Ahsan: The Future We Always Dreamed Of?

Innovation can become a tool of economic exploitation.

by Sajid Ahsan | 5/17/19 2:10am

There is a tendency to instinctively link the forward passage of time with the forward progress of society. It is tempting, and certainly reassuring, to rest one’s faith in the long arc of the moral universe. We have an abundance of new technological and social innovations that have dramatically increased the quality of life of people around the planet. But too often, accepting these innovations without skepticism leads to a failure to reckon with the nature of power and how it is exerted onto those with less of it. This growing trend of so-called progress has facilitated the exploitation of new technology by employers to further manage and control their workers in ways that range from merely annoying to deeply disturbing. Without the proper caution and concern for people’s fundamental rights and dignity, what we know as innovation can be weaponized to undermine personal sovereignty, subjecting people to the whims of corporate interests.

The most obvious impact of technological innovation is the hyper-connectivity of the internet age and the new ease of worldwide communication. But a cursory glance at the news gives a reminder of how it has just as easily been abused as a means of surveillance both by the state and by corporations. On a much smaller, personal scale, the ubiquity of cell phones has created a world in which everyone is assumed to be constantly available for contact, a new norm that has not gone unnoticed by employers. A look at forums and professional advice columns underlines the increasingly common phenomenon of bosses and managers blurring the lines between time on and off the clock with the knowledge that virtually every employee has her email inbox in her hip pocket, even after work hours.

Some employers have taken this even further, taking micromanagement to the extreme of phone-based location tracking in the name of efficiency and employee accountability. Increasingly, this GPS tracking is extending off-site and beyond work hours, as there are few laws explicitly prohibiting this form of private surveillance. Major employers like Amazon and Tyson have become notorious for how strictly warehouse workers are controlled with aggressive monitoring technology and a disregard for fundamental rights like bathroom breaks. Other employers have introduced fitness monitors and health indicators like step count reports, collecting mountains of information about their workers that can potentially have serious effects on their jobs and security. Compounding the complication is the fact that most Americans still receive health insurance through their employment,and this collected fitness data is naturally shared with and used by insurance companies. Some insurance companies have even begun requiring the results of any genetic testing applicants may have had done to factor into risk calculation, subsequently increasing the amount people have to pay for coverage. 

To stand against this tide demands that one understand that it does not have to be this way, and it can still be different. There is nothing inherently bad about change and technological development; on the contrary, innovation has the potential to be a liberating force, easing the burden of labor on workers rather than undermining their protections and improving the quality of people’s lives without serving as instruments of control. Increased connectivity can revolutionize how people communicate with one another without becoming a tool for surveillance or erasing the boundaries between time on and off the clock. Genetic testing can keep people safer and healthier without being used as biological blackmail for financial interests. The decline in single-family home ownership could lead to a re-evaluation of the concept of housing that leads to a more sustainable and socially equitable model than the American suburb rather than a system that overwhelmingly benefits developers and landlords.

A better world is possible, but only after a fundamental reassessment of the relation between ordinary people and the interests of capital and a reassertion of the rights and dignity of the former in the face of the latter. Innovation alone can’t fix everything; the adage holds that there are no technical solutions to political problems. Tools, after all, can build nothing on their own; they need hands to wield them and direction to guide them. The current dynamic of power is not an immutable fact of life, but in order to spark change, it is necessary to first acknowledge this inequity and then understand that this use of technology oversteps the boundaries of human dignity and privacy. America has the capacity to build the future it promised its people; whether it has the ethical backbone to do so remains to be seen.