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Digital disenchantment

For this article, Alice Bennett looks at some sinister uses for wearable tech.
A mobile phone with a cracked screen lies on the ground amongst leaf-litter

We are being monitored. And whilst such monitoring can be benign in purpose, the pervasiveness can be a little disconcerting. Perhaps even a lot disconcerting…

Look at the workplace: Hitachi staff now wear sensors to gather data on individual behavioural traits, and measure how those traits correlate with work productivity. The data across an office of employees is then analysed to determine levels of workplace happiness; and an AI system uses this to help business leaders identify areas for improvement. Hitachi’s claim is that simple, small actions and changes can see a dramatic uplift in perceived happiness, which in turn leads to increased output.

A 2019 REBA (Reward & Employee Benefits Association) study describes a surge in workplace wellbeing programmes using digital tools, with an increase in respondents providing access to a wellbeing app from 8.5% in 2016 to 30.5% in 2019, and in respondents offering access to virtual GPs from 11.6% to 31.5% in the same timeframe. In itself, this suggestion is not ostensibly problematic, but there are potential concerns about the employer emphasis on digital wellbeing. Wearable technology such as smartwatches has seen increased use in industries such as oil, gas, and aerospace manufacturing; smartglasses can be used to alert employees to hazards in high risk environments, while other examples, include solutions for lone-working staff who can make emergency calls through their ID badges.

It’s easy to see a rationale for the use of digital technology which is explicitly focused upon improving staff safety, but the monitoring of staff wellbeing is a potentially more questionable area. Digital wellbeing tools may be being employed as a cheap (and fashionable) alternative to the genuine improvement of workplace conditions: a stress management app may help some employees, but does it address the root causes and issues of a stressful work environment? Additionally, the emphasis on the digital management of wellbeing is potentially exclusionary: staff less adept with, or unable to afford devices such as smartphones may be unable to benefit from these schemes.

The use and storage of data also raises concerns. In a 2016 report by consultancy firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), it was estimated that by 2020 there will be over 75 million ‘wearables’ in global workplaces. These devices are presented as untapped sources of information, as well as potential vehicles for informing and directing employee behaviour. But the report acknowledges an inevitable issue of trust: a quarter of those surveyed for the report would not trust any company with personal information gathered from wearable technology. Unless the device was used exclusively during working hours, information collected would be personal as well as work-related. Whilst branded as a means of motivating staff to healthier lifestyles, how far can an employer monitoring staff fitness be trusted not to use the results to inform other areas such as staff benefits? Would workplace health insurance become linked to this data? This is of especial concern in countries without universal healthcare provision, where leaks of such information could influence an individual’s ability to get health insurance, or the cost of healthcare.

The problems of wearable tech echo those we’re continuing to explore regarding social media. Numerous staff who previously worked at Twitter, Facebook and Google are now disconnecting themselves from those social media spaces. As Justin Rosenstein, inventor of the Facebook “like” button, says, “it is very common…for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences”. Another vocal critic of the methods deployed by big tech companies is Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, who argues that the ubiquity of these technologies leaves consumers with little choice over whether to engage with them.

Essentially, both in terms of social life and work, for many of us, using digital technology and social media (to some degree at least) is inescapable. It is easier to participate, even at a low level, than to opt out altogether. We might even enjoy it! It’s important to acknowledge that, for most of us, digital technology is so integrated into our lives that a total digital detox is impractical, as well as potentially undesirable. It’s not a question of demonising the digital in-and-of-itself, but we do need to be mindful of how we use technology, and be prepared to act or seek regulation to prevent abuses of our data and our selves, as we will look at in the next section. When the seemingly benign can be used against us, it’s all the more important to be vigilant, to thoroughly question the potential ramifications and misuses of new technological approaches, and to not get carried away by our shiny new toys.

© University of York (author: Alice Bennett)
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