Issue #45: Requirements,  Library

Workers Of The (Digital) World

They say that software is eating the world. They also say, or rather they say that Jean-Jacques Rousseau said:

Quand le peuple n’aura plus rien à manger, il mangera le riche.

A lot of software and other technological development is done in a kind of technocratic homeostasis: technologists believe that they are amoral actors simply advancing the boundaries of human knowledge, and that it is up to others to decide how their inventions and developments are applied. They channel Tom Lehrer’s fictionalised version of a prominent Nazi party member and SS officer:

“Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Of course, this is a complete nonsense. These supposedly consequence-free technologists and rational actors are taking money from those who profit from the very applications of their work that they claim to be indifferent to. Reality is exposed: it is not that they are contributing to humanitarian progress; they are contributing to their own access to foosball tables and at-desk massage perks.

We have previously covered why it is important that technology workers understand and participate in the trade union movement. Now let us learn from those whose work is impacted by technology.

Discounting audiobook editions of printed books, this is the first audiophonic entry into the De Programmatica Ipsum library: the podcast Peak Salvation. Former Facebook engineering director Philip Su takes a job at an Amazon fulfilment centre during the busy “peak” season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you have never worked a manual job—or even if like me you have but it was back when you could expect your manager to be a human being, not an app—take a listen to this short podcast and understand the human cost of getting you those oh-so-important same day deliveries on weird HDMI adapters you left at the gym.

Then find out how low-paid, precarious, gig economy workers can organise and fight back in Class Power on Zero Hours. Gig economy workers have had some amazing successes in the UK, despite being managed remotely via app and not having the traditional shop floors where they can meet their union comrades and stewards.

Just Eat drivers in Sheffield and Thanet (actually working as “independent couriers” for Stuart, a company owned by the French postal service) strike for improved pay and conditions. The new trade union IWGB has achieved significant benefits for Deliveroo drivers. Meanwhile the AngryWorkers collective document successes among their members in West London.

Want to understand how precarious employment, workplace surveillance, and artificial intelligence are combined to increase exploitation in the workplace, reduce wages, and reduce the possibility of workers collaborating to improve their conditions: but also what workers can do about it? An excellent collection of essays on these subjects is Augmented Exploitation.

From questions like “who is the smart worker?” (if I am being tracked by a management AI, will I do good work or will I do whatever requires least effort and gets marked positively by the algorithm?) to “what can we do about it?” (Deliveroo riders worked collectively to first uncover, and then subvert, the algorithmic rules governing their work), Augmented Exploitation examines and lays bare the experience of working in a society constructed by consequence-ignorant Javascript coders.

Then, after so much focus on work and workers’ conditions, how about relaxing in front of a nice video game? Jamie Woodcock has you covered, with Marx at the Arcade, a book detailing the part computer games play in modern capitalism.

From their reinforcement of modern ideas of militarism and imperialism in popular culture (how long do you think will be a tasteful wait before the Mariupol edition of Counterstrike comes out, and do you think they are already working on the DLC?), through the way the capitalist system rejects self-criticism in the name of “protecting users” (good luck getting a copy of Phone Story for iPhone through official channels), to the way in which companies will stand up for their harassing—but profitable—users rather than their troublesome and harassed employees, even in a post-GamerGate world: this is the place to go.

Lest we get lost in the doldrums of the current system and its exploitation of the workers, Aaron Bastani provides a vision of the way out. In Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a Manifesto, he points out that not only is it possible to create a world in which technology works for us all in the way that Jeff Bezos imagines is only possible by zero-hours workers and for multi-billionaires, but that most of the technology needed to realise this post-scarcity future is already here.

Of course, successfully deploying this technology in a way that reverts the accelerating inequalities of the world requires massive political and systematic changes. Bastani is clear that these are achievable, but complex: he explains why facile solutions like Universal Basic Income are unlikely to fix anything and may even break things further.

Digital workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your blockchains.

Graham is a senior Research Software Engineer at Oxford University. He got hooked on making quality software in front of a NeXT TurboStation Color, and still has a lot to learn.