[-empyre-] surveillance and capitalism

Renate Ferro rferro at cornell.edu
Wed Feb 17 07:32:53 AEDT 2021

Thanks Alex and Jon for posting. Hoping that our large group or guests will feel free to make posts about their own thoughts and work.

Alex the ubiquity of capitalistic surveillance is also present in the US worksplace in fact within lives of staff workers prepandemic, as early as a couple of years ago. University computers within staff offices were monitored for activity on social media:  Facebook, Instagram, etc.  Our own staff member who monitors our department Facebook page was called in for “more time than necessary on the platform.”  I would  say during pandemic times that the our computer cameras, zoom technology, and Canvas applications has incited the technological mechanization of being on or off work.  It all blends together now.  The staff and faculty work, teach, manage from home with computers, cameras, applications like zoom and canvas, people soft and a host of other management and financial tools to monitor the on/off of its employees, how long they are working, and at what time.

I heard from a collegue in China that she felt like a captive in her tiny apartment.  Her movements were tracked via her cellphone.  She was forced to keep her cellphone next to her because if the cell phone was left unattended for more than fifteen minutes she would receive a notification from a work application.  She reported that she felt that she needed to shift the phone to different places in her apartment every ten to fifteen minutes to avoid her preceived inactivity.

My Korean students who returned to Seoul reported that at the airpost they were toggled to an app that monitored their movements.  They had to stay within their apartments and were unable to leave until the time of their quarantine was finished.

What I am curious about is if you all think we can go back to before Covid existance without webcams, zoom, and tracking surveillance.  My hunch is that at least in the structures of corporate university life the realization is that covid existance has proved that life can go on with less staff and faculty, larger classes, less one on one interaction, less classrooms and real estate, etc, etc, etc.

Anyone care to share their own experiences?  Thanks again Alex and Jon for bringing this thread up for discussion.  Renate

Renate Ferro
-empyre- soft-skinned space
Curatorial moderator

From: Alex Taek-Gwang Lee <tglee at khu.ac.kr>
Date: Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 2:59 AM
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Welcome to Week 3: Social Media: algorithms, untruths and insurrection

Dear all,

Many thanks for Renate's kind introduction and invitation. I have enjoyed the previous discussions and been excited by those ideas of algorithms and other things. These days, I am working on the effect of mechanical surveillance and its impact on us.  I want to share my ideas of "mechanical algorithms" with you.

The COVID-19 pandemic does not mean the crisis of capitalism but instead compounds the existing problems within the capitalist mode of production. The precarious status of the essential workers, regardless of their living condition, has been worse off. In contrast, unrestricted capitalist accumulation in valorizing the market above everything else has been more efficient and has exacerbated social inequality. These contradictory consequences of the pandemic situation prove that the nature of capitalism does not need workers for its completion. The pandemic serves as not so much the end of capitalism but as another moment to sustain its paradox. Indeed, what is being observed at the moment is the more traumatic experiences of capitalist restructuring. It means the modification of work as such by the introduction of technology to the workplace.

This transformation dramatically evolves to the idea of mechanical management based on surveillance technology in this pandemic. In other words, the mechanization of work, the perversion of Taylorism, reconstructs the labour force’s fundamentals and drives each worker to be a part of the mechanism. The financial bull market on technology investment precipitates this shift further and reformulates the distribution of labour. I would call this inversion of capitalism the very essence of “pure capitalism,” i.e., the “free” economic system that encourages individuals’ voluntary competition to produce and trade without government intervention. It is not easy to determine where administrative interference could engage the system if the workers have no human management. “My Boss Is Not Human”(我的领导不是人), an article recently published in Caijing, a Chinese economic magazine, proves how this mechanical surveillance reorganizes the workplace. You can find it at this link:  https://news.caijingmobile.com/article/detail/428729?source_id=40

According to the report, many Chinese enterprises have adopted artificial intelligence for more efficient and standardized management. The new system works with more than 20 surveillance cameras all over the workplaces and records every worker’s behaviours and activities. An electronic roll call at the entrance is necessary to identify each person and monitor the group. This algorithmic scrutiny, the mechanical transformation of all human actions into data, totalizes the whole process of work like a single machine. The monitoring camera transcribes workers’ performance per second, and the central operating system checks up its efficiency. Each component is designed as a prescribed processing time by the algorithm, and the “Intelligent Task Distribution System” will recognize and facilitate the due sequels of the worker’s actions. The electronic time attendance system refines the check-in procedures previously set at the company gate. Workers must swipe their cards if they leave the workplace. If they are absent at their seats for more than 15 minutes, the recorded data will be submitted to the central operating system, and the sum of the salary will be automatically deducted at the end of the month.

My point concerning this Chinese version of Taylor’s scientific management does not lie in the fact that Orwell’s imagination of Big Brother has come to be realized. Instead, the administration aims to modify the human behaviours for the algorithmic mechanism. There is no such thing as Big Brother in the system, but the technological stupidity to control the workers by simplifying their actions. Any digressive and unpredicted move does not seem to be allowed in this process. However, the workers follow the rules not because the system tightly governs them but because of the new scientific management's norms, i.e., the command of the mechanical surveillance, which forces them to obey the axioms of the mechanism. Therefore, the algorithmic organization of the workplace is not a crucial factor in the new management. The problem is that there must be an invisible decision-maker behind the automatic system in solving any accidental and unpredictable outcome, even though the algorithmic mechanism operates without the presence of the human boss in the venue. My argument is that the void of the surveillance, i.e., the subjective articulation, is always already included in the mechanism and preserves the locus of resistance. I want to know what you think.

All the best

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