Sunday, October 22, 2017

Freedom and the Unravelling Problem in Quantified Work

A Machinist at the Tabor Company where Frederick Taylor (founder of 'scientific management') consulted.

[This is a text version of a short talk I delivered at a conference on ’Quantified Work’. It was hosted by Dr Phoebe Moore at Middlesex University on the 13th October 2017 and was based around her book ‘The Quantified Self in Precarity’.]

Surveillance has always been a feature of the industrial workplace. With the rise of industrialism came the rise of scientific management. Managers of manufacturing plants came to view the production process as a machine, not just as something that involved the use of machines. The human workers were simply parts of that machine. Careful study of the organisation and distribution of the machine parts could enable a more efficient production process. To this end, early pioneers in scientific management (such as Frederick Taylor and Lillian and Frank Gilbreth) invented novel methods for surveilling how their workers spend their time.

Nowadays, the scale and specificity of our surveillance techniques has changed. Our digitised workplaces enable far more information to be collected about our movements and behaviour, particularly when wearable smart-tech is factored into the mix. The management philosophy underlying the workplace has also changed. Where Taylor and the Gilbreths saw the goal of scientific management as creating a more consistent and efficient machine, we now embrace a workplace philosophy in which the ability to rapidly adapt to a changing world is paramount (the so-called ‘agile’ workplace). Acceleration and disruption are now the aim of the game. Workers must be equipped with the tools to enable them to navigate an uncertain world. What’s more, work now never ends — it follows us home on our laptops and phones — and we are constantly pressured to be available to work, while maintaining overall health and well-being. Employers are attuned to this and have instituted various corporate wellness programmes aimed at enhancing employee health and well-being, while raising productivity. The temptation to use ‘quantified self’ technology to track and nudge employee behaviour is, thus, increasing.

These are the themes addressed in Phoebe’s book, and I think they prompt the following question, one that I will seek to answer in this talk:

Question: Does the rise of ‘quantified self’ surveillance threaten our freedom in some new or unique way?

In other words, do these new forms of workplace surveillance constitute something genuinely new or unprecedented in the world of work, or are they really just more of the same? I consider two answers to that question.

Answer 1: No, because work always, necessarily, undermines our freedom
The first answer is the sceptical one. The notion that work and freedom are mutually inconsistent is a long-standing one in left-wing circles. Slavery is the epitome of unfreedom. Work, it is sometimes claimed, is a form of ‘waged’ or ‘economic’ slavery. You are not technically owned by your employer (after all you could be self-employed, as many of us now are in the ‘gig’ economy) but you are effectively compelled to work out of economic necessity. Even in countries with a generous social welfare provision, access to this provision is usually tied to the ability and willingness to work. There is, consequently, no way to escape the world of work.

I’ve covered arguments of this sort previously on my blog. My favourite, comes from the work of Julia Maskivker. The essence of her argument is this:

(1) A phenomenon undermines our freedom if: (a) it limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) it limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and/or (c) it involves exploitative/coercive offers.
(2) Work, in modern society, (a) limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and c) involves an exploitative/coercive offer.
(3) Therefore, work undermines our freedom.

Now, I’m not going to defend this argument here. I did that on a previous occasion. Suffice to say, I find the premises in it plausible, with something reasonable to said in defence of each. I’m not defending it because my present goal is not to consider whether work does in fact, always, undermine our freedom, but, rather, to consider what the consequences of accepting this view are for the debate about quantified work practices.

You could argue that if you accept it, then there is nothing really interesting to be said about the freedom-affecting potential of quantified work. If work always undermines our freedom, then quantified work practices are just more in a long line of freedom-undermining practices. They do not threaten something new or unique.

I am sympathetic to this claim but I want to resist it. I want to argue that even if you think freedom is necessarily undermined by work, there is the possibility of something new and different being threatened by quantified work practices. This is for three reasons. First, even if the traditional employer-employee relationship undermines freedom, there is usually some possibility of escape from that freedom-undermining characteristic in the shape of down time or leisure time. Quantified work might pose a unique threat if it encourages and facilitates more surveillance in that down time. Second, quantified work might threaten something new if its utility is largely self-directed, rather than other-directed. In other words, if it is imposed from the bottom-up, by workers themselves, and not from the top-down, by employers. Finally, quantified work might threaten something new simply due to the scale and ubiquity of the available surveillance technology.

As it happens, I think there are some reasons to think that each of these three things might be true.

Answer 2: Yes, due to the unravelling problem
The second answer maintains that there is something new and different in the modern world of quantified work. Specifically, it claims that quantified work practices pose a unique threat to our freedom because they hasten the transition to a signalling economy, which in turn leads to the unravelling problem. I take this argument from the work of Scott Peppet.

A ‘signalling’ economy is to be differentiated from a ‘sorting’ economy. The difference has to do with how information is acquired by different economic actors. Information is important when making decisions about what to buy and who to employ. If you are buying a used car, you want to know whether or not it is a ‘lemon’. If you are buying health insurance, the insurer will want to know if you have any pre-existing conditions. If you are looking for a job, your prospective employer will want to know whether you have the capacity to do it well. Accurate, high-quality information enables more rational planning, although it sometimes comes at the expense of those whose informational disclosures rule them out of the market for certain goods and services. In a ‘sorting’ economy, the burden is on the employer to screen potential employees for the information they deem relevant to the job. In a ‘signalling’ economy, the burden is on the employee to signal accurate information to the employer.

With the decline in long-term employment, and the corresponding rise in short-term, contract-based work, there has been a remarkable shift away from a sorting economy to a signalling economy. We are now encouraged to voluntarily disclose information to our employers in order to demonstrate our employability. Doing so is attractive because it might yield better working conditions or pay. The problem is that what initially appears to be a voluntary set of disclosures ends up being a forced/compelled disclosure. This is due to the unravelling problem.

The problem is best explained by way of an example. Imagine you have a bunch of people selling crates of oranges on the export market. The crates carry a maximum of 100 oranges, but they are carefully sealed so that a purchaser cannot see how many oranges are inside. What’s more, the purchaser doesn’t want to open the box prior to transport because doing so would cause the oranges to go bad. But, of course, the purchaser can easily verify the total number of oranges in the box after transport by simply opening it and counting them. Now suppose you are one of the people selling the crates of oranges. Will you disclose to the purchaser the total number of oranges in the crate? You might think that you shouldn’t because, if you are selling less than the others, you would put you at a disadvantage on the market. But a little bit of game theory tells us that we should expect the sellers to disclose the number of oranges in the crates. Why so? Well, if you had 100 oranges in your crate, you would be incentivised to disclose this to any potential purchaser. Doing so makes you an attractive seller. Correspondingly, if you had 99 oranges in your crate, and all the sellers with 100 oranges have disclosed this to the purchasers, you should disclose this information. If you don’t, there is a danger that a potential seller will lump you in with anyone selling 0-98 oranges. In other words, because those with the maximum number of oranges in their crates are sharing this information, purchasers will tend to assume the worst about anyone not sharing the number of oranges in their crate. But once you have disclosed the fact that you have 99 oranges in your crate, the same logic will apply to the person with 98 oranges and so on all the way down to the seller with 1 orange in their crate.

This is informational unravelling in practice. The seller with only 1 orange in their crate would much rather not disclose this fact to the purchasers, but they are ultimately compelled to do so by the incentives in operation on the market. The claim I am making here — and that Peppet makes in his paper — is that unravelling is also likely to happen on the employment market. The more valuable information we have about ourselves, the more we are incentivised to disclose this to our employers in order to maintain our employability. Those with the best information will do so voluntarily and willingly, but ultimately everybody will be forced to do so in an effort to differentiate themselves from other, potentially ‘inferior’, employees.

This could have a pretty dramatic effect on our freedom. If quantified self technologies enable more and more valuable information be tracked and disclosed, there will be more and more unravelling, which will in turn lead to more and more forced disclosures. This could result in something quite different from the old world of workplace surveillance, partly because it is being driven from the bottom up, i.e. workers do it themselves in order to secure some perceived advantage. There are laws in place that prevent employers from seeking certain information about their employees (e.g. information about health conditions) but those laws usually only cover cases where the employer demands the information. Where the information is being supplied, seemingly willingly, by masses of gig workers looking to increase their employability, the situation is rather different. This could be compounded by the fact that the types of information that are desirable in the new, agile, workplace will go beyond simple productivity metrics into information about general health and well-being. New and more robust legal protections may be required to redress this problem of seemingly voluntary disclosure.

I’ll close on a more positive note. Even though I think the unravelling problem is worth taking seriously, the argument I have presented is premised on the assumption that the information derived from quantified self technologies is in fact valuable. This may not be the case. It may turn out that accurately signalling something like the numbers of hours you slept last night, the number of calories you consumed yesterday, or the number of steps you have taken, is not particularly useful to employers. In that case, the scale of the unravelling problem might be mitigated. But we should still be cautious. There is a distinction to be drawn between information that is genuinely valuable (i.e. has some positive link to economic productivity) and information that simply perceived to be valuable (i.e. thought to be of value by potential employers). Unfortunately, the latter is what really counts, not the former. I see this all the time in my own job. Universities are interested in lots of different metrics for gauging the success of their employees (papers published, number of citations, research funding received, number of social media engagements, number of paper downloads etc. etc.). Many of these metrics are of dubious value. But that doesn’t matter. They are perceived as having some value and so academic staff are encouraged to disclose more and more of them.

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