Surveillance Tech Has Turned Knowledge Workers Into Panopticon Prisoners
Ubiquitous monitoring technology is giving Frederick Taylor’s 20th-century theory of “scientific management” a new lease on life, and managers a new source of power.
Welcome to the Panopticon.
Photographer: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
Frederick Winslow Taylor was the most influential management thinker of the 20th century. His The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) quickly put management on a new foundation: replace rule-of-thumb work methods with rules based on the objective study of work; divide work into discrete tasks; provide “detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task”; measure the worker according to his ability to comply with this ideal; make liberal use of punishments and rewards.
The bosses could not get enough of Taylor’s ideas. Henry Ford implemented them in his car plants. Both Harvard and Wharton offered Taylor professorships despite his status as a Harvard drop-out. After first denouncing Taylorism in 1913 for “sucking out every drop of the wage slave’s nervous and physical energy,” Lenin wrote a front-page article in Pravda in 1918 urging Russia to import the new system. Intellectuals and artists might complain that Taylor’s system was dehumanizing — see Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and George Orwell in 1984 (1949) — but Taylor conquered the world.