Is Big Brother coming to your job?

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by Bob Greene

(CNN) — How much do you hate it when some meddling boss is leaning way-too-close over your shoulder, micro-checking and second-guessing every bit of work you do?

Well, if you think you hate it now, get ready.

Because, as annoying as it can seem today, every indication is that, as far as the stress of bosses hovering over your shoulder goes, these may soon be regarded as the good old days.

The first signs of what is coming can be seen at nine U.S. colleges this spring. At those schools, a pilot program designed by CourseSmart, a Silicon Valley company that distributes electronic textbooks, is under way.

The shift from print to digital, as we all know, is picking up velocity everywhere, including at colleges and universities. Soon enough, just about all textbooks will be digital.

Which is where CourseSmart comes in. Not only does the company provide the electronic books — it is offering professors and administrators the opportunity to do something previously impossible with books printed on paper.

CourseSmart keeps track of, and provides to professors, real-time data about how each student is using his or her digital textbooks, “including page views, time spent in a textbook, notes taken, highlights made, bookmarks used, and whether or not the student even opened the book,” according to Alexandra Tilsley of the online publication Inside Higher Ed.

CourseSmart says that this is all designed for the ultimate good of the students, because its software allows faculty to “identify ‘at risk’ students based on engagement with assigned course materials” — meaning: We know if you really studied the book last night.

Tracy Hurley, dean of the school of business at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, told reporter David Streitfeld of The New York Times: “It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent.”

Maybe the intent is, indeed, worthy, as far as college classes are concerned.

But you just know that, as soon as CourseSmart perfects the software and launches it into widespread use, American business and industry are going to glom onto it and adapt it to the workplace.

This is the tool that corporations everywhere have been waiting for: a way to stand over the shoulder of every employee, 24 hours a day, and keep track of exactly how much time he or she is really spending on his or her work.

The technology would allow bosses to oh-so-casually tell their subordinates: “If you’re not too busy, why don’t you go over this report again tonight?”

And then, the next morning, say:

“Did you get a chance to work on that report?”

“Yes, sir, I went over it at home on my iPad, and it looked fine to me.”

“Funny thing, Smithers — our software indicates that the last time you even looked at the report was two days ago.”

Oh, the possibilities are endless. It’s Big Brother, all right, corporate edition. Employees will be judged not just by the quality or creativity or ingenuity or precision of their finished work, but will be electronically stared at — smothered with second-by-second scrutiny — as they do the work, wherever they are.

Already we have willingly given up the distinction between office time and home time; e-mails and cellphones and text messages have erased that line. Employees are always on call.

And like it or not, Americans have become accustomed to being constantly observed. Those key cards that corporations issue allow them to find out exactly when their employees were and weren’t in the building; the security cameras that dot America’s streets and malls and factories have so quickly become ubiquitous that the startling thing is not when something is “caught on video” — but when something somehow isn’t.

This, though — the CourseSmart experiment at those nine colleges, and what it could lead to in the business world — is the beginning of the next phase.

“You all set for the presentation tomorrow, Johnson?”

“I am — I’ve been going over the numbers at home all weekend.”

“Have you, Johnson? Because that’s not what our software program shows.”

Of course, the employees of the future, the working stiffs, could always object to this — could demand to be judged on their finished work alone, could insist not to be electronically spied on, could tell their bosses that when they leave the office for the day or for the weekend they’re off the clock and off duty, and thus will not be available to be tracked remotely via their tablets and smartphones and laptops.

They could take a bold and principled stand and say that.

It would make for an amusing anecdote to tell the person in front of them in the unemployment line the next week.

CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story”; “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War”; and “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.” 

 

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