central now with Gamification: Reward positive performance. Engage employees. Drive productivity.” I note the new kinds of words used—we are now a “workforce”; the word “force” implies a kind of army that must be disciplined. Gamification—what does that mean except to make us think there is some fun involved?  Amid multiple, equally confusing definitions on Wikipedia, I found this to be close to what might be meant for telematics:

Gamification in a narrow sense is used in a non-game context, is built into the service system, and is aiming at an infinite experience. It does not aim at creating a game but offering a gameful experience. In a broader sense gamification also includes game context such as in serious games and finite and infinite games.

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The name Kronos refers to the leader of the Titans, from Greek mythology. He ate his children so they wouldn’t over throw him as he was forewarned (until Zeus was born and Kronos was fooled by Gaia, his wife, into eating a stone). Why, indeed, did they choose this name? (At my workplace, I now “approve” my timesheet every two weeks through a plan devised by Kronos.)

Kaplan describes the effects on employees who work under these systems of silent and invisible forms of harassment. One example is that of UPS drivers, who have had their routes increased by over 20%. They have incurred multiple and sometimes crippling injuries with the pressure of having every minute and movement of their days monitored. In workplaces where telematics have been implemented, competitiveness increases and in this altered environment sociability decreases.

After reading Kaplan’s essay, I visited the New Museum’s Triennial Exhibit: Surround Audience (on view until May 24, 2015), which is a welcome display of what artists on a global scale are grappling with in our increasingly technology-controlled environment. I was immediately attracted to what The New Yorker refers to as, “The runaway hit of the show—and the one piece that truly surrounds you,” Josh Kline’s “Freedom.”

A SWAT team of Teletubbies stand guard in a Zuccotti-like plaza, embedded in their stomachs are video feeds of retired police officers reading scripts culled from social media. On a billboard-size screen, President Obama . .  delivers a rousing speech, reimagining the 2009 inaugural address as a rallying cry against corporate greed, racism, Second Amendment abuses, a cynical media, and a government that fails the citizens it was elected to serve. . . Kline’s populist elegy to lost hope and broken promises.

The automated, lifeless responses of the frightening robots conjured up images of what a completely controlled “workforce” would look like. Telematics is to workers like an approaching tsunami with the potential to crush what is left of our spirit. What kind of movement, apparatus can possibly reverse it?

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Managing Editor

Note: For a different but equally, or more so, pessimistic description of what might happen to workers under global capitalism, read Chris Hedges “Boycott, Divest and Sanction Corporations That Feed Prisons,” in Truthdig.

Installation images of Josh Kline’s “Freedom” at the New Museum’s Triennial Exhibition: Surround Audience, 2015.

Logo images of Cornerstone OnDemand and Kronos from Google.

 

 

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2 Comments to “We are the robots!”

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo says:

    Reading this post leaves me relieved that I’m no longer in the work force. When I worked in magazine publishing, we were early adopters of computers, which were an enormous boon to productivity. It never occurred to me that the tool I was using to help the corporation would become a tool of the corporation to spy on me. But even though I’m no longer working, I still (obviously) use a computer, and my personal computer is spying on me, as Edward Snowden explained.

    When I finish this comment, I must check a box that says, “I’m not a robot.” This is to prevent spam from cluttering the inbox of the person who moderates comments. But it also gives me pause. How do I know I’m not a robot?

    On my cable-TV service here in Buenos Aires, the most popular movies appear to be cop shows, thrillers and fantasies. The last involve supernatural creatures and the wizards and elves and besieged humans who battle them. I’m wondering why we have so many zombie movies, in many of which a drug or chemical transforms people into zombies. Is this a metaphor for the actual drugs (cocaine, meth, alcohol) that turn people into zombies? Or is the “drug” actually the work we do? (Who hasn’t felt like a zombie after a long week, or felt that the worker in the next cubicle was actually a zombie?) Or is the “drug” actually Facebook + cat videos + Free Cell + online gambling + porn or any of the myriad things the computer brings us?

    But I’m not without hope that the computer can actually save us. The pessimistic article in Truthdig that Gayle recommends begins: “All attempts to reform mass incarceration through the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics, the courts and state and federal legislatures are useless.” I disagree. Just a small rise in the number of people who vote could bring about a revolution. Just a small rise, from the 30% who typically vote in off-year elections to around 50% of the electorate voting regularly in off-year elections. More young people, more minorities. The two elections that Obama won in 2008 and 2012 had high turnouts, well over 50%, so getting those same voters to vote in the off-year elections is not unthinkable. My brother ran as a Democrat for the Georgia statehouse in 2012 in Cobb County, Newt Gingrich’s old stomping grounds, so his campaign was doomed from the start. When he looked at the election returns, my brother saw that he got 15% of the vote but that Obama got 30% of the vote in the same district. People pulling the lever for Obama were not bothering to vote for the Democrat in the local election–as if it were not important. We need to educate voters as well as get them to turn out.

    I am neither a robot nor a zombie. I have informed opinions, and one way I stay informed is through my computer. The Cornerstone-Kronos future looks bleak; but in an alternative universe, the computer keeps people connected and informed and gives them more control of their governments and their lives. We can do it. Yes, we can.

  2. William Eaton says:

    We would seem to have reached that point in human history at which it becomes necessary for assert periodically that we are not robots. (And this even as we enthusiastically sign up for devices — e.g. GPS — that turn us into robots.)

    Another of my favorites: The number of times these days that we are asked to click a button (link) that says “SUBMIT”.

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