Capitalism’s Surveillance Squeeze

By Zoe Sherman

This is the script for Zoe Sherman’s contribution to Democracy @ Work’s “This Is Left” video series, available soon at their website

I want to talk about surveillance.

In particular, I want to talk about two kinds of surveillance carried out by private actors, not the surveillance carried out by the government. One kind is almost inescapable and encompasses all of us but is veiled in the hopes that we won’t notice that we are being surveilled. The other kind is primarily directed at low-wage workers and is designed to intrude on its targets’ consciousness at all times. Neither is new; both have deepened in the COVID-19 era.

First, the inescapable kind of surveillance that tries to evade your consciousness. A variety of data collectors vacuum up data on every move you make online. Every app you download makes more data accessible to more data miners. That act of collecting, analyzing, and selling data has become so central to our economy that sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls this the age of surveillance capitalism. Of the five most valuable global brands, according to the Forbes ranking, all five engage in significant data mining either for internal use or for sale. Two, Google and Facebook, sell your data as their primary revenue-generating product. Sure, each of these companies provides some useful products and services. Maybe you think it is a fair trade—your data in exchange for the convenience they offer in return. But consider: if the trade were really in your interest, why would they be so deliberate about obscuring from your view their data collection, the uses they make of it, and the analytic insights they derive? It would take several full workweeks out of each year to really scrutinize all the service contracts you “agree” to in the ordinary course of participating in the social, commercial, and political life of your community. If your interests aligned with theirs, if the trade of data for service were really a win-win, wouldn’t you expect them to be straight with you?

Surveillance capitalism was well entrenched before this pandemic, and in fact businesses began developing techniques to surveil, sell personal data, and steer the behavior of consumers even before the digital age, but in the pandemic as the opportunities for communication using only air as the intermediary between the speaker’s breath and the listener’s ear have dwindled, even more of our activities have migrated online. Time on social media has increased. Like mountaintop-removal exposing coal for easier extraction, every online substitute for in-person social encounters makes our data more accessible to those surveilling.

Second, consider the kind of surveillance turned on workers as a condition of employment. The eyes and ears of the foreman, overseer, boss, manager, or whatever title the person directly responsible for the surveillance holds are supplemented by a range of sophisticated tracking tools. The time of every worker’s every task is measured, with nudges to speed up administered any time the pace slackens. Bathroom breaks are timed. When you call customer service and hear that “this call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes,” what that really means is that if the person you talk with pursues their social needs by protecting themselves from an abusive caller or enjoying the reciprocity of a friendly customer, they will be penalized. The sales goals must come first. Under workplace surveillance, the normal human behaviors of pausing to catch your breath when winded, taking a minute to recover from a difficult social interaction, or daydreaming for a spell between periods of intense mental focus are redefined as criminal behavior—theft of the time that you ceded to the employer’s control when you accepted the paycheck.

Again, maybe that’s a fair trade—autonomy and moment-to-moment responsibility for your own actions swapped for a wage. But again, consider: if capitalism really were about everyone’s personal freedom, if employers and workers really did meet in the labor market as equals with compatible interests, why would workers be treated like criminal suspects on the job? Clearly, employers do not believe that workers who take care of their own well-being during working hours will yield up as much profit as could be extracted through abuse.

Technologically enhanced worker surveillance was already pervasive in many workplaces before the pandemic. (Indeed, Charlie Chaplin presciently satirized video surveillance of the workplace in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times.) But since many workplaces went remote, employers have made enormous new investments in surveillance software. Workers who had previously been exempt from the most intrusive forms of surveillance when in the office are now tracked through their computers at home—and now that the investment has been made there’s no reason to think the software will be turned off even if workers do return to the physical office.

Capital treats us as a raw resource. Waste not, want not; whether as consumer or as worker, surveillance technologies help capital to squeeze every last drop of value out of us. In a moment of disruption and danger, when our selves are more vulnerable than ever, capital’s move is to squeeze harder. What’s our move?

Zoe Sherman is an associate professor of economics at Merrimac College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

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