Offices were once a place of surprising freedom.
At least, the ones I ended up working in.
People chatted, huddled and went out onto the fire escape to smoke their chosen strain of plants. As a boss, you wouldn't be too concerned about where people actually were -- even if they were in the office at all -- as long as the work got done.
Somehow, things changed. And, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has injected fear and uncertainty into society's veins, many are working from home. Many, indeed, fear a return to their offices, but that may soon happen.
The problem, of course, is that the new office life is likely to become a pulsating den of surveillance.
Yes, even more surveillance than the security cameras and laptop spying to which you may already be used.
I couldn't help but feel relieved that my office days were over, after reading an excruciating summation of office life to come in the Wall Street Journal.
As employees will increasingly be asked to return to their companies' bosoms, technology will be employed to follow their every move, mood and membrane.
Your phone will be monitored to ensure that you're keeping the appropriate distance from fellow workers. This being technology, you'll even get a daily score telling you how refined your avoidance skills have become. It seems the neurological incentive of gameification hasn't quite had its day.
Perhaps some will even attempt to equip employees' phones with apps that ping every time you encroach upon the mandated distance.
Then there's the potential differentiation of employees by age and relative health. One can understand the logic, just as one fears the implicit discrimination. Moreover, intimate details of one's personal health and well-being -- including mental, perhaps -- will suddenly become the business of your employer.
One idea, it seems, is to request employees fill out a health questionnaire every morning.
"Yes, I have a hangover."
"No, I'm not going to tell you how much I drank."
"Yes, this questionnaire is raising my blood pressure."
This paragraph made me curl up on the sofa for a whole hour: "Employees can log into Feevr's app at home every morning through a facial scan and take their temperature with a digital thermometer. The app sends the temperature to the employer with a timestamp. If it is below the fever threshold, the employee gets a pass for the day."
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Please, I understand the impulses. I also understand there might be one or two legal issues. And we all surely know that once such systems are installed, they have a habit of never actually disappearing. Because too many companies these days enjoy not merely employing human beings, but controlling them. (I am not specifically referring to Amazon.)
This is one of the more painful consequences of rapid technological development. I look back with depressed fondness to the sales executive who, in 2015, claimed she was fired for removing her employer's GPS tracking app from her phone. She said it had monitored her movements 24 hours a day.
Almost as wistfully, I look back to the app that tracked all those who turned to Twitter to declare how much they loathed their bosses.
Technology offers employers too much temptation to replace the trust they have in employees with a trust in crude surveillance data. And the pandemic has given them the perfect excuse to try ever more invasive technologies.
For many tech companies, providing more employee surveillance tools will be good business. It could be a year or two before there's an effective vaccine. Some might feel it's hopeful to suggest there'll be a vaccine at all.
Few, though, will consider what is lost.
After all, they'll have seen enough sci-fi movies that tell them this is how the future was always supposed to be.