The New York Times reports that workers are increasingly the objects of digital surveillance. Tracking devices are so simple and cheap now that it makes sense to track the movements of waiters in restaurants, and to analyze the data to improve the efficiency of service. Yes, this is creepy. I sure would not like Harvard monitoring my movements around campus. But I also understand why it is seen as a competitive advantage to watch what your workforce is doing.
The interesting case in my mind is Uber. I have been watching a passionate argument about Uber, waged on an email list to which I subscribe, reflecting the passionate taxi-vs.-Uber debates going on in the city of Cambridge. Lots is being said about whether Uber is taking money from working class taxi drivers, whether public safety demands that Uber drivers be licensed and regulated the way taxi drivers are, and so on.
The thing nobody seems to be mentioning is that the reason Uber works is because everyone involved is being watched. That's the reason you don't need to identify where you are when you request an Uber; Uber knows your phone location. That is the reason you don't need to pay at the end of the trip; Uber has your credit card information. It's also the reason service is good. You have to rate your driver before requesting your next trip; Uber drivers are polite because they know that Uber will drop them in a heartbeat if they get a few bad reviews. They won't take you the long way around (generally they seem to just follow the directions in their phone app), because they know you'll rate them down if you do, and you'll have a map showing the exact route taken as part of your receipt, incontrovertible proof you've been screwed. And your driver can do a job on you too -- if you creep out too many Uber drivers, Uber will probably close out your account. (Not that there would be much incentive to threaten an Uber driver -- because all payments are electronic, there is no reason for them to carry any cash.) The mutual rating, with big brother Uber knowing all about both you and your driver, reduces many of the risks of taxis, for both parties.
It seems to me that the advantages of Uber are too great for any except the oddest of municipalities (that might be Cambridge) to make its business model unworkable. But let's not kid ourselves. The reason it works so nicely is because it completely eliminates the mutual anonymity of the taxi economy. If the taxi industry is smart, it will figure that out and go increasingly digital, to try to gain some of the convenience and safety that make Uber attractive -- which will leave fewer options for invisible life in the big city.