The Price of Productivity: Workplace Tracking Technologies

Honorable Mention, People's Choice Spring 2021

Award for pushing the limits of the form

By: Ashley Almejo, Aletta Deranteriassian, Shreya Ramineni, Jana Sun

LOOK OUT! Your workplace has eyes, but can you spot them?

Visit the site and play the game!

In early 2021, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama attempted to unionize. Their efforts largely stemmed from a stressful work environment created by Amazon’s use of tracking technology, including an app that tracked “time off task” when employees would go to the bathroom or be given a small assignment outside of their normal task. The idea of quantifying work and keeping track of productivity is not new. In the late 1800’s, a particularly popular book among slaver owners was Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book.” It featured various spreadsheets for tracking individual worker yields, calculating depreciation values (by sex, age, strength, temperament), and monitoring risk of rebellion (by accounting for numbers of tools and other possible weapons). In the 1910’s, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced Taylorism, or “scientific management.” This theory encouraged specification and repetition of worker tasks, the reinforcement of workplace power hierarchies, and use of incentives. In the 21st century, technological advances has opened the door to a whole new level of scientific management. From facial recognition technology that can promote safety in the workplace to FitBits that can support employees and their wellbeing journeys to haptic touch wristbands that can alert warehouse workers if they are placing items in the wrong place, companies have implemented and theorized countless ways to increase the productivity of their employees. However, there are costs to these advancements. Issues of data privacy, biometric data collection and use, workplace power dynamics, labor and human rights, dehumanization, and psychological and physical stress cannot be ignored. This project seeks to explore the impact of workplace tracking technology, as it exists now and as it will exist in the near future, on workers today. What is the line between surveilling workers and managing productivity? What are the limits to the quantification of work?

Amazing work team… this is so much fun to explore, and the complexity of the story is a real testament to your understanding of the issues. I went back and forth between following the different paths and reading about the background on the site, and it got richer and richer as I did… really great topic and a really unique twist on presenting it! –Prof. Kelty

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