Telematics: The science and technology of sending, receiving, and processing information via telecommunications.
Telematics is not a new word: it was borrowed from the French télématique, which was coined in 1978 by the authors of a report on “the computerization of society.” (That report was largely responsible for the national launch in 1982 of Minitel, France’s pioneering network of computers that at its apex was installed in 9 million homes. Supplanted by the Internet, Minitel was finally shut down in 2012.) The OED’s earliest citation for telematics in English is from an October 1979 article in The Economist, where telematics was called “the new vogue word for the high-growth industries of telecommunications, computers, microchips and databanks.”
In recent years, telematics has taken on a specific new meaning. That new definition is the subject of “The Spy Who Fired Me,” a report by Esther Kaplan in the March 2015 Harper’s. (The article is behind a subscriber paywall.)
Kaplan writes that she became interested in “the data-driven workforce” when she began noticing that UPS deliveries “never arrived” at the Brooklyn apartment she’d recently moved to. Instead, she’d get attempted-delivery notes—even when she was at home. “Then,” she writes, “I learned about UPS’s use of something called telematics”:
Telematics is a neologism coined from two other neologisms — telecommunications and informatics — to describe technologies that wirelessly transmit data from remote sensors and GPS devices to computers for analysis. The telematics system that now governs the working life of a driver for UPS includes handheld DIADs, or delivery-information acquisition devices, as well as more than 200 sensors on each delivery truck that track everything from backup speeds to stop times to seat-belt use.
One New York City UPS driver Kaplan interviewed makes 110 stops and delivers 400 packages in a typical shift, which can last more than 12 hours. The Teamsters (“North America’s strongest union”), which represents UPS employees, won contract language preventing drivers from being fired based on their telematics reports, but, Kaplan writes, “supervisors have found workarounds, and telematics-related firings have become routine.”
UPS is far from an outlier: McDonald’s, Stop & Shop, Gap, Starbucks, and Uniqlo are among the many companies that are governing their employees’ lives by the rule of telematics, and Kaplan writes that telematics “is expected to become a $30 billion industry by 2013.” Typically, at a telematics-driven restaurant, “[a] point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system connected to the cash register captures the length of time between the end of the last customer’s transaction and the beginning of yours, how quickly the cashier rings up your order, and whether she has sold you on the new Jalapeño Double. … This data is being tracked at the employee level: some chains even post scan rates like scorecards in the break room; others have a cap on how many mistakes an employee can make before he or she is put on probation.”
One result of this relentless tracking is “to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed.” At one chain, Abercrombie & Fitch, “employees started receiving entire schedules composed of on-call shifts that never materialized. … Employees were slowly being turned into day laborers. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that the number of retail employees involuntarily working part-time more than doubled between 2006 and 2010, from 644,000 to 1.6 million.”
Telematics appears in 34 live marks in the U.S. trademark database, all of which were registered in the last decade. Many, such as Octo Telematics and Mix Telematics, are for vehicle tracking (or “providing information about driver behavior to third parties”) devices and services; at least one, Kore Telematics, sells a full range of monitoring systems “for use in vehicle location and tracking, point of sale and vending, asset tracking, personal security, healthcare, energy management, environmental services, and industrial monitoring.” And phone companies are getting in on the action, too: Verizon’s Networkfleet division sells “fleet management solutions” that drive “more efficient ways of working.”