According to Matthew Desmond, "the story of the ascendancy of American finance," and many other things that came with it, began during slavery. Those "other things" include the abuse of nature for profit, which led to decreasing biodiversity, the dependency of local economies on larger markets owing to the introduction of cash crops, the enrichment of Southern elites Northern elites through the symbiosis of cotton production and the textile industry, and most germane to the question at hand, a new way of managing labor.
This new way of managing labor, namely slave labor, on the plantations in the American South, argues Desmond, created the basis for modern workplace management. In order to make as much as possible, the planters produced on a large scale, investing great capital in the purchase of workers, gins, presses, and seed. In order to manage this large-scale enterprise, they had to develop complex hierarchies. These included "a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations." This rather sophisticated form of management was new and, at that time, could only be compared to government institutions.
Furthermore, in order to make as much as possible, the planters recognized that they needed to extract as much labor as possible from each worker. In order to do so, they meticulously monitored labor, kept records of inputs and outputs, calculated depreciation, and assessed the market value of enslaved workers. People were reduced to numbers long before industrialism in the North. In this sense, the enslaved workers of the plantations were the first modern workers.
Modern technology has allowed for the application of the same principles in today's service sector. For example, companies can monitor keystrokes and mouse clicks, capture screenshots, impose drug tests, track apps, use closed-circuit cameras, and read employees' outbound emails. While the technology is new, Desmond claims that the impulse is an old and familiar one, dating back to the plantation economy of the American South: "The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the nation’s first corporate Big Brother was the overseer."