The Apple Watch and the History of Capitalism (updated)

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Selçuk Demirel, from Le Monde Diplomatique (1999)

In the March 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine there’s a terrifying article by Esther Kaplan called “The Spy who Fired Me: The Human Costs of Workplace Monitoring.” Kaplan examines the $30 billion industry of “telematics”: software and hardware that allows firms and managers to surveil their workers in real-time and in excruciating detail. UPS trucks, for instance, now feature 200+ sensors recording and transmitting seemingly everything about the current state of the vehicle and the driver, from whether the back door is open to speed to whether the seatbelt is buckled. The data is not just gathered but can be, and is, watched in real time.

These systems are pitched to drivers as safety benefits, but they are pitched to investors—much more persuasively—as saving hundreds of millions of dollars. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a slogan she sees on one PowerPoint slide. As Kaplan writes, “Workforce-management technologies make productivity visible and measurable, allowing employers to distinguish between labor time that generates profits and labor time—down to the minute—that does not.” (Jonathan Levy has recently shown the ways in which “profit” itself was myopically redefined over the 20th century.) Instead, the costs are transferred to the drivers themselves, who increasingly have to sprint up stairs, buckle their belts behind them, and run yellow lights in order to make the delivery targets, leaving them fatigued and injured.

In retail, employees are measured in other ways: how long between the end of one sale at a cash register and the beginning of the next, for instance. As Kaplan quotes one consultant, “The important thing is where the power lies,” and in a perpetually weak labor market, the power lies with employers. She documents the numerous ways in which retailers have combined shift-assignment software with instantaneous calculations of profitability, so that shifts can be and are often terminated on the spot when the software determines that the marginal value of an employee has dropped below zero. But employers like McDonald’s can, at the same time, require that employees stick around—unpaid—for an hour or more, in case the same software decides that sales have gone up again. Unpaid breaks are meant to be included, but the leanness of staffing means that very often there’s no time to take them. Of course, miss a shift or break a rule, and you’re fired.

I couldn’t help, as I was reading Kaplan’s article, but think back to Peter Linebaugh’s extraordinary book The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (Verso, 2003). By looking at the charges against and testimony of those who were executed in London, mostly for theft, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Linebaugh shows how powerful mercantile and trading interests, in cooperation with the highest levels of the British government, gradually seized all the forms of “customary” income that had allowed the people of London to survive and redefined them as theft and fraud.

For instance, he writes that “The class struggle in the oceanic tobacco trade took a metrological form, because the ambiguities of measure benefited the porters, the crews, the slaves, the lightermen and the ‘little inconsiderable persons'” (162). Legislators standardized the size and construction of the hogshead, the barrel in which tobacco was shipped. Whereas once it had been accepted that coopers and samplers were entitled to the little bits of tobacco that fell out during the sampling process, now that too was defined away as the property of the planter or the merchant. The construction of the West India Docks at the end of the eighteenth century as a massive walled-off area allowed all the workers who worked within to be searched at the end of the day for any sugar they were taking out with them. (The Supreme Court recently ruled that companies like Wal-Mart do not have to reimburse their employees for the time spent waiting for mandatory security checks after the end of their shifts.) Linebaugh writes that “Customary appropriations appear as inefficiency or waste to the technologist, as an inventory loss or transaction cost to the economists, and a depredation or crime to the police.” Replace “appropriations” with, say, “lunch breaks” and the sentence might have appeared in Kaplan’s piece. It’s incorrect, Linebaugh argues, to say that commodities in the 17th century or time in the 21st century are the property of the merchant or the employer—it’s the ownership of these things that is precisely in dispute.

The connection between Linebaugh and Kaplan points to the way in which it historically has been far easier for employers to claim ownership of things that they can quantify. As Leonard Cohen sang of the end of the world: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions / Won’t be nothing, Nothing you can measure anymore.” But whereas Linebaugh’s workers fight the imposition of new metrologies, we are foolishly doing the counting ourselves, through devices like the Apple Watch. As the philosopher Julian Baggini wrote in the Guardian, “smartwatches encourage a kind of auto-instrumentalisation, in which we treat ourselves as machines to be well-oiled, serviced and working at maximum efficiency.” The “quantified self” movement has mostly been thought of, perhaps because that’s how its adherents would like to see it, in terms of “new modes of introspection and self-governance.” But it’s a very public introspection, in which it’s not enough for me to track the pace of my run yesterday. I also, for some weird reason, feel a compulsion to slap it on the internet and share my whereabouts yesterday morning with all of you. In doing so, quantified-selfers might wind up doing the hard work of employers, who would claim their employees’ time as their own property.

3/14/15 update: One further thought. Kaplan notes that she became interested in telematics because she noticed that a number of her deliveries resulted in “failed delivery attempt” slips even when she was at home. This was because, she discovered, when drivers are running behind their mandatory target pace, they will often slap those slips on recipients’ doors. It’s faster than actually delivering a package, but looks the same to the software, which doesn’t know whether you’re home or not. But really, how long is it going to be before the software starts scanning Facebook, or Instagram, or for that matter Strava (where I posted my run), to figure out whether the recipient is at home? If I put the over-under at two years, would you really take the over?

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