Big Bother Is Watching

Why Slack is designed to never give you any

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One of the lesser-known casualties of Newt Gingrich’s ghoulish Contract with America was the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a small government agency charged with producing impartial reports for Congress and other officials about issues of scientific and technological concern. From 1972 until 1995, the OTA produced studies, often with the help of academic experts, about anything from climate change to cryptography. Once Gingrich’s reactionary band of conservative saviors achieved its congressional majority, the OTA got axed, the agency’s modest budget was forked over to the Library of Congress, and the country lost one of its most effective sources of public scholarship. The consequences might be felt today in the daily spectacle of seeing our elected representatives embarrass themselves in elaborate displays of ignorance, especially about some of the OTA’s core issues of concern, like climate change and encryption. And we can see still more damage surface in the steady outsourcing of research and policy papers to private think tanks and interest groups like ALEC, the right-wing legislative chop shop.

The OTA’s reports live on in various digital archives, mementos from an earlier, more intellectually curious era of governance. “The Electronic Supervisor: New Technology, New Tensions” is one such report, and as I found when I roamed through its 139 pages, it provides an invaluable snapshot of the nascent computerized workplace. Published in 1987 by an eclectic advisory panel that included NSA chief scientist Robert Morris and MIT sociologist Gary T. Marx, the report ranges over the many privacy concerns vexing knowledge workers as they first encountered things like servers and command lines. Yet while white-collar employees of the 1980s certainly had new reason to worry that they were being watched, workplace surveillance was hardly an out-of-the-blue invention of the client-server computing era, as “The Electronic Supervisor” makes clear. “Owners of early factories believed they had the right, indeed the responsibility, to strictly control many aspects of their employees’ lives, on and off the job,” Marx and his colleagues observed. “In the factories of the 1800s, work rules governing church attendance, place of residence, and nightly curfews were not uncommon.”

More stick than carrot, these ruthless monitoring measures were meant to drive factory workers toward greater productivity through regimens of absolute discipline. The factory system “can be seen as a social control mechanism, where workers were collected together and could be monitored (watched) by supervisors or overseers, both to increase work discipline and to discourage theft,” the report glumly noted. In other words, the Industrial Revolution was a disaster for worker autonomy, locking productivity and privacy into a fallacious inverse relationship. And according to the OTA, workplace surveillance is not poised to go the way of the line shaft anytime soon: “In many ways work monitoring seems to have intensified as industrialization has progressed.”

Sitting in front of a computer is not much like standing in front of a cotton loom—it’s quieter, for one thing, and less likely to clog your lungs with tiny, deadly fibers. Office workers, with their ergonomic backrests, can stand, but only if they want to. In physical terms, at least, they have it easy; their bodies are comparatively free. This is surely one reason that the insidious evolution of workplace surveillance—from the eyes of your foreman to the gentle ping of your project-management software—has not been recognized as such. Another reason is our failure to exercise any critical oversight on the progress of workplace technology as the labor movement, nearly gutted after decades of attacks, tries to reimagine itself.

When the OTA published its report, the nation’s beleaguered labor unions were beginning to introduce contract demands seeking to limit how their members could be monitored on their computers. It was, even then, a losing battle, a rearguard action. Workers of the early Information Age were right to wonder if computing would redefine what the OTA report called the “basic tension between an employer’s right to control or manage the work process and an employee’s right to autonomy, dignity, and privacy.” It did. Now the punch-clock is joined by a host of fun and helpful minders: your keyfob and your keystroke logger, your fitness tracker and your browsing history, and, of course, your personal Twitter account, where any dumb thing you write in the torpor of your evening off can be used as an excuse to fire you. The forces of monitoring and productivity have coalesced into a thoroughly surveillance-saturated work environment, one in which the logging of everything is more than simply a disciplinary mechanism; it’s didactically presented as a key tool for the newly empowered knowledge worker.

Where Search Springs Eternal

In Silicon Valley, communicating is not something you do; it is a problem you solve. Slack, currently one of tech’s hottest properties, started out as a simple in-house chat app for a videogame company. But in the great tradition of startup pivots, the Slack team realized that the real action was in their chat app, not the convoluted game they were creating. In 2013 they decided to roll out Slack to do for others what it had done for them: improve their office communications.

As its watchful bots continue to circle, Slack will be forced to acknowledge that the true value of the app lies not in its ability to enable productivity, but rather to measure it.

Since then, the app has grown to become the biggest, most bloated minder to ever patrol the digitized workplace. Billing itself as the mega-app that will soon make email obsolete, it has three million daily users, including, as its sales team is keen to tell you, most of the Fortune 100. For those companies that hitch their wagon to it, Slack is increasingly the piece of software that mediates the entire work experience. You chat with your coworkers. You check your social media feeds. You store your documents, track your budgets, book your travel, update your calendars, wrangle your to-do lists, order your lunch. It is a constant, thrumming presence, a hive of notifications and tasks and chitchat that nags at workers and reminds them that there’s always more to do, more to catch up on—and that nothing goes unrecorded. Its name, despite the superficial connotation of hang-loose downtime, indicates its ultimate, soaring ambition: Slack, the company’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, recently revealed, is an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge.

“Everything in Slack—messages, notifications, files, and all—is automatically indexed and archived so that you can have it at your fingertips whenever you want,” chirps the company’s marketing copy. A once harried, now grateful knowledge worker confronts Information with a capital “I,” swinging his sword at the looming pile. Slack cheers on the little guy: “Slice and dice your way to that one message in your communication haystack.”

Slack tracks and catalogs everything that passes through it, and that is supposed to be a perk. But if the little guy can find anything in the archive, so can his risk-mitigating boss.

The Game’s the Thing

Try Slack for the first time, and you will be struck by its informal vibe, cribbed, as far as I can tell, from Richard Scarry’s Busytown. There are a hundred cute ways to tell your coworker you “Got it,” where “it” is probably a sales report. The thumb’s-up emoji is in heavy rotation. There are no forced salutations or stiff valedictions. (If “All best” is the first casualty of the email-less revolution, I am guessing no one will cry.) GIFs are tolerated—even encouraged. Never before have so many gyrating bananas, tiny clapping hands, and RuPaul eye rolls infiltrated the workplace.

Next to the other indignities of the office—drug tests, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, morality clauses, polygraphs—an animated dancing fruit might come as a relief, one more piece of flair to lighten the drudgery. Yet the seemingly free-wheeling patter of Slack, organized into what the company calls “channels,” has about as much spontaneity as a dentist’s office poster. Before you can dance like no one is watching, you have to know that someone is.

Slack slots neatly in the trend toward the gamification of labor and everyday communication—which only seems fitting, given its humble videogame beginnings. Sometimes the game is quite explicit. As you trick out your account, trawling Slack’s directory of third-party add-ons, you might see one called Scorebot. With Scorebot’s help, you can compete with your coworkers for the honor of most “socially adept”; the worker with the most positive emojis gets the most points. “Make everyday conversation a competition,” Scorebot’s website crows. For a moment, I wondered if Scorebot was a joke, but it seems to be an earnest creation of Crema, a Kansas City design firm, attracted to the honey of Slack’s popularity. (Now that Slack has launched an $80-million investment fund for app-makers, the honey is even sweeter.) And joke or no, Scorebot is just another arbitrary assessment tool in a work culture that bristles with them.

We are, I think, on the verge of another Slack pivot, if it hasn’t happened quietly already. As its watchful bots continue to circle, archiving and analyzing, retrieving and praising, the company will be forced to acknowledge that the true value of Slack lies not in its ability to enable productivity, but rather to measure it. The metrics business is booming, after all. Forget the annual performance review; with Slack’s help, managers could track their employees even more closely, and in ever more granular ways. And why stop at performance analytics? Sentiment analysis could automatically alert supervisors when employees’ idle bickering tips into mutiny. Depressed or anxious employees could be automatically served with puppy videos and advice bots.

Cue the Slacklash

It’d be a good thing for Slack if it had such a pivot up its sleeve, because for an efficiency enhancement tool, it is pretty aimless. The company’s slogan is “Be less busy,” but “Appear more busy” or “Simulate busyness” might be closer to the mark. As John Herrman put it, the app encourages “a novel form of work-like non-work,” in which people can enact “a full performance of work . . . without the accomplishment of anything external.” It is a time-sucking, logic-squashing feedback loop.

Already, several clever botmakers are positioning their products as Slack-work reducers, automated assistants that deal with the informational chaff being produced by all those other bots, channels, apps, and alerts. This arrangement, while pleasingly meta, also begs the question of how to distinguish meaningful labor from the various acts of micro-work and mindless feed-browsing that invariably fill up the digitally mediated workday. For exhausted Slackinistas, one solution is to banish the app entirely. “I get so much more done when Slack is closed,” one software developer confessed.

Cue, then, the “I detoxed from Slack and survived” testimonials—the sort of personal laments that appear during the hype cycle of any popular tech product. In March, Fast Company, borrowing a hashtag, announced a brewing “slacklash” against the popular workplace collaboration app. In May, Vice’s tech site dropped Slack for a week and then published an “oral history” of the experience. Digiday wrote about media outlets’ vexed relationships with the productivity platform, warning that Slack “can reduce the need for long meetings, but replace them with just as endless chats that never get resolved.” The feeling is echoed in several posts on Medium, the complaint board of woke digerati. There’s even a site called slacklash.com that collects links to the latest reports of knowledge workers besieged by the app.

Slack’s kudzu-fast growth has spawned a seemingly inevitable revolt. Yet in this version of a worker uprising, the agitators blame the stultifying conditions of the modern workplace not on company policies or the brutal efficiencies required by late capitalism, but on Slack itself (or the user thereof). This one chat app, it seems, is the author of so many white-collar workers’ misery. The only cure is an individualistic one, in which the besieged worker tries to partially unplug from his digital taskmaster, resulting in a kind of alienation that can be phrased in the vivid language of psychiatric pain.

Last year, Justin Glow, the senior product manager at Vox Media, wrote about his experience of trying to unplug from Slack, which his eight-hundred-person company was obsessed with to the tune of fifty thousand messages per day. Like many successful detoxers, Glow started by revising his goals: “Quitting cold turkey, even for a small amount of time, was out of the question,” he wrote. “I might as well throw my laptop in the Potomac and go on vacation.” Instead, he deleted the app from his phone, disabled some desktop notifications, and enacted various other mindfulness micro-gestures, the sort that feel good in the moment but ultimately prove to be about as enduring as a Snapchat message.

It’s worth noting that at some Slack-using companies, these mini detoxes are enthusiastically endorsed by the higher-ups. Alexis Madrigal, then editor in chief of Fusion, offered his advice to other bosses: “If I could give one piece of advice to other media companies, it’s that they should be cool with people deleting the app,” he told Nieman Lab last year. “If someone’s going on vacation or their anniversary, or if they’re going to be away on a long weekend, we tell them to delete Slack from their phone because otherwise the temptation to check it is too great. Deleting the app really helps people disconnect, because it’s that addictive as a social experience.”

The boss is allowed to seem magnanimous—you’re on vacation, delete the app!—as he encourages his employees to take steps to temporarily manage their addictions. Meanwhile, the onus of change falls back on each individual employee. The slacklash may be growing, but it is splintered into a thousand isolated quests, each featuring a lone worker facing off against the snarling beast of Information Overload. The recurring lament of the slacklash is, roughly, “I wish I could change, have more self-control”—a refrain that could not be more different from, say, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

The Personal Is Professional

The rise of Slack can be attributed in part to the makeup of its client base: journalists and media companies are among its most visible users. They’re also some of the program’s biggest critics, having passed through the requisite phases of early adoption and breathless evangelism into a performative cynicism.

What some take to be the workplace’s one pleasure—interacting with other humans—is heavily mediated through an optimize-everything app that never forgets.

Of course, for every disaffiliate, there is a full-blown Slack convert, with the expected litany of advice listicles, tutorial videos, power user how-to books, and other shibboleths of the highly optimized online life. The company’s multibillion-dollar valuation has pushed it firmly into unicorn territory, meaning that its origin story is already cast into myth. Stewart Butterfield, company founder and CEO, has advanced to the vanguard of the influencer circuit, putting in face-time on C-SPAN and conference keynotes. There has been the requisite Wired cover story with an insufferably cheeky headline (“The Most Fascinating Profile You’ll Ever Read About a Guy and His Boring Startup”), which delivered—if you appreciate that all superlatives are relative.

Butterfield has claimed that Slack is ultimately a work reducer, that it increases “transparency” and shortens the workday. The company abides by the philosophy of “work hard, go home”—an odd choice for a cloud-based, cross-platform app that wants a piece of your every device. It is precisely tools like Slack that allow employees to work anywhere, whenever. Slack users may go home at 6 p.m., but their jobs follow them, pinging them from their smartphones.

“Do more of your work from Slack,” the company urged this summer while unveiling its new “message buttons,” which allow users to click, for example, “approve” or “deny” on an expense report. It could have offered the same sentiment by commanding, “Live more of your life through Slack.”

This total, dystopian immersion of life into work should send a chill coursing down to the ends of our carpel-tunnel-stricken fingertips. But of course, it gets worse: we are now monetizing the workers’ dystopia across several platforms at once. In November, Microsoft unveiled Teams, a Slack competitor that will soon come standard with Office 365, the company’s popular suite of business tools. Facebook recently launched a Slack competitor called Workplace, which has been hailed as “a new messaging app that embodies the dissolving distinction between personal and professional digital spaces.” Whoever thought that pitch would sound good must have known that the target users of Workplace already count themselves as addicts, conditioned for constant validation from their electronic supervisors and craving their next hits of dopamine. (After all, Facebook practically invented this kind of stimulus.)

Now that apps like these effectively distill the history and future not only of your job, but also of your personal life, who’d want to quit completely? Who could? It would be like leaving your memoir-in-progress on the bus—a simile that no longer makes sense, since your memoir manuscript, obviously, would be stored in the cloud. It would also mean giving up access to the digital equivalent of the office water-cooler—though, again, this simile is nowhere near immersive enough for an ever-shifting social/work platform that constantly calls out for your attention and participation. According to the company’s CEO, the average Slack user is “actively” using the app for two hours and twenty minutes per day, with the program often running in the background throughout the day (along with pushing alerts to smartphones). That means that what some take to be the workplace’s one pleasure—interacting with other humans—is heavily mediated through an optimize-everything app that never forgets.

Leaky Archives

The power of Slack’s greedy memory, already so much more omnivorous than your average email program’s, shouldn’t be undersold. When Slack started selling its premium product, Slack Plus, to large corporations in 2014, it changed its privacy policy, allowing bosses to request access to all their employees’ communiques. You may think you’re free to speak bluntly when you move off your company’s open channels and into so-called “private” ones, and you are—but only if you don’t mind your words being rounded up later and exported to your CEO.

This permanence has already been a boon to litigators. When former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for publishing an excerpt of his sex tape, the trial featured readings from the editors’ conversations in Campfire, another collaboration platform. Gawker employees used Campfire to banter about “the little do-rag” gracing Hogan’s groin and jokingly proposed the headline “Watch Hulk Hogan pop his hip back into place mid-coitus,” the court learned. Editor John Cook circulated a picture of an uncircumcised penis, for reasons he was pressed to explain when deposed.

Slack now allows its premium customers to choose their own retention periods, allowing administrators the ability to save messages only for a certain number of days. This flexibility, though, seems aimed at protecting the interests of company owners, offering them a convenient hedge against future leaks or lawsuits. Worker privacy is not the goal.

Perhaps knowledge workers, well versed in the ironies of the mediated life, can find some sly comfort in presiding over a drip-drip release of screenshots, of isolated Slack chatter, of gossip or privileged information selectively shared.

Take this tidbit from the inner Slack sanctum of Vox Media, dropped into a Vox.com story about cat cafes in a bold attempt to lay bare the writer’s tortured process:

slack_convo

 

These crude artifacts reflect the sense that a company’s Slack channels are like its internal clubhouse: sure, discretion matters, but you can make the game more fun (and make sure that your Slack “non-work work” does not go entirely to waste) by showing your social media followers your latest bon mot fail. To outsiders, these peeks into company culture might be tantalizing, promising a voyeuristic view into what really happens behind the scenes at your favorite media brand. But in this landscape of curdled privacy and ubiquitous surveillance, sharing Slack screenshots is less an act of authenticity than simply another kind of performativity, designed to please one’s audience with acts of selective revelation.

No amount of performativity, it seems to me, can truly outsmart an always-on app. In a cautionary tale, the Providence Journal reported on a leak at a local charter school, in which someone took screenshots of teachers ridiculing a sixteen-year-old girl’s spelling mistakes while chatting in Slack. The anonymous leaker shared the screenshots with the whole school, and the girl was devastated to see that one teacher whom she trusted, and relied on for extra tutoring, mocked her in private conversations with his colleagues.

Even if you chalk up some of these insults to the competitive gallows humor of one of America’s least appreciated, most underpaid professions, it’s a heartbreaking story. It is also wholly typical of our time, when these dramatic ruptures between public and private seem so important for exposing wrongdoing but also so difficult to adjudicate. Every leak, it seems, comes prepackaged with a moralistic debate—Who did this? Why? Did the person deserve it?—that threatens to overshadow the content of the leak itself. (Surely Democratic Party power broker John Podesta, whose damning intracampaign correspondence was released by WikiLeaks this past October, will never send another email again. Perhaps he’ll get on Slack.) Meanwhile, we are left with the sense that absent a wider culture of enforcement and accountability, no amount of top-secret NSA documents or Panama Papers can move the levers of the power in a more democratic direction.

Who watches over our data, and who watches over us? The answer, apparently, is whoever administers the apps and networks that run our lives. Edward Snowden, for instance, was a systems administrator, which gave him a full-spectrum view of NSA networks. The rest of us have Slack screenshots and other bits of weaponized information, which, by comparison, never feel like enough. But when the complaint inevitably returns to Slack itself, we can feel confident that the disaffected hordes of knowledge workers aren’t bemoaning the excesses perpetrated by their favorite productivity platforms. Their despair comes from the kind of life Slack enables, one defined by an always-on flow of work that demands our attention and, ultimately, our surrender. What the software represents—workplace surveillance, the numbing pursuit of efficiency, the collapsed divide between work and private life, the accumulation of small tasks and notifications that seem to impede the work day rather than advance it—is anxiety-making, to say the least. But at least there’ll be a bot to cheer you up.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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