I’m toying with the idea of abandoning libertarianism just long enough to buy a Che Guevara T-shirt and lead a Glorious Revolution of the Proletariat. And when this day arrives, the first mofos up against the wall will be the CEO, investors and executives of a loathsome company called oDesk.
Get this: When my staff-writer job was downsized into oblivion last April, the first thing I did was sign up for daily e-mail alerts from various job-hunting sites. And last Sunday, one of them sent notice that a company down South was supposedly looking to hire a “syndicated columnist.”
Syndicated columnists don’t become such by answering a help-wanted ad. But maybe (I thought) this is a company looking for someone to write a column that’ll run in multiple publications owned by the same chain. I clicked on the link and discovered that the only way to apply for this job was through an agency called oDesk.
So I filled out the online application, here’s my resume, there’s my clip file, references upon request, et cetera.
Then I was supposed to take various online multiple-choice tests to prove my writing ability. That struck me as decidedly odd – a multiple-choice test to see if you can write interesting, readable copy? Wouldn’t asking for clips be a better idea? Already I suspected this “syndicated columnist” job, whatever it entailed, wasn’t the right fit for me.
But with nothing better to do I figured I’d take the test anyway. However, that required me to download and install some free company software. I waited until my IT guy (read: boyfriend) could take a look at it; he checked it out and then did the downloads and installations.
I never took any test. In fact, once I realized what those programs were I had my IT guy uninstall every last one of them right the hell off my computer. ODesk is a great company to work for … if you’re the type who’d be flattered to discover that a psychopath cared enough to stalk you.
That software was spyware that would record every keystroke I made when logged in to the oDesk site. It would also send automatic screenshots (of my computer) to company central six times an hour. There’s webcam capability, too, so oDesk can keep an eye on you while you’re in your house.
I could’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation if I made a habit of reading the blogs at the Wall Street Journal, where Sue Shellenbarger wrote about the Odesk phenomenon around the same time that “syndicated columnist wanted” e-mail landed in my in-box:
The clipboard toting, clock-watching, quota-setting productivity expert, peering nosily over your shoulder at work, has been out of fashion in business schools for decades.
Now he's back, in electronic form -- in the home office.
In a budding trend some employment experts say is invasive, companies are stepping up electronic monitoring and oversight of tens of thousands of home-based independent contractors. They're taking photos of workers' computer screens at random, counting keystrokes and mouse clicks and snapping photos of them at their computers. They're plying sophisticated technology to instantaneously detect anger, raised voices or children crying in the background on workers' home-office calls. Others are using Darwinian routing systems that keep calls coming so fast workers have no time to go to the bathroom.
Electronic monitoring is built right into freelance transactions at oDesk.com, which links 90,000 computer programmers, network administrators, graphic designers, writers and others with about 10,000 clients world-wide. The system takes random snapshots of workers' computer screens six times an hour, records keystrokes and mouse clicks and takes optional Web cam photos of freelancers at work. Clients can log into the system anytime and see whether contractors are working, what they're doing and how long it's taking them.
If I’m looking for a freelancer to write an article, design a Web page, write code or any other produce-something-at-a-computer activity, here’s what I need to know about your work habits: “Did you produce the desired product in the agreed-upon time frame?”
That’s all. I don’t need webcam screenshots to see whether you’re wearing a bathrobe or a business suit. I don’t need keystroke monitoring to determine how many times you rewrote a sentence before you were satisfied with it. I don’t care if you did the assignment in a single productive burst of energy, or worked on it a little at a time between breaks.
All that matters – all that should matter – is: did you write the damned article I asked for, and get it to me by the agreed-upon deadline?
I consider myself a softcore rather than hardcore libertarian; I don’t think all government regulation is unnecessary, just 95 percent or so. Nor do I share the libertarian-purist idea that no worker protection laws are ever needed since mistreated workers can simply quit and find another job.
Not that I’m calling for regulations or bans toward oDesk-style spyware. It’s still a relatively small phenomenon, and I’m quite content to sit back and let The Market sort things out. But what if this becomes commonplace? We’re already seeing greater intrusion into employee’s off-the-clock time; e.g., “Smoking is legal but if you or anyone in your family does it you’re fired.” So far The Market seems to be shifting toward less and less freedom for employees.
Add to that the intrusive potential of modern technology, and I worry we’re heading toward a bleak dystopian future. As we rush toward it, I can't get behind the libertarian orthodoxy which states “If oDesk-style spying becomes the workplace norm, it would be detrimental to human freedom to support a law banning it from home-office work requirements.”
t the only organizations, nor heads of state the only individuals, whose power over others needs to be kept in check to ensure a free society.