Rage Within the Machine

Bosses are using digital technology to monitor workers as never before. And as never before, workers are striking back.

The e-mail message--or "The Manifesto," as it came to be known--spread like a wildfire. On this mid-September afternoon, the worker bees at American Express Financial Advisors' Mutual Fund and Certificate Transaction Line were manning their assigned stations on the seventh floor of the Peavey Building in downtown Minneapolis. But one of the Tran Line agents didn't have his headset strapped on to answer the usual barrage of investors' queries about the status of their holdings. Nor was he otherwise engaged in company business.

Instead, with a click of his mouse, he announced his resignation, dispatching to his colleagues and bosses a not-so-fond farewell: a 3,500-plus-word screed, part earnest capitalist critique (a lambasting of AmEx CEO Harvey Golub, who "made 450 times what I made last year"), part metaphysical hokum (a quote attributed to a character from "the truly outstanding film The Matrix" that goes, "They have created a prison FOR your mind"). The author, who titled his opus "Some final thoughts..." and signed himself "Seth Jones," concluded with a woozy call to arms: "Pleasure is a feeling that you can take with you no matter what happens. Whether it is a behind the barbed wire or in front of the computer. It is your secret, the feeling of your dream. Let nothing stop that feeling. Nothing. Nothing. Neti. Neti. Neti. The Path of NO. FIGHT THE FUTURE. WAKE UP YOU ARE NOT DREAMING. THIS IS NOT A TEST. WALK IN THE MYSTERY AND WONDER OF HER BEAUTY."

According to Tran Line staffers (who wish to remain nameless), the missive was the stuff of instant legend. "We couldn't stop talking about it all that day. We still can't stop," recalls one. Like many of her colleagues, she was wowed by the Manifesto--for one thing, she'd never imagined the secret passions harbored by her fellow cube dweller; for another, the things Jones wrote made sense to her. She too had come to resent the intrusions into what she regarded as fundamentally private matters, including the recent issuance of a questionnaire asking employees to disclose what they do during breaks.

John Pritchett

"I always said, 'The day I quit, I'm throwing paper in the air,'" says the woman. "But that guy--he went companywide! He was hard-core. It totally disrupted work that day." She estimates that 800 to 1,000 people received Jones's densely worded tract. Even after company managers reminded underlings (also via e-mail) that forwarding the document electronically was a violation of corporate policy, the note purportedly continued to circulate in the form of hard copies delivered by the internal courier.

The episode highlights an intriguing departure from the old-school method of showing one's disgruntlement on the way out the door--flipping the bird, hollering at the top of one's lungs, or, in extreme cases, "going postal." It also provides a sharp counterpoint to employers' increased use of technology to track workers' productivity and behavior. According to a 1999 survey conducted by the American Management Association, 45 percent of major U.S. corporations engage in electronic monitoring of employees. News reports now regularly feature tales of workers who get disciplined or dismissed as a result. Earlier this month, for instance, the New York Times fired 20 staffers at a payroll-processing center for e-mail transgressions. But the very same technology that would seem to give Big Brother the upper hand allows the peeved proletarian to disseminate his own message.

And not just through company e-mail. American Express, for example, ranks tenth in the number of postings on Vault.com's corporate-employees' message board. Like much in the realm of Internet chat, postings on the two-year-old business Web site's "Electronic Watercooler" range from the mundane to the practical to the hateful, obscene, and absurd. While it's tempting to view the message board as nothing more than a fount of unfettered cyberbabble, there's no denying that such innovations have transformed what once were private ruminations or hushed office gossip into very anonymous, very loud shouts.

Predictably, business-minded pundits are denouncing the Web site on precisely those grounds. "How can you build a culture of accountability in an ecology of anonymity? You can't and you shouldn't," concludes a recent editorial in Fortune magazine, which also notes that some corporations now block Vault.com from their staffers' Internet browsers.

Why all the fuss? For your edification, we've assembled a cross-section of current Vault.com postings that provide a sampling of the invective that workers at some of Minnesota's most prominent corporations are spewing forth about their employers, their customers, and one another.

A note of caution: It's not always pretty. And while it's verbatim, it may well not be accurate; we offer no endorsement of the views represented. Read it and weep.

 

FROM THE AMERICAN EXPRESS BOARD:

Author: Who's listening?

Subject: Eavesdropping

Don't use amex lan servers or computer systems to utilize this forum. If you think the Amex systems can't pick up key words or addresses that are sent out to the internet through their own system you are naive. The management is becoming aware of this site, so think about how you send stuff up here to vault.com

 

Author: Silver Teamer

Subject: I saw manager surfin'

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