December 15, 2014
The idea that we are all about to be supplanted by a new generation of artificially intelligent robot overlords has been in the news a great deal recently, partly as a result of Stephen Hawking’s recent pessimistic intervention on the subject. Whatever the truth of this apocalyptic musing, a more imminent generation of tech products means we are already testing the law of unintended consequences with regard to the stuff we create to help us. As technology firms clamber over each other in their attempts to be the first to open up the lucrative frontiers of wearable tech, a range of understandable concerns have been raised about some of the more obvious potential problems of security and privacy. But if we have learned one thing about our relationship with technology over many years, it is that whatever we expect from it will usually be wrong, sometimes spectacularly so.
The promise of wearable tech is predicated on our belief in the benefits of recording everything. This can be seen not only in our faith in Big Data as a tool for making vastly improved or even infallible decisions, but also the proliferation of CCTV, the increasing propensity for police officers to wear cameras, the monitoring of our communications by the security services and our attempts to leave our individual footprints in The Cloud.
When it comes to the workplace, the narrative is currently dominated by logical arguments about both the benefits of using wearable tech and its potential downsides. Yet the still unpredictable element is how people will respond emotionally and practically to the idea that they might well be being observed and recorded by their employer and colleagues.
It’s a question we will need to address very soon. As we reported last week, a third of European firms are set to introduce wearable tech next year even though the vast majority don’t have any policy in place to deal with the implications. And this is only about the tech we can see. Analysts Gartner say that within three years nearly a third of smart wearables will be so unobtrusive as to be invisible. The consequences for the way we work are likely to be profound and unpredictable because much will be determined by the way we feel about all of this and individual reactions are likely to vary greatly.
We are creating a paradox, one that was framed in October by Ethan Bernstein in the Harvard Business Review. Greater ‘transparency’ may foster greater productivity and cut down on certain negative behaviours, but at a cost.
“For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions. Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes cease altogether. Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide.”
In a nutshell, we may enjoy gains in personal productivity and an improvement in the ethical behaviour of employees but at the possible cost of a unwillingness to think creatively or do anything that might be seen as unconventional and innovative.
This is an example of the observer effect – the principle by which act of observation changes the nature of that which is observed. This is a familiar idea in the field of physics, but we’ve also known about it in a business context for decades, most notably with regard to the famous experiments into the effects of improved lighting on productivity at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the early 20th Century. The results of this experiment are still debated to this day, precisely because nobody can agree to what extent improved productivity could be attributed to the light or to the fact that people were responding to the observers and possibly trying to please them.
We won’t have 90 years to untangle cause and effect when it comes to the infinitely more complex issue of wearable tech. In fact, it’s very likely that we will find it impossible to do so both within the workplace and in society generally however much time we are allowed. The world about to emerge in the next few years is one in which we may begin to assume our every move is being watched and recorded. On a day to day basis, this may matter to some people more than others, but we can expect a new battlefront to emerge alongside all of the potential upsides to perpetual surveillance by the authorities, employers, colleagues and the people we walk past in the street and sit next to in a restaurant.
The comparisons with 1984 are inevitable and clichéd but pertinent. For much of the book, Winston Smith attempts to escape the gaze of the telescreens used to monitor the behaviour and thoughts of Party members. He doesn’t always know when the screens are on, but they do affect his behaviour and he is careful to maintain a facade of normality until he believes he is unwatched (wrongly as it turns out). He is equally mistrustful of his neighbours, including the children who spy not only on him, but also their own parents.
We are only beginning to test the response of humans to a state of near constant surveillance with right to be forgotten laws and the tensions about the role of the security services and the responsibilities of social media organisations. This debate is about to migrate to the workplace in a very big way and we will need to look beyond the headline benefits and concerns to assess the unpredictable consequences.