Sometime later this week—probably Thursday—I will sit down and write 600 words, which will be a first draft of a column that will ultimately appear in the Chicago Tribune a week from Sunday.
I have been doing this every single week for over 10 years.
From the moment I put the first words on the page to when I tap out the 600th word, I will work diligently and consistently on the task without deviation. This will take me somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes.
If I were to be subjected to the kind of productivity tracking and surveillance recently explored by The New York Times in the article “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score,” the person (or more likely the algorithm) in charge of monitoring the amount of time I worked this week would credit me solely with that 15 to 45 minutes.
The article runs through a horror show of various technologies used to surveil workers across a wide variety of industries, whether it be someone working in an Amazon warehouse, healthcare workers, lawyers or other professionals.
People are tracked and rated according to their “productivity.” Never mind if some of that productivity involves using a device designed to jiggle a computer mouse to simulate activity.
This monitoring included therapists being judged “idle” when having conversations with their patients because they were not actively typing into the computers. Rather than being judged on their ability to help others, their productivity was literally measured in keystrokes.
The low point in the article concerns the experiences of hospice chaplains in Minnesota who were being tracked by their employer as the chaplains ministered to sick and dying patients. A visit to the dying might garner one point. A funeral, one and three-quarters points. A phone call, a quarter point. The neediest patients requiring the most time became problematic, dropping the productivity points. This resulted in what one of the chaplains called “spiritual care drive-bys,” timing a visit when a patient was sleeping and doing a quick check-in with the nurse in order to score the points and move on.
I highly recommend reading the article online, as the Times has included a rudimentary tracker that will prompt you if you stop scrolling, warning you that your status has been switched from “active” to “idle.”
I actually have the article open in another screen as I work on this post, and when it warns me that I’ve been inactive for 30 seconds while I’m reviewing the text, I get distracted. When it switches me to idle after another 30 seconds, I get irritated enough to move my cursor up to the screen, jiggle the mouse to return my status to active and then get back to work on writing this post.
No one is actually monitoring me, and I’m still bothered by the mere presence of this stuff, concerned not with advancing my argument here, but making sure I’m not being judged as a slacker by the AI.
Reading the article made me realize how terribly I would be judged by these accountability systems that seek to monitor your activity in real time.
Lest we think this is some kind of corporate dystopian nightmare, let me direct your attention to the learning management systems now ubiquitous on college campuses and the way they are often used to track student activity. If young workers are accepting of this kind of surveillance by their employers, it’s only because it’s been normalized much earlier in their lives. And I would also ask how many of you are required to input all of the minutiae of your scholarly lives into some kind of “faculty activity system” and consider how much time this requires, as well as the toll it takes on one’s spirit as the information disappears into the digital ether, never to be heard from again.
If a journal article is logged into a digital interface and no one beyond an algorithm acknowledges it, did it make a sound … er … I mean, was it really published?
It should go without saying that the technology used to track work does not actually track work.
Consider what goes into the production of those 600 words I draft in 15 to 45 minutes for the Chicago Tribune each week. I have had to conceive a topic, research and read, plan an approach, and spend time thinking about what I might want to say.
The amount of preparation that goes into that focused writing period can vary greatly. Some weeks I may be writing about a book or two, which means reading those books. For the piece that was published this past Sunday—a remembrance of the recently deceased writer Melissa Bank—the initial impulse came from scrolling Twitter, where I saw the news of Bank’s death and other writers discussing how influential her book The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing had been.
My brain started whirring. I read some of the tweet replies below the announcement. I searched for Bank’s name and saw a number of prominent contemporary writers commenting on her passing. I pulled my copy of Girl’s Guide … off the shelf and paged through, seeing some of my annotations from 20 years ago, getting lost in the memories of what it was like to be so much younger and so impressed with a book that I was both excited and annoyed because it seemed so far beyond what I was capable of.
A number of the ideas that would wind up in the final piece took shape in these moments that would’ve looked like utter idleness from the outside. I probably didn’t need to reread nearly as much of the book as I did in order to produce the column, but so what? I enjoyed it.
And I also turned the column in on time, as I do every week.
If productivity is the most important consideration, It strikes me that it isn’t all that hard to judge people on what they produce over time, rather than their moment-to-moment behaviors.
I believe my method has made me pretty darn productive, all things considered. I publish several hundred thousand words of original prose per year. I do six to 10 public events per year. I just launched an education consulting company. I’m sure I’ll write another book before too long.
But honestly, all this is beside the point. Of course that technology is lousy at actually measuring work. The bigger problem is that whether you are an Amazon warehouse worker, a UPS driver, a nurse, lawyer or hospital chaplain, the use of this kind of tracking is simply inhumane.
As human beings, we are more than our ability to produce according to metrics counted by an algorithm.