At the end of October, Amazon filed two patents for a wristband that would serve to monitor the execution of the tasks assigned to a worker through an ultrasound-based system that would detect the movement of their hands. Furthermore, the wristband would emit sound pulses and vibrations while on the skin of the wearer in order to guide their movements, pulses which would be sent and recorded by sensors placed in the warehouse where the goods are stored. The commands would ultimately originate from a central desk that would monitor the task remotely and in real time.
The news was reported by the GeekWire website after the patents were published. The project aims to simplify the fulfilment of orders, which are currently relayed to handheld computers that Amazon store employees carry with them. Once they receive an order, workers have to hurry to retrieve the product from the shelves, pack it in a box for delivery and then move on to the next assignment. It seems that Amazon has considered the possibility of using ultrasound wristbands not only for its warehouse employees, but also for those working outdoors and on its transport fleet.
The aim is not only to be able to trace the shipment of packages, as is the practice already, but also to plan and control the behavior of workers, in a system where humans are to be controlled like robots. This is the reason people use a term such as “Amabots” for the human workers who have become “Amazon’s robots.” Workers become one with the computer system, quasi-cyborgs and an embodiment of the algorithms. The neologism “Amabot” clearly shows, as many well-known investigative accounts have also reported—for instance, J.B. Malet’s 2013 En Amazonie, or the BBC’s 2016 investigation—that factory automation version 4.0 leads not to the liberation of human labor, but to its robotization.
The diagram shows how the patented wristbands would use ultrasound tracking to identify the precise location of the hands of a worker while they are retrieving items
“Regarding control, the law requires an agreement with the unions and the relevant authorities. This applies for a drone, a bicycle or any other thing of the sort,” said Italian Minister of Labor Giuliano Poletti. But let us see what “the law” actually says: the Jobs Act was what put “remote control” on the list of technologies which could be used by companies, while it was previously prohibited by the statutes governing workers. “The law” might, therefore, allow for the introduction of the wristband after all.
No doubt, the law requires negotiation with the unions in cases where a company wants to introduce the use of invasive technologies for the control of workers, likely in order to guarantee their safety and security. But the technology already available—a PC, a tablet or a smartphone—is in fact enough to achieve the same result that the patented wristband is aiming at, without having to wait for trials in Seattle, which would only reach Italy later on.
And we haven’t even touched on the fact that this new way of managing the workforce is already in existence, and not only in Amazon’s organization of productive labor, in Italy and other countries. The law has played its part in this, by enabling digital food delivery platforms (e.g. Deliveroo and Foodora) to make use of “continued collaboration contracts” (a type of semi-independent work under Italian law, without the protections of full employment). The Jobs Act failed to eliminate this category, and in addition denied “gig workers” the application of the previous provisions, which did not allow their work to be paid less than the minimum wage laid down by national contracts. In the end, digital capitalism makes use of the legal instruments that governments are providing.
The campaign for the upcoming elections, still recovering after all the commotion about the electoral lists, has picked up again. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was also keen to comment on this matter, reiterating his commitment to create “quality jobs, not wristband-wearing jobs.” It is a praiseworthy idea, especially in the aftermath of the recent ISTAT employment data showing the hyper-proliferation of short-term contracts, the result of the Poletti “reform.” Cleary, “quantity,” and not “quality,” has been the trend.
Amazon sought to clarify that “patents take years to be approved and do not necessarily reflect current developments in our products and service.” According to the company, “innovations” are being introduced in order to take care of employees. The inventors of the wristband also support this claim, arguing that it would help remove the need for the intensive and costly monitoring of workers.
This does not, however, remove the danger that existing technologies—not to mention those of the future—could transform digital workers into the “trained gorillas” that Gramsci spoke of in the case of Ford workers. In the precarious balance between promise and reality, the experiments with “algocratic logic” are proceeding apace. They are taking inspiration from the notion of “remotely managing” the workforce, and extracting value from existing data in order to anticipate—not just control—our behaviors 24/7. The applications of this idea have a much wider scope than merely the industrial production cycle, and they are founded on people’s free choices.
The idea of the wristband repulses people because it reminds them of prisoners under house arrest, or the chains of slaves. “The wristbands impact the relationship of trust between employer and employee, which is the foundation for the employment relationship in Italy,” warned Fiorenzo Molinari of FILCAMS-CGIL Piacenza, in whose territory an Amazon warehouse is operating at Castel San Giovanni. Last November, this was the site of the worker’s protest during “Black Friday,” calling for better wages and sustainable shifts.
In response, many have criticized Amazon for the “dehumanization” of their staff, and have spoken of “the slavery of the new millennium” (Airaudo, Liberi e Uniti). Union leaders, from Camusso (CGIL) to Barbagallo (UIL) and Annamaria Furlan (CISL), have all joined the loud chorus of “No,” while Pietro Grasso (Liberi e Uniti) said this was an idea that belonged only in “a bad science fiction movie.” But it is already here: you can see it when you use an app to order a product on Amazon, or lunch at the office.
Algocracy (the rule of algorithms) is already governing our lives. The task is to challenge it, with the notion of a different, political and common-oriented, use of technology, negotiating the algorithms and changing our way of life, which has gotten to the point of confusing freedom with servitude, both that of ourselves and others.