Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk

They turned the cottage into a factory.

A woodcut of a weaver’s loft, where a woman works at a hand-loom. Out of the window opposite her looms the glowing, menacing red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ On the wall behind her is the poster from Magpie Killjoy’s ‘Steampunk Magazine’ that reads, ‘Love the machine, hate the factory.’
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

Despite what you may have heard, the Luddites weren’t technophobes. They were skilled workers, expert high tech machine operators who supplied the world with fine textiles. Thanks to a high degree of labor organization through craft guilds, the workers received a fair share of the profit from their labors. They worked hard, but they earned enough through their labors to enjoy lives of dignity and comfort.

Nineteenth century textile workers enjoyed a high degree of personal autonomy. Their machines were in their homes and they worked surrounded by family and friends, away from the oversight of the rich merchants who brought their goods to market. This was the original “cottage industry.”

The factory owners who built their “dark, Satanic mills” weren’t interested in making life easier for textile workers by automating their labor. They wanted to make workers’ lives harder.

Textile machines were valued because they were easier to operate than the hand-looms that preceded them, and that meant that workers who wanted a fair wage for a fair day’s work could be fired and replaced with new workers, without the logistical hassle of the multi-year apprenticeship demanded by the hand-loom and its brethren.

As Brian Merchant documents in Blood in the Machine, his stunning, forthcoming history of the Luddites, the factory owners of the industrial revolution wanted machines so simple that children could work them, because that would let them pick over England’s orphanages, tricking young kids to come work in their factories for ten and twelve hour days.

These children were indentured for a period of ten years, starved and mercilessly beaten when they missed quota. The machines routinely maimed or killed them. One of these children, Robert Blincoe, survived to write a bestselling memoir detailing the horrifying life of the factory owners’ child slaves, inspiring Dickens to write Oliver Twist.

The Luddites’ cause wasn’t the destruction of machines —they fought for the preservation of workers’ power over their bosses. They understood perfectly well what the machines did (indeed, much of their criticism of textile machinery was technical in nature, decrying the defective fabric that emerged from these machines). But they were far more interested in who those machines did it for and who they did it to.

I’ve written that science fiction is a Luddite literature, a genre that doesn’t just ask “wouldn’t it be cool if this gadget existed?” but goes on to ask, “how could people decide how to use this machine?” The machine’s workings are deterministic, but the social arrangements governing the machine? Those are up to us.

That’s science fiction, but what about fantasy?

That would be steampunk.

If sf asks, “what if the machine had a different social arrangement?” then steampunk asks, “what would it be like if we could have the productive benefits of machines without their regimentation?”

A craft worker enjoys enormous autonomy. If they get a cramp or need a bathroom break, they can just stop. If they’re hungry, they can eat. If the landscape outside the window is looking especially picturesque, they can stop and contemplate it, or even step out into the fresh air to enjoy it.

Even the most labor-friendly, cooperatively owned assembly line can’t function if its workers do their own thing. The price of factory efficiency is autonomy: a worker in a multi-stage process has other workers upstream and downstream depending on them to maintain the pace and regimentation of the line.

Steampunk is fantasy in that it imagines lone craftspeople working with all the autonomy of the individual mad scientist inventor or tinkerer, but producing goods characteristic of the factories where workers had to check their autonomy at the door.

That’s a utopian vision, one that was especially enticing in the 2000s, when internet collaboration tools allowed thousands of strangers to engage in large, collective endeavors, like writing an encylopedia or an operating system, without any bosses, working at their own pace, relying on version control systems and wiki pages to coordinate their labor while they worked their tools in their crafters’ cottages all over the world.

This ethic of technophilia, labor autonomy, solidarity and loose coordination was beautifully summed up in the motto for Magpie Killjoy’s wonderful Steampunk Magazine:

Love the machine, hate the factory.

The rise of gig work produced a massive surge of “craft” workers who toiled on their own premises, most notably the drivers for Uber, Lyft, Doordash and delivery services who worked from their own cars, assured that they were independent businesspeople, able to book the hours and jobs they wanted. If the scenery caught their eye, they could pull over to the side of the road, get out of their cars and touch grass — and no one would even know they did it, much less punish them for it.

The pandemic lockdowns accelerated this process, as bossware made the leap from the low-waged, precarious Black women who were trapped by Arise’s predatory home call-centers to all kinds of white-collar workers who were told they were working from home, but who were really living at work.

Bossware — technology that monitors every click, every keystroke, and the streams from your device’s cameras and microphones — is everywhere today. Even so, blue collar workers have it the worst: they are the chickenized reverse-centaurs, forced to pay for their own working equipment, then minutely monitored, down to their facial expressions, and minutely choreographed, down to their eye-movements, to make sure their bosses are getting every penny’s worth of value out of their bodies.

This is truly the opposite of steampunk. Somehow, our bosses have invented a form of craft-labor — where you work from your own vehicle or home, using equipment you pay for — that has all the humiliations, dangers and petty authoritarianism of the industrial factory.

This is the worst of both worlds. Under the New Deal, factory workers teamed up with progressive regulators to force the owners of giant factories to share the efficiency gains of the assemblyline, creating the “Large-Firm Wage Premium” (where workers at big companies made more money, not less).

Today, the large-firm wage premium is dead. Workers are moving out of the factory, back into their homes (and cars), but those homes and cars are being transformed into factories, thanks to the camera- and mic-studded digital devices that monitor workers more closely than even the meanest, pettiest foreman could.

It needn’t be this way. The Luddites presaged the steampunks, imagining technology to liberate, not to enslave. Technological tools could be labor organizers’ secret weapons, shifting power back towards workers.

The problem isn’t what the technology does: the problem is who it does it for and who it does it to.