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A lower school substitute teacher works from her home due to the coronavirus outbreak, on April 1, 2020, in Arlington, VirginiaOlivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Image
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The Work-Pleasure-Surveillance Machine Threatens All of Us

What happens when our homes become our employers’ offices?

Justin E.H. Smith
October 23, 2020
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Image
A lower school substitute teacher works from her home due to the coronavirus outbreak, on April 1, 2020, in Arlington, VirginiaOlivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Image

You will surely have heard by now of Jeffrey Toobin. Last week the CNN legal analyst and New Yorker writer was participating in an “election simulation” via Zoom, with other staffers from the magazine and employees of WNYC. Masha Gessen played Donald Trump; Toobin played the courts. At some point, believing his computer’s camera was turned off (or “muted” as he would later say, a confusion that seems to bespeak sincerity), Toobin engaged in a sexual act. He was swiftly suspended from his position at the magazine, and from his role as news analyst at CNN.

I do not wish to say anything more about Toobin. As always with such incidents, it is far more interesting to stop and dwell on what they reveal about our current technological and cultural moment. The social media mobs relished this juicy scandal. The shitposters turned it into a source of easy jokes (election simulation/erection stimulation), while other more purportedly high-minded commentators saw it as yet another opportunity for the display of their own towering high-mindedness and righteousness. This was, they said, standard-fare workplace sexual harrassment—perhaps even assault. The possibility of interjecting more humane interpretations was forestalled by accusations that to do so would be to lapse into “himpathy.”

Yet anyone who believes that this latest incident has to do with an individual man’s naughtiness is going to have an awfully hard time making sense of the years to come. For one thing, even if Toobin was in some sense “at work,” he was also at home, and he was in front of a screen that presumably also serves for him as a portal to many worlds besides his work world. That is the fact that should properly occupy us, for things were not always this way. Until very recently, the machines we used for our work were different than the ones we used for watching movies, speaking with our friends and loved ones, or, if we are so inclined, searching out visual aides to our erotic imaginations—which are presumably a good thing, and are in any case ineradicable.

Until even more recently, the place in which we worked was also different from the place in which we lived. Before the pandemic, and before the telecommunications revolution it has cemented, the separation between the workplace and the home was a foundational assumption for the vast majority of workers, whatever their occupations. Even if we sometimes took work home, this did not mean that home itself became the workplace, subject to the same regulation and control that we have for the past few centuries tolerated for eight hours a day outside the home—but not after we have clocked out and returned to our safe hearths, where, with William Carlos Williams, we are free to dance around naked and imagine ourselves “the happy genius of my household.”

Stories like Toobin’s are going to keep rolling in. The joke-makers are surely going to continue making jokes. Cancelers will cancel. But the rest of us would do well to expand the range of our considerations beyond moral praise and blame, and start to consider the vastly more important story of the rise of a regime of universal surveillance and the collapse of the public/private boundary that has been foundational for the progress and happiness of Western societies for the past half a millenium or so.

This most recent story, though not the same in all respects, should remind us of the 9-year-old boy in Louisiana who was suspended from fourth grade in September after his teacher spotted a BB gun in the frame of his webcam during online class. The school board found him “guilty of displaying a facsimile weapon while receiving online instruction.” The boy was “at school,” but he was also at home—and there is no reason to believe that had he been at school in the pre-pandemic sense he would have brought his facsimile weapon with him, or that the accidental glimpse of a toy gun on a child’s shelf was likely to have caused any kind of meaningful harm to his classmates, teachers, or anyone else. So let us allow ourselves a moment of himpathy for a 9-year-old Black boy in America who has already been started down the path toward a life of perpetual surveillance and “correction” without even leaving home.

It turns out there are numerous cases of disciplinary measures brought against students and employees who have violated rules of online engagement that did not exist, and could not have existed, a year ago. A certain teenager I know well received a mild reprimand for making a collage of cow udders into his Zoom background; he pretended to take a triumphant drink every time he answered a question correctly, until the teacher put a stop to that (LOL). Clearly to some degree the eternal impulse among adolescents to “push it” must be controlled on Zoom as anywhere else, but a humane reprimand is something quite distinct from an official disciplinary measure or, worse still, a criminal complaint.

When we turn from the school to the workplace, we find many companies now passing down explicit rules for at-home work, both during and outside of official video meetings. Law firms have cracked down on employees tending to infants and school-age children who are stuck at home with them. Some companies have been emboldened to extend the no-smoking policies that govern their official premises into the homes of their workers during at-home work hours—turning what was ostensibly a public health measure meant to protect fellow workers from secondhand smoke into an overt instrument for controlling workers’ personal choices.

We’ve arrived at a worrisome moment where social media dictate our social norms, and on social media even the expression of compassion for the wrong sort of person comes across as a form of dissent.

Before the pandemic, to be “permitted” to work from home could easily appear as an extension of one’s personal liberty—an indulgence of the employee’s own personal needs or preferences. Under lockdown, or under this endless quasi-lockdown that reigns in most places, it is easier to see that this grace we were given turns out to have been a trick—the emails we were bringing home to finish “on our own time” turn out to have been the Trojan horses by which work turned our once-sacrosanct domestic spaces into offices that we pay for.

But at least when it was just work correspondence after midnight, we were free to do them from bed, to get comfortable, in some sense to be ourselves. The true dystopia emerged only at the moment that video became a common, even mandatory, component of our work-at-home routines. Domestic spaces, and our behaviors within them, were transformed into spaces that would be surveilled, regulated and controlled by employers.

Sound dramatic? When I first began doing frequent conference calls in March, I wore a pair of pink and blue Bermuda shorts from Target, featuring images of sharks jumping through giant donuts. I now think of these as my Zoom uniform. I feel good in them, and they help me to enjoy the absurdity of the situation and, accordingly, to get work done. Many work contracts, however, now stipulate that all participants in a Zoom meeting must be wearing pants or a skirt or dress throughout. There is no doubt a concern that at least some people will momentarily forget how they are dressed from the waist down, and will stand up, exposing their briefs or panties and scandalize colleagues who have never seen underwear before. More to the point is that, from a liability standpoint, your home has become not just your office—but your employer’s office.

The concentration of so many functionalities into a single machine inevitably means that it is extremely difficult to keep track of everything that is going on within the theater of the illuminated rectangle. Some people will forget they are in their undies at a business meeting; others will forget, when they move into the screen-share function in Zoom, that among the things visible on their screen at the moment of this transition are photos of their children, an affectionate email to a lover, a window open (if that is your kind of thing) to pornography.

The technological drive toward user-friendliness and reduction has also led to an unprecedented conglomeration of the many different facets of our lives. Some of these facets—the private, intimate, and human facets in particular—are in the course of being suppressed and penalized by forces whose logic works to eliminate everything that constitutes us other than the economic facet. Over the centuries work has killed human beings in countless ways, but never has work’s natural hostility toward humanity as such been clearer.

The real surprise in the present technocultural moment is not that the economy hates human beings, but that many individual human beings are currently volunteering their service as foot soldiers of the anti-human economy. Thus when a man is brought low by this strange new conjuncture of technology, pandemic, and poor judgment, the scandal-thirsty mob rushes to interpret what has happened as if only the latter of these three were of any interest. Many people sincerely believe that it is an adequate response to the story to say, “Well I’ve never done anything like that,” and thence to join in the mockery or denunciation of the man who, evidently, has. But this is much like the shrug from the person with only anodyne political opinions who learns of government surveillance of dissidents, and can come up with no thought more interesting than, “Well that would never happen to me.” The question is not whether you’ve wanked at work, but what is work, anyway? And if in the near future all will be work, where then will you wank?

We’ve arrived at a worrisome moment where social media dictate our social norms, and on social media even the expression of compassion for the wrong sort of person comes across as a form of dissent. The mob is drunk on the new power that surveillance provides them, seemingly unaware of the many ways it could come back to bite them next. Under such circumstances, it is indeed an act of dissent to say it: I have compassion for Jeffrey Toobin. He got swept up in something much larger than he is, something that threatens all of us.

Yes, defending some guy who got caught masturbating “at work” is, as the internet loves to say, “a weird hill to die on.” But here’s the thing: We’re not going to die. And you people who are feeding the rage machine, who are playing the video game of social media as if it were a viable venue for the pursuit of justice, and whatever else you are after: You just don’t understand what you’re doing.

It is far too late to think about closing our social media accounts. They are woven into the fabric of our lives. What we can do, however, is to say without shame to the angry online swarmers: No, we are not ashamed. We are human beings. 

Justin E.H. Smith’s next book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear from Princeton University Press in 2021. You may subscribe to his newsletter at justinehsmith.substack.com.