BIG BROTHER NOW LURKS IN THE DEN By Michael S. Malone
I’m writing this little essay at midnight, after a day in which I worked in the yard, wrote a couple dozen emails, edited ten stories, wrote a half-dozen more, met with an IT guy, attended an evening meeting, and worked on my next book.
I’ll probably turn off my computer at 1 a.m. — though if the inspiration strikes, I may work even later. Sometimes I get up at 4 a.m. to write down an idea or a particular turn of phrase; other times I sit and watch a movie at 11 a.m., or take a nap on a nearby couch in the afternoon. I sometimes write in my underwear, other times in a suit after returning from a dinner. 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.
So why do those 90,000 oDesk serfs put up with this nonsense? Because they are hungry. Because they don’t want to commute. Because, somehow, this is actually better than the sweatshops and vicious bosses they usually work for. Because they are fools.
But however foolish they are, these poor freelancers aren’t nearly as foolish as the companies hiring them. Treating your employees, even temporary ones, as children who cannot be trusted and must be continuously watched, is always paid back in kind. How many of those 90,000 freelancers do you think will stick with oDesk and its counterparts when the economy turns good again? And how many of them will forget what those contractors thought of them?
Today’s pay-off for paranoid, mistrusting employers, will be tomorrow’s payback by their victims. And those employers better hope it is just that — because if the economy continues to slow, and if the ranks of these 21st century Winston Smiths continues to grow, the world of freelancers will be ripe for union organization. And these companies will have only themselves to blame.
As for me, whatever happens, I don’t intend to change habits that have worked for so long — which may mean that someday some sleepy corporate freelancer survelliance specialist will get a surprising glimpse of me working in my underwear — or less — at 2 a.m. I’ll be sure to wave.