Beyond Workplace Surveillance & Intrusion: A contemporary culture perspective on Well-Being @ Work through Augusto Boal’s Theatre of The Oppressed

While sipping my morning cuppa, I chanced upon an intriguing article (Khaira, March 4, 2020) published in an online journal sometime back, which spoke of sanitation workers in Chandigarh who are compelled to wear GPS trackers as part of a ‘Human Efficiency Tracking System’. The wearable tracker registers the movement of the worker by geo-fencing their work area and alerting the supervisor if she strays outside the demarcated area of work. Therefore, if crossing the road for a cup of tea or using the toilet violates the geo-fenced boundary, the vigilance tracker transmits such transgression to the Supervisor. It also follows that the resting state of a worker is registered whenever the worker may decide to take a work break or indulge in gupshup within the immediate community. Since the tracker device needs to get charged every night which is usually done at the worker’s home, it further follows that the microphones and cameras in the device may invade individual privacy. Resultant anxiety, panic attacks, nausea, other somatic symptoms of distress, from fear of using toilets or taking some time off just to ‘stand and stare’, and having every moment spied on have taken a toll on the socio-psychological wellbeing of the workers.

The ethics of imposing surveillance devices on a working group who are powerless to question the employer or refuse to participate in such efficiency tracking systems bears heavily on how performance culture is defined and managed today.

Are these phenomena evidenced only in the least empowered work groups such as menial workers or are these occurrences witnessed in work groups and classes across the organizational pyramids and social strata? How many individuals are actually empowered to ask such questions from the Corporation, both for-profit and civic types? Here I refer to the individual, both as worker and as a consumer of services and utilities.

A financial services organization which I recently visited, has a timer device at its cafeterias and also at each work-bay and building exit. Strong arguments are made by Organizations in exhortations to provide data and participate in submitting one’s individual privacy to authorities in the interest of safety, and security and also to give credit to performing individuals and teams through these surveillance tools. The 2017 movie ‘The Circle’ has Tom Hanks playing an insidious Chief of a technology company who encourages people to go public with every aspect of their lives to create a proverbial ‘circle of influence’ on each other, secretly harbouring ambitions of controlling a ‘global circle’ across peoples and governments – a sort of world dominion of people over institutions.

In the 1998 movie Enemy of the State’, the protagonist is running away from his pursuers who have sophisticated surveillance devices at their disposal. Now running away is not really an option since each point of communication or square inch of the city has ‘eyes and ears’. On the other hand, getting lost is also quite impossible, unless one choses to, which again is impossible. Switch on a GPS device and you find your way to wherever it is you want to be. Archaic tools such as time-cards and attendance registers have all but disappeared from organizational logs. It is quite impossible to find a human who is not wearing some technology on her person, and behaviours surmised through immanent patterns via location and web stamps that are continuously left behind for big data profiling.

The dangerous invisibility of devices and software that spy on human activity cache our intentions, values, sexual orientations, prejudices, phobias and desires for perpetuity. Going incognito is impossible as tragically depicted in The Circle. All of these data-points rudely burst out from a technologically gregarious humankind who remain continuously wired and this data methodically flows into large knowledge repositories like the unsuspecting children of Hamlyn who gleefully followed the Pied Piper into the cave of oblivion, even as their despairing parents watched them vanish beyond the boulder that rolled shut across the cave’s devouring jaws.

Tech enterprises continuously showcase their capabilities in being able to track employee & customer behaviour with the least logistical resistance or any need to create physical infrastructure and process adherence. The Mission Impossible series of films and Nolan’s unsettling movie Inception pose as both, a comedy and a gravely portentous outlook on the application of surveillance mechanisms in accessing spaces, lives and even dreams to determine consumption and life choices. Decisions can be made for people, as Dan Ariely points out in his book Predictably Irrational, even while people think that they are in-charge of their own decision-making.

Corporate surveillance through the desperately urgent ‘need to know’ every movement and thought of every single employee and customer is colloquially denominated as Surveillance Capitalism. As discussed and evident, AI does allow greater depth today to tell us not just what people are thinking and doing, but to even make them think in a way that can bring profit and increase the economic capitalization of the enterprise and the entrepreneur.

In the 1992 film, Into the Wild, Christopher the protagonist renounces all materialism, choosing ignominy and submission to nature in its purest form. The narrative has a tragic ending,  however his journey from the city to the wild takes him through many conversations in his interactions with humanity where he witnesses compassion, friendship, grief and hate. His actions of wilful refusal to yield to a materialistic society are in a  way similar to Steve Job’s travels in India eschewing society, living on a fruit diet before re-entering the marketplace to create one of the largest symbols of technological transformation and yet, a concentrated circle of dependence. Job’s journey was one of exemplary success in creating innovation and economic value. Christopher’s journey and absolute communion with nature ended tragically, bringing with it the tragic dramatic denominations of pity and fear.

How does it profit an enterprise to gain the world at the cost of losing the human soul? Or rather, how much is the cost of humanity that can be outweighed by capitalistic intrusion, for profit? Or is the yielding of everything that is personal and private a fair trade-off for the comforts and conveniences of post-modern capitalism? Is this a lobotomizing of the human spirit so that all human thought, action and aspiration is moulded and directed by a world order that strips bare the individual of all individuality and creates mass consumerism which is an index for human development and growth? Andre Gregory from the 1981 classic dialogic drama My Dinner with Andre, seems to think so.

How do arguments on the ethics of oppression through such organizational architectures sit within the organization and its decision-making constructs? Even as operational excellence in a technology driven marketplace has reached a high level of maturity, questions of diversity and liberty are now far more critical  to employee well-being at the workplace.

Augusto Boal in his seminal Theatre of The Oppressed, quotes the Aristotelian view where the ‘greatest good’ is the aim of all human action. This ‘good’ is not an abstract idea but is concretised in our art and science and directed towards happiness. But first, says Boal, we need to know what ‘happiness’ is.  Boal’s view of oppression is encapsulated in his argument that all of man’s actions are political  including the vision of the world being in continuous transformation and the means adopted in executing this transformation or routing it in a given direction.

In his study on liberating a mindset of collective and unconscious subjugation to oppression, Boal suggests that the theatre of human action became political once the spotlight moved away from the ‘collective chorus of the proletariat’ and held steady on a ‘heroic persona’. This symbolised a tectonic shift in the development of social and institutional narratives.  

The Theatre of the Oppressed suggests that finding an end to organizational oppression is in examining how this ‘chorus or the ‘collective whole’ is held together by cultural ideologies that are driven by a few or by a single organizational hero. The chorus fades into oblivion and voices gets muted. The chorus is now forced to be passive spectators to the narrative that is driven by a protagonist with a singular organizational ideology, who holds the plot and uses all plot devices to further this ideology.

Developing fora for exploring ideas of emancipation in thought and action and allowing these ideas to determine a liberating and creative organizational culture are some dilemmas that must be courageously explored in institutionalising personal well-being at work and beyond.

Anil D’Souza

Associate Professor – OB & HR

School of Business and Management, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore

+91 9920746610 / [email protected]

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Anil D’Souza Associate Professor – OB & HR School of Business and Management, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. +919920746610 / [email protected]