You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

These days it’s rare that people don’t worry about what they say, write, or think at the workplace. Everything and anything can be misconstrued as racist/sexist/whateverist by an overly sensitive co-worker and cost someone their job, or worse, their entire career, their reputation, their home, and their family.

As bad as it is, it’s about to get worse.

In the near future it isn’t just your co-worker you have to worry about, but a new surveillance system that can be used to analyze everything you do, say, write, and perhaps think. Call it “ ‘1984’ meets ‘The Office’ ”.

One minute you are contemplating your next vacation, the next you click on Facebook and see adverts for hotels and cheap flights. Coincidence? Surely. But what about that smart speaker in your kitchen? It doesn’t just play music and provide an on-demand weather forecast. It hears about the groceries that need replenishing, the cat’s trip to the vet, and, of course, your vacation plans.

Now imagine what such a listening device could do in the workplace. The whispered conversation about difficulties with your latest project is automatically reported to your manager. The half hour spent discussing child care arrangements is sent to Human Resources. And what about the things you don’t say: the colleague you don’t greet in the morning, the co-worker you never ask to join you for coffee? These non-conversations are likewise noted and filed away to be discussed at your next appraisal.


This yet-to-be-invented machine is already being heralded for its potential to revolutionize equality and diversity in the workplace by alerting users to instances of implicit bias. It will record verbal and nonverbal cues, as well as the “physiological signals” shared between members of a team. Then, having noted and analyzed all these tiny interactions and non-interactions, the speaker will make recommendations for improving inclusivity and productivity.

To any sane person, this is a truly terrifying prospect – not because we arrive at the office each morning desperate to dole out racist and sexist abuse to our colleagues, but because of the opposite: we want to get on with our jobs and get on with our co-workers. We know that a spying machine, watching, listening, monitoring, and advising, is far more likely to interrupt our work and fuel dissent than it is to increase productivity.

It’s already bad enough in a lot of workplaces and these folks want to make the paranoia and distrust that exists in those businesses and crank the level up to “11”. That’s going to work.


This will end up being misused and it’s going to backfire, causing more problems than this technology is supposed to solve.