The Age Of Surveillance At Work Is Upon Us

Thanks a lot, technology.
Kurita KAKU via Getty Images

The scariest part of the automated workplace is probably not that robots are coming to take your job -- it's that the robots are coming to measure your job.

Economist Tyler Cowen explains in the recently released 2015 edition of MIT Technology Review's Future of Work report, the real economic threat of automation is constant measurement of employees' performance. In the future, no small amount of slacking off at your desk will go unnoticed.

Worse, this doesn't even really fall under "the future of work." It's already the reality:

Insofar as workers type at a computer, everything they do is logged, recorded, and measured. Surveillance of workers continues to increase, and statistical analysis of large data sets makes it increasingly easy to evaluate individual productivity, even if the employer has a fairly noisy data set about what is going on in the workplace.

According to Cowen, the most productive employees are likely to see huge benefits, and everyone else will be left behind. That will create great inequality, but also likely great stress in the workplace. Constant measurement can equate to constant criticism.

"Individuals don’t in fact enjoy being evaluated all the time, especially when the results are not always stellar: for most people, one piece of negative feedback outweighs five pieces of positive feedback," writes Cowen.

He also point out points out that we've already seen this in journalism. The young writers who were able to command huge audiences just when the technology appeared to track those audiences (think Ezra Klein and Nate Silver) were able to turn their popularity into paydays, even as many of their colleagues saw the journalism landscape getting bleaker post-2008.

So what's next? More measurement, of course!

"Looking further ahead, and more speculatively, employers might request genetic information from workers. Anyone who doesn’t want to turn it over might be seen as having something to hide," Cowen writes.

Good luck out there, less-than-perfectly-productive brethren. It's probably time to get back to work.

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