Workplace surveillance and communicative capitalism

This NYT article reports some of the ways tracking ID badges (I’m sure some nitwit calls these “smart” badges) to make employees more compliant. The badges are as dystopic-sounding as can be imagined:

Sociometric Solutions advises companies using sensor-rich ID badges worn by employees. These sociometric badges, equipped with two microphones, a location sensor and an accelerometer, monitor the communications behavior of individuals — tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long.

The article focuses on how companies are trying to force employees to communicate with one another more to generate productivity for the company. 

Arranging work to increase productive face-to-face communication yields measurable benefits.

For example, the company studied workers in Bank of America call centers and observed that those in tightknit communications groups were more productive and less likely to quit. To increase social communication, the shared 15-minute coffee break was introduced to the daily routine. Afterward, call-handling productivity increased more than 10 percent, and turnover declined nearly 70 percent, Mr. Waber said…
At a tech company, his company found, workers who sat at larger tables in the cafeteria, thus communicating more, were more productive than workers who sat at smaller tables.

It reads like a warped business-school application of Paolo Virno’s ideas about virtuosity and the productivity of performative communication in A Grammar of the Multitude: Let’s use blanket workplace surveillance to measure the productivity of communication! It amounts to the subsumption of sociality to capital — with capital deploying structural arrangements to capture and force out more company-friendly, value-producing communication. Virno writes:

When hired labor involves the desire for action, for a relational capacity, for the presence of others … we can say that some distinguishing traits of the human animal, above all the possession of a language, are subsumed within capitalistic production ... Nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labor.

So when fellow employees are being nice to you, they are showing you merely the false face of capital, not their own face, and exploitation continues when a co-worker sits with you at lunch. 

Workplace surveillance of employee interactions will deliver a “trove” of data, and there aren’t enough bosses to parse it all. They will turn to algorithms to sort the big-data pool, which will mean that the robots will have become our masters. The algorithm will turn up some correlated behavior that leads to improved productivity, which bosses when then force employees to conform to. So both the bosses and workers will be taking commands from the algorithm without understanding its oracular insights. 

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