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Biosecurity Surveillance Regime: Employment Edition
A novel system of conditioning and control is not just coming down the pike. In many respects it is already here, for example, at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse near you.
In my last post I described the pandemic as an accelerant to what I called the “Rise of Our Technocratic Biosecurity Surveillance Regime”. In this post I want to examine just one example of how a regime like this manifests in the workplace, using the example of one of the world’s largest employers. If it seems like I am picking on Amazon here, I’ll mention that this example is simply the canary in the coal mine—a harbinger and innovator of trends being taken up by other firms. These developments will continue to spread unless the regime meets significant resistance. Employee dissatisfaction and talks of unionization at Amazon are perhaps one early sign of resistance, though it’s far from clear that the workers will prevail there.
The Amazon example is also useful to demonstrate that the biosecurity surveillance regime is not just a prediction about what is coming or a kind of prophetic conjecture about the future. While the full manifestation of this regime is not yet here, many of its central features are already with us. Some of them, such as a willingness to hand over massive amounts of personal data for the sake of convenience or easier access to the market, are features that most of us are accustomed to: these no longer give us much pause, if they ever did.
I posted a recent Twitter thread on the biosecurity surveillance regime that included themes from my last post here. Commenting on the thread, professor of philosophy Joshua Hochschild, astutely noted:
Professor Hochschild is correct: in fact, we can empirically test my claims now without waiting for some future development. Amazon is a good test case, not because it’s the only example of the biosecurity surveillance regime at work, but because the working conditions there have been well-documented in recent months.
The Washington Post published a useful piece today with the title, “Amazon’s employee surveillance fuels unionization efforts: ‘It’s not prison, it’s work’.” Here are a few relevant excerpts, which perfectly illustrate the features of the biosecurity surveillance regime applied to a workplace environment. The article opens:
Courtenay Brown works in a giant refrigerated section of the Avenel, N.J., Amazon Fresh warehouse, sometimes 10 hours a day, making sure groceries find their way to the right delivery truck. Brown, 31, said she is measured by a metric that calculates the amount of items her team loads to trucks along with the number of people working that shift. Amazon, which keeps tabs on workers through the handheld scanners they use to track inventory, regularly presses her to move more items with fewer people, she said. There are cameras everywhere.
“They basically can see everything you do, and it’s all to their benefit,” Brown said. “They don’t value you as a human being. It’s demeaning.”
That sentiment, that Amazon’s culture of surveillance constitutes inhuman working conditions, has become fuel for unionization efforts to organize hundreds of thousands of workers at the country’s second-largest private employer.
Now, notice that the following response to these criticisms from Amazon is framed in terms of the workers’ own safety and security. “It’s all for your benefit,” the technocrats reply:
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said employee monitoring, via data collected by scanning devices as well as cameras situated through its warehouses, are prudent business measures.
“Like any business, we use technology to maintain a level of security within our operations to help keep our employees, buildings, and inventory safe — it would be irresponsible if we didn’t do so,” Nantel said in an emailed statement. “It’s also important to note that while the technology helps keep our employees safe, it also allows them to be more efficient in their jobs.”
The nod at the end toward efficiency as the goal might mark the moment when the truth slipped out. Here is how Amazon plugs its employees into the efficiency algorithm while on the job:
When workers scan items into warehouses, they trigger an algorithm-driven employee performance system, which tracks where products are located along with the speed that workers are doing their jobs. Managers have visibility into the software — dubbed the Associate Development and Performance Tracker, or Adapt — to review employee performance, Nantel said. Amazon also has systems that measure workers’ “time off task,” those moments when employees log off their devices — turning off their scanners or stepping away from their computers — to take a bathroom break or grab lunch.
As I explained in my previous post, by the word “regime” I do not necessarily mean a particular government or party in power, but rather the network of public and private institutions, whether at home or abroad, that work in concert to advance the biosecurity model. Those governing and directing this novel paradigm are mostly an elite class of unelected but credentialed experts and managers—hence the regime is “technocratic”. For many of our corporate technocrats, Amazon’s surveillance and control system is truly a marvel:
While many warehouses monitor employees with cameras and require them to hit certain productivity rates, Amazon differs because its sophisticated algorithms, fed by data collected from scanners and computers at workstations, track in real-time how many orders a worker packs, for example, according to a former Amazon executive and industry experts. Some workers say the devices can also notify employees when they are falling below performance expectations, though Nantel disputed that.
The development of those algorithms is a competitive advantage that Amazon is loath to scale back as the result of union negotiations, said the former executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal policy. The company’s surveillance of workers through the devices they use has given it scads of data to figure out the pace of work it believes is both attainable and efficient, said the executive, who marvels at the innovation of the system.
“Nothing like this has been done before. There is no playbook,” the executive said.
Negative incentives, like reprimands for poor performance metrics, e.g., logging off the system too long during bathroom breaks, are not the only method of behavioral conditioning and control. Amazon also uses the addictive quality of gaming competition to drive a faster pace of work and squeeze more efficiency out of the system:
Amazon was among the earliest companies to use robots in its facilities, acquiring Kiva Systems, a maker of robotic systems that move goods throughout warehouses, for $775 million in 2012. It has developed software to efficiently staff facilities with the precise number of workers it needs at any given time. The company has come up with a way to “gamify” warehouse work, rolling out video games that run on warehouse computers and pit individuals, teams or entire floors against one another in a race to pick or stow products on its shelves.
As I said previously, on this social paradigm, citizens are no longer viewed as persons with inherent dignity, but as fungible elements of an undifferentiated “mass” to be shaped by supposedly benevolent health and safety experts. One employee commented on how this system does not operate on a human scale or take account of human beings as distinct individuals or free personalities:
“The system doesn’t recognize the human part of people, like, ‘I’m having a bad day,’ or ‘I’m having a tough time at home,’ ” said Hamilton, who has worked at Amazon’s Shakopee, Minn., warehouse for four years.
And because it’s not operating on a human scale but is treating human beings like robots, or like an undifferentiated mass, the system can start to break down—or rather, the human beings caught in the system can break down—under these constraints:
Critics have said that Amazon’s use of data it gleans from monitoring has led to an injury rate at Amazon facilities that’s higher than industry norms. A Post analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data this spring showed Amazon’s serious injury rates are nearly double those at warehouses run by other companies.
In May, Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries cited Amazon for the hazardous conditions at its warehouse in DuPont, Wash., calling out the company’s employee surveillance. “There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders],” according to the citation.
This is just one glimpse into the biosecurity surveillance regime as manifested in the workplace. Keep your eyes open and you will begin to notice many other examples.
Almost eighty years ago, the author C.S. Lewis foresaw these developments in a short and deceptively simple book called, The Abolition of Man, which I consider to be one of the most important books of the 20th Century. In the last chapter Lewis makes the following prediction and poses the following question:
The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall… be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?