Ordinary surveillance, inequality, and fear

Our friends Giorgio and Gemma, visiting here from Rome, had this impression from a recent trip to New York: workers in New York are scared. Security staff enforced seemingly trivial rules – don’t step across this line – in a way that they couldn’t explain otherwise.

Workers watch you so nervously when they themselves are watched closely and their jobs are insecure. Simona told Giorgio and Gemma how, visiting that same city a couple of years ago, she found that her Sheraton mini-bar was watched so closely that when she moved a few beers to make room for her salad, a bill came under her door within ten minutes; it took a forceful remonstrance to get the staff to back down on this, odd since the beers hadn’t been opened and the desk clerk seemingly had no skin in the game – but monitoring of the customer becomes monitoring of the employee, who must explain to somebody why the billing was cancelled.

Then, by uncanny coincidence (am I being watched?), I saw this article written for the Guardian by an anonymous call center worker. More surveillance, another job you can be glad is not yours.

Peter Skott and I have shown, in a series of papers, how increased surveillance is a factor in increased income inequality: when it’s cheap to keep close track of what workers are doing, they can be made to work hard for less money. Truck drivers, on the open road, have their machine’s behavior recorded as meticulously as if it were a jumbo jet with passengers, their location tracked by satellite; bar code scanners in shops watch the customer if a loyalty card is used, but watch the clerk no matter what: productivity is measured, and reliable ringing in of prices (no favors for friends or family) is achieved without the need for honesty in the employee’s intentions (the machine is honest, that’s enough), and without the need for the employee to value the job very much (for which reason it ain’t worth much any more). If you’re under forty you might wonder what I’m talking about, since the whole world seems to work this way now, but before the 1980s truck drivers and retail clerks and hotel desk clerks and maids and customer service representatives and warehouse order-pickers and those scared-looking security guards Giorgio saw in Manhattan were not electronically monitored. In those old days, the boss actually had to depend on such employees to do a good job, had to treat (including, pay) people in a way that elicited reliability and good judgement because actual measurable time might elapse between the employee doing something wrong and getting caught. Those people, whose reliability and good judgement were depended on, were both better paid, and less scared.

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