From The Century Foundation, Dec. 19:"Not only does this corporate surveillance enable a pernicious form of rent-seeking: it also opens the door to an extreme informational asymmetry in the workplace that threatens to give employers nearly total control over every aspect of employment.”
How Surveillance and Capitalism Are Shaping Workers’ Futures without Their Knowledge
We live in a surveillance society. Our every preference, inquiry, whim, desire, relationship, and fear can be seen, recorded, and monetized by thousands of prying corporate eyes. Researchers and policymakers are only just beginning to map the contours of this new economy—and reckon with its implications for equity, democracy, freedom, power, and autonomy.
For consumers, the digital age presents a devil’s bargain: in exchange for basically unfettered access to our personal data, massive corporations like Amazon, Google, and Facebook give us unprecedented connectivity, convenience, personalization, and innovation. Scholars have exposed the dangers and illusions of this bargain: the corrosion of personal liberty, the accumulation of monopoly power, the threat of digital redlining,1 predatory ad-targeting,2 and the reification of class and racial stratification.3 But less well understood is the way data—its collection, aggregation, and use—is changing the balance of power in the workplace.
This report offers some preliminary research and observations on what we call the “datafication of employment.” Our thesis is that data-mining techniques innovated in the consumer realm have moved into the workplace. Firms who’ve made a fortune selling and speculating on data acquired from consumers in the digital economy are now increasingly doing the same with data generated by workers. Not only does this corporate surveillance enable a pernicious form of rent-seeking—in which companies generate huge profits by packaging and selling worker data in marketplace hidden from workers’ eyes—but also, it opens the door to an extreme informational asymmetry in the workplace that threatens to give employers nearly total control over every aspect of employment.
The report begins with an explanation of how a regime of ubiquitous consumer surveillance came about, and how it morphed into worker surveillance and the datafication of employment. The report then offers principles for action for policymakers and advocates seeking to respond to the harmful effects of this new surveillance economy. The final sections concludes with a look forward at where the surveillance economy is going, and how researchers, labor organizers, and privacy advocates should prepare for this changing landscape.
The Data Gold Rush
The collection of consumer data over the past two decades has enabled a rent-seeking bonanza, giving rise to Silicon Valley as we know it today—massive monopoly tech firms and super-wealthy financiers surrounded by a chaotic churn of heavily leveraged startups. The datafication of employment augurs an acceleration of these forces.
In the digital era, data is treated as a commodity whose value is divorced from the labor required to generate it. Thus, data extraction—from workers and consumers—provides a stream of capital whose value is infinitely speculatable. Returns on that speculatable capital concentrates in the hands of owners, with minimal if any downward redistribution.
Google offered consumers a product whose commercial purpose (mass data collection) was all but orthogonal to its front-end use (search). Likewise, the service provided by Uber’s workers (car service) is entirely secondary—and much less profitable—than the data they produce while providing it (a total mesh of city transportation logistics). Search and ridesharing aren’t the goals for these services; the goal is data—specifically, the packaging of data as a salable commodity and a resource upon which investors can speculate.
Crucially, data collection and analysis also provides firms with feedback mechanisms that allow them to iteratively hone their extraction processes. By constantly surveilling us, for example, Amazon gets better at recommending us products, Facebook at monopolizing our attention, and Google at analyzing our preferences, desires, and fears. As consumer data extraction constrains consumer choice and reifies inequities, data extraction in the workplace undermines workers’ freedom and autonomy and deprives them of (even more) profit generated by their labor.
In all, ubiquitous corporate surveillance creates a closed circle. Working people are surveilled as consumers and as workers—when they check Facebook in the morning, when they sit down at their desks, when they get home to shop online for a car loan. The data consumers and workers generate in consumption and in work generate profit for Silicon Valley firms and enable them to more efficiently extract data in the future. Rent-seeking via data accumulation is extremely lucrative for shareholders (who derive profit without paying labor), but deprives workers of compensation for the wealth they produce and concentrates wealth at the very top. The algorithmic means by which this system is fortified constrain and coerce workers and consumers alike.
How Surveillance Capitalism Paved the Way for the Datafication of Employment
A couple years ago, Shoshanna Zuboff coined the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the business models of major technology companies such as Google and Facebook—the monetization of data generated by constant software surveillance.5 In her article “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism,” Zuboff outlines the development of a tech economy driven by targeted ad sales, which relied upon user data in order to better match products with their potential buyers. This business model shaped the practices and infrastructure of the companies that thrived during this era, prioritizing product design that enabled the extraction of the most data possible from each user over designs that protected user privacy or fulfilled the digital-age promise of free and open access to information, unfettered by gatekeepers....MUCH MORE