Friday, 7 February 2014

Under the microscope

Issues of privacy are a hot topic at the moment, mainly in terms of the way that governments and corporations may access and our data. The debate there is about the privacy of citizens and consumers - but what about employees? In the book (p.73) I talk about surveillance in the workplace and remark that after initial enthusiasm for the use of Foucault's discussion of the Panoptic prison in organization studies, more recently authors have been rather sniffy and dismissive of it. In particular, it is seen as too totalizing, too inattentive to resistance.

What, then, to make of Hitachi's new Business Microscope device? This allows employees' movements to be tracked - something that has long existed in 'smart buildings' - but also monitors who they speak to, for how long and how 'energetically', how close they stand to each other, how much they contribute in meetings and many other things as well. The rationale, of course, is greater productivity and efficiency plus the obligatory humanistic nod to checking on employees' health and well-being.

The notion of privacy has less traction here than in the debates about consumers and citizens, for in what sense does privacy, or the right to privacy, exist at work? When at work, what part of us is not the legitimate purview of management? It was long ago ceded that organizations could legitimately manage our motivations and emotions, so why should anything be off limits? If you are at work, doesn't your employer have the right to know what you are doing and feeling?

Indeed, there is a fashionable school of thought that says that privacy was a passing historical moment, sandwiched between traditional pre-industrialism and technological high capitalism; an interlude of sentimental humanism. I understand and feel attracted to that argument in that I also think that what constitutes personhood (and, thence, privacy) is historically variable (and, again, argue that in the book, pp. 46-51). But it is a bit too glib, as well. Privacy may be a specific historical construct but it continues to have much purchase. Indeed, the current controversies about privacy would hardly be 'controversial' were this not so.

From this perspective, privacy can serve as the basis of resistance - that is, we resist by trying to hold private to ourselves certain thoughts and feelings in the face of surveillance. George Orwell's 1984 is an obligatory reference here: even the omniscient Big Brother engendered resistance from Winston Smith as he sought to guard his thoughts and his love affair from the telescreens. I'm not sure that this is a comforting, though, given Winston's fate and, more prosaically, the way that in organizations such resistances typically act as the spur for further and more intense surveillance.

But what if the most effective resistance lay not in trying to close ourselves to surveillance but in being more fully open than our surveyors can bear? What if we insisted on our right not to privacy but to 'tell all' - to speak of the truths, mundane and dramatic, of our lives?  To say to those who demand that we bring our 'whole selves' to work: 'very well, then, here it is, warts and all'? So, for example, in meetings we would blurt out what, presumably, most of us often feel: that we are bored, preoccupied by domestic worries, or afflicted by sciatica or whatever it might be. To disclose not less but more than the 'Business Microscope' can discern? If surveillance is not to be thought of as a one way street, how might it work to overwhelm those who want to know everything by letting them know, precisely, that? To make it inefficient to be known?

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