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Surveillance and the Loneliness of the Long-distance Trucker

How some companies spy on their workers

In 2011, Karen Levy, a doctoral candidate in Princeton’s sociology department, spent the summer as a research intern at Intel’s offices near Portland, Oregon. Her official remit was fuzzy and open-ended, but the company had at one point emphasized its resolve to find use cases for its chips in vehicles. Levy hadn’t thought much about vehicles per se, but her mixed academic background—she was also trained as a lawyer—predisposed her to reflect on situations that dramatized the peculiar relationship between formal codes (the realm of the law) and practical expediency (the realm of the ethnographer).

The road, it occurred to her, was the site of our most common and thoroughgoing encounter with rules; it was also the scene of our most routine and matter-of-fact disregard for them. Take, for example, jaywalking. It remains technically criminal in many places, but the enforcement of the prohibition is typically neither expected nor desired. Levy’s work is often about the wiggle room that makes social life possible. As she put it to me recently, “What do we really mean when we say a rule is a rule? When do we not mean it?”

While in Oregon, Levy happened to hear an NPR segment about new restrictions on the wiggle room afforded to long-haul truckers. Since the 1930s, truckers had been reasonably encumbered by restrictions on the number of hours they were allowed to work. These regulations relied upon self-reports manually inscribed in paper logbooks, which truckers were obligated to provide upon inspection. These logbooks, however, were easily falsified; at the end of the day, or at the end of a trip, the trucker retrofitted his journey to accommodate the law. This was an open secret: Truckers called them coloring books, or even swindle sheets. Road safety, however, was a real issue. For decades, regulators had debated the introduction of electronic logs—tamper-proof devices, hardwired to trucks’ engines, that could digitally track the time truckers spent behind the wheel. Truckers were, to put it gently, resistant to the idea. Long-haul trucking is not a good job (it’s poorly paid, lonely, bad for your health and dangerous), but at the very least it was compensated by access to mythological status: truckers, as captains of their own ships, enjoyed the freedom and romance of the open road. Trucking was a vocation for the stubborn. By 2012, a federal mandate was a fait accompli, and, even if the trappings of autonomy had always been more symbolic than material, the deployment of digital trackers was received as a status insult.

Please select this link to read the complete article from The New Yorker. 

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