Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5134 8556

+61-4-1349 7828

June 2007 # 3

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Back to Editorials 2007

All Along the Watchtower

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 two. 

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 … quick. 

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 behaviour. 

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.

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