Amazon may soon be pushing the envelope on personal privacy, while at the same time giving its employees the shaft. Back in the 1950s, in decrying the plight a coal miner and his relationship with his employer, singer Tennessee Ernie Ford popularized a dystopian ditty. In the first verse, he crooned:
"You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store…"
Today’s worker may not be in debt to their employers, but we may no longer have to look backward for the evanescent employer who literally gives the worker the shaft. We could have a present-day example right now in Amazon, if it puts into practice some recently patented technology. At least when a worker went into the mine, he was invisible for while he worked hours. There was some degree of privacy in the dim dank mineshaft.
Not above ground anymore, apparently. Thanks to Amazon, the boss-man, big brother, or whatever you choose to call the supervisor, could constantly monitor employees’ every move. If it opts to employ its recently patented wristband, today’s Amazon worker could be fitted with it, allowing the supervisor to monitor their every action and movement.
Got to scratch an itch, sit for a spell, or take a few extra minutes in the loo? Guess what? It won’t go unnoticed. The technology will probably be trialed first by Amazon, as the online retail giant usually experiments in-house before mass-manufacturing and distributing its innovations to other companies eager to unleash it on unwary employees while boosting their bottom line.
The patented technology goes to the heart of the privacy versus security debate that rages worldwide on so many levels, but is usually reserved for government intrusion and abuse of privacy rights. But it should come as no surprise that such a program would be embraced by Amazon. It has built its fortune and reputation on pushing employees to the limit - squeezing every ounce of energy out of them.
In short, with guidance from a wristband, workers could fill orders faster. Fitted with the wristband, which would respond to ultra-sonic impulses from various aisles and bins, the theory is that time spent looking for items would be reduced, thus enhancing productivity as well as, ultimately, the balance sheet.
Privacy advocates worry that much can go wrong with such personal tracking devices. A recent case in which the tracking devices were monitoring fitness, apparently disclosed to the world the location of members of the military and their bases as they ran or cycled with their comrades- in- arms.
Past and present Amazon warehouse workers have indicated that similar productivity-enhancing technology is, and has been, in use for some time. Max Crawford, a former Amazon warehouse worker in the UK, said in an interview that:
“After a year working on the floor, I felt like I had become a version of the robots I was working with.... If you didn’t meet targets, you were fired.”
I don’t know about you folks, but it seems to me that if this technology becomes widespread then we’re just a step away from when robots could take the productivity to another level - sans the necessity for a wristband. I mean, face it, they don’t get dizzy or need sick days or vacation days. No need for healthcare or pensions, either. Crawford concurs, offering,
“They want to turn people into machines. The robotic technology isn’t up to scratch yet, so until it is, they will use human robots.”
When the day comes that robots rule, personal privacy will be the least of workers’ concerns. This situation bears watching. Stay tuned.