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Does Kinder Capitalism Mean Spying on Employees?

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Being the wealthiest man in the world means that people hang on your every word and scrutinize every action very closely. That’s the price Bill Gates has had to pay for his fame. But could Gates’ company, Microsoft, be in the process of trying to subject every employee who uses a computer to the same level of scrutiny? While Bill is making speeches calling for a “kinder capitalism,” a Microsoft patent application which recently came to light calls for corporate practices that are anything but kind.

At this point, if you’ve ever used a computer, or watched TV for that matter, you probably know who Bill Gates is. While some have decried his single-minded pursuit of world domination through the market penetration of Microsoft products, many have decided he’s a pretty decent guy after all, based upon the philanthropic practices of Gates and his wife Melinda through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Active in the areas of health care and research, education and the use of technology to empower communities, Bill and Melinda Gates were recognized for their philanthropic work in 2005, when along with the rock star Bono, they were named Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year. In 2006, their friend Warren Buffett, then the second richest man in the world, gave a significant portion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation under the condition that they give it away, rather than simply adding the foundation’s endowment.

So it’s not surprising that when Bill Gates talks — about anything — people listen. But interest is especially keen regarding his views on capitalism, considering that by at least one measure (total accumulated wealth), Gates is the most successful capitalist ever. This week in Davos, Switzerland, Gates addressed the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting to bring together global leaders to talk about the most pressing economic issues confronting the world economy.

At this year’s address, Gates called for a “creative capitalism” that uses market forces to address poor-country needs that he feels are being ignored. He says, “We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well.” (See Wall Street Journal article.) That certainly sounds good, and fits right in with the social entrepreneurship movement, which is becoming increasingly popular as those dissatisfied with the often harsh outcomes imposed by profit motives look for a different way to make the world a better place and mitigate capitalism’s worst inequities and excesses.

What, then, should we make of one of Microsoft’s latest ideas in development? The company recently filed a patent application for

a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism. The system would allow managers to monitor employees’ performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure.

(See Times Online article.)

Having a bad day at work? Frustrated with a co-worker or your boss? Drank a bit too much last night? Had a big fight with your partner? Think you might be getting sick? Instead of professionally soldiering on at your desk and attempting to be as productive as possible under adverse conditions, instead you’ll have to contend with your computer knowing you’re not up to snuff. Invoking the spectre of Big Brother is pretty much a cliché at this point, but what else can you say about this technology?

If your employer implemented this system, Big Brother would definitely be watching you — and that’s not a use of technology from which Gates and his Microsoft minions should be attempting to profit.

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