The Engines of Managerialism
Replacement and integration can be two parts of one unfolding technological regime.
Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance, by Karen Levy, Princeton University Press, 240 pages.
For centuries, management has used machines to deskill workers, tighten control over their lives and labor, and, more recently, surveil and impose upon them the faceless authority of the algorithmic boss. Karen Levy’s Data Driven is an important study of how these forces are unfolding in the industry of interstate delivery, upon which we who make nothing depend for everything.
Trucking is a huge industry. “In 2018, thirty-seven million trucks were registered for business purposes in the United States,” Levy recounts, “transporting nearly twelve billion tons of freight.” Truck driving of all kinds is the most common job in twenty-nine of the fifty states.
Data Driven shows how the forced adoption of new technological systems, pushed by a coalescence of federal regulators, Big Tech, profit-driven data harvesters, and corporate management, is roiling an industry that employs a large share of the working population.
In December 2017, Obama-era legislation took effect mandating that trucks used for long hauling be tracked by electronic logging devices (ELDs), a surveillance technology strapped to the engine that captures “data about truckers’ activities, particularly their work hours.” These were permitted on a voluntary basis by federal regulation in 1988; a universal mandate was proposed but scrapped in 2003.
Initially, the industry itself was opposed to these devices. It was a total mismatch for drivers who took pride in being the master of one’s own cabin. But forces both inside and outside trucking incentivized management to incrementally adopt the systems. The 2017 rule was merely codifying what had become industry standard.
Those forces, Levy persuasively argues, were unleashed in the late 1970s during the first wave of deregulation. Under the Motor Carrier Act of 1935, regulation of interstate trucking fell to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which “set standard rates within the industry and created protective barriers against new market entrants, shielding existing companies from competition.” On the eve of deregulation, 80 percent of truckers were unionized. They were paid by salary and the long haul was a road to the middle class.
Deregulation accomplished most of what it set out to do and a whole lot more. “Thousands of truckers lost their jobs in the years immediately after deregulation took effect,” Levy writes, and those that were left saw their wages drop 44 percent between 1977 and 1987. “In 1980, truckers made roughly $110,000 in today’s dollars. In contrast, as of 2020, truckers’ median annual earnings have stagnated at about $47,000 per year—a figure that has not budged significantly for about fifteen years.” Less than 10 percent of current drivers are unionized.
In what might be the most significant change of all, for the vast majority of truckers pay was shifted from salary to pay-per-mile. This pressure to drive long hours at the risk of safety naturally fostered dangerous conditions on the road.
In response to deregulation’s effects, the federal government began to regulate truckers’ driving hours. A pen and paper self-reporting system was the method. Eventually, as the technology improved, the preferred method became ELDs.
With the adoption and imposition of ELDs the state and industry alike have applied a technological solution to what is a political-economy problem of their own making. As Levy writes, “The problem’s roots are economic—to make a living, truckers have little choice but to break the law and to put themselves, and the motoring public, in danger.” The preferred solution is surveillance, “rather than change the underlying conditions that give rise to lawbreaking.”
Companies realized the managerial value of surveilling drivers. ELDs, like so many other devices, come “bundled.” So, while federal regulation requires that truckers’ hours be tracked, management was attracted to the bells and whistles, such as applications that log idling time, speed, braking patterns, lane changes, tire inflation, and vehicle maintenance. Some systems “integrate with dashboard cameras … recording the driver and the cab.” GPS tracking transmits driver location back to home base instantly.
This comprehensive surveillance amounts to a fundamental change to the life and spirit of the driver, whose independence—recently a point of pride—has been rescinded by his employer. Once trusted, today he is verified as he goes. Decision-making, which previously belonged to him and him alone, is transplanted from the cab to headquarters with dispatchers and other bosses directing him in real-time. His skill, experience, insight, and practical reasoning, as well as his awareness of his own physical and mental state, have been abstracted out of his head, recomposed as “data,” and pressed into service against him.
It’s nightmarish, but increasingly common. In Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America (2021), journalist Alec MacGillis writes about the condition of work on the floor of an Amazon fulfillment center. “Inside the one-million-square-foot hall,” MacGillis describes, “squat orange robots, roughly the size and shape of ottomans, buzzed around within a large caged area to bring workers the stacks of shelving racks from which they assembled shoppers’ orders.”
Before the [robots], fulfillment pickers were expected to reach speeds of about 100 items per hour. With the [robots] bringing the pods to them, the pickers were expected to reach speeds of 300 to 400 items per hour…. The screen in front of them flashed the next item to retrieve and from what compartment in the stack of bins; at some warehouses, the bin in question even lit up, denying the picker the satisfaction of that one small hunt.
Amazon, which now employs one out of every 153 Americans, recently patented “a wristband that could track workers’ every move, and even alert them via a vibration if it detected that they were going off task.”
Amazon’s rigor toward its employees might seem like an outlier, but it’s not. In Uberland: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Rules of Work (2018), Alex Rosenblat describes how “the autonomy celebrated by Uber’s model stands in stark contrast to the everyday experiences of its drivers, who are carefully monitored by an algorithmic boss.” Drivers don’t even have access to a human boss. Instead, they “receive automated replies to most of their inquiries, which often appear to be based on key words in the text of their emails.”
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Hanging spectrally over all this is the threat of full automation, which, in the case of trucking, means pre-programmed, unmanned semi-trailers. Based on the fundamental engineering challenges that fully automated trucks still face, Levy does not think their arrival imminent or even certain. She thinks the sweeping erasure of millions of long haulers by a fleet of robot Teslas would be bad if real, but more likely is the continuing tightening of the managerial logic that is actively fusing laborers to the machine.
The integration starts innocently enough with what are called “wearables.” These devices are already knocking at the door of the market with Amazon’s patented wrist monitors, the SmartCap (a hat or headband that detects fatigue), and the Co-Pilot Headset (for detecting head movements). From there, the next move is to break the skin, implanting microchips to more closely monitor workers’ bodies. This, according to Levy, is the emerging “threat of compelled hybridization.”
Replacement and integration can be two parts of one unfolding technological regime. Whatever alternative ends up materializing, it’s not a future anyone should be very eager to see. I’d like to stop it. But how? Data Driven doesn’t say, but it does offer a rich diagnosis of the crisis.