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Boom and bust

Will Kherbek
art critic
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piqer: Will Kherbek
Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Quantified Worker: Workplace Totalitarianism And Biopolitics

Tech Empire, presented by Michael Kwet, focusses on the ways technology is changing how work is done and understood. Kwett's guest for this episode is Cornell University labour law professor and Harvard faculty member Ifeoma Ajunwa, whose research has focussed on the concept of the "quantified worker", a concept that is rooted in the early twentieth century philosophy of efficiency known as "Taylorism" – named for Fredrick Winslow Taylor – which sought to create maximally efficient workers via the monitoring of movement. Ajunwa's work explores the way wearable technology, apps and other forms of digital surveillance are changing the workplace. 

The cases Ajunwa and Kwet discuss are predictably dystopian, a worker fired for deleting a location app that a higher-up at the company was using to spy on her when she was not working, an employee fired for having a package of cigarettes in his car in Massachusetts, where smoking is a potentially sackable offence, and, of course, a haptic-feedback exoskeleton that workers in warehouses use to hyper-charge their Taylorised searches for stock to ship. The vision of panopticon 2.0 is genuinely terrifying, but Ajunwa is nothing if not a dogged and humane researcher, connecting her research to the daily praxis of union-forming and workplace democracy. Along the fascinating hour-long discussion, the listener can come away with a veritable reading list on the Quantified Labour Future, including important works like Elizabeth Arden's Private Governments and Frank Pasquale's The Black Box Society which explore the bleak realms of the interaction of data, labour, and law. 

This episode of Tech Empire is one of the most important for a moment in which the fundamental social contracts around labour and politics are changing as the platform economy, and the data-brokerage firms behind it, become more entrenched. Ajunwa is optimistic about the role of human agency, but notes that the (Taylorised) clock for action is ticking down.

The Quantified Worker: Workplace Totalitarianism And Biopolitics
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