John Harris

Journalist & Author

They call it fun, but the digital giants are turning workers into robots | John Harris

With perfect timing, a new film highlights how employee monitoring is taking over people’s lives

“Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft.” So run the three Orwellian aphorisms at the heart of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, whose film version – starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks – will arrive in cinemas this spring. Given that the story centres on an omnipotent hybrid of Google, Twitter and Facebook, and asks exacting questions about their shared vision of the future, the timing is perfect – chiming with rising angst about the digital giants’ imperial approach to information, and the sense that their power and recklessness is now having so-called real-world impacts, and huge ones at that. Such, perhaps, is the zeitgeist of early 2017: tech-fear fusing with terror about Donald Trump and Brexit, leaving millions of us in a state of twitchy anxiety.

At the heart of the novel and film is the Circle corporation, whose logo suggests a stylised panopticon, and whose leaders want to shape the world in the image of their Californian HQ. There, privacy and autonomy count for almost nothing. Under a veneer of feelgoodism, employees are complicit in their own constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.

The US retail chain Target has given 335,000 Fitbit trackers its workers, as part of a ‘corporate wellness programme’

Related: US employee sues after ‘being fired for deleting app’ that tracked her location

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