Is Tech Innovation Good for Workers or Creepy and Exploitative?

Wade Rathke Posted by Wade Rathke.

Wade Rathke is the founder of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – a nationwide activist network engaged in community organizing.


Is Tech Innovation Good for Workers or Creepy and Exploitative?

Charlotte    If you read the daily papers, which god knows I do, one of the current spins focuses on the wild innovations to the workplace and the so-called workers ‘paradise brought to us care of Silicon Valley. Games, toys, endless snacks, perks galore, all bring visions of sugar plums for workers out there in sunny California. They even make movies about the dream of working for Google, even if no one goes to see them.

It has to be time to get real. Where do we start? The Uber and its wannabes and their notion of a “gig” economy which really comes down to paying no taxes for unemployment and social security benefits and passing the vehicle, repair, and insurance costs to the drivers. The stories about Amazon building a Seattle-based sweatshop for their middle managers made the news even when the torture of their warehouse workers has long been legendary. Twitter has announced 8% layoffs under its new CEO/founder which seem exactly like the layoffs in every other business.

And, then you get to read about the development of new tools for employee surveillance using something called “sentiment analysis” which is a language analysis algorithm that crunches up blogs, Facebook posts, and all manner of internal employee comments and reactions on surveys to not just collect data offered by the workers, but to determine what they really think of their jobs and companies. Much of this is led by a company called Kanjoya in San Francisco that uses “language-processing and machine-learning to decipher emotions from text,” as reported in the Wall Street Journal. Tell me that phrase doesn’t send chills up your spine: “language-processing and machine-learning to decipher emotions from text” – egads! This kind of sentiment analysis is used by Intel, the computer chip maker, as well as by Twitter and others. With over 100,000 workers at Intel, they want to be very prepared before the revolution breaks out.

Interestingly, the Twitter folks switched because their usual surveys were under passive attack by the workers. Subhadra Dutta, a so-called “people scientist” at Twitter — and that sounds creepy, too! – says, “By the middle of the survey, people start getting bored and hitting 3, 3, 3, and then you have a data set that is so highly neutral that it is hard to do anything.” Tut-tut, workers will still be workers it seems!

For all the creepy experiments in thought control and worker mind-management coming from the techies, there was some good news from a mortgage lender based in Troy, Michigan outside of Detroit. They have launched a very old school, but radical plan which is not a way to chain workers to their work with Foosball and beanbag chairs, cafeteria vegan selections, and a snack tour but something called the “firm 40.” Believe it or not this is not a weight-loss program but a commitment that workers will only work 40 hours. United Shore Financial shoos people out of the building, but while they are in they push the pedal to the metal with “power blocks” which are 30-minute work periods with no email or other interruptions. For sure the company puts their foot on the neck of their workers for 8-straight a day with no Facebooking or on-line shopping, but frankly there are a lot of workers – and managers – that would embrace a firm-40 in Michigan rather than a loosey-goosey 60 or 70 hours in Silicon Valley.

We should expect more from technology for workers not a daily process of looking over our shoulders and weighing every word. Meanwhile we will keep an eye out for signs of resistance and encourage more workers to answer 3, 3, 3, if that’s what it takes to drive people scientists crazy.

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