Of mice and men

What humble computer mice can tell us about the way we now work. Or how the law of unintended consequences applies to hybrid workersThe history of the humble computer mouse dates back to the 1960s and engineer Douglas Engelbart’s work on improving the way people and computers interact. He initially called the device he envisaged a ‘bug’ but the first prototype he created with Bill English was so unmistakeably a rodent that there was only one thing they could have called it. If only they had settled the question of whether the plural was mouses or mice.

In the intervening sixty years, the mouse may have lost its tail and ditched the mouse mat, but its basic design is largely unchanged, constrained by its core function and that of the human hand.

It has also become an unlikely weapon in the battle between remote workers and autocratic micro-managers. Since 2020, sales of productivity trackers have boomed. And with them, sales of devices that subvert the trackers, including something called generically a mouse jiggler.

As its name implies this is some sort of device that simulates mouse activity on a screen by moving the cursor. That keeps the computer active, prevents it going into sleep mode or closing apps. Its existence and popularity, of course, are direct consequences of the lack of trust between remote workers and their managers.

What gets measured gets managed cuts both ways, clearly.

There are probably bigger issues with this kind of management behaviour than remote workers gaming a system in this way. Perhaps most importantly, if you judge people’s performance on the amount of time they spend sitting in front of a computer, then that is what they will do (or pretend to do), whether it’s the right thing for the organisation or not.

It’s all nuts. If you have well-paid adults in senior positions reduced to buying devices that jiggle mice* to give the impression of work to other well-paid adults in senior positions, then something has gone very badly wrong. So too all those other trackers of eye movement, keystrokes and logins and whatever.

The very existence of mouse jigglers proves what happens when firms don’t trust the people they should trust. People game the system. They look for shortcuts. They focus on the wrong things. They repay mistrust with more mistrust. They act out in destructive ways. They lose faith in their employer and possibly their colleagues. And they aid in the development of a toxic work culture.

This sort of thing was foreshadowed in an old episode of The Simpsons. Looking for shortcuts as always, Homer is working from home in his role as nuclear plant safety officer but leaves his terminal with a drinking bird pressing the Y key to indicate “yes” to a series of questions and goes to do something more interesting. He returns to find that his bird has fallen over and a nuclear meltdown is imminent.

*mouses. Whatever.

Image: Sailko

This piece appears in issue 16 of IN Magazine.