The reptilian annual World Economic Forum at Davos, where the masters of the universe meet to congratulate themselves on their benevolent dictatorship, is home to many sinister ideas. Sharing the latest sinister ideas with business leaders is, in essence, why the event exists. This year, one of the creepiest discussions of all was delivered under the guise of progress and productivity.
Nita Farahany, a Duke University professor and futurist, gave a presentation at Davos about neurotechnology that is creating “brain transparency”, something I previously associated more with a bullet to the head. The new technologies, which Farahany says are being deployed in workplaces around the world, may prove to be nearly as destructive. They include a variety of wearable sensors that read the brain’s electrical impulses and can show how fatigued you are, whether you’re focused on the task at hand or if your attention is wandering. According to Farahany, thousands of companies have hooked workers ranging from train drivers to miners up to these devices already, in the name of workplace safety. But what we are really discussing is workplace surveillance.
Farahany paints a picture of a near future in which every office worker could be fitted with a small wearable that would constantly record brain activity, creating an omnipotent record of your thoughts, attention and energy that the boss could study at leisure. No longer would it be enough to look like you’re working hard: your own brainwaves could reveal that you were slacking off.
Farahany acknowledges that there could be drawbacks here: “Done poorly, it could become the most oppressive technology we’ve ever introduced on a wide scale.” Yet, she seems more enthusiastic about the technology’s promise for corporations, saying rather sanctimoniously that the workplace surveillance “bossware” that exists today tends to make employees upset “even when it makes their lives better.” She also displayed a slide showing that nine out of 10 employees say they waste time at work every day, and opined that perhaps there was “good reason” for employers to want to keep tabs on everyone, after all. This is the sort of logic that makes sense to people whose jobs consist of flying to Switzerland for international conferences rather than, say, working at a gas station.
Farahany is a very smart person. But her professional milieu may have lulled her into falsely believing that corporations will not do the most unspeakable acts imaginable in order to make an extra dollar of profit. She argues that these technologies offer promising benefits for people to improve their own experiences at work, and that as long as we “make a choice to use it well”, and operate from a starting principle of “cognitive liberty” to protect individual choice, the future of workplace surveillance can be one in which workers and businesses alike are made stronger by the slow evolution of our brains into cybernetic, connected, measured mechanisms.
It is that fundamental sense of optimism that is, I’m afraid, screamingly naive. One need not be a futurist to divine how this will go. “Bossware” is common today, in the form of less flashy but equally invasive technologies of all sorts: what workers type, what they look at, how long they are “inactive” on their keyboards, how they drive, where they stop, when they apply the brakes, how direct the route they take is. A Coworker.org database of bossware found that more than 550 products are already in use in workplaces. Everywhere you look, workers are being tracked, watched, measured, scored, analyzed and penalized by software, human overseers and artificial intelligence, with the aim of wringing every last cent’s worth of productivity out of the flawed and fragile flesh-and-blood units of labor who must, regrettably, be used as employees until the robots get a little bit more manual dexterity. The crowning insult of it all is that in most cases, the people enduring the surveillance are paid much less than those who are inflicting it.
All of this raises the question: what exactly is your employer buying when they give you a paycheck? For bosses, the answer is simple: “Everything.” It is a bedrock principle of capitalism that the employer owns the employee. The past several hundred years of human progress can be read as a very slow battle of humanity to pull free of this nightmarish entitlement. For centuries, of course, employers actually owned people. Even after they were forced to give up slavery, they tried to maintain the greatest possible degree of control. Coal companies owned the houses their workers lived in. The Chamber of Commerce owns local politicians who create the public policy that governs the towns where workers live. And it was long considered routine to fire and blacklist any workers who did troublesome things in their free time, like “talk about communism” or “organize a union”. The sum total of the entire past century’s civil rights laws, labor rights laws and corporate regulations have not been enough to eradicate the firm conviction of business that, when they give you a salary, they are buying your whole life.
In this light, it becomes clear that granting companies the ability to monitor our brainwaves is not a slippery slope so much as it is a one-way superhighway to the panopticon. Even if we set aside the obvious opportunities this provides companies to improperly depress wages and build pretextual cases to fire labor activists, the normalization of this technology represents a shrinkage of humans’ space and a growth of the space for capital. The time in our day that belongs to us rather than to commerce declines further. The area in which you get to be a person rather than an economic unit gets smaller. What companies never discuss is the fact that, once we allow them to claim this time and space and data as theirs, they will never, ever want to cede it back to us again.
At Davos, Farahany said that neurotechnology in the workplace “has a dystopian possibility”. But that is not stating the case strongly enough. Absent stringent regulation, it has a dystopian certainty. Waiting to see how this all turns out is a very dangerous idea. The biggest mistake you can make with dystopias is assuming that they never become real.