Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is Big Brother coming to your job?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Sun April 28, 2013
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
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT