The Corporate Surveillance State

Some of you may have got the impression from the last writeup that I might blame governments, or left-wing politics, for mass surveillance.

Not so.

In fact it’s instrumental to see that large-scale US government surveillance in WWI was merely a more advanced version of the anti-union corporate surveillance that came before it. (Just as the most direct predecessor to the modern domestic intelligence/secret police, the national police, was introduced in the wake of the French Revolution to prevent such a thing happening again.)

Bringing things around to the modern era, the NY Times has a fascinating article detailing the application of Big Data techniques to the modern workplace. Corporations and even medium-scale employers like restaurants are gathering as much data as they can on their employees, in order to “optimize productivity.”

In many cases, this actually does result in improved productivity. Restaurants see higher sales from identifying which servers need sales training. Call centers see telemarketers quitting less often after realizing social breaks help them commiserate about their shitty jobs. Pharmaceutical manufacturers determined that a cafe area for its marketing personnel resulted in increased sales.

Civil liberties concerns? Not much of an issue, since they’re “just looking at metadata.” Right…?

But I’d like to point out something. When people talk about “increasing productivity,” what they actually mean is “making people do what the corporation wants them to, more and better.”

You see, a corporation is an organism. This isn’t a theory, it’s the law — corporations are people like you and me according to the legal codes of most Western countries. The fact that this “organism” exists only in the minds of the people that work for it, and on a piece of a paper in a lawyer’s office somewhere? That’s irrelevant.

Unlike you and me, the “corporate organism” does not know when to stop growing. (If it did, the shareholders would be pissed!) Therefore, it has this constant concern… how to better herd the often-cat-like “sub-beings” of which it is made? How to better incorporate them into the “corporate organism” and get them to better serve the Corporate Mission?

What these Big Data techniques do is provide a powerful tool for doing exactly that. Like the Taylorism before them and the double-entry accounting* of the Renaissance before that, they allow the “corporate organism” to apply the principles of feedback — closed-loop servo control, the cybernetics of Plato and Turing — to people.

If you know enough about what your employees (or customers) are doing, it becomes much easier to ensure they’re doing exactly what they should be. Faster feedback results in less “error” between what you want and what actually happens.

In other words, what these techniques allow is a better melding of employees into the organization and ensuring they do more of what the corporation wants them to, and less of what it doesn’t. Social time to keep them happy, sales training to keep them productive.

After all, busy people don’t quit. (The “corporate organism” wants growth, remember — even unproductive people are still contributing kilowatt-hours, which is why you get “bullshit jobs” [1] since someone in the Matrix doing nothing is better than someone outside the Matrix.)

Busy people don’t go doing things that compete with the corporation, or starting social movements that would threaten its existence. And so what if they did? “Closed loop servo control” means those movements don’t last long anyway.

Just ask Occupy…

* Accounting is fascinating, because it essentially represents a toolkit for making “imaginary organisms” like corporations do your bidding. He who controls the corporation controls the employees, he who controls the employees controls the country…?

[1] http://www.salon.com/2014/06/01/help_us_thomas_piketty_the_1s_sick_and_twisted_new_scheme/

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/technology/workplace-surveillance-sees-good-and-bad.html?_r=0

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