Think the boss isn't looking while you spend your workday surfing the Internet?
Think again, Batman!
If you're accessing the Web at work, your every move might be charted by such new software as WebBoy, Netranger, or Optimal Internet Monitor.
These products' creators aren't shy about what they're up to. "We're not trying to put a pretty face on what we do. We want to be honest," Kan Ng, president of Kansmen, says by phone, explaining why his company calls its monitoring software Little Brother-a reference to George Orwell's omnipresent Big Brother.
What these products and others like them offer are detailed reports on how employees use the Internet at their workplaces. Little Brother, for instance, generates colored bar graphs illustrating how Joe Blow amuses himself on company time: One bar might show how much time he's spent downloading porn, another might reveal how long he's been shopping for a new handgun. Sequel Net Access Manager creates pie charts illustrating which employee has been bogarting the most bandwidth. (Those who prefer computer games should beware of Antigame, which searches for computer games on company networks and-gasp!-deletes them.)
It's not the invasion of privacy that I think makes these products a step in a bad direction. After all, it is the company's computers and time we're all playing on. Spokespersons from Sequel, Kansmen, and Optimal have all assured me that the vast majority of their corporate customers let their employees know beforehand they will be monitored. In fact, letting them know is often deterrent enough, even a bit creepy in itself. In one testimonial on the Optimal site boasts how "One customer uses the Optimal Internet Monitor as a `self policing' mechanism. He simply runs the product and publishes the HTML reports on his intranet where it is accessible by everyone inside the company. Thus everyone can see what everyone else is doing on the net." In other words, if your not hiding anything, then you have nothing to worry about.
No, these programs are problematic moreso because of their emphasis on improved "productivity," which almost all of the manufacturers tout as a benefit-not only improved productivity of the computers, unhampered as they will be by games or the Internet, but of the employees themselves. "Games at work reduce employee productivity to businesses," the Antigame Web site reports. The Little Brother site warns, "Unproductive . . . Internet activities can be costly." Sure, there's some truth in that, but there is also an inherent denial that every job has its downtime, that no human can work at a machinelike pace.
Many of these programs were not originally designed to measure human activity at all, but to keep tabs on network traffic flow and equipment failures. Ng says Little Brother was prompted by a grossly miscalculated Internet bill from his company's service provider; he wanted to monitor how much traffic went through his company's pipes. Optimal Internet Monitor was created to measure traffic as well, but somewhere along the way the makers of these programs found that it was as easy to gauge people's activity as network activity.
Should we let the efficiency of our computers dictate the quality of life-which, despite what your boss might think, goes on even when we're at work? Oddly enough, this was the very question that plagued the Luddites almost two centuries ago, at the birth of an age prior to our information age-the industrial age.
When most people think of the Luddites they think of weavers and spinners who went around England at night wrecking factories, a people who were superstitiously fearful of the newfangled weaving machines. But according to Kirkpatrick Sale, author of the Luddite history Rebels Against the Future, it wasn't the machines themselves the Luddites raged against-it was the realization that these devices would affect their jobs, families, and communities. They saw how heavy industry would worsen the lives of many for the benefit of a few.
In Microtimes, a Northern California computer magazine, Sale describes a week in the life of a weaver in 1811, before factories automated his job:
He had been working in his cottage with his wife, who probably had a machine alongside his. His children would do some of the small work around them. [He] would take Sunday off. There was a tradition of St. Monday, so [he] would take Monday off. Tuesday was normally a day of recovery for taking off Sunday and Monday. The cloth merchant would be coming around or [he] would go to him, maybe on Friday. So Wednesday, late in the day [he] would start filling [his] order for the cloth merchant. [He] would work at this a bit then go out into the vegetable garden or milk the cow, come back in. [He] would go down to see the lads at the pub. [He] would get a certain amount done, enough to keep him going through the next week.
Compare this to the 12- to 18-hour workdays brought by the factories, where the employees (many of them ex-weavers, put out of business by the more cost-effective factories) were expected to be as diligent as the machines they manned and could be penalized, according to Sale, for whistling or opening a window.
Technology is never neutral, as Sale writes. It comes "bearing the purposes and the values of the economic system that spawns it, and obeying an imperative that works that logic to its end, quite heedlessly." That applies to the weaving machine as well as computer-monitoring software. We play computer games and surf the Internet to do more than goof off or blow off steam. We use them to reclaim ourselves. After all, these devices were made to serve us; we need to keep it that way.