Labour-monitoring technologies raise efficiency - and hard questions

By The Economist,

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Bosses have always sought control over how workers do their jobs. Whatever subtlety there once was to this art, technology is now obliterating. In February Amazon received patents for a wristband apparently intended to shepherd labourers in its warehouses through their jobs with maximum efficiency. The device, were Amazon to produce and use it, could collect detailed information about each worker’s whereabouts and movements, and strategically vibrate in order to guide their actions. Using such technology seems an obvious step for firms seeking to maximise productivity. Whether workers should welcome the trend, or fear it, is harder to say.

Workplace discipline came into its own during the Industrial Revolution. As production came to depend ever more on expensive capital equipment, bosses, not keen to see that equipment sitting idle, curtailed their workers’ freedom, demanding they work during set hours, in co-ordination with other employees, at a pace dictated by the firm. Technology creates new opportunities for oversight. Editors can see which of their journalists attract the most readers (though many wisely focus on other measures of quality). Referees at sporting events are subject to reviews that check their decisions to within millimetres.

Workers and labour activists have often attacked strict discipline as coercive, unfair and potentially counterproductive. Textbook economics suggests, though, that in a competitive labour market any attempt to coerce people into working harder than they want will fail, since workers can simply switch jobs. Studies of factory work paint a more complicated picture, however. People would like to work hard and earn high wages, this story goes. But they struggle with self-control and do not work as hard as they wish they would. They consequently choose to work for firms that use disciplinary measures to push them. During industrialisation, workers “effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder”, says Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, in a seminal paper on the subject.