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Newsletter Section 6

From the Net

Big Brother in the Bathroom?

(Steve Talbott)

If the battery-powered badge your waiter is wearing suddenly starts flashing as s/he serves you dinner, you'd better pull out your portable germ blaster. The uncouth person did not wash their hands after using the bathroom.

An electronic system called Hygiene Guard (produced by Net/Tech International in New Jersey) is now being installed in restaurants, hospitals, and other facilities where personal hygiene is a matter of public concern. A “smart badge! worn by untrustworthy employees communicates with sensors in the bathroom that are connected to a computer in a manager's office .... Unless an employee uses the soap dispenser and stands for a required amount of time in front of a sink with running water, an infraction will be recorded on the computer. In some instance the employee's badge will flash. (Albany Times Union, 31 August 1997)

Civil libertarians, worried about increasing electronic intrusion in the workplace, cite Big Brother. I won't quarrel with them – nor will I quarrel with those who point out that personal hygiene in these situations is a matter that transcends the isolated individual and his precious rights, with grave implications for other people. No, what impresses me – apart from the clownishness of the situation – is the impossibility of solution along primarily technical lines.

According to the Times Union report, a recent study shows that “only two-thirds of all people wash their hands after using the bathroom, even though more than nine of the ten report in interviews that they do so.” Clearly, then, the problem includes issues of honesty and social responsibility.

Does anyone really believe that coercive measures will meaningfully improve the situation? Will the reduced risk from newly obedient employees count more in the final equation than the radically increased risk from the inevitable few who respond to the system in a spirit of rebellion? Personally, for my own safety, I'll make it a point never to dine in a facility where I know Hygiene Guard is installed.

You will recognize in this an echo of my earlier remarks about technologically protected privacy (NF #28): The increasing technical mediation of our social checks and balances weakens the social bonds that are the only real guarantee of the values we are trying to protect. To the degree we employ technology, we must redouble our commitment to the strength of the underlying social matrix.

I don't understand how it could possibly occur to a manager that a several-thousand-dollar piece of equipment (and don't forget the maintenance, the support, the training ... ) could prove more effective than actually confronting the problem in a straightforward, mutually empowering way within his group. The choice of a high-tech solution doesn't say much for how the human side of these organizations is being managed.

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