⚡️ Data Driven ft. Karen Levy
THURSDAY: Truckers, technology, and the new workplace surveillance
Our guest for this Thursday, December 8 is Karen Levy, an associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, where she researches legal, organizational, social, and ethical aspects of data-intensive technologies.
Her book Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance paints a rich picture of what it’s like to be a long-haul trucker today—and in particular, how digital surveillance has encroached into the profession.
RSVP at this link, or keep reading for our review of the book.
📖 data driven by karen levy
by // edited by
For as long as I can remember, my father’s van has been a sort of mobile warehouse for stacks upon stacks of carpet, hardwood, and vinyl samples. He has worked in the flooring industry for decades, doggedly shuttling this cargo to clients across the borders of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. He’d often return late in the evenings, and on nights when I could hear the sound of torrential rain and thunder, I would worry about whether it was safe for him to be out there on the roads. Once, he came back with a tale of being within a few yards of a truck that spun out of control on the highway, expecting me to share in his amazement of his good fortune that he wasn’t involved. Instead, I Googled the number of annual fatal vehicular accidents in the United States and grew even more anxious.
While my father was certainly not a trucker, I was struck by how Karen Levy’s descriptions of the trucking lifestyle in Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance resonated with my own perception of my dad’s livelihood. Data Driven examines the legal, social, and cultural dimensions of Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs), monitoring machines designed to increase compliance with hours-of-service regulations that limit how long truckers can work before taking a federally mandated break. In 2018, legislation was passed that required truckers to switch from manual recordkeeping to using ELDs, believed to be less easily falsified than the old paper-and-pencil logs. My father’s story about the truck he saw on the highway rings true with a key element of Levy’s account: trucking is a notoriously dangerous profession. Accidents are commonly attributed to trucker fatigue, and the introduction of the ELD mandate was based on a seemingly straightforward rationale: if monitoring for compliance with legal requirements to rest was perfected via technology, then drivers would effectively be forced to rest, and accidents would subsequently decrease. In high school, partly motivated by concerns about my father’s long workdays on the road, I prototyped an ELD-like device of my own: a motion sensor that tracked a driver’s face to automatically detect when the driver was looking away from the road.
A trained sociologist, Levy examines ELDs from legal, economic, and cultural perspectives to better understand the forces that led to the implementation of the mandate and its resulting impacts on the trucking industry’s main stakeholders. Levy’s account of the ELD rejects the simplistic narrative that this technological intervention will make roads safer for truckers and the public. Instead, she argues that ELDs solve the wrong problem: the reason why truckers do not comply with hours-of-service regulations is because they are economically pressured to do so. After the deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1970s, trucking companies switched to a per-mile, rather than per-hour, compensation system, which means that time that truckers spend on repairs, loading and unloading, and inspections are uncompensated. As Levy’s research shows, it is basically impossible for drivers to earn enough money or meet their company’s deadlines unless they violate the timekeeping rules. Furthermore, the most likely cause of driver fatigue are the long hours spent waiting to load and unload, which are demonstrably linked to increased crash rates. Based on the plethora of evidence Levy provides in Data Driven, reducing detention time would be a far more logical solution to fix driver fatigue.
Levy argues that interventions like ELDs are part of a larger trend of digital enforcement, in which technology is used to enforce organizational and legal rules with absolute precision. These types of interventions abstract away actual social realities in favor of adhering to simplified apparent orders. Without understanding the social conditions and aftermaths of digital enforcement, we cannot understand why technological fixes fail or, at the very least, introduce new forms of harm into the systems they are intended to improve. For example, truckers resent the ELD mandate, seeing the machines as an encroachment on their autonomy, particularly because the collection of data for regulatory compliance also enables new modes of managerial control. Because trucks are equipped with ELDs, which monitor the exact location of each vehicle in a firm’s fleet, remote operators are able to more clearly see exactly whether truckers are moving and remonstrate them if they are not deemed to be engaging in productive behavior. ELDs shift the balance of epistemic power away from the “localized, biophysical” knowledge of truckers, such as intuitively knowing when they are too tired to drive, towards the abstract, quantified, and ostensibly neutral gaze of the ELD.
One of the most fascinating revelations in Data Driven is that ELDs appear to be a failure even in the terms of the rationale upon which their existence rests: improving the safety of the industry and the public. Levy discusses the results of a study that examined the ELD rollout which found that while compliance with regulations did increase, there was no evidence to suggest that any of the safety outcomes we actually care about improved. Perversely, while researchers found the greatest decrease in timekeeping violations among small trucking firms, those same firms found that truck crashes increased for that very category of firms. Further, Levy writes, “the number of fatalities in large-truck crashes hit a thirty-year high in the first year of the mandate’s enforcement, even as general vehicle fatalities decreased.” The reason, Levy suggests, is that the more absolute enforcement of timekeeping rules means that the latitude truckers previously had to take a little extra time for a given trip has disappeared. Instead of being free to exercise individual discretion to take breaks or go more slowly through a particularly challenging part of the drive, truckers must now complete the same distance in a fixed, digitally-enforced amount of time.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the kinds of problems introduced by ELDs. While there has been worker resistance and adaptation to the ELD mandate, Levy cautions us against a tendency to believe that resistance is always inherently anti-authoritarian: when workers “resist” the ELD by finding clever ways to drive longer than they are legally permitted to, this resistance benefits the very corporations who have created the financial arrangements which exploit truckers.
In a popular Medium post, STS professor (and former Reboot guest!) Lee Vinsel describes the phenomenon of what he terms “criti-hype”, the tendency of academic researchers to inflate concerns about emerging technologies into doomsday scenarios involving massive societal shifts. These types of overblown critiques form their own hype bubbles, inverting the naively optimistic tech boosterism so often found in Silicon Valley. And just as starry-eyed praise ultimately leads to greater investment in startup ecosystems, so too can criti-hype secure funding, prestige, and attention to its academic practitioners. The antidote to this, Vinsel suggests, is a deep understanding of the history, sociology, and economics of technology, paired with study of technologies that have actually emerged, creating real problems and agonies. In this vein, I see Data Driven as an exemplar of nuanced, careful, and comprehensive description and analysis about the real frustrations resulting from technology’s encroachment into everyday life.
Worries about tectonic ruptures in the fabric of society that automation will ostensibly produce in some future date displace our attention away from how real workers, such as long-haul truckers, encounter friction when interacting with new forms of technology right now. It is perhaps more exciting to devote one’s energy to preventing an imaginary robot apocalypse than, say, fight for a world in which truckers can retain the everyday dignity of freely taking a bathroom break or driving unmolested by the intrusive gaze of a monitoring device. I wonder if the ability to take these latter, more localized concerns seriously is not subordinate to, but rather a prerequisite for, adequately reckoning with the kinds of challenges autonomous technologies will likely produce.
Matthew Sun (he/him) is a tech worker, writer, and Reboot community member based in northern Virginia. He enjoys reading, practicing Cantonese, and making new friends in the DC area. Check out his Twitter, Goodreads, and first essay for Reboot.
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I enjoyed this recent Odd Lots episode with truck driver Gord Magill, where Gord shares his perspective on the inefficiencies and labor shortages in trucking. One line particularly stood out: “They’ve overregulated the people doing the work rather than the people in charge of the markets where the work is being done.” (Gord also writes the provocative Substack.)
I sent ChatGPT this book review and asked for more reading recommendations. Here’s what it shared:
The always hilarious and always cutting Brandon Taylor writes about Spotify Wrapped, BuJo influencers, and secular meaning-making in his latest post on.
💝 closing note
I want to keep using this space to highlight cool things the community has created recently. Last week:
- wrote about reinterpretations of the IRCA, which allows state entities (like the UC System!) to hire undocumented folks who don’t have work authorization.
We published a “Meet the Team” feature on Lucas Gelfond, who codirects the Reboot Student Fellowship and has written pieces for the newsletter and Kernel.
Feel free to plug your own work in the comments, and we’ll pick a few things to highlight.
Keep trucking on,
Jasmine & Reboot team