Blown To Bits

Work at Home, While Your Employer Watches You

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

One of the basic bottom lines of Chapter 2 of Blown to Bits is that the Orwellian nightmare of constant government surveillance through advanced technology hasn’t worked out quite that way. The government is doing it, to be sure. But so are teenagers with their GPS systems and cameras in their cell phones. So are corporations, who can boost their profit margins at tad by keeping track of the digital fingerprints we leave everywhere without thinking about it. And so are jealous husbands and suspicious mothers, who install spyware on the computers that their family members are using.

The spyware business is going mainstream now, supported by the social movement toward flexible work hours, work-at-home arrangements, and the dispersal to domestic settings of jobs like answering 800 numbers. Those social trends are a boon to parents who need to work from home, and will doubtless become even more popular now that moving the employee to the office in a gas-guzzling automobile has become even more expensive, by comparison with moving the bits representing the workload to the worker’s home. Socially useful as work-at-home may be, it has always been tainted with an odor of unprofessionalism. How is anyone to know if the worker is really working?

Last Wednesday, July 30, Sue Schellenbarger of the the Wall Street Journal reported on the trend to install software on those workers’ computers which takes screen snapshots every ten minutes or so, and logs every keystroke and web site visited. Some even take periodic webcam photos and screen outsourced call centers using voice recognition, waiting for hot-button words or just tonal indications that the call-center employee is getting angry. (Sorry, no link; it’s the WSJ. I wonder if Mr. Murdoch will change that.) Mentioned in the story are¬†and Working Solutions. Some expect employees to time their bathroom breaks so the clock is not running while they pee.

If you’ve never seen Chaplin’s¬†Modern Times, you should. It’s hard not to think that there will eventually be some workplace standards for stay-at-home bits workers in the way there are for assembly line workers — developed either through legislation, collective organization, or competitive pressure, as certain businesses succeed by having happier and less stressed employees.

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