Unintended consequences of constant surveillance, or the transparency paradox

[When] we feel over-observed at work, our performance suffers. This can take two forms. One response is to just do exactly what the watchers want to see. Observers may get compliance, but they won’t get much innovation. We’re just not likely to try something different if we’re being watched to make sure we’re doing our jobs right. Another response, no more to a company’s advantage, is to find ways to hide. Put employees in open offices and they’ll work from home—and feel more productive. Track more data, and they’ll find a way to stay under the radar.


“Rather, containers change with their contents. To take a simple but non-trivial example, an empty amphora [a tall ancient Greek or Roman jar with two handles and a narrow neck] might weigh five kilos. A full one not only is valued differently; it might weigh 5 or 10 times this, changing who can lift and carry it, how one sails a boat piled high with amphorae, and how likely it is to break if it shifts or falls. In functional terms, it is a different object.”

Hawthorne, Simmel, and Skepticism

“A large number of passengers were already at the station-house awaiting the departure of the cars. By the aspect and demeanor of these persons it was easy to judge that the feelings of the community had undergone a very favorable change in reference to the celestial pilgrimage. It would have done Bunyan’s heart good to see it.”

Luhmann and Matter (unfinished draft)

When discussing organizations, which Luhmann argues consist entirely of decision-based communication, one might ask about buildings, desks, chairs, telephones, computers, electricity, as well as human beings. Aren’t these things essential to most organizations? Shut off the electricity or the Internet access and most organizations stop functioning. Thus, a common criticism of social systems theory relates to materialism or material agency.

1 2