Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is Big Brother coming to your job?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
April 28, 2013 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
Bob Greene says software developed to allow professors to monitor students' work could be a boon for bosses.
Bob Greene says software developed to allow professors to monitor students' work could be a boon for bosses.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: We all hate a meddling boss closely watching you work over your shoulder
  • CourseSmart provides electronic books and monitors students' work for professors
  • Before you know it, he says, U.S. businesses will adapt software to the workplace
  • Greene: Then, bosses can look over their employees' shoulders 24/7

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- How much do you hate it when some meddling boss is leaning way-too-close over your shoulder, micro-checking and second-guessing every bit of work you do?

Well, if you think you hate it now, get ready.

Because, as annoying as it can seem today, every indication is that, as far as the stress of bosses hovering over your shoulder goes, these may soon be regarded as the good old days.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

The first signs of what is coming can be seen at nine U.S. colleges this spring. At those schools, a pilot program designed by CourseSmart, a Silicon Valley company that distributes electronic textbooks, is under way.

The shift from print to digital, as we all know, is picking up velocity everywhere, including at colleges and universities. Soon enough, just about all textbooks will be digital.

Which is where CourseSmart comes in. Not only does the company provide the electronic books -- it is offering professors and administrators the opportunity to do something previously impossible with books printed on paper.

CourseSmart keeps track of, and provides to professors, real-time data about how each student is using his or her digital textbooks, "including page views, time spent in a textbook, notes taken, highlights made, bookmarks used, and whether or not the student even opened the book," according to Alexandra Tilsley of the online publication Inside Higher Ed.

CourseSmart says that this is all designed for the ultimate good of the students, because its software allows faculty to "identify 'at risk' students based on engagement with assigned course materials" -- meaning: We know if you really studied the book last night.

Tracy Hurley, dean of the school of business at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, told reporter David Streitfeld of The New York Times: "It's Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent."

This is the tool that corporations everywhere have been waiting for: a way to stand over the shoulder of every employee...
Bob Greene

Maybe the intent is, indeed, worthy, as far as college classes are concerned.

But you just know that, as soon as CourseSmart perfects the software and launches it into widespread use, American business and industry are going to glom onto it and adapt it to the workplace.

This is the tool that corporations everywhere have been waiting for: a way to stand over the shoulder of every employee, 24 hours a day, and keep track of exactly how much time he or she is really spending on his or her work.

The technology would allow bosses to oh-so-casually tell their subordinates: "If you're not too busy, why don't you go over this report again tonight?"

And then, the next morning, say:

"Did you get a chance to work on that report?"

"Yes, sir, I went over it at home on my iPad, and it looked fine to me."

"Funny thing, Smithers -- our software indicates that the last time you even looked at the report was two days ago."

Oh, the possibilities are endless. It's Big Brother, all right, corporate edition. Employees will be judged not just by the quality or creativity or ingenuity or precision of their finished work, but will be electronically stared at -- smothered with second-by-second scrutiny -- as they do the work, wherever they are.

Already we have willingly given up the distinction between office time and home time; e-mails and cellphones and text messages have erased that line. Employees are always on call.

And like it or not, Americans have become accustomed to being constantly observed. Those key cards that corporations issue allow them to find out exactly when their employees were and weren't in the building; the security cameras that dot America's streets and malls and factories have so quickly become ubiquitous that the startling thing is not when something is "caught on video" -- but when something somehow isn't.

This, though -- the CourseSmart experiment at those nine colleges, and what it could lead to in the business world -- is the beginning of the next phase.

"You all set for the presentation tomorrow, Johnson?"

"I am -- I've been going over the numbers at home all weekend."

"Have you, Johnson? Because that's not what our software program shows."

Of course, the employees of the future, the working stiffs, could always object to this -- could demand to be judged on their finished work alone, could insist not to be electronically spied on, could tell their bosses that when they leave the office for the day or for the weekend they're off the clock and off duty, and thus will not be available to be tracked remotely via their tablets and smartphones and laptops.

They could take a bold and principled stand and say that.

It would make for an amusing anecdote to tell the person in front of them in the unemployment line the next week.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT