Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Quantified Self? As for myself, I much prefer the Qualified Self. Or just the plain old self.

Years – make that decades – ago, when I worked at the long-defunct First National Bank of Boston, there was a typing pool which, I believe, was monitored for output. At least that’s how I remember things. This was, of course, well before computers were widely used in the workplace, and the computers that were used were impersonal. They were honking mainframes that did batch whatever in the background, or honking mainframes that were accessed via dumb terminals to take advantage of processing through something called time-sharing. (It used to mean you got to use a slice of a big computer, not a slice of a vacation-land condo.) The first time I used time-sharing was to log onto Data Resources International’s system to print out some economic data. While I was grabbing that data, the system crashed, and I thought that I had caused it. Well, I sure lived and learned.

Given the state-of-the-art at that point, I don’t know quite how the “girls” in the bank’s typing pool were being monitored. Maybe they just had to hand in their work at the end of the day, and someone counted up lines typed or whatever. But I do seem to remember some sort of computer-based or mechanical monitoring. (They probably used IBM Selectrics with memory carrels. Could this have done it?)

I did have first hand experience with my personal productivity being monitored, but that was back when I spent a summer working in a shoe factory. For each pair (or maybe it was rack) of shoes or boots we worked on, we clipped a coupon – pronounced “kew-pon” – and put it in our coupon book. At the end of the week, the foreman collected these books, and those who exceeded the baseline piecework rate got paid extra based on how much they did. When someone first explained piecework to me, I thought that we got paid  for each coupon clipped on top of our wage of $1.40 an hour – which, even in 1967 was pretty grim. Would that life were so easy…

When I found out that you wouldn’t make any more unless you surpassed the baseline, I set a goal of doing so. So I turned on the jets and, during one exhausting day, actually got past the minimum daily requirement. I think it translated into about twenty-five sense in my next paycheck. Not worth the agita and exhaustion. (It probably didn’t help that plenty of the shoes I worked on were rejected, which meant no piecework coupon for you. One of my tasks was putting shoe polish over the raw, unfinished seams of combat boots. Invariably, some of the polish dripped down into the unfinished, whitish uppers of the boots. The boots were still fully functional, but they looked messy. I don’t know if Uncle Sam ever turned away any of my boots, or whether some poor grunts in Vietnam took one look at the boots they’d been issued and said ‘who the f made these?’ By the way, while I was working in the shoe factory, my friend Marie had a swell job in the office of a factory that made M16’s. This was a) when physical goods were made in Worcester; b) pre-Vietnam War consciousness on our parts.)

These days, when everything, anything, and everybody can be weighed and found wanting by technology, companies are starting to take a look at where their employees are spending their time. This has been going on for a while with customer support representatives, who are measured for how long they spend on a call, whether the problem was resolved, whether there was any upsell, etc. And they’re used to being spied on – “This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes…”

Other personnel are also tracked. Think UPS and FedEx.

Now this employee monitoring is landing on the desks and desktops of other white-collar workers, and one of the ways it’s getting done is via an application from Sapience called Buddy.

Buddy is supposedly an “exclusively personal” tool, with managers only able to see macro level data.

But would you trust a company that says:

Sapience sources work effort and patterns in a highly automated manner with virtually no manual intervention. It is designed to promote the concept of a 'Mindful Enterprise™. (Source: Sapience)

And a product (the charmingly named “Buddy”) that’s described as an application that “guides” employees “towards Personal Excellence and Work-Life Harmony.”

Sounds a tad bit “Great Leap Forward” and let’s all swim in the Yangtze with Mao to me.

I read about Buddy in an article on Buzzfeed, which was sent to me by my sister Trish, who keeps an especially keen eye out for workplace horrors. (As long as your company is not yet monitoring where you cruise to, you’d might enjoy reading what writer Caroline Donovan has to say about things.)

Sapience monitors the applications employees use, the web sites they visit, and how much time they spend on line. Companies already do some of this – that’s how they manage to nab Fred for spending half his day on porn sites – but there’s something a bit insidious about Sapience trying to suck in employees on improving their personal productivity as a way to get them to be happy about giving over yet more of their privacy and selves to “the man.”

In truth, managers pretty much know who’s productive and who’s not, and they don’t need Buddy to tell them so.

Sooner or later, of course, everything we do will be quantified.

Maybe they’ll be replacing the national anthem with “Every Breath You Take.”

In case you’ve forgotten the words and music, here’s a link to this great Police hit.

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