The masses who settled in to remote or hybrid work during the pandemic are waking up to the fact that Zoom-mediated labor isn’t all it was promised to be. Instead of being liberated from unnecessary drudgery, demands on their time have ballooned, they feel permanently on call, and some can’t shake the sense that they’re working harder than ever for less pay.
They’re experiencing a lesson that everyone who’s ever used so-called labor-saving devices has learned the hard way: Expectations swell to fill the gaps left by the time you save. Women have always felt this most acutely; if a washing machine saved you hours on doing laundry, then you had to fill that time with other displays of devotion to your family. Zoom is no different: The hour you save on your unpaid commute is now an hour that can be filled with a pointless meeting.
A bit of pushback is required, because over the past three years much of the public has too often treated remote work as an inherent good. The managers and bosses who wailed to the high heavens about how remote work would end civilization certainly did nothing to hurt the impression that it could be a mighty strike against capitalist exploitation. If it were making them this mad, surely it was revolutionary. But it’s not. Like expectations, capitalism expands to fill all available space, co-opting anything put before it. Remote work is no different, and if we’re not careful, the tech that makes it possible will obliterate the already porous wall between home and workplace.
The pandemic revealed that a lot of work, especially white-collar work, could be done remotely—or at least that it required less time on-site than we’d been led to believe. For disabled employees, this was an especially powerful revelation; so often denied work on the basis of their perceived inability to consistently show up to an office, they were suddenly participants in a global experiment that demonstrated nearly everyone could do their jobs just fine by telecommuting. Flexibility, control, the comforts of home, the ability to more easily balance the competing needs of labor and family, and the chance to avoid sitting for hours on a freeway turned parking lot? Remote work has benefits for all.
But those benefits are eroding. Meetings that should’ve been emails are becoming endless Zoom calls. A friend was asked to attend an unpaid, hour-long tech-prep session for giving a remote guest lecture; previously this would’ve required a mere 10 minutes of faffing around before her appearance. Emerging norms for video calls demand you stay in your seat at all times, negating the benefits of being close enough to your kitchen to get a cup of coffee.
But it can get even worse. When I was teaching my college classes remotely during the pandemic, I resisted the use of software like Proctorio, which claimed to rely on “machine learning and advanced facial detection technologies” to spot cheating. In practice this meant tracking my students’ eyeballs, which felt like an unfathomably Kafkaesque cruelty. I was asking my students to give me their time and attention as the world burned; I wasn’t going to demand their webcams be turned on so Proctorio could surveil their every movement. It’s not terribly dissimilar from a piece of Chinese software called DiSanZhiYan, or Third Eye, which monitors browser activity and produces reports for managers about time spent looking at social media, streaming services, or even job-search websites.
While a lot of executives are resisting the push to make remote work the norm, it’s worth remembering that if they lose this battle, they will turn to these surveillance tools and their inevitably nastier descendants to reclaim whatever power they think they’re losing.
The pandemic and remote work turbocharged techno-solutionism, leaving us with the impression that Zoom alone could allow us to claw back everything the ever-expanding demands of the office had been stealing from us. Unfortunately, outsmarting capitalism requires something more than one weird trick that bosses hate. We have to stop believing that technology, in and of itself, will emancipate us, and instead embrace our collective power to shape how technology is used. That requires organizing.