In this week�s issue of

by francine Hardaway on April 14, 2004

In this week�s issue of Business Week, the futurist Faith Popcorn predicts that the office of the future will connect employees to sensors that will monitor even their bodily functions. Employers will be able to do this in the guise of collecting information about each person�s productivity. There has been a big flap lately about the problems of �presenteeism�: — the condition in which burned out, depressed, sick, or worried employees don�t stay home from the job, but don�t get anything accomplished in the office either. They may be distracted by personal problems, lacking in sleep, or just not there mentally. In a factory, they would be a Workmen�s Comp case waiting to happen. In the knowledge economy, they�re more difficult to spot.

Employers trying to keep costs down to be competitive are tired of paying for non-performance, especially with rising health care costs. The first changes will be ergonomic: perhaps your office will remember where you sit and adjust the chair or the light accordingly. Then, your chair will have a built-in sensor that will measure your level of fatigue or inattention. Within the next five years, if your cholesterol becomes too high, you may well be issued prescription menus in the employee cafeteria, along with the usual advice about diet and exercise. And don�t think you will be safe if you work from home; those same productivity sensors will be issued to you like a laptop and a broadband Internet connection.

Indeed, the distinction between home and office will blur in the future; the home will be the office, and the office will be your home during a 24-hour productivity cycle. It�s a future in which everyone is wired to everyone else, and everyone is monitored somehow.

And it�s a future that isn�t really in the future. In today�s New York Times, there�s an article about how our soldiers in Iraq come equipped with their own popular culture technologies, changing the way the military has to communicate with them. Not only do they have body armor and GPRS, they have some tools that came with them from home.

Soldiers have bootlegged movies, MP3 files, CDs and laptops connected wirelessly to the Internet via satellite. They were able to watch the Academy Awards in real time from Tikrit. At the end of the day, according to the article, they tune in to the same American life they left behind � sending email to their families and downloading media files.

This is a major change from when a soldier got his entertainment from Bob Hope�s appearances at the USO, or even from when you had to leave the Viet Nam jungle for a tour of R&R to call your folks.

One ought not to overlook the changes these technologies have wrought in our global situation. Only a decade ago, the Chinese government, and before it the Soviet Union, could control the flow of information to its citizens. Now, that�s virtually impossible.

Along with the free flow of information comes the end of privacy. At the same time we are spending millions to update medical practices on the new HIPAA regulations we are also implanting sensors in patients that directly communicate with the doctor�s office, or with a call center. Unfortunately, we can�t have privacy and freely flowing information at the same time, and as the early Internet users boasted �information wants to be free.�

According to Popcorn, privacy will soon have vanished entirely. And people won�t even care: �privacy is an issue of the past — there is no privacy. Already, when you order a book on (AMZN ), you give up some of your privacy: Based on your choices, they provide you with other books that you might like to read. They follow your reading pattern. On eBay (EBAY ), they compile lists of what you collect. So I think that privacy is a nice idea, but many people see it as something they’ve already lost.

Plus, I think people will get over such concerns when they see the tremendous convenience such technologies and services can offer.�

I gave up worrying about privacy long ago, about the time my first toddling child wandered into the potty with me and later began banging on the shower door. I�ll be ready when the future comes.

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