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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Feeling good about the future is mandatory.

Before I get started, please open the following link in another window:
By now, you have probably noticed the most prominent feature on the site, the square black ad in the middle of the page, declaring the unsettling news that "EVERY FIVE MINUTES A CHILD GOES MISSING..."(note the suggestive use of ellipses). After the text ominously fades, an anothropomorphized cell phone runs out to the middle of the screen on his/her little legs and declares, reassuringly, "Here I am." A city map is superimposed and we can see clearly exactly where the phone is located. What a relief!

Worried about where your or someone else's cell phone is? Thanks to TraceAMobile.com, for the affordable price of one British Pound a month, you, too, can access a whole host of tracking services.
Thanks to revolutionary mobile phone tracking technology you can now track any mobile phone on any of the UK's four major network operators. Using no additional hardware our mobile phone tracking service is ideal for families, friends or even businesses who have staff working outdoors. You can even track your own mobile phone [why?! - emphasis mine]! It's also ideal for people who enjoy outdoor activities, like hiking or rock climbing so if you got into difficulties and were unable to use your phone, then friends or family could quickly locate you and advise the emergency services. And because the person has to give permission to be traced and the system is password protected, it's 100% safe!
And whom amongst us hasn't found ourselves at one time or another rock climbing, "into difficulties" and unable to use our cell phone? All joking aside, the manipulation of extreme or rare events to justify attacks on liberties is quite common these days. From the smiling faces of missing kids on milk cartons to its modern day Amber Alert equivalent, we've become accustomed to having our fears primed and then exploited by authorities of all kinds, even when the facts don't support it.

For instance, the Amber Alert System - now available on your cell phone - jolts us routinely with urgent announcements of child abductions, which seem to occur with shocking regularity. Less reported, however, is the fact that, according to the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children, of the two hundred thousand some child abductions every year in the US, 75 percent of them are by family. Of the remaining 25 percent, only around a hundred every year are by complete strangers. And of the majority, the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention own statistics "show that only 4 percent of children abducted by their parents are physically harmed." And, of course, the painful irony of being beseeched in the name of the kids by an elite class increasingly able only to express its love for children through the criminal justice system should hardly require pointing out.

Nevertheless, in her Amber Alert Awareness Day message this year (did you celebrate it?), National AMBER Alert Coordinator, Regina B. Schofield reminds us of the low standards authorities maintain when it comes to justifying the undermining of basic human liberties.
As the Attorney General has said, "There is no greater measure of our nation's compassion or our humanity as a people than how we protect, raise, and care for our children." We will continue to support the unique collaboration that makes AMBER Alert a success and bring abducted children home.
It's for the kids. According to the Department of Justice's webpage, "AMBER Alert has been very effective. AMBER Alert programs have helped save the lives of over 200 children nationwide." Of course, "helped save" seems quite subjective to me, and if the larger kidnapping statistics already cited apply, we can safely assume that most of those children were not in harm's way. Nevertheless, in case we don't buy that logic, the government is quick to follow up with an even harder to substantiate figure.
AMBER Alerts serve as deterrents to those who would prey upon our children. AMBER Alert cases have shown that some perpetrators release the abducted child after hearing the AMBER Alert on the radio or seeing it on television.
How does one quantify how many kidnappings AMBER alerts deter? It's hard to say, but ironically, this may be the most important and true claim made about the system. Surveillance does deter and modify behavior, and that's exactly what so many authorities are counting on to keep things in place during the massive technology-driven reorganization of society which they intend to expand massively over the next decade or more.

This elite intervention into our lives is already taking shape. Returning to TraceAMobile.com for a moment, although they are obviously pushing for self-surveillance through broad consumer participation, the customer they are courting most aggressively is business. Their sister site, MobileLocators.com, offers the service to business, which has both the interest and the power to make implement it.
Whether you run a fleet of vehicles operating in time and service critical industries or have traveling tradesmen / sales staff, or employ workers in construction or agriculture, mobile phone location technology is the simple, easy to use, alternative to investing in expensive GPS satellite location systems. If your business is mobile then you need mobile phone tracking!
Clicking on the "business benefits" section of the site reveals a list of advantages that bosses can expect to receive by subscribing to the service.
# Improved efficiency
If your staff are on call (e.g. tradesmen or mini cab firms) you can decide who is the nearest to respond to the next job/call thus saving time on travel delays and mileage costs etc.

# Reliable delivery time information
Road hauliers or delivery firms can instantly track their delivery force to see if they are taking the quickest routes and to more accurately advise customers of anticipated delivery times/delays based on actual locations. Customers are certainly likely to respond better when given precise information, rather than a vague "he's on his way" or "the driver left an hour ago!"

# Staff monitoring
A business employing a team of sales reps working fixed hours, or covering a set area, may want mobile tracking for their staff to see if they are working the correct hours and visiting all the specified locations /appointments.

# Improved workforce data
Data can be analyzed to see how much time is spent traveling, how long employees spend on a job, or with a client and even when and how long they stop for lunch.

# Increased staff motivation
Clearly the most obvious benefit is that staff will be more highly motivated knowing that their movements can now be monitored even away from the office. So even when you are not checking up on them - they won't know this - so will still be motivated to maximize productivity.

# Employee safety
Putting mobile phone tracking on your business phones means you are giving your staff a sense of security in case they get into difficulties and are unable to call for help.
Of course, the most hilarious benefit is "Increased staff motivation". The workplace, already a police state that would make Kim Jong-il proud, promises to fall even further under the increasingly sophisticated and despotic control of the boss thanks to technology like this.

According to Matthew Jones, writing for Reuters last week,
In the past few years, companies that offer tracking services have seen an explosion in interest from businesses keen to take advantage of technological developments in the name of operational efficiency.

The gains, say the converted, are many, ranging from knowing whether workers have been "held up" in the pub rather than in a traffic jam, to being able to quickly locate staff and reroute them if necessary.
But don't worry, they can't do it without your consent. Responding to privacy concerns,
Kevin Brown, operations director of tracking firm Followus, said there was nothing covert about tracking, thanks to strict regulations.

"An employee has to consent to having their mobile tracked. A company can't request to track a phone without the user knowing," he told Reuters.
Of course, in the dictatorship that is work under capitalism, just when is any employee's decision freely taken? Backed up by capitalism, private property, the violent authority of the state and the threat of unemployment, bosses routinely coerce all sorts of behavior out of employees.

But don't worry, just like the Amber Alerts, these intrusions into the lives of workers are for our own best interest. The boss just wants to make sure we're safe.
As well as wanting to make sure staff are working when and where they are supposed to, many firms say they are increasingly concerned about employee safety.

"Some businesses want to keep an eye on their staff. Some feel they have an obligation to know where staff are in case of emergencies," said Brown.


Andrew Overton at Verilocation said many of his company's 60,000 subscribers, mostly small businesses, wanted to know where their workers were for security reasons and for better asset management.

"There is increasing awareness about the importance of knowing where your staff are in case of incidents like the July London bombings. Knowing where your nearest employee is to a customer is also important. It allows a company to improve efficiency."
Here we have the confluence of several major tendencies in social control. The patriarchal employer concerned with his employees welfare (though probably not offering a living wage, health care or pensions), threats of terrorism (that rarely manifest) and the constant push for increasing efficiency (the benefits of which never accrue to workers, at whose expense they are made) converge into one mass, resulting in an overwhelming argument for increased surveillance, regulation and control of workers and other potential threats to the capitalist system. So is it any surprise that in the face of this assault, workers and civil liberties defenders themselves have often parroted the arguments of the ruling class?

Whatever the reasons, however, it's clear that critics don't understand the whole picture, and thus the encroachments on our autonomy remain largely unobstructed.
Civil rights group Liberty said there could be privacy and human rights issues surrounding the use of tracking particularly given the unequal relationship between employee and employer.

"There could well be worries that staff feel coerced into agreeing to be monitored. The technology is neutral, it's the way it is used that is the problem," said Liberty's Jen Corlew.

She said the development of tracking was worrying because it was being driven by the marketplace and not by workers' rights.

"We are already seeing an ebbing away of employee rights and we at Liberty will be keeping a close eye on this area to see if companies who do monitor their staff are complying with the regulations," she said.
Sure, Corlew is right on about the unequal relationship between employer and employee. But, she has not questioned the underlying assumptions of the capitalist class about technology. She reasserts their claim that technology is neutral, and that it's only the application that's problem. Unfortunately, where is the evidence for this claim? The irony about her claim in this context is that this tracking system depends not on some strange misguided application of cell phone technology, but on the basic nature of the cell phone itself. That's why employers like it so much, and they say so:
[Richard] Wilding [of Britain's Cranfield School of Management] said large-scale truckers have been using similar techniques for years, but using expensive satellite navigation equipment.

"Mobile phone tracking is far cheaper and produces similar business benefits."
Thus, Corlew's assertion is revealed as an ideological affirmation, not a statement of fact. As Marx reminded us, the ruling ideas of any era are the ideas of its ruling class.

Whoever they are, defenders of the supposed neutral nature of technology have not only to contend with its applications, but also to explain just how it is that technology - a ruling class idea - remains somehow different from the other institutions of society (like police, prisons, work, etc) created, maintained and controlled by the capitalists. Even cursory examination of the point reveals clearly that this strange exceptionalism does not exist at all. Anarchists wouldn't argue that the police force is an institution that is merely being misused, would we? As it is with police, so is it with technology. We cannot divorce the impact of a system from its history, or the intentions and interests of the class that maintains it. If they are aligned, there is a reason.

Consider the enthusiasm of New York police for the tracking opportunities cell phones afford them, in the name of safety. Indeed, we see the exceptionalism argument turned on its head here, where the limited application is used to justify the over all project precisely because such events are rare.
Henry Badillo and three friends drowned off City Island three years ago this week. It took his mother a year to listen to a recording of the call he made to 911, a call that failed to save his life.

“He was calm, in the beginning, and obviously he saw what his fate was,” says Virginia Badillo. “And at the end he said that he was going to die."

She believes he might have been saved if 911 operators had gotten his location from his cell phone. The technology existed at the time, and cell phone users here had been paying surcharges to implement it for years.


For Virginia Badillo, that means there is still more to do.

“If I know that someone is going to be saved because we have the technology to save someone, I will be at peace," she says.
The police concur, although they are concerned that the system isn't accurate enough yet.
“Roughly 89 percent of those calls are being delivered with location data,” says Dowd. “And as far as the accuracy of it, they're required to have it accurate to 95 percent within 300 meters, and they're roughly at about 85 percent in that regard.”
As we have seen with other technologies, the elite class is prepared to make any argument they can for the increasing spread of these technologies, not because they are neutral, but precisely because they represent the will of the elite and bolster their control over society.

When a Utah man who called police from his cell phone died in Provo after police dispatched to the wrong location, authorities there began debating upgrading their system for better cell phone tracking. With new technology now set to increase police spying capabilities from the previous radius limit of 990 feet to 165 feet, City Councilwoman Midge Johnson expressed satisfaction with the improved tracking. "I'm very happy with the new changes," she said. "It makes the community more safe, more comfortable, and that makes me feel good."

Somehow that doesn't make me feel good about the future.


Anonymous Tierce said...

I mystified by your accusation that technology is a "ruling class idea". Unlike, say, the police force, which is composed of a multitude of individual actors whose interests usually align with the ruling class, technology can be used by either side. While you have chosen to focus on some of its more oppressive uses, surely you realize that you're not telling the whole story?

-The Internet as originally conceived was fundamentally non-hierarchical
-As more and more things become digital (like movies, music, etc), copyright is being progressivly eroded, see:
-Even assembly-line robots, which you condemn for hurting workers, only do so because of the structure of the capitalist system within which they are used. If the system of production and distribution was organized differently, they could help to reduce working hours and increase safety

Thu May 03, 11:36:00 AM 2007  

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