The tyranny of optimization
We are all familiar with the image of the worthless bureaucrat, the proverbial fussbudget whose real job it is to inflict tedium on the rest of us. The more pointless the mandated task, the more turgid and logic-defying the ad-hoc instructions, the longer the period spent by the unwilling client of the state in anxious befuddlement, the better. Every well-meaning liberal will say that DMV lady is a right-wing myth, not realizing that they say this only because they are incapable of recognizing in themselves her quasi-sexual need to inspire boredom in others.
But grumbling about bureaucrats increasingly looks passé, not because they are not frequently awful people to deal with but because the DMV lady is a vastly less powerful person than that other bringer of official misery: the data-obsessed corporate manager.
The Guardian reported recently on the extraordinary efforts undertaken by Amazon to police the underpaid employees at their warehouses — those latter-day sweatshops for whose fools' gold mayors and governors across this country are fighting, whooping and shoving one another in a reckless competition to see who can give away their citizens' future patrimonies to the world's wealthiest man. In February it was announced that Amazon had patented a new wristband technology capable of tracking employees' actions at all times, down to their humblest movements. This is seemingly a replacement for the handheld devices currently worn by their workers.
According to James Bloodworth, a journalist who spent half a year working undercover in an Amazon warehouse, the latter work like this: First, the devices tell you where you have to go; as soon as you select the correct item from the shelf, a timer begins; the amount of time it takes you to bring the object to wherever it's headed is recorded, measured against the thousands of other times you and your coevals have performed a similar task, and rated. If your percentages begin to dip a bit or you wind up in the bottom of the rankings, you get chewed out by management; even visits to the bathroom are counted against you as "idle time."
Just as the passive-aggressive bureaucrat has always had his defenders among a certain segment of the class of persons from whom he tends to be drawn, so too does the tyranny of data-driven optimization find a readymade cadre of defenders in the wider tech industry. For years now tech companies have been experimenting with the possibility of implanting computers chips in the hands of their employees, devices that can be used for everything from entering a secured area of a building to ordering snacks from a vending machine to — naturally — recording the amount of time someone spends at a work-issued computer. To the meliorist nerds of online startups, no doubt the whole thing sounds very cool, like being a neat robot in a video game but, like, in real life. Among ordinary working people the whole business will be seen for what it is: a needless intrusion into their lives that brings a negligible value to their employer at the expense of their human dignity, another vicious attempt by capital to put labor in its place.
To say something like 30 seconds wasted in a day adds up to 125 misspent minutes over the course of a work year and to an untold number of weeks or even months of vanished productivity when multiplied across thousands of employees is nonsense. Human activity doesn't work that way. One person's action or inaction is not an undifferentiated input that combines coolly and mechanically with identical inputs from hundreds of others. We are all different people doing different things at different times. The fact that we are able to coordinate our actions in order to accomplish the infinite number of things our bizarre species gets up to is remarkable enough.
This all-consuming obsession with joylessly monitoring every conceivable human activity, quantifying and assigning variables to tasks as various as walking and making small purchases and attempting to draw profitable conclusions from this vast accumulation, is one of the most distinct characteristics of modern life. It's also, amusingly enough, a complete waste of time.
This is the great lie behind the relentless collection of data going on uninterrupted as you read a newspaper article, purchase a book, or buy a coffee. There is so much information sitting around in servers that nobody knows what to do with it. The answer is, or should be: nothing. Information is not the same thing as knowledge. The alchemical process that transmutes the former into the latter is not always worth undertaking. Knowing that over the last year Jim has performed an average of 7 percent slower on Wednesdays is not useful to anyone — and even if it were, the process by which we arrive at it is inherently degrading.
Like Larkin's coastal shelf, tedium compounds tedium. Our cultural obsession with health and exercise begets the craze of hooking our bodies up to tiny computers that measure our steps, our heartbeats, the calories we have spent and turning these numbers into graphs and charts in the hope of maximizing the utility of what are, allegedly, tasks undertaken for pleasure. Similar technology exists for readers who wish to record the amount of time it takes them to finish a page, a chapter, a book, a cycle of novels. Why? The only thing worse than the use of these quasi-scientific management techniques in the workplace is their colonization of our leisure.
Not everything in life needs to be "optimized." In fact, most really valuable things cannot be by definition. In their ludicrous quest to ensure that we are not upsetting the potty break golden mean, companies like Amazon and Fitbit are in their not-so-different ways doing something far more sinister than boring us. They are denying our humanity.