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Monday, June 25, 2007

All Along the Watchtower by Shane Elson

Having a rather sad life I have to admit one of my favourite TV programs is
the US prison series "OZ". The setting of this series is a fictional prison
called "OZ" - short for The Oswald State Penitentiary. Within this facility
is a special section called "Emerald City". I'll return to OZ in a minute or

A recent ABC "4 Corners" program was about the way Telstra treats its
workers. I have known quite a few PMG, Telecom and now Telstra workers in my
time and the one thing that stands out about them all is the pride they take
in their work. Unfortunately their bosses don't hold to the same 'customer'
focus as the rest of the front line staff.

As you well know our government decided to flog off what is, perhaps, the
biggest piece of integrated infrastructure in the country. In working
towards that end they employed a bunch of Americans. The top few of these,
when one does a background check, are credited with grinding into the dust
at least one US telco and sending thousands of employees and customers to
the wall. Their belligerent and money focused rhetoric demonstrate that
their concerns are with money and not providing the highest quality service.
Rather than focus on success they are totally focused on getting rich .

During the 4 Corners program we hear about the ways in which call centre and
other staff are monitored for "performance" and how they are pressured to
not focus on solving a customer's problems but selling them something or
doing a 'quick fix' rather than actually diagnosing the underlying causes of
the problem. We also heard about the suicides caused by the stress brought
on by Telstra staff having to comply with the central demands of the money
grubbing bosses. Technology has made tremendous leaps. So much so that
people can now be remotely monitored without really being sure they are
being watched. In short, their bosses adhere to that long held tradition
that people are inherently bad and need to be disciplined and punished if
they don't meet 'performance targets'. This brings me back to OZ.

In the TV series, the 'Emerald City' facility, within the toughest prison in
the US, was set up as a model correctional facility in which the layout was
very reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. The Panopticon was first
envisaged as a way to arrange a prison. A central guard tower was surrounded
but separated from a circular arrangement of cells. The cells had windows on
the outside and inside walls and the layout meant that inmates could not
communicate with each other but could be viewed at all times by a guard in
the central tower. This is what Michel Foucault had to say about the way
these Panopticons worked:

"The major effect of the Panopticon [was] to induce in the inmate a state of
conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of
power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its
effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of
power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this
architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a
power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that
the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are
themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too
little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too
little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much,
because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid
down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible:
the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the
central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must
never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure
that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the
inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even
see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of
the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that
intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter
to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a
gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence
of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see /
being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever
seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen."

What Foucault was getting at was fully understood by Bentham but it was
Bentham who articulated one of the main factors driving the development of
such a "machine". Money. Bentham wanted to sell his idea to the British
government and put it to them that if they funded the construction he would
take over the management. He told a Committee for the Reform of Criminal
Law, "I will be the gaoler. You will see ... that the gaoler will have no
salary - will cost nothing to the nation." He also told them that any profit
made would be his to keep. Does this sound familiar?

The beauty of the Panopticon was that no individual would know if they
really were being monitored or at what time they were being monitored but
would come to believe that their every move was being watched. Foucault
argued that under this constant state of surveillance people would begin to
regulate themselves and that rather than having to pay someone to stand over
them exercising direct power, individuals would begin to regulate their
behaviour to conform to the expectations of the central power. In the
capitalist model this means you can sack middle management - the usual
enforcers of the corporate line - and replace them with surveillance
technology to make sure your employees stay in line. Up go the profits but
down goes morale.

You see, the people who work under the direction of Sol Trujillo, Phil
Burgess and Greg Winn are not prisoners but free people. However, if it's
good enough for Kevin Rudd to sack tough talking union bosses from the Labor
party, the question is, will Sol sack one of his mates who views his
employees as target practice. In the 4 Corners program it was revealed that
Telstra's Chief Operations Manager, Greg Winn told a meeting of fellow
managers, "We're not running a democracy. We don't manage by consensus.
We're criticised for it but the fact of the matter is we run an absolute
dictatorship . If you can't get the people to go [where you want] and you
try once and you try twice, which is sometimes hard for me but I do believe
in a second chance, then you just shoot 'em and get them out of the way you
know and put people in that you can teach the new business process to and
drive on."

"Shoot 'em . and drive on ." Telstra's top management see themselves like
the OZ Warden, Leo Glynn. He only sees good and bad and no matter how hard
he tries he believes that all his inmates are bad, bad, bad. His foil is the
Emerald City director, Tim McManus who, somewhat idealistically, believes
that all people are good but get corrupted by the 'system'. Warden Glynn
would rather 'shoot' all the inmates because that would make his job so much
easier. McManus, on the other hand, would rather see power dispersed and set
up the conditions under which the inmates would regulate their own

Telstra was once 'ours' it is now 'theirs'. The unfortunate thing is that in
the quest to perfect power, accumulate wealth and control the actions of
free men and women, the constant surveillance imposed by the Panopticon like
structures imposed by Telstra's bosses and sanctioned by our government does
not bode well for any of us.

Alternative Radio (Aust)
PO Box 780
Morwell VIC 3840 Australia

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