Welcome to the Panopticon

The 18th century social theorist Jeremy Bentham famously designed a building — the Panopticon — where all the inmates could be watched by a single observer.

Bentham’s Panopticon

The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology; he was a giant with a hundred eyes and thus was known to be a very effective watchman. (from Wikipedia)

One of the primary reasons than many companies are opposed to remote work is the lack of trust between the worker and the employer. Simply put, many managers are concerned that workers will goof off if they aren’t being watched closely.

Leaving aside the fact that remote workers put in more time than those in the office (4 extra hours/week), and are more engaged (according to Gallup’s State of the American Workforce study), paranoid bosses want to actually use tracking software to monitor workers on a minute by minute basis, and by this technique grind more productivity from the workers.

I found two panopticon apps that actually take screenshots so that work can be audited. Here’s the HiveDesk user manual describing the admin set-up:

And here’s the visual reports with screenshots:

And a second panopticon app, Worksnaps:

The reasoning behind these apps is something like this:

  1. Workers are being paid for their time, instead of their effectiveness (which is harder to measure).
  2. Workers will not accurately record their time: they will pad it with time spent in non-work activities (they will cheat).
  3. To be able to confirm that workers are actually working during work times, we need to record their keystrokes and sample screenshots (because they will cheat).

So, basically these tools are based on the premise that workers will cheat unless you monitor them at the keystroke level.

Welcome to the Panopticon.

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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