Friday, December 9, 2016

Big Bother Is Watching

Why Slack is designed to never give you any.

In Silicon Valley, communicating is not something you do; it is a problem you solve. Slack, currently one of tech’s hottest properties, started out as a simple in-house chat app for a videogame company. But in the great tradition of startup pivots, the Slack team realized that the real action was in their chat app, not the convoluted game they were creating. In 2013 they decided to roll out Slack to do for others what it had done for them: improve their office communications.

Since then, the app has grown to become the biggest, most bloated minder to ever patrol the digitized workplace. Billing itself as the mega-app that will soon make email obsolete, it has three million daily users, including, as its sales team is keen to tell you, most of the Fortune 100. For those companies that hitch their wagon to it, Slack is increasingly the piece of software that mediates the entire work experience. You chat with your coworkers. You check your social media feeds. You store your documents, track your budgets, book your travel, update your calendars, wrangle your to-do lists, order your lunch. It is a constant, thrumming presence, a hive of notifications and tasks and chitchat that nags at workers and reminds them that there’s always more to do, more to catch up on—and that nothing goes unrecorded. Its name, despite the superficial connotation of hang-loose downtime, indicates its ultimate, soaring ambition: Slack, the company’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, recently revealed, is an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge.

“Everything in Slack—messages, notifications, files, and all—is automatically indexed and archived so that you can have it at your fingertips whenever you want,” chirps the company’s marketing copy. A once harried, now grateful knowledge worker confronts Information with a capital “I,” swinging his sword at the looming pile. Slack cheers on the little guy: “Slice and dice your way to that one message in your communication haystack.”

Slack tracks and catalogs everything that passes through it, and that is supposed to be a perk. But if the little guy can find anything in the archive, so can his risk-mitigating boss.

The Game’s the Thing

Try Slack for the first time, and you will be struck by its informal vibe, cribbed, as far as I can tell, from Richard Scarry’s Busytown. There are a hundred cute ways to tell your coworker you “Got it,” where “it” is probably a sales report. The thumb’s-up emoji is in heavy rotation. There are no forced salutations or stiff valedictions. (If “All best” is the first casualty of the email-less revolution, I am guessing no one will cry.) GIFs are tolerated—even encouraged. Never before have so many gyrating bananas, tiny clapping hands, and RuPaul eye rolls infiltrated the workplace.

Next to the other indignities of the office—drug tests, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, morality clauses, polygraphs—an animated dancing fruit might come as a relief, one more piece of flair to lighten the drudgery. Yet the seemingly free-wheeling patter of Slack, organized into what the company calls “channels,” has about as much spontaneity as a dentist’s office poster. Before you can dance like no one is watching, you have to know that someone is.

Slack slots neatly in the trend toward the gamification of labor and everyday communication—which only seems fitting, given its humble videogame beginnings. Sometimes the game is quite explicit. As you trick out your account, trawling Slack’s directory of third-party add-ons, you might see one called Scorebot. With Scorebot’s help, you can compete with your coworkers for the honor of most “socially adept”; the worker with the most positive emojis gets the most points. “Make everyday conversation a competition,” Scorebot’s website crows. For a moment, I wondered if Scorebot was a joke, but it seems to be an earnest creation of Crema, a Kansas City design firm, attracted to the honey of Slack’s popularity. (Now that Slack has launched an $80-million investment fund for app-makers, the honey is even sweeter.) And joke or no, Scorebot is just another arbitrary assessment tool in a work culture that bristles with them.

We are, I think, on the verge of another Slack pivot, if it hasn’t happened quietly already. As its watchful bots continue to circle, archiving and analyzing, retrieving and praising, the company will be forced to acknowledge that the true value of Slack lies not in its ability to enable productivity, but rather to measure it. The metrics business is booming, after all. Forget the annual performance review; with Slack’s help, managers could track their employees even more closely, and in ever more granular ways. And why stop at performance analytics? Sentiment analysis could automatically alert supervisors when employees’ idle bickering tips into mutiny. Depressed or anxious employees could be automatically served with puppy videos and advice bots. (...)

The Personal Is Professional

The rise of Slack can be attributed in part to the makeup of its client base: journalists and media companies are among its most visible users. They’re also some of the program’s biggest critics, having passed through the requisite phases of early adoption and breathless evangelism into a performative cynicism.

Of course, for every disaffiliate, there is a full-blown Slack convert, with the expected litany of advice listicles, tutorial videos, power user how-to books, and other shibboleths of the highly optimized online life. The company’s multibillion-dollar valuation has pushed it firmly into unicorn territory, meaning that its origin story is already cast into myth. Stewart Butterfield, company founder and CEO, has advanced to the vanguard of the influencer circuit, putting in face-time on C-SPAN and conference keynotes. There has been the requisite Wired cover story with an insufferably cheeky headline (“The Most Fascinating Profile You’ll Ever Read About a Guy and His Boring Startup”), which delivered—if you appreciate that all superlatives are relative.

Butterfield has claimed that Slack is ultimately a work reducer, that it increases “transparency” and shortens the workday. The company abides by the philosophy of “work hard, go home”—an odd choice for a cloud-based, cross-platform app that wants a piece of your every device. It is precisely tools like Slack that allow employees to work anywhere, whenever. Slack users may go home at 6 p.m., but their jobs follow them, pinging them from their smartphones.

“Do more of your work from Slack,” the company urged this summer while unveiling its new “message buttons,” which allow users to click, for example, “approve” or “deny” on an expense report. It could have offered the same sentiment by commanding, “Live more of your life through Slack.”

This total, dystopian immersion of life into work should send a chill coursing down to the ends of our carpel-tunnel-stricken fingertips. But of course, it gets worse: we are now monetizing the workers’ dystopia across several platforms at once. In November, Microsoft unveiled Teams, a Slack competitor that will soon come standard with Office 365, the company’s popular suite of business tools. Facebook recently launched a Slack competitor called Workplace, which has been hailed as “a new messaging app that embodies the dissolving distinction between personal and professional digital spaces.” Whoever thought that pitch would sound good must have known that the target users of Workplace already count themselves as addicts, conditioned for constant validation from their electronic supervisors and craving their next hits of dopamine. (After all, Facebook practically invented this kind of stimulus.)

Now that apps like these effectively distill the history and future not only of your job, but also of your personal life, who’d want to quit completely? Who could? It would be like leaving your memoir-in-progress on the bus—a simile that no longer makes sense, since your memoir manuscript, obviously, would be stored in the cloud. It would also mean giving up access to the digital equivalent of the office water-cooler—though, again, this simile is nowhere near immersive enough for an ever-shifting social/work platform that constantly calls out for your attention and participation. According to the company’s CEO, the average Slack user is “actively” using the app for two hours and twenty minutes per day, with the program often running in the background throughout the day (along with pushing alerts to smartphones). That means that what some take to be the workplace’s one pleasure—interacting with other humans—is heavily mediated through an optimize-everything app that never forgets.

by Jacob Silverman, The Baffler |  Read more:
Image: Dandy/John J. Cussler