On August 9, the US Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Google, the company who no longer tells its employees to not be evil. The product Google is hoping to patent is, as the application puts it, “A method and system for automating work pattern quantification.” Seems innocuous enough, right?
Eh, maybe not. Google’s application states that, “There is a need for a tool which automates the process of quantifying work patterns and provides feedback on worker focus.” Google hopes to accomplish this, essentially, by automating the process of bosses spying on their employees.
The application describes a system where everything an employee does at their computer is monitored and quantified into “focus metrics,” and then automatically offers those workers feedback that will encourage them to change their work patters to maximize their productivity. The “focus metrics” would be augmented by “sensor data from mobile devices, sensor data about or from a work environment, or personal sensors/devices.”
While I guess people might become marginally more productive if a computer told them stuff they didn’t already know about their work habits, the above screen displaying a message that an employee “may want to block this time off on your calendar in order to maximize your focused time” feels less like a word of encouragement and more like a threat. If a person ignored their Google Success Productivity Focus Coach™ and just did things their own way, would that give their boss a reason to fire them for not doing some imaginary extra work a computer program invented for them?
I have no doubt that such a product would drastically increase worker productivity — but only because such software would, as a side-effect, let everyone in an office know that they were subject to terrifying levels of surveillance any time they were in the vicinity of an electronic device. Besides, everybody already knows that productivity is dangerous.