When Your Boss Is Tracking Your Brain
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When Your Boss Is Tracking Your Brain

Bioethicist Nita Farahany says privacy law hasn’t kept up with science as employers increasingly use neurotechnology in the workplace

By AMY DOCKSER MARCUS
Thu, Feb 16, 2023 8:33amGrey Clock 4 min

Employers can track workers’ emails, computer keystrokes and calls. What happens when they routinely start tracking employees’ brains?

Nita Farahany, 46, has been studying the possibility for years. A professor of law and philosophy at Duke University School of Law, Dr. Farahany has long been intrigued by potential legal challenges posed by devices in the workplace that measure electrical activity in the brain.

Over the years, these electroencephalogram, or EEG, devices, along with the software and algorithms that power them, have gotten better at tracking brain-wave signals and decoding people’s emotions and cognitive skills. Some employers use the devices to monitor employees’ fatigue and offer brain-wave tracking as part of wellness programs designed to decrease stress and anxiety, Dr. Farahany says.

But the law hasn’t kept up with the science, she says. “There is no existing set of legal rights that protect us from employers scanning the brain or hacking the brain.”

Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University School of Law, argues the workplace will be a crucial arena in the fight for the future of mental privacy. PHOTO: ANGELA OWENS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Dr. Farahany’s interest in the issue stems in part from her childhood. Her parents both came to the U.S. from Iran, her father moving in 1969 for a medical residency and her mother arriving a year later. They had planned to return to Iran in 1979 but decided against it because of the political unrest. After the Shah of Iran’s ouster, her mother’s brother, who had served in the military, was arrested. Dr. Farahany’s family often discussed politics, including the way surveillance technology can be misused by governments.

In her book coming out in March, “The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology,” Dr. Farahany argues the workplace will be a crucial arena in the fight for the future of mental privacy. She spoke with The Wall Street Journal about how employers are increasingly gathering workers’ brain data and the need for limits on how the information is used.

How are employers already tracking our brains?

The first example that I came across was a few years ago. Train drivers in China on the Beijing-Shanghai [high-speed rail] line are required to wear caps that have electrodes embedded in order to track their brain activity to see if they are focused or fatigued. There are even reports of tracking of the emotion levels of factory workers. The workers can be sent home if emotional levels signal they could be disruptive on the factory floor. I thought, I’m glad that isn’t happening in the U.S. But it turns out that it is happening in the U.S. Some companies have started to look into technology that could allow them to track fatigue levels and also attention and focus.

There are some beneficial uses. Brain-wave activity monitors can be used by employees. As your mind starts to wander, it can give you an alert and tell you, “Hey, it is time for a brain break.”

Companies are also using it to track wellness and health. Wellness programs don’t fall under the same kinds of protections that employees have from misuse of health data. The data could track everything from a person’s cognitive decline over time to a lot of other brain metrics, through brain-training games and headsets that measure brain-wave activity.

Can you see employers gathering the data through wellness programs and then sharing a report every quarter?

They could. They could evaluate it. They could use it for managerial purposes. They can make decisions about who is going to be very expensive to continue to employ over time, whose brain is slowing and less likely to be as effective over time. There really is no check on how they use that data right now.

In many instances, we voluntarily give up this information. And in other instances, we don’t have a choice, it is part of the process of applying for a job. What troubles you?

People may not recognise how much information you can decode already from a person’s brain. There are a lot of things that can be learned about the individual, like whether they suffer from cognitive decline or whether they have early stages of glioblastoma, a brain tumour—even their cognitive preferences.

I do worry people are unwittingly giving up [information] without realising the full implications. That is true for privacy in general, but we ought to have a special place we think about when it comes to the brain. It is the last space where we truly have privacy.

If employers collect brain data over time, could they go back and reanalyzs the raw data?

Technologists in the field a decade ago would have told people, “What are you worried about collecting neural data, there is so little we will ever be able to decode from surface-based electrodes rather than ones that are implanted in the brain.” They don’t say that anymore.

They recognise that we can already do so much more than we ever expected. As the algorithms get better and the more data we amass, the more precise the models become.

Given that most of this data is being uploaded to cloud servers and kept there indefinitely, you can have very significant longitudinal data. I hired this person when they were 23 and they are 43 now, how effective is their brain at this point? Have they served their good useful lifetime of service to us?

One of the things in your book is the idea that the brain waves reveal biases that we are not conscious of and can present us in our worst possible light. How does that work exactly?

Yes, potentially. The question is how effectively are they going to be able to do that in real time today. Can they set you up with a headset and probe your brain and figure out how you are reacting? Probably not. In the future can they do it? I think so.

Are there ways people can protect themselves?

We can and should require employers to do better. To say, here’s a transparent way that we’re planning on implementing [best practices] in the workplace. We’re giving the data to you to use. We’re not storing it.

There is a real risk that people won’t have choices. You can’t choose to interview with the only company that doesn’t use brain-based metrics if everybody decides to use them. So I think it’s a combination of people looking out for themselves but also putting into place appropriate default rules at the government level and trying to encourage corporate responsibility.

Interview has been condensed and edited.



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Retro Kitchens Are Everywhere—and the Ultimate Rejection of the Sterile Luxury Trend

Playful 1950s style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances

By TRACY KALER
Mon, Apr 22, 2024 6 min

The 1950s spawned society’s view of kitchens as the heart of the home, a hub for gathering, cooking, eating and socializing. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the same decade could inspire today’s luxury kitchens.

“The deliberate playfulness and genius of the era’s designers have enabled the mid-century style to remain a classic design and one that still sparks joy,” said James Yarosh, an interior designer and gallerist in New Jersey.

That playful style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances—all of which are a conspicuous rejection of the sterile, monochrome kitchens that have defined luxury home design for years. One of the hottest brands to incorporate into retro-style kitchens, SMEG is turning up more these days. But the question is: How do you infuse a colourful refrigerator and other elements from this nostalgic era without creating a kitschy room?

“The key to a modern, fresh look in your kitchen is to reference, not imitate, signature looks of the 1950s,” said New York-based designer Andrew Suvalsky, who often laces retro style throughout the rooms he designs. He said using the period as inspiration will steer you away from imagining a garish space.

“When it comes to incorporating that retro-esque look, it’s a fine dance between looking beautiful and looking kitschy,” added Lisa Gilmore, a designer in Tampa, Florida. Gilmore suggested balancing contemporary pieces with vintage touches. That balance forges a functional yet attractive design that’s easy to live with while evoking a homey atmosphere––and ultimately, a room everyone wants to be in.

Colour Reigns Supreme

Suvalsky said one way to avoid a kitschy appearance is to mingle woods and colours, such as lacquered base cabinets and walnut wall cabinets, as he did in his Montclair, New Jersey, kitchen.

“Mixing colours into your kitchen is most effective when it’s done by colour-blocking––using a single colour across large areas of a space––in this case, zones of cabinetry,” he explained. He tends to lean toward “Easter egg colours,” such as baby chick yellow and pale tangerine. These soft pastels can suggest a starting point for the design while lending that retro vibe. But other hues can spark a vintage feel as well.

A mid-century-inspired kitchen by Blythe Interiors.
Natalia Robert

“Shades of green and blue are a timeless base foundation that work for a 1950s vintage look,” said designer Jennifer Verruto of Blythe Interiors in San Diego. But wood isn’t off the table for her, either. “To embrace the character of a mid-century home, we like a Kodiak stain to enhance the gorgeous walnut grain,” she said. “This mid-tone wood is perfect for contrasting other lighter finishes in the kitchen for a Mid-Century Modern feel.”

Since colour is subjective, a kitchen lined with white cabinetry can assume a retro aesthetic through accoutrements and other materials, emanating that ’50s vibe.

“The fun of retro designs is that you can embrace colour and create something that feels individual to the house and its homeowner, reflecting their tastes and personality,” Yaosh said. He recommended wallpaper as an option to transform a kitchen but suggested marrying the pattern with the bones of the house. “Wallpaper can create a mid-century or retro look with colours and hand-blocked craftsmanship,” he said. “Mauny wallpapers at Zuber are a particular favourite of mine.”

Suvalsky suggested Scalamandre wallpapers, for their 1950s patterns, and grass cloth, a textile that was often used during that decade. He also likes House of Hackney, a brand that “does a great job reinventing vintage prints in luscious colours,” he noted. “Many of their colourways invert the typical relationship between light and dark, with botanical prints in dark jewel tones set over light, more playful colours.”

Materials Matter

Beyond wall covering, flooring, countertops and backsplashes can all contribute to the 1950s theme. Manufactured laminate countertops, specifically Formica, were all the rage during the decade. But today’s high-end kitchens call for more luxurious materials and finishes.

“That’s a situation where going the quartz route is appropriate,” Gilmore said. “There are quartzes that are a through-body colour and simple if someone is doing colorued cabinetry. A simplified white without veining will go a long way.” She also recommended Pompei quartz Sunny Pearl, which has a speckled appearance.

A kitchen designed by James Yarosh that incorporates pops of yellow.
Patricia Burke

But for those who welcome vibrant colour schemes, countertops can make a bold statement in a vintage kitchen. Gilmore said solid surface materials from the era were often a colour, and quartz can replicate the look.

“Some brands have coloured quartz, like red,” she said. But keeping countertops neutral allows you to get creative with the backsplash. “I‘d pull in a terrazzo backsplash or a bold colour like a subway tile in a beautiful shade of green or blush,” Gilmore said. “Make the backsplash a piece of art.”

Suvalsky also leans toward bright and daring––such as checkerboards––for the backsplash. But depending on the kitchen’s design, he’ll go quieter with a double white herringbone [tile] pattern. “Either version works, but it must complement other choices, bold or simple, in the design,” he explained.

Neutral countertops with a bold backsplash, designed by Lisa Gilmore.
Native House Photography

Likewise, his flooring choice almost always draws attention. “My tendency is more toward very bold, such as a heavily veined marble or a pattern with highly contrasting tones,” he noted. Yarosh suggested slate and terrazzo as flooring, as these materials can make an excellent backdrop for layering.

Forge a Statement With Vintage Appliances 

As consequential as a kitchen’s foundation is, so are the appliances and accoutrements. While stainless steel complements contemporary kitchens, homeowners can push the design envelope with companies like SMEG when making appliance selections for a retro-style kitchen. Although Suvalsky has yet to specify a SMEG fridge, he is looking forward to the project when he can.

“I think they work best when the selected colour is referenced in other parts of the kitchen, which helps to integrate these otherwise ‘look at me’ pieces into the broader design,” he noted. “They are like sculptures unto themselves.”

“For our mid-century-inspired projects, we’ve opted for Big Chill and the GE Cafe Series to bring a vintage look,” Verruto added. Similar to SMEG, Big Chill and GE offer a vintage vibe in a wide selection of colours and finishes, alongside 21st-century performance.

Can’t commit to a full-size appliance? Sometimes, a splash is enough. Gilmore tends to dust her retro kitchens with a coloured kettle or toaster since her clients are likelier to add a tinge with a countertop appliance or two. “Mint green accessories make it pop, and if in five years they are over it, it’s not a commitment,” she said. “It’s a great way to infuse fun and colour without taking a major risk.”

Deck out the Breakfast Nook

Kitchen dining areas present the opportunity to introduce retro lighting, furniture, and accessories to complete the look. Flea markets and antique markets are excellent places to hunt for accompaniments.

“Dome pendants and Sputnik chandeliers are iconic styles that will infuse vintage charm into your kitchen while also easily complementing a variety of other styles,” Verruto said.

A retro breakfast nook desinged by Andrew Suvalsky.
DLux Editions

Suspend a vintage light fixture over the classic Saarinen table, and you can’t go wrong.

“Saarinen Tulip Tables are almost always guaranteed to deliver a home run in nearly any interior, especially a 1950s-themed kitchen,” Suvalsky said. “The simplicity of its form, especially in white, makes it nearly impossible to clash with.”

To really channel the vibe of this era, Verruto suggested local vintage stores and brands such as Drexel Heritage and Lexington. Dressing the windows counts, too. “Cafe curtains in a chintz pattern will make for a fabulous finishing touch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yarosh delights in selecting tabletop items, including novelty stemware and other trappings ubiquitous in the 1950s. “Mid-century kitchens also need to have pedestal cake plates and maybe a cloche to keep a cake,” he mused. “I love the opportunity to curate these details down to the correct fork and serving pieces.”

MOST POPULAR
11 ACRES ROAD, KELLYVILLE, NSW

This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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