Surveillance and the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Trucker

In 2011, Karen Levy, a doctoral candidate in Princeton’s sociology department, spent the summer as a research intern at Intel’s offices near Portland, Oregon. Her official remit was fuzzy and open-ended, but the company had at one point emphasized its resolve to find use cases for its chips in vehicles. Levy hadn’t thought much about vehicles per se, but her mixed academic background—she was also trained as a lawyer—predisposed her to reflect on situations that dramatized the peculiar relationship between formal codes (the realm of the law) and practical expediency (the realm of the ethnographer). The road, it occurred to her, was the site of our most common and thoroughgoing encounter with rules; it was also the scene of our most routine and matter-of-fact disregard for them. Take, as an example, jaywalking. It remains technically criminal in many places, but the enforcement of the prohibition is typically neither expected nor desired. Levy’s work is often about the wiggle room that makes social life possible. As she put it to me recently, “What do we really mean when we say a rule is a rule? When do we not mean it?”

While in Oregon, Levy happened to hear an NPR segment about new restrictions on the wiggle room afforded to long-haul truckers. Since the nineteen-thirties, truckers had been reasonably encumbered by restrictions on the number of hours they were allowed to work. These regulations relied upon self-reports manually inscribed in paper logbooks, which truckers were obligated to provide upon inspection. These logbooks, however, were easily falsified; at the end of the day, or at the end of a trip, the trucker retrofitted his journey to accommodate the law. This was an open secret: truckers called them coloring books, or even swindle sheets. Road safety, however, was a real issue. For decades, regulators had debated the introduction of electronic logs—tamper-proof devices, hardwired to trucks’ engines, that could digitally track the time truckers spent behind the wheel. Truckers were, to put it gently, resistant to the idea. Long-haul trucking is not a good job (it’s poorly paid, lonely, bad for your health, and dangerous), but at the very least it was compensated by access to mythological status: truckers, as captains of their own ships, enjoyed the freedom and romance of the open road. Trucking was a vocation for the stubborn. By 2012, a federal mandate was a fait accompli, and, even if the trappings of autonomy had always been more symbolic than material, the deployment of digital trackers was received as a status insult.

Later that week, Levy took public transit to Jubitz, a “nice, big truck stop” near the Washington border, to see what it felt like to strike up unsolicited conversations with truckers and get a lay of the land. Levy, whose prose and conversation is starry with exclamatory asides, told me, “I went up to people at the bar, and it was really fun! Truckers turned out to be really forthcoming—they have lots of stories nobody asks them to tell. These days, we talk about ‘essential workers’ all the time, but nobody likes them or thinks positively of them—despite the fact that, as they like to say, ‘if you bought it, we brought it.’ ” When she returned to Princeton that fall, she told her adviser, Paul DiMaggio, that she’d become enmeshed in the tribulations of truckers. DiMaggio is extremely well regarded as a sociologist—his landmark 1983 article “The Iron Cage Revisited,” on the bureaucratization of the professions, is one of the field’s all-time most cited papers—but, in a previous life, he had been an aspiring songwriter on the Nashville scene, and frequented honky-tonks in the nineteen-seventies. He not only supported the project but promptly set her up with a trucker playlist—including Dick Curless’s “A Tombstone Every Mile” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road.” (Many classics of the genre have an air of dark prophecy; among Levy’s favorites is Ronnie Milsap’s “Prisoner of the Highway.”)

Levy went on to visit truckers in eleven states: “The nice thing about truckers is you can find them anywhere, and if one place isn’t great you can go down the road to the next truck stop and see who’s there.” Levy grew up not far from Indianapolis, and at first she looked for men in Colts jerseys; as an invitation to expound on their expertise, she sometimes asked them how they’d get from, say, Portland to West Lafayette, Indiana, which they could invariably answer off the top of their heads. Her initial encounters did not go all that well. She told me, “I was an idiot. I literally didn’t understand what people were saying—what words were coming out of their mouths. There’s all of this lingo—‘reefer,’ ‘chicken coop,’ ‘reset your seventy.’ I went home and bought a CB slang dictionary on eBay, and learned that a ‘reefer’ is a refrigerated truck, a ‘chicken coop’ is an inspection station, and ‘resetting your seventy’ means restarting your weekly time clock with a thirty-four-hour break.” She continued, “My conversations were not that useful at first except that it was all interesting, and then, of course, you pick it up—subscribing to all these newsletters, reading the trade press, and now, more than eleven years later, I still read that stuff. I listen to ‘Road Dog Trucking,’ a satellite-radio channel that hosts call-in shows for trucking professionals.” In the past few months, those shows have invited her to appear as a guest.

Levy’s splendid new book, “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance,” is a rigorous and surprisingly entertaining ethnographic portrait of a profession in transition. Although truckers have always been technologically savvy subjects—they were early adopters of such new technologies as CB radio—they now had to grow accustomed to life as its object. When she began her field work, electronic logging devices—E.L.D.s—were a looming threat on the horizon. In 2017, they became a legal requirement, but their industrial applications have gone well beyond the basic federal mandate. Trucking companies realized that they could enhance these devices to do things such as track fuel efficiency in real time. In one sense, this was an old story: strict managerial oversight in the service of productive rationalization was a hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. In another, however, the extension of such scrutiny to the fundamentally antinomian culture of trucking was a relevant novelty. With the pandemic, remote workplace surveillance of the otherwise aloof has become an increasingly common intrusion. Truckers, as she said in an interview with the trucker show “Land Line Now,” were “the canaries in the coal mine.”

The process of picking up on a community’s linguistic practices inevitably entails coming to understand how that community regulates itself—the norms, customs, and other structures that make up a given social order. The sociologist Harvey Molotch has drawn a contrast between the “actual order” of practitioners and an “apparent order” legible to outsiders. The former tends to allow room for fluidity and discretion not officially recognized by the latter. Levy, who is now on the faculty of the information-science department at Cornell, likes to teach Alvin W. Gouldner’s “Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy,” a mid-century ethnography carried out at a gypsum mine. She told me, “Gouldner writes about ‘mock bureaucracy,’ this idea that there are all these rules in place that nobody really follows, or follows only in certain situations. There was a rule that you couldn’t smoke in the mines—which sounds fine to me now, but back then that was a big deal—but managers would enforce it only when the insurance inspectors were around.” This deviation from the apparent order wasn’t merely a resigned concession to ungovernability. She went on, “The lack of enforcement got them in good with the workers, and helped the management-worker relationship.”

The use of electronic logging devices in trucks, Levy argues, represents an example of how “we impose apparent order to the detriment of actual order.” From the perspective of apparent order, the problem of trucking safety—the job ranks eighth on the list of occupational fatality rates—is driver fatigue. Truckers are tired because they drive too many hours. They drive too many hours because they were not only permitted but effectively encouraged to falsify their logbooks. If the problem is compliance, the solution is to take accountability out of the discretionary sphere of human activity and rely instead on mechanism. You use technology to force truckers to tell the truth.

Levy takes pains to point out that there was nothing great about the historical “actual order” of long-haul trucking—it’s inequitable, unjust, exploitative, and unsafe. As one trucker told her, “There are a lot of men out there who—there wouldn’t be food on the table, frankly, and the lights wouldn’t be on at home if they weren’t breaking the law and if they weren’t using drugs. And it’s not about having a party, because it’s not a fucking party. It’s very much not a fucking party.” But the older regime did represent, for better or for worse, a stable if makeshift equilibrium: truckers retained their sense of rough-and-ready dignity in command. They decided how best to get from point A to point B; they relied on expert interoception to know when they were fatigued, and stopped when they felt they needed to stop; and they evaluated the weather and determined the proper maneuvers. This is no longer the case. Levy quotes one exchange between a trucker and his dispatcher, conducted over the two-way messaging service often installed along with the E.L.D., to capture the sense of constant oversight:

12:57 pm Firm: Are you headed to delivery?

1:02 pm Firm: Please call.

2:33 pm Firm: What is your ETA to delivery?

2:34 pm Firm: Need you to start rolling.

2:35 pm Firm: Why have you not called me back?

3:25 pm Driver: I can’t talk and sleep at the same time.

3:37 pm Firm: Why aren’t you rolling? You have hours and are going
to service fail this load.

3:44 pm Firm: You have hours now and the ability to roll—that is a
failure when you are sitting and refusing to roll to the customer.

3:51 pm Firm: Please go in and deliver. We need to service our
customers. Please start rolling. They will receive you up to 11:30.
Please do not be late.

4:14 pm Driver: Bad storm. Can’t roll now.

4:34 pm Firm: Weather Channel is showing small rain shower in your
, 1-2 inches of rain and 10 mph winds ???

The obvious objection is that these dignitary concerns, important as they are, seem irrelevant when weighed against the reality of highway fatalities; we might, as a society, consider this a reasonable trade-off, even if the truckers themselves bristle at the oversight. But, as so often happens, the attempt to impose an “apparent order” from above has seemingly backfired: the data from the first few years under the E.L.D. mandate have shown that the devices may lead to an increase in trucking accidents. The bulk of Levy’s book is devoted to explaining why the curtailment of personal judgment has had such poor results. For one thing, she says, imagine that your grandmother expects a visit to discuss your inheritance, and she knows it’s going to take you eleven hours to get to her home. Most of us would understand that to mean “about eleven hours,” and if taking a break for a coffee (or a 5-Hour Energy, or even one of the more advanced stimulants apparently on offer under the counter at some truck stops), or slowing down over a snowy pass, meant a half hour of delay, presumably Grandma wouldn’t mind. But if Grandma said that you had exactly eleven hours or she’d write you out of the will, Levy says, you’d drive “like a bat out of hell” to get there.

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