July 30, 2008

BIG BROTHER LURKS IN THE DEN:

I write in cars, on planes, on the bench in the yard, while watching TV and in bed. And I haven’t seen a movie that wasn’t a matinee in two decades.

I’ve worked like this now, with the exception of three years when I had a ’real’ job, since 1981. During that time, I’ve authored or co-authored more than a dozen books, co-produced a TV miniseries (and hosted three other PBS series), and written probably two thousand newspaper and magazine articles, columns and editorials. In other words, by most objective measures, I’ve had a pretty successful and productive freelance career.

And yet, if a new trend identified by the Wall Street Journal takes hold, I will be considered utterly and permanently unemployable. Why? Because employers, despite a half-century of evidence that trusting your employees to make responsible decisions is the key to higher productivity, are becoming increasingly obsessed with the notion (as used to be said about the Puritans) that someone, somewhere, is goofing off on the job.

So, they are now turning to employment companies that market freelancers, such as oDesk.com (which manages 90,000 code writers, network admins, writers and graphic artists –pray for them – for 10,000 clients worldwide), which have developed a whole suite of tools to help them spy on these contractors as they work at home. oDesk, for example, uses freelancer’s own computer camera to track his or her moves, periodically conducts screen grabs to see if work is being done, monitors keystrokes, even eavesdrops for the sound of a dog barking or children talking – and then offers those services to its clients.

All of this is, apparently, an attempt to assuage the ever-present fear by contractors that somehow they are being ripped off by the people they contract. The result, as the Journal portrays it in chilling terms, is that people working at home under this regime are forced to create work environments in their homes that seem far, far worse than any cubicle at corporate headquarters.

As I’ve noted before, this kind of thing is rooted more in managers’ desire for power — and fear of output metrics — than any actual business needs.