The Panopticon in the Workplace

It’s not always this obvious, though sometimes maybe I wish it was?

For those unfamiliar there is a concept called the Panopticon which was developed by the British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. The basic deal is that the inmates of a prison would all be watched by a single person but they would never know if that person was actually watching them or not. This would lead to a self-regulation among the inmates where they would behave as ethically as possibly, but by themselves. Those ethics, of course, dictated by the prison.

Where I work there are cameras that are large black orbs with no physical camera inside of it. You can’t see where the cameras are actually pointing (unless you’ve been in the office) and so you never know if you’re being watched or not. This is almost never a problem for customers, unless they’re intent on stealing something from the store.

But for employees (especially those like me) this is a big problem. How am I to know when I’m being recorded or when I’m not? These black orbs are like miniature panopticons that our managers can see out of but we (or the consumers) can not look into. This creates an inherent power dynamic just on this basis alone, even leaving any other matters aside.

Of course, the classic argument is that you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’re not doing anything wrong. But in the first place, what is considered “wrong” is often highly debatable even when unilaterally enforced. It may be considered “wrong” for me to read The Stranger by Albert Camus while I am at work, but why? If I’m doing the basic job assigned to me (helping customers at the cashier register) then what exactly am I doing that’s immoral?

According to my bosses, I’d be spending my time in a way I want, rather than what they want. Or, I’m sure they’ term it more abstractly as the company and what its needs are. But besides the basic fact that abstractions and collectives do not have any sort of coherent “needs” (or at least certainly not more so than individuals do), I disagree. I think by doing the basic job assigned to me and doing it as pleasantly as I can, I think I’m meeting the company’s needs adequately.

And more to the point my needs supersede the company’s needs. I am willing to put my own needs ahead of the company’s as long as the “harm” I incur is not so great as to threaten my job. And in the case of reading, it’s hardly harming my customer service interactions (except in those instances where I miss a customer for a second) and it’s unlikely making the company lose a massive amount of profit either.

Now, if customers have complaints about my service (and they usually don’t) then I’ll often be happy (happy is the wrong word but it’ll do) to try to assist them or get a manager to help them. There are items to scan, tags to scratch off with the equivalent of pointy sticks, items to face (make pretty) and other menial tasks, but why bother? That’s what the people are on the floor are for and if I really wanted to go above and beyond, I’d work for a company I actually care about.

For me, the store I work for is just to get a paycheck. It’s so I can pay room and board, pay for food and transportation and add meaning to my life through this inefficient cash nexus that state-capitalism facilitates.

Part of the panopticon isn’t just cameras but the managers themselves as well. I had at least around a handful of times where I had my managers explicitly looking over my shoulder (or down from the store) and closely managing my behaviors. They wanted to make sure I conform to the exact behaviors they’re looking for in employees. So this means that I shouldn’t ask if the customers want a bag or receipt but just give it to them.

As someone who is autistic, this drives me crazy. I wouldn’t want a cashier to just non-verbally give me a receipt and bag if I never asked. Unless it’s obvious I need a bag, then this doesn’t make any sense. And it’s almost never obvious if a customer needs a receipt or not unless they say something beforehand.

It also drives me crazy because I really value open dialogue with folks and just handing people (pushing it in their faces, really) strikes me as rude. But I know my arguments about this will win me little favor and likely hold little to no pull with my managers. So I have to grit my teeth and say I’ll do it, even if I really don’t want to.

And for the most part, I ignore these commands. Sometimes I’ll do them, but for the most part I do my best to ignore them because I’ve never (to my memory) gotten any complaints from customers for my process. I’ve gotten complaints before for sure, but never about these specific things. So I find any sort of survey from customers suspect since it fundamentally contradicts my own 6 months (totaling likely thousands) of interactions with customers.

Managers just have to wave their hands at all of these experiences, cite some data they’ll (almost) never take the time to discuss or show their employees and move forward. And the paranoia for all of this comes from their constant “check-ins” or the ways in which the watch us, or don’t. Or that we’re not sure if we’re being watched physically or digitally by someone in the office.

The good(ish) new is that unless the cash drawer is off by a significant amount, the managers are not going to spend hours going back on the video of a given day. But there’s always the chance that this can happen and you not having the power to know if they’ll just check it randomly can make it slightly nerve-wracking at times.

Part of the reason I read at work is that keeping myself busy at work is an exhausting activity. My brain starts to go crazy from the lack of internal stimuli and unless I can go super zen about it or interact with a co-worker, I usually get a hankering for some reading. It’s something I can focus on, think about and reflect on, but I can’t do any of that for most of the things that I work with or on. Maybe this is some sort of “failing” on my part, but I don’t think so.

Ultimately, no one took Bentham’s design seriously and it was never fully implemented into any prison structure. That being said, the surveillance state certainly uses some of its ideas (this is particularly prominent in the UK where some of the cameras don’t even work). And, as I’ve mentioned, in the workplace, the panopticon remains alive and well.

Here I guess I should make some sort of impassioned plea for bosses to be nicer to us. To get them off of our proverbial backs and stop leaning in over our shoulders, passive aggressively giving unreasonable orders without any discussion.

But I think that’s unrealistic and asking bosses…not to be bosses.

The more realistic thing to do is to tell my fellow workers to continue resisting authoritarianism like this the best ways you can. You know your situation better than I do, but for me, I mostly nod my head and play along.

Besides, how many eyes and ears could managers have anyhow?

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