Over the last year or two, it’s sure felt like a seismic shift’s been underfoot in the way tech employees think about labor conditions and work—or, at least, in the way the media portrays them doing so. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, a number of stories have documented both an ascendent drive for representation in the workplace to a growing class consciousness, inspired by labor strikes in other industries and injustices in their own ranks. As such, it occurs to me that the time might be ripe for tech workers to consider how to collectively harness, and maybe organize around, automation for their mutual benefit.
In a New Republic piece that examines the reasons tech worker power might have taken so long to develop—or for anyone in the media to notice—Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff point to the Californian Ideology, the name media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron gave to the animating force of Silicon Valley politics of the last three decades. Reductively, those politics are the product of Bay Area social liberalism meshing with the “anti-statist gospel of cybernetic libertarianism” that grew out of hippie culture. (Also informative here is Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.”)
The upshot is that tech culture evolved from its perch in a genuine, government-wary counterculture into a broader impulse that informed the subsequent wave of businessmen and entrepreneurs—it’s how we got a generation of anti-regulation, libertarian-leaning tech gurus who believe government should get out of the way and let them change the world.
For a long time, the media relayed this mythology relentlessly, and the icons who either bought in or embodied the ethos—the vaguely countercultural Steve Jobs et cetera—profited handsomely. Ever since, it’s been treated as an assumption that the workers who help the titans make their astronomical profits were cut from similar cloth, looking to follow suit and disrupt things themselves, or happy to help their masters achieve their grand designs. But as Weigel and Tarnoff point out, this is no longer true (and the extent to which it has been in the past has probably been overstated):
“Tech workers are also claiming greater control over their work—control that the Californian Ideology suggested they should have already, but which recent confrontations with their bosses have made clear they do not. At Amazon, employees have petitioned CEO Jeff Bezos for “a choice in what [they] build, and a say in how it is used.” At Google, they have demanded “a say in decisions that affect their lives and the world around them.” To that end, Google organizers want to create a seat for a worker representative on the board, as companies regularly do in many European countries.”
These are impressive strides and good ideas. As we saw with the walkouts at Google protesting the golden parachute Android creator Andy Rubin received after credible sexual misconduct allegations were levied against him, with Amazon engineers finding ways to stand up for their warehouse worker compatriots, there’s a sense that the tech sector is alive to labor issues in a way that feels new. Maybe after a couple decades worth of world-changing promises rather publicly falling short, it’s harder to believe that the ends justify the means, or, as Weigel notes, the media has just finally stopped ignoring the divide between guru and worker on the ground.
My big question is: Will tech workers now move to consider automation? Automators hold considerable power and will hold even more as the boom in the field continues. Remember, it’s often lower-level engineers and non-management workers who are responsible for implementing automation protocols and even automating their peers’ jobs away. Meanwhile, the gains from automation almost entirely accumulate in the upper echelons of management. As I’ve been documenting the various ways that automation is unfolding in workplaces—often at tech companies, but not always—it’s looking clearer that there’s room for those doing the automating to assert that power.
There could be, for example, the opportunity to lobby for a shorter work week, or, say, a basic income. Earned time off. Better benefits. Who knows!
Deciding how, when, and whose job to automate is about as political an act you can make in the workplace. Not everyone is forced to make such calls, though an increasing number are—and automation engineer is currently touted as one of the most desirable jobs going, and artificial intelligence programmers are perhaps the most in-demand job profile in the industry right now.
So as the halo fades from the California Ideologies—and as automation comes to threaten even some programming jobs—there will be real opportunities and real power to be built around the theater of automation. It will be interesting to see if those working in automation will join the effort to more fairly distribute the gains of the massive, ultra-profitable companies among those helping to generate said profits.
If you’re a tech worker with thoughts about this, I’d love to hear them, either in the comments or in email (bmerchant at gizmodo dot com). Is this bonkers? Are there conversations underway already, on Reddit or StackOverflow or some secret automation Slack channel? Does our fully automated leisure society begin with you? Let me know!