J.S. Nelson


As the modern workplace increasingly adopts technology, that technology is being used to surveil workers in ways that can be highly invasive. Ostensibly, management uses surveillance to assess workers’ productivity, but it uses the same systems to, for example, map their interpersonal relationships, study their conversations, collect data on their health, track where they travel on and off the job, as well as monitor and manipulate their emotional responses. Many of these overreaches are justified in the name of enterprise control. That justification should worry us. This Article aims to make us think about how surveillance is being used as a management tool. It raises broader questions about how management may use its tools if unchecked, especially given what we know about the origins and development of modern management from its roots in the slave plantations of the U.S. South and the West Indies. Given this history, the Article argues for a new framework of analysis based on requiring better justifications for why managers need each piece of data that they collect on workers. “Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations” to control slaves. —Professor Matthew Desmond, describing the roots of modern management systems.