Out of sight, out of control?

It has been argued that we live in an age of surveillance capitalism. Essentially, there are now companies and technologies who are able to vacuum up vast amounts of data. They are then able to exploit that data by interrogating and codifying it, thence to monetise it. When someone says that they are an influencer, it means that they have sufficient followers in the realm of social media to allow money to be made from all of the keyboard clicks of those “followers”. As Shoshana Zuboff, the chief theorist of this so elegantly explains,

New monetization opportunities are thus associated with a new global architecture of data capture and analysis that produces rewards and punishments aimed at modifying and commoditizing behavior for profit.
Many of the practices associated with capitalizing on these newly perceived opportunities challenged social norms associated with privacy and are contested as violations of rights and laws. In result, Google and other actors learned to obscure their operations, choosing to invade undefended individual and social territory until opposition is encountered, at which point they can use their substantial resources to defend at low cost what had already been taken. In this way, surveillance assets are accumulated and attract significant surveillance capital while producing their own surprising new politics and social relations.

Shoshana Zuboff (2015) Big other: surveillance capitalism and the
prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology. 30. pp75-89

Meanwhile, of course, the good old-fashioned surveillance of old is still ticking away in the background. The Times Literary Supplement recently offered a review of two new titles that look in detail at surveillance and the myriad ways in which it makes its presence felt in contemporary society. One of these books looks at the extensive surveillance powers of police and government, whilst the other highlights the way in which unwieldy and unregulated tech companies now have boundless power to collect data and censor voices.

The watchers always watch

Whether its free market or state capitalism, surveillance plays a vitally important part. It is seen as a crucial defence for the “values of liberal democracy” (whilst, at the same time, stretching them to breaking point, by any reasoned assessment of the circumstances); meanwhile, “The Party” mobilises it in order to ensure that the population that it aims to manage and control is held tightly in check in a dictatorship that rules over them in their name.

So, in China, the Sharp Eyes development renders citizens enmeshed in a burgeoning web of CCTV cameras both the object of that surveillance and a willing participant in realising its effects. The built environment is broken down into tiny components, which those who live there can then observe and scrutinise through a box in their home. They each of them watch and they are then able to report…as is the case in so many totalitarian regimes; surveillance is facilitated by the state but operationalised by the involvement of the population at large.

Meanwhile, in Xinjiang province, with its Muslim Uyghur population, a low-tech super-surveillant society can be found, according to one traveller. Certainly, the author suggests, the authorities will track your phone – and act on the data that they obtain. But, more importantly, they found that the streets of the cities were intensely surveilled but not in this instance by sophisticated technology. As the writer explains,

The other thing that is always in your field of sight is the police. Oh, the police. They are literally (literally) everywhere. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s a law that mandates a police station every 250 meters. The sheer amount of policemen, police cars, police checkpoints, police stations, and security guards of all sorts is completely overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t believe there is or ever has been. Xinjiang is a police state, and it’s open about it. Blatant. This is not a place where you worry about being watched. They watch you all the time, and they want you to know it.

Vadim Mikhailov (2018) A Week in Xinjiang’s Absolute Surveillance State.

Watching that doesn’t feel like watching

It is over twenty years now since Norris and Armstrong (1999) introduced their seminal analysis of what they called the maximum surveillance society with the estimate that in an urban environment, on a busy day, a person could have their image captured by over 300 cameras on thirty separate CCTV systems.

Three years after that book appeared, I published a piece arising from a photographic research project I had undertaken around the signage that accompanied this expansion of technological oversight and the impact that it had on us all, leading to this conclusion: ‘The signage […], when taken in conjunction with the technological systems and the human means of tracking material derived in this way, forms part of what has been described here as a video surveillance assemblage. The existence of signage is evidence of the state endeavouring to regulate the use of CCTV technology with the aim of ensuring the privacy of the citizen. However, […] this signage now conspires with the surveillance itself to amplify the panoptical effect that many have ascribed to CCTV.’

So, it was suggested, we do not need to note the physical presence of an actual camera to feel surveilled; legalistic – or, indeed, seemingly light hearted – signage that alerts us to the possibility of being watched might well be enough for us to feel observed and possibly adjust our behaviour accordingly. We are unwatched yet alter our very presence as if we were being watched.

This argument extends into the workplace, where McKinlay & Taylor (2014) in their study of Motorola factories in the UK and their practices, observed that ‘…a prime virtue of team working was that surveillance was both more intense and continuous than in hierarchical structures.’ No matter how liberated your organisational structure looks at a surface level, the same old power is pulsing away under and through it. These authors quote a manager noting the following: ‘The team can manage all the time, whereas a supervisor can only do so some of the time. Teams are fierce self-managers.’ (p84)

I need to see you

A key facet of what might be reasonably described as the crisis of corporate leadership is the confusion that exists in terms of what leadership is meant to do in the business context. It has been argued elsewhere on this site that “leadership” becomes especially strained the further away from the business of the business it occurs.

Hence, many senior leaders find themselves distanced from the practicalities of offering oversight to the production of a good or the delivery of a service and so wholly absorbed by epiphenomenal issues that business schools and consultancies have worked to convince the world are integral to organisational effectiveness. Here, then, is the vague realm of vision, purpose, missions, values and strategy.

Yet, those same leaders are made accountable for the way in which the business functions and the extent to which it delivers. A manager overseeing a production line might discern practical ways in which their presence and action impacts on that and what comes out of the other end. But a leader floating on clouds of text, all of it about the business but not really arising out of the business, cannot meaningfully be said to be impacting the work that goes on.

Hence, those senior leaders end up focused in on and fetishizing two things: first, data for data’s sake, the idea that the project plans and progress reports that they receive (and ceaselessly demand) are in some way truly reflective of what is happening in the material reality of the business; and, second, a desire to ensure visibility of the people across the organisation.

This means, of course, that leadership has ended up simply as a surveillant practice, one that seeks to “see” the world through myriad metrics and diagrams neatly colourised in order to offer reassurance on sight without any need to immerse oneself in the grimy practicalities of the work that has to be done to make things happen in the world. And it also aims to keep close tabs on the workforce, notwithstanding the fierceness of teamworking as a means of engendering workplace docility and compliance.

The power to offer empowerment

The innate fragility of modern leadership – in that it cleaves to a traditional perspective but cannot realise the ambitions inherent in that model – leads to an assertion of power. This is expressed via the sorts of scrutiny outlined above, namely the constant gathering of data and the requirement to be able to keep a watch on the people in the organisation, physically, virtually, and bureaucratically (via, as Townley suggests, those clumsy surveillant techniques that get called performance appraisal). This, of course, co-exists with an empty and straightforwardly ideological commitment to the ideas of involvement, engagement and empowerment of the workforce.

There seems to be a powerful underscoring of the simple fact that leaders desperately need to be reassured by having clear sight of data and people in respect to the increasing trend in some quarters to march employees back to the workplace, particularly the office. This reveals the tension that exists in terms of the commitment to ideas of empowerment standing in contrast to us not in this instance being allowed to manage our own working life and to be trusted to work at a distance from the leadership cadre.

We see throughout history how overall capitalism systemically resets itself through processes of “normalisation” – manifested in an eternal return to the permitted status quo and an active discouragement of criticality – which is evident presently in the drive to return to the office. That is why government in the UK is tying itself in knots over whether or not to compel its civil servants back into the office, with the direction of travel being to drag them in kicking and screaming for at least three days a week (or to slash their pay): so much for the softer, kinder capitalism we felt we were promised as the crisis initially tore through the country.

Quite simply, this is an ideologically driven act that is about reinforcing hierarchy, which appears in terms of locations of work, viz the Head Quarters (or Head Office) vs some other decentralised place of work. The fact that some large companies are embracing the abandonment of centralised working altogether underscores the fact that this is a corporate choice about how to manage the people as opposed to what is actually best for them or indeed for the company overall.

Here, then, we see very clearly the limiting of personal autonomy and discretion to act under the guise of productivity and the need to be physically together in one place. Yes, as is suggested in some quarters, there are some colleagues for whom the isolation of lockdown, working alone in the space of their home without meaningful connection with workmates, has been difficult – and perhaps deleterious to their mental health. Their needs have to be acknowledged and addressed creatively, of course.

Meanwhile, the question of productivity over the past 16+ months is a contested one, in terms of a range of assessments that exist in this regard but little in terms of a clear steer. One of the noisiest voices arguing that productivity suffers as a result of remote working came from the rentier class, an especially parasitic element of exploitative capitalism. We find the CEO of WeWork – a company with a short and undistinguished life of peddling office space – asserting without evidence that the least engaged staff are those who prefer remote working. These crude and unsubstantiated opinions are cravenly motivated by profit and loss, not by fellow feeling and a shared humanity.

The return to the office – socio-economically speaking – is also about repositioning us in the web of power relations as both producers – and, crucially, as consumers. For a moment, perhaps, at the start of the pandemic, we confronted the existential crisis in terms of climate change – and the fact that this is driven by the fetishization of growth, which hinges on all of us being in thrall to the desire to possess more stuff. Notwithstanding the fact that much of this commerce leapt from face to face to virtual retailing, we saw quite starkly the fact that our treadmill lives prior to March 2020 revolved around the economic need that we buy things.

The rush back to foreign holidays reminds us how quickly the past can be allowed to reassert itself, despite the fact that every flight adds to the lessening of the world’s to heal itself. And every Chinese factory burning through energy in order to churn out a boundless cornucopia of pointless plastic product, ultimately destined for landfill, leads to the UK Met Office estimating that the weather here is set to become hotter and wetter. For some parts of the world, that observation will lead to drought and crop failure, where environments previously about to support human life become too hot so to do. Elsewhere, as we have seen in Europe recently, we will face destructive floods.

So, to clarify: here is a system that is visibly destroying the Earth with profound existential consequences, as evidenced in this week’s extremely stark IPCC report. Yet it persists in its intrinsic and largely unquestioned drive for growth (which involves us all buying more products that we barely even really want, let alone need) and closes off the opportunity for engaged thinking and radical shifts in practice by the defaulting that goes on. 

Exploit the breach

It’s not simply back to the office: it’s back to the grind of the packed daily commute, with an opportunity cost of downtime and quality time with friends and loved ones. If the leaders of our organisations actually cared about us all as human beings instead of pumping out their meaningless corporate boilerplate about how concerned they are about our “health and well-being”, they would be bending over backwards to gift us this time, instead of putting us back on the dreadful daily commute.

One of Piranesi’s imagined Carceri

The march back to the office is actually just more dead time spent on trains for most of us – or turning up at a railway terminus stuffed with people unable to get home as the overburdened services and rail infrastructure fail yet again on a cold wet November evening.

It’s more people drumming their fingers forcefully on the steering wheel as they queue in motionless traffic on the M25, storing up the stress for their first heart attack. (Don’t worry, you can enjoy the fruit drop at the office tomorrow, use your own time to attend a yoga class, or access support for your mental health, which would be better addressed at source, of course.)

Many people said at the start of the pandemic that there was no going back; they misunderstood the way in which capitalism works and how limited and crudely self-serving management and leadership thinking in the corporate world has become. Now is an opportunity to think progressively about how we want to be rather than to behave conservatively and take us back to something that looks like where we were, reassuring that might feel to be in some instances…but, realistically, will be we allowed to do that?

Collectively, it feels like we should be demanding a conversation to explore this, to our mutual benefits – and the crucial benefit of the tiny blue dot in the void that we are lucky enough presently to call home. (We’re convening just such a colloquium on 10 June 2022 and the registrations for Reorganising Organisation are already open…but the need for dialogue is pressingly in the here and now.)

The office blocks we’re marched back into will likely persist after humanity has gone, just like the arid canals on Mars. But those dilapidated buildings will be a pathetic monument to humankind’s stupidity, vanity, and lack of imagination.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close