Human Resources

Rant: Employer, Stop Following Me!

"I'm just going into the lab. I may be gone some time."

This Captain Oates-like statement occurred most weekday afternoons at about 3pm, when my colleague would lock himself in the company laboratory and take a half-hour power-nap. He was safe in doing so, since the combination to the lab lock was known to only five of us in the building.

At least one of the five was using the lab for after-hours activities, I'm sure, but none of us was likely to grass. It was a useful space for us all to recharge. We did better work as a result of having that sanctuary, including my power-napping colleague.

Today, of course, he'd be drummed out of the company immediately, because his every move would be watched.

Even the most docile cubicle inhabitant has long since worked out that 'security' badges with built-in RFID chips are not really for maintaining security at all. They're for tracking people as they move around the building. Understandable, perhaps, since no business wants to pay people to have three-hour lunches in the nearby pub when they claim to be at their desk. But the latest employee-tracking devices take things to a whole new level.

Should companies choose to implement them – some already have, and many more will – they can now track you not just at work, but at the pub, the gym, the restaurant, the supermarket and even at home. And they don't just track your location: they can measure your heart rate, the quality of your sleep and much more besides. They can remotely follow you around like an overbearing matron, recording your sub-optimal behaviour and holding it against you.

Of course, this is all being carefully sold as a caring initiative by caring companies that really care. So they're measuring your sleep quality because they care about your mental wellbeing, measuring your fitness level because they care about your risk of a heart attack, measuring your location because they'd hate to think you might be spending too much time in the company of people who... well... don't care about you as much as they do.

This is, of course, utter balderdash. Companies don't 'care' because they don't have feelings. They're legal structures set up to make money. And the motive for all this 'caring' is purely financial.

Currently, human beings are just ahead of robots in terms of productivity, but much cheaper and significantly easier to make (you can even do this at home). While that gap still exists, it makes good, shareholder-protecting financial sense to optimise the efficiency of the human resource as much as possible... before eventually junking humans altogether and moving to a fully automated environment. In the meantime nobody will complain because they're all terrified of losing their jobs, failing to realise that this move is a big step towards that eventuality.

So buckle up, all you meat-robots. Strap those tracking devices onto your arms, chests and feet. Why not go the whole hog and inject subcutaneous smart tags into your neck? Then the company can watch over you at all times, tell you when you need to exercise more, suggest that you cut back on red meat, perhaps text you to remind you of that important meeting the next day and that you shouldn't really finish the whole bottle of wine now, should you?

And if you happen to cop off with someone cute from accounts, rest assured the company will know about it, because your tracking devices will be in the same location that night and your heart-rate will (hopefully) be increased. Good luck keeping that a secret.

Productivity will, of course, increase – yay! Employee satisfaction will, surprisingly, increase – yay! But that's because employees will, for a short time, feel that their employers actually care about them, the poor deluded fools.

After a while, instead of being voluntary, the tracking system will become compulsory. You will either submit to full-time tracking or you won't have a job. At that point the company owns you, 24-hours a day.

Don't worry, though, there's a way out. What we're going through is only a transition period. Once computer-controlled robots become cheaper, there'll be no room for humans in the workplace at all. Not even fit, healthy, tracked, cowed and chided humans.

So you'll only have to put up with this horrifying intrusion into your working life for a few more years at most. Because after that you won't have one.


Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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