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Our Silent Monitors

— Pete Thomas

The Factory Floor has its origins in the Industrial Revolution, a period of massive growth in manufacturing that changed how Britain worked.

At the start of the 19th Century, Robert Owen was at the forefront of this change. When Owen became a partner at the New Lanark Mill – the largest cotton factory in Scotland –  discipline among his workers was poor and management was enforced through verbal and physical abuse. He believed in a more compassionate approach and introduced a new way to monitor and improve performance. He called it the Silent Monitor.

Every worker at the mill had a Silent Monitor, a small block of wood with four sides, each painted a different colour, that hung beside their workstation. Workers were observed throughout the day, and each night a supervisor would turn the block to indicate how they’d behaved or performed that day. Black indicated ‘bad’; blue meant ‘indifferent’; yellow ‘good’; and white ‘excellent’.

These colourful objects helped the management monitor behaviour and allowed workers to see how their own performance compared to that of their colleagues. The idea was to change their conduct by changing the culture, making good conduct ‘normal’.

This experiment marks the beginning of the modern workplace.

Less than 8% of the UK workforce now work in manufacturing, while more than 80% of employees work in the services sector. Increasingly, the businesses in this sector are interested in people’s personal data. Apple recently became the most profitable company in history, ever. In a market saturated by smart phones, services are Apple’s fastest growing and highest margin source of income. Whilst Apple doesn’t directly monetise your data by selling it onto third parties, it does use it to improve its services, such as using voice data collected by Siri to improve future voice recognition. Likewise, Facebook uses its data to effectively target advertising which is how it makes money.

Some data collection happens without us really being aware of it, tracking our location, listening to the way we speak, recording how many steps we’ve taken or what web sites we visit. Other data is volunteered, like the stuff we share, our social media profiles, our opinions and our likes. Online we complete feedback forms evaluating service and purchase as part of our transactions, and in public spaces like airports, shopping centres and museums we’re encouraged to press colourful buttons, providing satisfaction ratings that monitor other people’s performance.

There are more active mobile devices than there are people in the world. By 2020, with the emergence of new connected devices, it’s expected that there may be 20 billion ‘things’ connected to the internet, collecting and sharing data. The Internet of Things is at the forefront of new developments in the workplace and the home. A Swedish technology company, Epicentre, offers employees the chance to have microchips embedded into their hand enabling them to function as swipe cards. And Steelcase, the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer, is committed to developing a new range of sensor-enabled office furniture that monitors and responds to people’s use of them.

In the home, the objects we surround ourselves with are becoming connected too, from lightbulbs, to thermostats, to TVs. But there is a lack of clarity for most people about what data these devices are collecting in their day to day activities. There is also the risk of how others – notably the world’s security forces – are working out how to hack these devices to collect their data. As a society, we have accepted the tracking, collating and sharing of our personal data as ‘normal’.

Robert Owen’s Silent Monitors were mechanisms for control. By measuring workers’ conduct they became visible symbols of the power structure within the mill, but they also brought with them freedom from physical and verbal abuse. In much the same way, the current interest in personal data has the potential to be enabling and repressive.

In our connected, data driven, social media culture of likes, loves, calories-eaten and steps-walked our homes are the new factory floor, we are the new machine operators and the connected objects our Silent Monitors.

Pete Thomas is a designer. He is co-founder of creative studio Tom Pigeon and teaches at University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. He lives in Fife.

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