Measuring Everything That Moves: The New Surveillance at Work
(In I. and R. Simpson (ed.) The Workplace and Deviance, JAI series on Research in the Sociology of Work, 1999.)

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This sensitizing and exploratory article considers recent changes in work monitoring. More intensive and extensive monitoring of both work and the worker are part of broader social changes in the nature of surveillance. The monitoring practices and rationales of an ideal-typical company are described. The implications of current surveillance trends for social control and deviance at work are discussed. Among issues covered are increased deviance (or at least greater official labeling of it); drowning in the data; difficulty in finding workers who measure up to the standards; a potential conflict between transparency and innovation and risk-taking; machines vs. managers as interpreters of work monitoring data; worker resistance and implications for equity. The often unintended and ironic outcomes of inappropriate monitoring must be understood if we are to have a society which is both productive and just, and in which the story of Dr. Frankenstein remains just a story.

A Bank of America vice-president, commenting upon the 200 criteria used to assess workers in his credit-card division proudly states, "I measure everything that moves." He also measures a lot that doesn't move. His observation captures a central feature of the new forms of surveillance --its omniscience.

Whether we consider video, phone, computer network, E-mail, fax, Internet or location monitoring and recording, biometric means such as retinal identification patterns, drug tests and DNA analysis, or elaborate computer matching and profiling, there has been an explosion in the ability to collect, store, retrieve, combine, share and analyze personal information, including that related to work --whether involving background checks and tests for hiring or monitoring once hired --both on and off the job.

Elsewhere (Marx 1988) I have written about "the new surveillance" and "the maximum security society". 1 In its extreme form such a society is transparent and porous. Information leakage is rampant. Indeed it is hemorrhaging, as traditional boundaries weaken or disappear. Actions, as well as feelings, thoughts, pasts, and even futures are made visible, often independent of the individual's will or knowledge. Numerous "selves" or at least representations of individuals beyond their control and often awareness are created.

The line between the public and the private is weakened; we are under increased observation, ever more goes on a permanent record, and much of what we say, do and even feel may be known and recorded by others we do not know --whether we will this or not. Data in many different forms, from widely separated geographical areas, organizations, and time periods can easily be merged and analyzed.

As the technology becomes ever more penetrating and intrusive, it becomes possible to gather information with laser-like specificity and with sponge-like absorbency. In Stan Cohen's (1985), imagery, if we think about the information gathering net as being parallel to a fishing net, then the mesh of the net has become finer and the net wider.

These developments are general --running across the society, if in varying degrees and ways. They touch us as citizens, consumers, patients, parents, children and friends and of course as workers. We are increasingly both watched and the watcher.

Of course work surveillance is hardly new. Every social situation has historical and cultural antecedents and involves at least some common human and social system elements and requirements. One can argue that what we are seeing in the present is not really new and shows continuity with the past.

Modern capitalism involving the pursuit of profit through efficient productivity involves the rationalization of activities. At the turn of the century innovations in the collection and processing of information permitted better integration and control of complex systems of transportation, communication and manufacturing. (Beniger 1986)  Measurement and analysis were central to this. Recent developments in work monitoring are consistent with the notion of "scientific" management put forth by Frederick Taylor early in the 20th Century. "Taylorism" was based on precise measurements of the body and movements of the individual worker in a highly differentiated division of tasks. It became widespread in many sectors early in the century. Henry Ford built upon this.

An array of technologies for identifying employee behavior were developed --from time and motion studies, to counting individual output, to the bell that rang on a cash register when it was opened, to the police call boxes that required the walking patrolman to register his location by inserting a key in the box. In industrial settings control was embedded in the technology (e.g., in the speed of an assembly line or safety guards on machines) and in creating formal bureaucratic expectations about work.

Organizational hiring and training has always involved at least some assessment and screening (e.g., for factors such as motivation, strength, aptitude, experience and preferred gender and ethnic characteristics).

With the development of the factory system, work and home were separated. Yet the border was often at least somewhat blurred. Reformers such as Robert Owen sought temperate workers. Henry Ford created a "Sociological Department" that concerned itself with the moral behavior of employees and their families. In the company town behavior considered inappropriate by one's employer could cause one to lose both job and home.

Yet in spite of continuity, the contemporary developments described below represent a quantitative and in some ways qualitative change. They can take monitoring to new heights (or lows) depending on your point of view.

There are many ways to categorize work surveillance tools, but here let us note a distinction between means 1) directly measuring the quality and quantity of the work product (e.g., counting the number of pages and errors typed or parts assembled and rejected) 2) measuring conformity with workplace rules (e.g., dress codes, number of bathroom trips) 3) measuring aspects of a person's physiology and life style not directly involved with the work product, or necessarily even at a workplace or time (e.g., drug testing, cholestrol monitoring), instead they are concerned with what a person "is" and may do away from work 4) a final aspect cutting across the above involves inventions designed to improve the work process by facilitating analysis and communication (beepers, cell phones, location devices), but which also lend themselves to surveillance (e.g., insuring that drivers follow preferred routes or that computers and telephones are not used for personal reasons).

The ability to monitor in all of these areas has been greatly strengthened in recent decades. Work monitoring is undergoing major changes. 2 Interest in monitoring the worker, apart from the work has become increasingly important.

New electronic and chemical forms enhance and extend the traditional visual surveillance of the manager who had to rely on the senses, memory and records (often manually generated by those subject to the surveillance). In one important aspect, as Zuboff (1988) notes, there has been a radical break in the nature of the automation process. In contrast to prior automation tools, information technology now simultaneously reports on itself even as it carries out the production process. Microprocessors direct and also record data on what they have done.

One of the first persons to worry about deviance at work, as well as among convicts and paupers, was utilitarian philosopher Jeremey Bentham. In 1791 at the behest of the British government, he published Panopticon or the Inspection House in which he suggests a model for the ideal prison and factory. There was to be constant inspection of both prisoners and their keepers. This was aided by principles of architecture and uncertainty. His Panopticon was a polygonal structure with a central tower offering a full view of rows of glass-walled cells. Mirrors around the tower made it possible for the guards to look into each cell while staying invisible to inmates. Bentham used the term "universal transparency" (although this is a misnomer -- "for authorities" should be added to it). Recent developments in telecommunications, along with other new means of collecting personal information give Bentham's image of the Panopticon contemporary significance. Foucault (1986) has applied this idea to the development of a variety of organizations concerned with managing persons.

Illustrating the new forms, a 1987 report by the Office of Technology Assessment identifies three common types of office monitoring:

  1. computer or electronic monitoring systems which automatically record employee use of computers and telecommunications
  2. service observation which involves listening (and sometimes watching and recording) an employee's conversation with a caller and interaction with other employees
  3. telephone call accounting which involves computer generated records of time, duration and destination of phone calls and may involve recording all, or a sampling of calls.
Software products referred to as "Big Brotherware" for this and other types of monitoring are constantly appearing. Consider for example one called "Veranda Enterprise Messaging Reporter" which permits viewing all types of messaging --electronic mail, network, fax and Internet. An advertisement promises "For individuals or departments, Veranda can track usage by volume, duration, destination and time of day. Managers can quickly reveal the E-mail hogs, Internet loafers and security risks, such as those who send resumes or files to competitors." (Dryden 1997) Another product is "Com.Policy" which tracks all computer activity and captures screen images at random to reveal exactly what a user is doing. An aptly named product -- "CNTRl", permits managers to observe on their own screen all of a terminal operator's input and output. A similar product "Peek and Spy" gives managers the option of informing employees when they are being observed. 3

Evidence of the rapid expansion of the new surveillance can be seen in surveys of corporate practice and in the sale of surveillance equipment. A 1987 OTA estimate suggested that several million workers a year were subject to electronic monitoring. Only six years later a MacWorld (Bosses 1993) survey found that 20 million workers were subject to monitoring of their computer files, voice and electronic mail and other networking communications. One third of these companies did not notify employees of their practices. The larger the company the more likely monitoring was. A study by the business-backed Labor Policy Association of 102 Fortune 500 companies reports that video, telephone and data entry monitoring was widespread. (Ehrlich 1993) In 1993 the Communications Workers of America estimated that managers monitor and record 400 million telephone calls a year. (Daily Labor Report, 1993)

Drug testing has also expanded. The American Management Association began conducting an annual drug testing survey in 1987. In that year 22% of major companies reported they applied drug tests. By 1996 this figure had increased to 81%. (AMA 1996)

It is difficult to obtain information on the sale of surveillance technology but the head of Sensormatic Electronics Corp. reports that "Security and surveillance are the wave of the future". In 1991 closed circuit television systems garnered 500 million in sales. Sensormatic's sales of CCTV and access control systems went from $35 million in 1995 to an expected $200 million in 1995. (Lewis 1995) One research firm estimates that employers would spend $2.1 billion dollars on CCTV equipment in 1996. (Frankel 1996)

A study by the International Labor Organization (Jankanish 1993a,b) finds that surveillance technologies are used to a much greater extent in the United States than in other countries.

Another indicator of U.S. management's commitment to monitoring can be seen in the strong lobbying campaign of a broad coalition of businesses between 1987-94. They successfully defeated rather mild Congressional legislation that sought to place some limits on the electronic monitoring of work (e.g., a notice requirement).

As part of a decade long study of surveillance based on observation, interviews, documents and the literature I have created an "ideal-typical" brave new world workplace (ideal that is from a standpoint of the elements of the concept, not ethically). In a satirical statement (Marx 1990) I described an imaginary "omniscient organization" --a company called Dominion Swan which engaged in continuous state-of-the art monitoring of the work product, the worker and the work environment. The company was organized according to the following principles:

  1. Make the company a home to employees. Break down artificial and alienating barriers between work and home. Dissolve, through company initiative, feelings of isolation. Great companies are made by great people; all employee behavior and self-development counts.

  3. Hire people who will make a continuing contribution. Bring in people who are likely to stay healthy and successful, people who will be on the job without frequent absences. Candor about prospective employees' pasts is a key to the company's future. Prevention is better than cure

  5. Technical, hardware-based solutions are preferable to supervision and persuasion. We build the time-tested "command and control" model right into the machine. Machines are inexpensive and reliable and have advantages over managers. Employees want to do the right thing; the company wants nothing but this and will give employees the needed technical assistance. Employees accept performance evaluation from an impartial system more readily than from a superior and appreciate technical solutions that channel behavior in a constructive direction.

  7. Create accountability through visibility. Loyal employees enjoy the loyalty of others. They welcome audits, reasonable monitoring, and documentary proof of their activities --whether of location, business communications, weekly output or life styles. Once identified, good behavior can be rewarded, inappropriate behavior can be improved. When the expectations are clear and easily measured, self-control, the best control is possible.

  9. Such an organization aims to recreate elements of the company town and company store on an unprecedented scale --but without the traditional limitations of the geographical town-line border, the senses or the clock. From the bathroom to the bedroom to the workplace to the field, a paternalistic bureaucracy seeks to manage its complex setting by relying on information technology. Its' goal is the creation of a borderless environment with respect to space and time in which organizational omniscience enhances managerial omnipotence.
Virtual offices and telecommuting indicate how traditional work settings are no longer necessarily confined to a common workplace. Haken (1993) suggests using the term "worksites" or "workspaces" rather than workplaces. We lack an equivalent term for the change in the nature of company "on-duty time" to being "on duty all the time", or whenever called.

There is also increased colonization/illumination of work and workers who traditionally were relatively free of direct management supervision, being beyond the confines of an office, a factory and a 9 to 5 schedule. Consider the modern techno-cowboy, with beeper and cellphone subject to, and also using, advanced satellite technology to locate and identify cows --often from another kind of bronco than his predecessors.

The engineering tilt shifts the emphasis from humans to machines as data gatherers and interpreters. The size of middle management is reduced as machines lessen the need for supervisors. A scientific and rationalizing impulse results in engineering and monitoring the environment so that conformity with company expectations is built-in. Many of the means designed to enhance control have low visibility for those subject to them (at least until they are implicated by them). Organizational outcomes however are likely to be transparent to those in positions of authority (the best analogy is to a floor that is a one-way mirror with visibility downward rather than through a window).

Engineering and monitoring can overlap, as with information clerks whose computers may be blocked from certain web sites, even as a record is kept if there is an attempt to view a prohibited site. The situation is the same for access and location monitoring devices. One must have the right card or code or biolgy (that is possess or know something or "be" the entity suggested by a biometric measure -e.g., fingerprint, voice, hand geometry, retinal pattern, facial image) to enter a particular area and a record is then kept of the time of entry and exit.

With some systems (one is called "birdog" and another "active badges") signals are constantly sent even indicating where the person is within the area and who else is present (or at least whose access card is present). Communications can be forwarded as the individual moves. The meaning of the term never "out of touch" has been extended by these distance eradicating technologies. A less complex technology simply uses chair sensors to determine the amount of time an employee stays seated.

Don't Call Him 'Numbnuts': Management Justifications

Two Nissan employees who referred to their boss as 'numbnuts' in personal E-mail (which they thought was password protected) claim they were fired because of this. They learned to their detriment that the Bill of Rights as currently interpreted stops at the company door and that E-mail messages are more like postcards than first class letters.

Many of the protections Americans have as citizens they lack as employees, e.g., freedom of speech or limitations on searches. Police for example can not access your phone or computer communications without a warrant. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act however gives employers considerable latitude in monitoring communications at work. What is more, electronic communication has an almost magical quality in which erasing it does not necessarily get rid of it and passwords may not protect against insiders. 4

The American doctrine of employment at will permits rejecting or firing employees for any reason not specifically forbidden by a contract or law. Even with recent civil rights legislation employers remain favored over employees. This separates the United States from Europe, where employers are more limited in their ability to unilaterally set the conditions of work and to fire employees without cause. Organizations representing workers also are stronger. In Europe greater emphasis is given to measuring the productivity of the group with less emphasis put on the individual.

In job settings where workers have little power or few alternatives, managers do not worry much about justifying their behavior. Yet most workplaces resemble neither prisons nor slave systems and workers have some rights and room. 5 If work conditions are too onerous they may seek other employment or resist. Managers try to create legitimacy for surveillance practices with a variety of justifications.

Contemporary approaches to social control stress the importance of persuasion rather than coercion. In many job settings there is an effort to ease over the harsher edges of surveillance and the conflicts of interest that may be present by rationales such as the following:

  1. "this is for your own good --video and audio recordings, drug testing and access controls are there to protect you from being an accident or crime victim or from false accusations. Surveillance enhances the safety of the workplace. For example in a unit where there has been a problem such as a theft or low productivity, without monitoring it might be necessary for us to fire all workers, whether they are guilty or not."

  3. "monitoring increases productivity and permits establishing objective quotas to assess performance. Surveillance helps our company stay competitive by permitting detailed analysis of work flows and costs. Without these efficiency enhancing measures we might go out of business or have to reduce our size" 6

  5. "monitoring is fair --it offers a way to reward workers according to the quantity and quality of their performance and to help others improve their performance through feedback. We are a profit-making organization, not a safe-haven for the guilty, nor a charity for the lazy. To be against monitoring is to protect those who shouldn't be working here and to hurt those who should."

  7. "monitoring not only means better business decisions but better service for our valued customers and better understanding of their needs. As our statement of goals indicates, we strive 'to improve our customer's experience and to facilitate consumer empowerment.'"

  9. "monitoring helps us protect our corporate assets and image, whether telephone and computer time, tools, employee files or company secrets. Theft and espionage cost American industry billions of dollars each year. Our increased reliance on information technology brings increased opportunities, but also new risks and threats. You would not like to have your personnel file available for all to see on our company Web site (and neither would we). Nor do we want employees on the job accessing pornographic or otherwise controversial Web sites, participating in discussion groups or playing computer games when they should be doing the job they are paid for. Monitoring also helps us be sure that employees are not sending harassing E-mails or violating software copyrights for which the company could be held liable. We must also guard against the introduction and use of unauthorized software downloaded from insecure Web sites with the risk of introducing viruses."

  11. "monitoring helps us prove that we comply with laws and government regulations and reduces health and other insurance costs and the risk of costly litigation (e.g., careful screening of prospective employees helps us avoid negligent hiring suits). To receive government contracts and appropriate insurance we must engage in drug testing and meet minimum security standards.

  13. Much of our monitoring is required by government or our insurers.

  15. "we must do our own extensive testing and investigations because privacy laws have made it very difficult for us to directly learn about a worker's past employment. Even if we could trust employee answers, current legislation prohibits the kinds of pre-employment screening we previously could do (e.g., applying polygraphs, asking directly about health, receiving full, candid assessments from previous employers or independent references)."7

  17. "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from our surveillance. 8 Our monitoring combines two tried and true principles for insuring conformity. First is the 'accountability principle' in which a permanent and objective record of behavior can be created for later review. Incidents and disputes can now be resolved by a documentary record rather than rival arguments. It is no longer true that management can not (at least in principle) be everywhere all the time. Of course that can get expensive, so we also rely on the 'uncertainty principle' in which persons can never be sure whether or not they are being watched. This requires us to inform workers of the great potential of our technology to know. 9 This also permits "self-control" --the most modern, humane and efficient form."

  19. "monitoring by machine is neutral, scientific and accurate and fairer than a manager could ever be."

  21. "the system is voluntary. If you don't like it you are free to work somewhere else. One of the freedoms most prized by the modern citizen is the right to quit. Workers can vote with their feet unlike serfs or slaves." 10

  23. "yes this may involve some inconvenience or intrusion, but where possible, we offer rewards for participation." 11

  25. "we build surveillance into routine activities such that it is barely seen and comes to be taken for granted. You won't even notice it after a while."
Rhetorics and Realities

Amidst the chorus of self-serving entrepreneurs and ideologues who are not held to scientific standards of evidence,
and journalists in search of instant answers, it is easy to confuse the rhetoric and reality of new technologies. While rhetorics can (and should) be analyzed on their own terms as a type of data, my purpose here is to urge caution and the need to disentangle: 1) the potential of a technology 2) the form and degree of its implementation and 3) popular beliefs about both of these. Beliefs about these often reflect superficial mass media depictions reflecting the claims of the concerned parties and examples whose typicality is not established.

There is much variation in the extent and form of monitoring, depending on the state of the economy, cultural traditions, type of work and worker. Just where and when we find the various forms of surveillance, whether the surveillance is as effective and efficient, irrelevant, or as disastrous as varying public rhetorics claim, whether expert and popular beliefs are consistent with the known facts and what accounts for systematic differences in all of this, are research projects waiting to happen.

One of the intriguing aspects of this topic is that in spite of the ethos of rational and scientific measurement as applied to workers and the industrial process, monitoring itself has rarely been systematically evaluated. Those with the gold of course disproportionately effect the rules and it is rare for superiors to apply the same critical perspective to their preferred ways of behaving as it is to apply this is subordinants.

Some monitoring clearly has a fad-like quality. The symbolism monitoring may seek to convey about corporate omniscience and monumentality is a factor. From this perspective, whether it truly works or not is irrelevant --if employees believe it works and feel humbled and in awe of the power of the organization. That of course can be risky as Sir Walter Scott noted when he wrote "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!"

Given the vast expenditures on monitoring it is striking that there has been so little analysis of whether its' claimed benefits are real. Here we see the fallacy of intuitive appeal or surface plausibility. (Corbett and Marx 1991) A policy may be adopoted because "it sure seems as if it would work." A study by the American Management Association which asked whether its members collected statistical evidence showing that testing reduced absenteeism, accidents, disability claims, theft and violence in their companies found that only 10% reported such evidence. (AMA 1996)

At present the evidence supportive of the pro-monitoring rhetoric is not strong. As we will note there are good reasons to expect unrestrained monitoring to be counter-productive. A possible negative impact on workers' physical and mental well-being may cancel out profits from supposed increased efficiency as a result of monitoring. A 1993 World Labor Report claims that "...stress costs American employers $200 billion a year through increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, higher compensation claims, rising health insurancew fees and additional medical expenses".( U.S. Senate 1993, p. 19) Of course such estimates must be viewed cautiously, as must claims that employee crimes cost employers more than $40 billion a year (The Move 1993) or that alcohol and drug abuse cost "...American industry $100 billion annually in lost productivity". (A Strategy 1990) Whatever the actual figures, we can however ask what causes what and not assume that monitoring is always a response, rather than also a cause, of some of these problems.

Ann Wood (1997) notes that if monitoring were as effective as proponents claim we would expect to see it widely adopted among industrial countries. Unlike mass production techniques which quickly spread worldwide, the kinds of work monitoring recently appearing in the United States have in general not spread. (Jankanish 1993a,b) Doubts about its effectiveness and concern over unintended consequences are factors here.

The remainder of the paper suggests some hypotheses about the location and nature of surveillance and notes a number of empirical outcomes whose frequency and correlates should be explored.

The extreme forms are likely to be more prevalent in non-unionized settings, disproportionately employing unskilled workers, females, minorities, and immigrants in repetitive, nonjudgmental tasks that can be easily measured and in contexts where labor organizations are weak or absent. 12 Monitoring in the private sector is far less restrained than in the public sector where the Bill of Rights and other federal legislation applies.

We also find a large proportion of employees in telecommunications, data-processing, insurance and banking subject to some forms of electronic monitoring. In such settings information technology is a central feature of the work and at the same time reports on itself, not unlike the automated machines studied by Zuboff (1988). More extensive and intensive monitoring is also found where the risks of failure can be catastrophic (e.g., nuclear power plants, airlines).

Yet the new forms of monitoring are not restricted to specialized groups or sectors whose work directly involves the use of information technology, powerless workers, or grave risks. There is a move toward electronic and other monitoring of groups such as drivers, 13 waiters and hotel maids (whose hand held computers remotely transmit information on their activities) as well as white collar groups such as lawyers, stockbrokers, nurses, doctors, architects and even professors.

The food service industry, a work setting where information technology is not central, offers an interesting example. 14 A product called Hygiene Guard makes use of "smart badges" for the monitoring of restaurant workers in bathrooms. A badge worn by the employee communicates with sensors in the washroom to determine if the employee uses the soap dispenser and stands for the required time in front of a sink with running water --presumed to offer evidence of hand washing. If this isn't the case, the infraction is recorded by computer. To be sure this is better than video cameras in the washroom but still...15
In what follows I reflect on the implications of current surveillance trends and potentials for social control and deviance in the workplace. I emphasize the latter rather than many other related issues such as the effect of information technology and related means on the organization of work, education and job skills, the economy, stratification, law or technological diffusion.

Ironies of Social Control?

According to their advocates engineering solutions and increased transparency should decrease rule breaking and increase conformity with management's expectations, as well as identify areas for amelioration.

What are the impacts? Given the newness of many of the techniques and the absence of research we can not say with much certainty what the impacts are, or better under what conditions different impacts are likely. However from social theory and anecdotes it is possible to speculate on a variety of unintended consequences.

As a result of varying work contexts and different personalities, needs, expectations and perceptions of workers no sweeping generalizations can be made about impacts. There are differences by type of work and organizational culture. There are also individual differences within a setting. Some workers favor a well-ordered, tightly run, standardized, hierarchical, transparent workplace with clearly defined, comprehensive expectations. A supervisor's presence may make them nervous. The veiled, depersonalized authority of the machine may lessen feelings of inequality at work. They may prefer receiving directions from a machine rather than a manager who has the potential to behave inappropriately. In an interesting reversal the presence of the machine rather than a person may increase feelings of privacy. 16 Some workers value compensation based on a highly detailed analysis of their individual productivity. They may believe that sacrifices at work are required to keep the company competitive in a global economy. The employer may be viewed as a concerned parent who has their best interest at heart. Such attitudes are supportive of the relatively low level of class consciousness in the United States.

But there are also many reasons for expecting other workers to respond in an opposite fashion. The creation of a vast system of one-way mirrors into the work, private life and even the bodies of employees is unlikely to be passively accepted. They may act back and respond in kind. In a free society humans are neither (morally nor practically) frail vessels to be automatically controlled at will by those with greater power. Machines channel and record behavior, but humans are hardly indifferent nor inert, unlike the raw materials of production. They are both used by and will use the machine.

The technologies come with some ironic vulnerabilities. Every new form of control introduces new possibilities for failure, resistance and deviation. Omniscient organizations invite the challenge of beating or retaliating against the system and may offer workers new ways of advancing their own interests.

Unless done with the cooperation of workers (although this raises other issues as we note) and in a restrained fashion, the new surveillance can easily backfire, increasing rule breaking, or at least its identification, and offering new opportunities for deviance, as well as resulting in other unintended and unwanted outcomes. Time spent beating the system is also time spent not working.

New Standards

The availability of vast amounts of personal information may tilt toward standardization, or in the term Foucault (1977) used "normalization". He identifies a principle of "indefinite discipline" where "never-ending judgments, examinations, and observation" emerge as a new mode of control. New areas become subject to measurement and old areas are measured in greater detail. Precise formal standards are created against which individuals are judged. These may involve behavioral rules at work (with or without a strong moral underpinning --e.g., contrast the traditional "don't steal" with "more than four trips to the bathroom require explanation to your supervisor"). But many have nothing to do with behavior. They involve expectations about being a certain kind of person, only indirectly (if at all) related to the work tasks and the product, or even what happens at work. For example restrictions on weight and prohibitions (on and off the job) regarding smoking and drugs. 17

Beyond new standards for judging the individual, powerful discovery techniques may reveal more traditional infractions as well. The breaking of borders and the merging of previously distinct data can result in the discovery of departures from expectations that in the past would have been unseen or ignored.

It is difficult to say where the job stops and private life begins when (as in some companies) employees’ cars are equipped with onboard computers using satellite transponders that permit tracking and in addition to locator and paging devices, all employees above a certain level are given fax machines and computers for their homes which must be turned on at all times. When away from home or the office (if for example going on a hike) employees may be expected to carry cell phones the company provides (regardless of weekends or time of day). The company may also know more about family and health matters than in the past if it provides day care, recreation and health maintenance plans.

Drowning in Data?

The vast expansion of the supervisory gaze can mean an over- abundance of data. Managers may find that they are drowning in the data and be unable to separate the meaningful from the meaningless. This raises issues planners may not have anticipated.

  1. With so much data available on failings, those workers who are sanctioned may ask why they were singled out when there is evidence that infractions are widespread.

  3. Or to avoid that problem managers may take no action, sending the message that violations are tolerated. Violations may then increase. When the economy is strong and competition for workers is intense --there may be pressure to dilute, or ignore the system.

  5. The abundance of information on violations may lead unscrupulous managers to misuse their discretion --singling out workers they wish to sanction for personal reasons but lack other official grounds for doing so. The data may be saved up, like a squirrel hoarding nuts. Unless there are criteria for relative importance and limits on the retention and use of such data, it may be applied discriminatorily and long after the fact. Since much monitoring may occur secretly, workers may not know, or recall the incident for which they are being sanctioned. This raises due process concerns.
Is There Anyone Left to Hire?

The extension of management's supervisory gaze to ever more areas expands the realms in which the potential or actual worker may found to be lacking. The vast quantities of minute data will likely reveal some infractions, or potential failings (given a predictive profile against which the individual is compared) on almost everyone. With performance and personal conduct standards raised and expanded to new areas on and off the job, fewer employees may be able to meet ideal standards. This may lead to a failure to feel appreciated and a decline in morale.

It may also make it difficult to find workers. There may be fewer persons left to hire or retain. Eventually the work force (and social participation more generally) may become more clearly divided between people thought to be good risks and others. Rigid pre-employment screening and testing may have the consequence of creating a larger and more permanent class of unemployables denied a second chance. In the past when traditional records systems were less efficient, it was often possible for persons to start over. But now one's past may become an indelible mark. This would be an enormous waste of human resources. If persons are denied chances for legitimate employment, it is not surprising if they turn to illegitimate means, or need to be publicly supported.

Intensive screening of new employees and the proliferation of inspections can lead to a narrow, even intolerant, timid, blindly conforming work force lacking imagination and flexibility. Will creative persons outside the norms be excluded or choose to avoid certain jobs because they don't fit conventional selection profiles? Will workers in general take fewer risks once on the job?

If Some is Good, Is More Necessarily Better?

The "neutral" data-generating technology seems to imply that all information is good. But things are more complex. The desirability of full rule conformity and complete openness regarding rule departures are myths which, if taken too literally, may have negative social consequences. Organizations may be unable to function if held to 100% enforcement of their own rules. There is a sense in which there is "bad" and "good" rule breaking (or in the case of the latter at least creative and innovative rule bending and stretching) which serves organizational and societal goals beyond crass self-interest or incompetence. Unrestricted transparency may undercut that.

Increased transparency at work can interfere with the flexibility and discretion helpful in interpreting and applying rules in complex, ever-changing organizational contexts. The common refrain in some work settings "you don't want to know" or "look the other way" captures elements of this, as does Merton's (1956) concept of "institutionalized evasion."

An enduring paradox is that group life is impossible without rules, and yet too rigid conformity to rules may undermine the group. Pioneers, inventors and innovators are often persons who use discretion creatively, pushing limits and extending grey areas, even venturing into forbidden zones to solve problems. This can get them in trouble, but it can also make them heroes and lead to the rules being changed or seen in a new light. Transparency in an environment of rigid rules makes this less likely. The enhanced order and security of the omniscient organization may undermine its competitiveness relative to other more flexible organizations.

Machines vs. Managers

Mechanical surveillance and engineered solutions are often introduced without adequate causal analysis. Mechanical solutions may be seen as quick and inexpensive, just purchase and plug in. "Have electricity, will control". But if managers have lost their authority, surveillance is unlikely to get it back and may even further erode it. In addition, many human situations are exquisitely complex and (as yet) beyond the capacity of machines to effectively evaluate. 18 The utopian quest for full conformity for all rules all of the time for all persons and for maximum efficiency is unwise.

Analysis may sometimes suggest that it is better to live with a "problem" (even if there is no legal or moral question that it is a problem), than to try to fix it. The latter may be impossible, or fixing it may be too costly and bring other undesirable consequences, including disruption of informal systems, which on balance can be functional for the organization, even if questionable for public relations (if widely known).

Consider for example the minor rule violations found in most job settings (such as using paper and pens and E-mail for personal use or making phone calls on company time on a company phone). Such "perks" have traditionally been accepted as part of the job and even though they can now in principle be more easily controlled via technology, it is generally unwise to do so absent flagrant abuse. The situation is even more striking in efforts at prison reform which interrupt the informal delegations of authority to selected inmates in return for their cooperation in controlling others. (Sykes 1971)

Relying on technology for control and automatic judgements to the exclusion of sensitive managers who can analyze problems, interpret the data, and work at building trust and reciprocal relationships with workers is questionable policy. Traditionally a major means of creating commitment and loyalty to organizations has been a shared history and some sense of common destiny between managers and workers (and more recently among workers). But with some new systems the supervisor's role is more constricted involving review of a printout highlighting deviations from general standards.

Productivity and loyalty are more likely to come out of the employee's commitment to others in the workplace than to be induced via technology (whether from remote electronic monitoring, embedding property and people with sensors, or manipulation via music, scents, subliminal messages and diet).

In our culture, computer generated results with their aura of scientific infallibility are sometimes granted an unwarranted legitimacy as "fact." That machines do fail is rarely acknowledged (Perrow 1984, Vaughan 1996, Neuman 1995). Certainly machines can be more accurate and objective than an incompetent or biased supervisor. But do they know from fairness or compassion? And what of a good supervisor?

In the film "Hard Times," Charlie Chaplin plays a hapless worker at the mercy of machines in an automated factory. The film's humor (as with most cases of jokes involving humans and machines) involves the automatic and repetitive quality of the technology and its literalness.

Machines can do both more and less than humans. They may fail to take account of atypical and extenuating circumstances because they have not been programmed to consider the richness of a dynamic reality. They are acontextual, abstracting out of the situation only a limited number of factors.

Consider for example an employee fired when he was caught taking an expensive tool home (the tool had an embedded chip that caused an alarm to go off when he exited). The employee had used (and returned) the tool many times previously on weekend jobs before the new monitoring system was in place. Or consider a telephone operator criticized because her average time spent on calls was a few seconds over the average --a fact she explained by noting that she took additional time with the large number of calls received from the elderly and foreign born in her district.

Evaluations may be weighted toward what can be measured best by the technology instead of toward what it is most important to measure. In a form of goal displacement, the means may come to determine the end. Workers may seek to maximize satisfying the measurement goal at the expense of what the goal is intended to measure. A conflict between quality and quantity may favor the latter.

Surprise: You're on Candid Camera

Draconian surveillance, particularly when suddenly introduced in a top-down fashion, may lead to resistance and challenges. The process of introducing the surveillance may itself become an issue. Employee indignation is likely to be expressed at the surprise discovery that email is monitored or that a hidden video camera is in place, when there has been no prior consultation or even warning. When the surveillance itself is a form of deviance, violating reasonable expectations (as with cameras hidden in bathrooms or locker rooms or an employee posing as a friend who has infiltrated the workplace during a unionization drive) anger may be intensified.

This can lead to attitudes such as "if you don't play fair with us, we won't play fair with you" and "turn about is fair play." To the extent that workers feel they are being treated like children (needing permission to go to the bathroom) and engineered workplaces are interpreted to symbolically say, "we don't trust you to be honest or to make reasoned choices. We expect you to behave irresponsibly, to take advantage, and to screw up unless we remove all temptation and prevent, trick or force you to do otherwise." Some workers will adopt the attitude "you`ve got the name, play the game." If you are thought to be untrustworthy then behave that way. This can bring new meaning to the self-fulfilling prophecy.

A certain human contrariness, particularly in a conflictual work setting, may impel some workers to find ways to beat new control systems. Management's actions, particularly if seen to be done in a high handed fashion may be taken as a challenge. Beyond game elements and self-interest, this may be accentuated by feelings stress and alienation. 19

To the extent that the technologies create feelings of powerlessness (over inability to have a say in or control the pace and conditions of work, see the watchers, know when one is being monitored or confront one’s accuser), unreasonable stress, dehumanization, invasion, estrangement, disrespect, demoralization, anger and rule violations may increase. There may be a decline in the quality and quantity of productivity, absenteeism, illness, errors, "time theft" (a term used by those selling monitoring devices to refer to loafing or socializing on the job) and an increase in more traditional forms such as sabotage and theft --whether of material property or the selling of company secrets.

Typists for example may hold one key down to increase the number of key strokes recorded, deleting the file later. Telephone agents may avoid calls that add to their average case time--by either disconnecting the call or giving out information that discourages the caller. In addition monitoring may generate a market for means of getting around controls (for example once drug testing became an issue, books advising how to beat it and companies offering to deliver drug-free urine appeared).
The coordinated and interdependent nature of production means that slowing down or obstructing one part of the system may spread to other parts, even if workers there are motivated to cooperate. The vulnerability of complex systems is the worker's silent ally and can serve as a brake, along with values, laws and concern over negative publicity, limiting the full potential of monitoring.

Equity Concerns

Another possible source of employee discontent and resistance to many of the new forms of monitoring involves equity concerns. Are the techniques available to workers as well as the company? Some such as miniature audio and video recorders are. When workers can record managers, as well as the reverse the situation is more balanced. But one must ask what kind of a work environment is it if the level of trust is so low, and suspiciousness or possible abuse so high that people must be constantly on guard, taking protective actions.

An interesting characteristic of the new surveillance is its sweeping and categorical character. Video and audio systems can be indiscriminate, catching all within their purview (whether work related or not and regardless of status in the organization). In principle monitoring can extend up as well as down the organizational hierarchy. Card key systems required to enter a room or computer access codes make demands on all who encounter them and drug testing can be mandatory for all, including the CEO. Systems for analyzing computer network usage can look at everyone (although they may be programmed not to look at what managers do).

If the advantages claimed for omniscient environments are real, then the same methods should be applied to managers and higher level executives as to workers. In fact the case for monitoring the former is much stronger than that for monitoring those lower in the hierarchy, because if the managers are performing inadequately or illegally, much greater damage can be done. We might even adopt a principle that the more central a position and the higher the costs from poor performance, the greater should be the degree of monitoring.

Deviance at work involves white as well as other collared crime. If management is sometimes incapable of watching itself (as white collar crime --whether in banking, insurance, medicine, defense contracting or environmental protection suggests), we might consider having monitoring units made up of workers, stockholders and consumers watch the managers.
Imagine what could be uncovered if a full audio and visual record of all the job-related behavior of senior executive and managers was available, or if their files were subject to the same oversight as those of data-entry clerks (for example tobacco industry executives' discussions of health, smoking and marketing).

Equity and efficiency would seem to require that invasive tactics used against less powerful members of an organization also be used against the most powerful --particularly if these methods are as effective as advocates claim. The credibility of those in management who advocate monitoring increases to the extent that they are willing to apply the same technologies to themselves. Of course this suggestion is unrealistic. But its very unrealism helps to illustrate stratification at work and how higher status carries rewards and also the power to protect itself.

Hierarchy and Work

A related aspect of equity and democracy is the extent to which workers directly participate in setting the conditions of work, factors hardly considered by traditional approaches.

The scientific management approach of Taylor for example subjected the isolated worker to rigid control by the mechanical and social organization of the factory under the guise of a presumed rationality as applied to efficiency and profit-maximization.
The bureaucratic model as analyzed by Max Weber, located authority within a system of rules and offices. While this was hierarchical and the rules were rarely democratically arrived at, authority in principle rested in the office, not in the person of the manager. As such it offered some protection to subordinants who knew what the rules were, and also that the rules applied within a delimited boundary. 20 The boundary smashing implications of the new surveillance technologies raise interesting challenges to this model (Marx 1997), as do recent participatory approaches to work.

In the contemporary period the electronic monitoring of work has appeared as an important control element. In this paper we have contrasted control by surveillance technology vs that directly by a manager and argued for the increased prevalence of the former. While hardly dominant across all work settings, the trend in some sectors is clear.

In principle the results of such monitoring are available to all employees to better engage them in production. In practice the transparency is often restricted and follows traditional lines of organizational stratification.

Yet we can also note the development of a participatory approach to work in which information and authority are shared and there is less reliance on bureaucracy and centralized authority. New information technology may enhance this. 21 This is part of a broader shift in management styles from coercion to consensus. (Burawoy, 1979)

The communal and team aspects of interdependent work settings can permit a bottoms-up approach which involves the users of the technology. In this peer group approach workers watch each other and are granted considerable discretion to determine how work is carried out. The traditional surveillance hierarchy becomes flatter and informal expectations grow at the expense of formal rules. Creating a consensual workplace and sharing power are viewed as the best way (both economically and morally) to generate commitment, trust, inclusion and community.

The new information technologies make it possible to join electronic and team monitoring. Consider for example a work group given a monthly production quota. The group can decide how best to meet it (both in terms of the pace of the work and the form of its production). Team member's video-display terminals can show how productive the individual or team has been for the last hour, day, week, or month relative to other units or previously. 22

Sewell (forthcoming) suggests that in some industrial settings where teamwork is important, we are seeing a hybrid, "chimerical" form which brings together the vertical control of the panopticon with the horizontal (and seemingly more egalitarian and democratic) control of the peer group. This is not easy to classify as either coercive or consensual.

This approach of course comes with particular costs and benefits. Closer to the complexities, fluidity and meanings of work production, peer surveillance may be more fine-grained and fairer than that of a manager or a machine. Legitimacy may be enhanced since self-control and democratic decision-making are valued in our culture. There is evidence (particularly from social psychological lab experiments) that on the average, team approaches and worker involvement are more effective. Yet devoid of bureaucratic protections or adequate oversight, they may become tyrannical and counter-productive.

Just how autonomous and independent these work groups are, to what extent power is truly shared and bureaucracy cutback, and the impact on productivity, safety, job satisfaction etc. are empirical questions (which are also effected by how the concepts are defined and measured.)

Inequality in power and reward will not disappear, although they may be reduced. No matter how democratic, workers are unlikely to be able increase their salaries at the expense of executives or stock holders or fire their managers.

The rational pursuit of goals remains. Participatory approaches are still engineering approaches, but the basic technology involves group dynamics. Building control into organizational culture, the taken for granted way of doing things and collegial relations may be even more subtle, invisible and harder to resist than building it into the design of a machine.

In spite of our efforts to impose conceptual order, human situations are usually messy and fluid and often show contradictory elements. There also may be cycles with the relative emphasis on the coercive and consensual, hard and soft, direct and indirect, rigid and flexible, closed and open forms of engineered control varying as the limits of each is reached. The type of task also effects the balance, as does an organization's history, culture and general economic conditions.

The recent greater emphasis in the United States on teamwork, participatory design and computer-supported cooperative forms of work also nicely illustrates the role of social and cultural factors with respect to technological applications. In writing about technologies in place it is easy forget that choices have been made and to slip into the belief that because something can be done it will be done. In the United States we tend to over-emphasize the deterministic quality of a technology. Technology is not a given, nor are its' most severe applications predetermined. It grows out of and is applied in a social context, even as it reciprocally shapes that context.

Noting that monitoring technology can be either a window or a on-way mirror and contrasting the initial approach to information technology in the United States and Scandinavia illustrates this. In Scandinavia greater emphasis was given to collaborating with workers to determine how to use the technology. 23 For example one important question asked was "how can the technology be used to make work better for the worker?" In contrast in the United States that question was (until recently) rarely asked. Instead information technology tended to be viewed in terms of economics and efficiency. Employee participation, job satisfaction and growth were hardly considered. The extent to which peer approaches to industrial production will modify this is an important question for research.

This is a sensitizing and exploratory article. I have considered some issues that theory, research and public policy need to consider if we are to have a society which is both productive and just, and in which the story of Dr. Frankenstein remains just a story.


I am grateful to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C. for providing a monitor-free environment where work on this paper was done and to Ann Wood for research assistance.

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  1. The maximum security society is made up of five interrelated subsocieties: 1) a dossier society 2) an actuarial or predictive society 3) an engineered society 4) a transparent or porous society 5) a self-monitored society (Marx, 1988, p.221). Related materials can be found at the following web site: See also the discussions in Rule (1973); Laudon (1986); Clark (1988); Webster and Rollins (1992); Gandy (1993); Lyon (1994) and Lyon and Zureik 1996).

  3. See for example Howard 1985; Shaiken 1985; U.S. Congress 1987; Garson 1988; Zuboff 1988; Grant 1990; Haken 1993; Kling 1996; Rosenberg 1998).

  5. According to an ad "The PEEK program allows a watcher to make a software connection between his terminal and another "target" user's terminal. Thereafter whatever the target user's program outputs is sent to both terminals....The PEEK program may be used only with the target user's explicit permission." Failure to offer permission would no doubt be noted. In contrast with the SPY program "the user is not warned that he is being watched." Managers are told they can "...look in on Sue's computer screen...In fact, Sue doesn't even know you're there!...All from the comfort of your chair."

  7. Passwords may offer protection against outsiders but these can be overridden by those with higher level access inside the system. One issue is whether employees can take defensive measures such as encrypting their communications and hence prevent management from accessing them.

  9. It would be interesting to compare practices in the emerging privatized "prison-factory" movement and the occasional cases of (usually immigrant) employees held in bondage with the work done in public prisons and conventional work environments. My concern here is with relative differences and with historical trends. Keeping the above extremes in mind can serve to temper the too loose use of contemporary metaphors in comparing work and prison settings. It is also well to note that Bentham's Panopticon was never built.

  11. As one security expert put it "Competitive advantage -that's how you sell security to the Roseanne crowd. You tell them that if they want to have a job down the road, they'd better be prepared to accept workplace security measures, including monitoring." As cited in Whalen, 199_.

  13. Bland assessments with only factual information (dates of employment, salary) are the rule because of fear of suits for defamation of character. The Americans With Disabilities Act limits the kinds of questions that can be asked about health status absent direct relevance to the task and before any offer of employment has been made. The increased pressure to know, combined with restrictions on some forms of knowing, fuels an intensified search for new surveillance tools.

  15. This is a common refrain which misses the points that
    1. the reason for the ideal of some grounds for suspicion before undertaking a search (as in the Fourth Amendment) is not out of an interest in protecting the guilty but out of an interest in protecting the innocent from abuses of authority.
    2. the record may be in error or dated or the indicator unreliable c) respect for the dignity of the person may involve not crossing certain personal barriers important for self-presentations and self-respect and d) non-incriminating bits of information can be aggregated and used for discrimination and manipulation against the person's interests.

  16. A management attorney stressed this as both a value and a strategy when he stated, "you do not want them to have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Employees should realize that if they come to the place of work, the employer is going to be opening up anything, anytime, anyplace." Los Angeles Times, 12/20/87. Here informing people is also viewed as offering legal protection.

  18. This may generate a feeling of free choice. A key question is whether those who choose not to participate are disadvantaged as a result and not seen as team players and whether equivalent work settings are available without the monitoring.

  20. For example General Mills offers workers reduced premiums if they wear seat belts, don't smoke, drink moderately and control weight and blood pressure. (Smith 1993) An Oregon company permits employees enrolled in its health program to " up to $350 and an extra week of vacation if they meet standards that can include swearing off coffee or limiting fast food to no more than once a week". (Sipress 1991).

  22. See for example the data entry firm described in "Mr. Edens Profits from Watching His Workers' Every Move," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 1994, p. A11.8.

  24. Remote monitoring technology --whether for measuring location, speed and other engine characteristics or physiological characteristics such as pulse, body temperature or drug and alcohol presence, helps solve a traditional management problem of knowing just where employees were and what they were doing. While truck drivers were expected to keep log books recording where and when they traveled and there were sometimes meters on the vehicle, these yielded much less data and could be more easily faked than can remote sensing satellite or electronic tachtograph records. (Jacobs 1989) In specifying routes and speeds the discretion of the driver is greatly reduced.

  26. At least it has not traditionally been central. Yet this may change. In what a June 16, 1998 press release hailed as "a sizable technological step toward realizing optimized business processes", Microsoft in conjunction with Tricon Global Restaurants, the largest owner of restaurants in the world (with 30,000 Kentucky Fried Chickens, Pizza Huts and Taco Bells) announced plans for "ActiveStore" and in-store information system aimed at integrating most activities within an establishment and across retail chains. Information technology may at last come to labor intensive retail service industries. Beyond their relative low pay, such jobs appear to be headed toward more intense electronic monitoring and perhaps robotics and "smart machine" technology which will further reduce the need for unskilled workers.

  28. This also is far less invasive (if also less powerful and "useful") than a "smart toilet" --popular in Japan. After entering a unique identifier, the toilet can capture things such as temperature, pulse, blood pressure and weight and can automatically analyze urine for pregnancy, diabetes etc. each time it is used. The data is saved for trend analysis. The Japanese company has not been successful in introducing this into the United States. A satirical version of such a toilet as part of an imaginary Restroom Trip Policy (RTP), written before I learned one actually existed can be found in Marx (1987).

  30. Here we need to differentiate privacy as being unobserved in a physical and immediate sense from the long term observation that may be associated with a documentary record. Permanent records which can migrate far beyond the work site and time can also involve the invasion of privacy.

  32. Drug testing raise many issues beyond the scope of this paper. Not the least of which involve 1) the reliability and validity of the test 2) the direct relevance of the test to work performance. The research supporting the claims of advocates is underwhelming --a factor apart from the often latent moral concerns that seem to be important in driving the testing. See for example Macdonald and Wells (1994). Effectiveness apart, the cost needs to be weighed against other means or uses of the resources required for testing. Jankanish (1993b) for example notes that out of almost 30,000 federal employees given drugs test in 1991, 152 tested positive. The cost of drug testing was $11.7 million. It thus cost $77,000 to identify each employee who tested positive.

  34. This effort to engineer social control at work (whether in hard, soft or human-ware) is part of the broader phenomena of the engineering of social control. Types and limitations are treated in Marx (1995).

  36. Smith et al (1992) finds that electronically monitored workers on the average experience greater stress and dissatisfaction than those not so monitored.  There is variation within each group as well. But in comparing monitored with non-monitored workers in the communications industry what is striking in the Smith study is the high level of stress reported by both groups of workers (thus eight out of ten of the former reported high tension on the job but so too did almost seven out of ten of the latter). Aiello and Shao (1993) report that workers subject to individual monitoring report greater stress than those subject to team monitoring. After a study of monitored telephone workers revealed that 67% experienced high or very high pressure, Bell Canada restricted monitoring for training purposes only. (DiTecco et al 1992)

  38. An element of equity as a universalistic process is present here in two ways. Workers can expect that in principle the rules will be applied equally to all persons in a given status and that all supervisors will apply the same rules. Whether or not these are viewed as good rules by those in different social locations is a different question.

  40. Some of the debate about the impact of computers on work involves different images of the phenomena. Large mainframe computers in a central location with limited access contrast with inexpensive personal computers that can be used almost anywhere and can remotely tie into sophisticated data networks. Indeed one of the developers of the Apple Computer saw it as a democratizing tool that could free workers from traditional hierarchical centralized control. (Siegel, 1986)

  42. More ominously there is also the potential for the computer to communicate subliminally with messages such as "you are not working as fast as the person next to you", "work faster" and "concentrate". (Harmon 1995)

  44. The proceedings of a conference at the Centre for Technology and Culture of the University of Oslo expand on this. In particular volumes edited by Hakken and Haukelid (1997) and Haukelid (1997).

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