Emma Watson in The Circle, the film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 book on the power of giant tech companies. Photograph: Europa Productions
With perfect timing, a new film highlights how employee monitoring is taking over people’s lives
“Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft.” So run the three Orwellian aphorisms at the heart of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, whose film version – starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks – will arrive in cinemas this spring. Given that the story centres on an omnipotent hybrid of Google, Twitter and Facebook, and asks exacting questions about their shared vision of the future, the timing is perfect – chiming with rising angst about the digital giants’ imperial approach to information, and the sense that their power and recklessness is now having so-called real-world impacts, and huge ones at that. Such, perhaps, is the zeitgeist of early 2017: tech-fear fusing with terror about Donald Trump and Brexit, leaving millions of us in a state of twitchy anxiety.
At the heart of the novel and film is the Circle corporation, whose logo suggests a stylised panopticon, and whose leaders want to shape the world in the image of their Californian HQ. There, privacy and autonomy count for almost nothing. Under a veneer of feelgoodism, employees are complicit in their own constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.
The details of their online and offline lives are judged according to “an algorithim-generated number” that measures their activity. “It’s just for fun,” a company high-up tells the story’s principal character. But, of course, it isn’t: that’s just one more example of the passive-aggressive ways of Silicon Valley, underpinned by the insane demands summed up in one of the Circle’s slogans, “Let’s do this. Let’s do all of this.”
Even when it was published, The Circle – whose plot is driven by the drive to make the whole of humanity “clear”, or subject to constant online scrutiny – felt less like satire than a pretty accurate portrayal of where advanced societies were headed, particularly in relation to workplace surveillance, and the way it is blurring into the monitoring of the whole of people’s lives. Of course, from the punch-clock to the tyranny of time-and-motion studies, businesses have always tried to maximise control of their workers, usually under the auspices of efficiency. But the digital age has long since allowed this tendency to take mind-boggling forms.
I spoke this week to a trade union organiser who works in two key fields: the huge warehouses run by online retail giants, and driver deliveries. In the former, she told me, employees are often tracked so closely that their managers can see if they pause between tasks or, even more unthinkably, stop for a chat with their fellow workers – something betrayed when dots on a GPS machine cluster together. Socialising becomes all but impossible; the idea of meeting a partner at work looks like a laughable relic.
Meanwhile, when it comes to anything that involves a human being and a car, van or lorry, the same tracking means productivity must be squeezed out of every second: even stopping at Tesco for a sandwich can be an unwise decision. Fighting all this, I was told, is usually viable only in workplaces with a strong union – and besides, people used to their work being constantly monitored tend to now expect it: as my contact put it, “They don’t think it’s that bad. It seems normal.”These long-standing techniques are now creeping into supposedly higher-ranking jobs. PartiRank may be fictional, but there are no end of real-life equivalents: “platforms” companies can buy in that allow them not just to track their employees’ movements and interactions but to install exactly the kind of continuing, neurotic-looking peer appraisal Eggers wrote about.
If you hear the term “people analytics”, worry. Some systems are straightforwardly intrusive: Worksnaps, for example, is an application that can take repeated screenshots of workers’ computers, count their mouse-clicks and take webcam images. Others are more passive-aggressive: BetterWorks uses a Facebook-like application that depends on employees publicly posting their supposed workplace goals, and regularly issuing “cheers” and “nudges” to their colleagues. “In the office of the future,” says the chief executive of the company responsible, “you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it.”…