My forthcoming piece on Ethan Zuckerman’s Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them for the Italian Political Science Review.
Apparently, Walmart needs its workforce to have cellphones.
An announcement by the company stating that about 750k employees in the US will be given $500 Samsung phones for free by year’s end was reported widely this week. Walmart’s US workforce in 2017 was 1.5m, so if there have not been dramatic changes in this figure, the policy would cover about half of the chain’s employees. Since Walmart is one of the largest employers in the country, this initiative is bound to be one of, if not the largest of its kind. Also, given the significant proportion of low-wage jobs in the company’s workforce, the benefit is a considerable one.
The company indicated it has taken this step in order to transition away from the dedicated handheld devices its associates previously used in their stores. The result is a hybrid arrangement. Employees get the device, case, and protection plan for free (they still presumably are on the hook for their own voice & data plan), but they
will only be able to use work features on the new Me@Walmart while on the clock.
Although it would be fair to assume that the use of cellphones for personal matters is already discouraged (or prohibited altogether) for Walmart employees on the clock, this policy nudges them toward an equilibrium (use of an employer-gifted device as one’s primary cell phone) where such behavior becomes technically impossible.
As for non-work-related use, Walmart
promised that it would not have access to any employee’s personal data and [they] can “use the smartphone as their own personal device if they want, with all the features and privacy they’re used to”
which has a bit of an ominous ring, for those who consider the overall landscape of surveillance capitalism, cellphones’ key role within it, and the importance of habituation for the smooth functioning of the system.
Of course, Walmart’s convergence to an Amazon-style micro-management-by-app of its employees’ physical movement through its warehouses is the big story, driving the program. However, it is interesting to note a few concurrent dynamics. On the one hand, in the span of one generation cellphones have followed the whole arc of the technology/political economy cycle, from luxury fashion items for conspicuous consumption to basic infrastructure indispensable for working-class jobs. In situations of economic crisis, falling purchasing power, and widening wealth differentials, it can prove economically advantageous for employers to provide them outright as a fringe benefit. On the other hand, the intertwining of the private and the public, work-life and down-time in contemporary America has decisively affected how people access the Internet. This fact was made apparent to white-collar employees working remotely during the pandemic, but as always the most extreme and direct consequences will be experienced by those most directly exposed to market forces and least able to bargain over employment conditions.
The recent, decisive defeat of the unionization drive in Amazon’s fulfillment facility of Bessemer, Alabama can be understood to teach many lessons, not necessarily mutually complementary. First of all, specifically local conditions were in play, which can call into question the overall strategy of attempting to start the U.S. unionization of Amazon from the Deep South. The outcome, however, can equally be read as a sign that, in the current crisis economy, workers are prepared to put up with more or less any employer practices and work conditions whatsoever in order not to jeopardize their employment status, especially for jobs with efficiency wages. It can, alternatively, be seen as confirmation that giant tech companies, for all their claims to discontinuity and disruption, have mastered the traditional playbook of pugilistic industrial relations developed by old-economy businesses in the past fifty years. It can be interpreted as a statement that the progressive electoral coalition that swept the Democratic Party back into power at the federal level between November and January has not effected a sea-change in public opinion with regard to labor rights and representation. It can further be considered, in conjunction with the easy passage of Prop. 22 in California last Fall, as evidence that there is scant public belief that the ills of the soft underbelly of the tech economy can be righted by means of twentieth-century policy solutions.
Whatever the lessons learned, the unavoidable conclusion is that, in the United States at least, the power of Big Tech will not be reined in by organized labor alone (despite the fact that industrial militancy in the Amazon workforce continues, in less conventional and institutionalized ways). Nonetheless, recent media attention focused on Amazon workplace practices has created a series of PR embarrassments for the company: it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately cement a certain organizational reputation, and if such a reputation in turn can have regulatory or, especially, financial implications down the line (as has recently been the case in other jurisdictions).
Several reports are circulating (e.g., via /.) of a court case in New Jersey in which the defendant won the right to audit proprietary genetic testing software for errors or potential sources of bias. It being a murder trial, this is about as close to a life-or-death use-case as possible.
Given the stakes, it is understandable that a low-trust standard should prevail in forensic matters, rendering an audit indispensable (nor is the firm’s “complexity defence” anything short of untenable). What is surprising, rather, is how long it took to obtain this type of judicial precedent. The authoritativeness deficit of algorithms is a topic of burning intensity generally; that in such a failure-critical area a business model based on proprietary secrecy has managed to survive is truly remarkable. It is safe to say that this challenge will hardly be the last. Ultimately, freely auditable software would seem to be the superior systemic answer for this type of applications.
Josephine Wolff (Slate) reports on the recent hack of the water processing plant in Oldsmar, FL. Unknown intruders remotely accessed the plant’s controls and attempted to increase the lye content of the town’s water supply to potentially lethal levels. The case is notable in that the human fail-safe (the plant operator on duty) successfully counterbalanced the machine vulnerability, catching the hack as it was taking place and overriding the automatic controls, so no real-world adverse effects ultimately occurred.
What moral can be drawn? It is reasonable to argue, as Wolff does, against full automation: human supervision still has a critical role to play in the resiliency of critical control systems through human-machine redundancy. However, what Wolff does not mention is that this modus operandi may itself be interpreted as a signature of sorts (although no attribution has appeared in the press so far): it speaks of amateurism or of a proof-of-concept stunt; in any case, of an actor not planning to do any serious damage. Otherwise, it is highly improbable that there would have been no parallel attempt at social engineering of (or other types of attacks against) on-site technicians. After all, as the old security engineering nostrum states, rookies target technology, pros target people.