- Podcasting "Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk": Why today's Luddites should be smashing apps.
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Podcasting "Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk" (permalink)
This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, "Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk," about the worst-of-all-worlds created by bossware, where an app is your boss, and you live at work because your home and/or car is a branch office of the factory:
As with so much of my work these days, the column opens with a reference to the Luddites, and to Brian Merchant's superb, forthcoming history of the Luddite uprisings, "Blood in the Machine":
As Merchant explains, the Luddites were anything but technophobes: they were skilled high-tech workers whose seven-year apprenticeships were the equivalent to getting a Master's in Engineering from MIT. Their objection to powered textile machines had nothing to do with fear of the machines: rather, it was motivated by a clear-eyed understanding of how factory owners wanted to use the machines.
The point of powered textile machines wasn't to increase the productivity of skilled textile workers – rather, it was to smash the guilds that represented these skilled workers and ensured that they shared in the profits from their labor. The factory owners wanted machines so simple a child could use them – because they were picking over England's orphanages and recruiting small children through trickery to a ten-year indenture in the factories.
The "dark, Satanic mills" of the industrial revolution were awash in the blood and tears of children. These child-slaves were beaten and starved, working long hours on little sleep for endless years, moving among machines that could snatch off a limb, a scalp, even your head, after a moment's lapse in attention.
(Fun fact: in 1832, Robert Blincoe, one of children who survived the factories, published "A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an Orphan Boy" a bestseller recounting the horrors he endured; that book inspired Charles Dickens to write Oliver Twist):
It wasn't just that weavers who belonged to guilds made more money – they also enjoyed more dignity in their workplaces, because those workplaces were their homes. Textiles were the original "cottage industries," in that it was done in cottages, by families who set their own pace, enjoying amiable conversation or companionable silence.
These weavers could go to the bathroom when they wanted, eat when they wanted, take a break and walk around outside when the weather was fine.
This is in stark contrast to life in the dark, Satanic mills, where foremen watched over every movement, engaging in a kind of meanspirited choreography that treated the worker as an inferior adjunct to the machine, to be fit to its workings and worked to its tireless schedule.
The Luddites had some technical critiques of the machines – they argued, correctly, that those early machines turned out inferior products that fit poorly and degraded quickly. But even if the machines had produced textiles to match the hand-looms, the Luddites' real anger wasn't over what the machines did – it was over who the machines did it to and who they did it for.
I've written that "Science Fiction is a Luddite literature" – it's a narrative form that can go beyond describing what a machine does, to demanding that we rethink who it does it for and who it does it to. Not all sf does this, but at its best, this is secret sauce that makes sf such a radical form, one that insists that while the machines' functioning may be deterministic, their social arrangements are up to us:
That's what happens when you mix Luddism with SF – but what happens when you mix it with fantasy? I think you get steampunk.
Steampunk has many different valences, but central to the project is an imaginary world where people engaged in craft labor (lone mad scientists, say) are able to produce high-tech goods that are more associated with factories. I think it's no coincidence that steampunk took root during the first surge of "peer-based commons production" – when craft workers were producing whole operating systems and encyclopedias from their "cottages":
These modern craft workers were living the steampunk fantasy, so beautifully summed up in the motto for Magpie Killjoy's Steampunk Magazine: "Love the Machine, Hate the Factory."
But then came the second decade of the 21st century, and now the third, and with it, the rise of something very much like the opposite of that steampunk fantasy: a new form of craft labor where the factory is inside the cottage – where an app is your boss, and "work from home" becomes "live at work."
As with all forms of technological oppression, this movement followed the "Shitty Technology Adoption Curve," starting with people with little social clout and working its way up the privilege gradient to entangle a widening proportion of workers.
Among the first people to experience this was the predominantly Black, predominantly female employees of Arise, a work-from-home call center business that pretends that its employees are small businesses themselves, and so charges them to get trained for each new client, then fines them if they want to quit:
In Amazon warehouses and delivery vans, we saw the rise of "chickenized reverse-centaurs" – these are workers who must pay for their own work equipment (as with poultry farmers captured by processing monopolists, hence "chickenized"). They are also paired with digital technology (something automation theorists call a "centaur") but the technology bosses them around, rather than supporting them. The machine is the centaur's head and the worker is its body (thus, "reverse-centaur"):
The pandemic lockdowns saw an explosion in the use of bossware, technology that monitors your every keystroke, every click, every URL, every file, even the video and audio from the cameras and mics on your devices, whether or not you pay for those devices.
This is the second coming of Taylorism, the fine-grained, high-handed "scientific" micromanagement of factory workers, transposed to the home, and integrated with sensors that track you down to your eyeballs:
Truly, this is the worst of all worlds. We increasingly work for large, distributed factories, and unlike the big companies of the post-New Deal era, we don't have unions and progressive regulators who can force these big businesses to share the wealth in the form of the "large firm wage premium."
Instead, we have craft labor at sweatshop wages, under factory conditions, in our own homes and cars. This needn't be: digital technologies are powerful labor-organizing tools (potentially), but that's not how we've decided to use them:
As the radical message of sf tells us, that's a choice, not an inevitability. We aren't prisoners of technology. We can seize the means of computation. It starts by being less concerned with what the machine does, and homing in on who it does it for and who it does it to.
Here's this week's podcast episode:
And here's a direct link to download the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your media for free, forever):
Here's the direct feed to subscribe to my podcast:
And here's the original "Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk" article on Medium:
(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)
Hey look at this (permalink)
- Hospitals require nurses to pay back as much as $15,000 in training fees if they quit or are fired https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/economics/indentured-servitude-nurses-hit-hefty-debt-trying-leave-hospitals-rcna74204 (h/t Super Punch)
Burning Men https://crookedtimber.org/2023/03/08/burning-men/ (h/t Metafilter)
Dana Sibera's Alt-Universe Tech Products https://bitbang.social/@NanoRaptor (h/t Kottke)
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago Revolution is Not an AOL Keyword https://web.archive.org/web/20030322155720/http://journalism.berkeley.edu/projects/biplog/archive/000748.html
#20yrsago United Way will provide cheap WiFi and PCs to poor people in Philly https://web.archive.org/web/20050316131603/www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=7404562
#20yrsago Indigineous prior-art database to fight bio-piracy https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/2858253.stm
#20yrsago Disney parks are no-fly zones https://www.cnn.com/2003/TRAVEL/03/18/airspace.restrictions/
#20yrsago MIT Press takes gutsy fair use stand https://web.archive.org/web/20030313230051/https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/lessig/blog/archives/2003_03.shtml
#15yrsago Every issue of Elfquest free — oldest independent comic goes online https://web.archive.org/web/20080319195133/https://elfquest.com/gallery/OnlineComics3.html
#15ysago Permanent Vacation: two PCs endlessly bouncing vacation autoresponders to each other https://web.archive.org/web/20080324013042/http://www.vvork.com/?p=6382
#15yrsago How mortgage-derviatives tanked the economy https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/19/business/19leonhardt.html
#15yrsago State Department employees canned for snooping in Obama’s passport records https://web.archive.org/web/20080322110151/http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23736254/
#15yrsago CEO of subprime mortgage broker fined $29,000 for dropping 73 f-bombs during deposition https://web.archive.org/web/20080322102326/https://consumerist.com/370052/htfc-mortgage-company-ceo-has-a-potty-mouth
#10yrsago Canadian government trying to launder secret copyright treaties into law https://web.archive.org/web/20130323151506/http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/6812/125
#10yrsago Is it worth spending half your profits “fighting piracy”? https://www.techdirt.com/2013/03/19/indie-film-distributor-spends-half-her-profits-sending-dmca-takedowns-is-it-worth-it/
#10yrsago Ray Bradbury’s fan letter to Robert A Heinlein https://www.flavorwire.com/377707/10-illuminating-fan-letters-from-famous-authors-to-famous-authors
#10yrsago HTML5’s overseer says DRM’s true purpose is to prevent legal forms of innovation https://memex.craphound.com/2013/03/20/html5s-overseer-says-drms-true-purpose-is-to-prevent-legal-forms-of-innovation/
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#10yrsago Brian Krebs talks to hacker who may have SWATted him and attacked Wired’s Mat Honan https://krebsonsecurity.com/2013/03/the-obscurest-epoch-is-today/
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#10yrsago Minimalist Parenting: Getting Things Done meets childrearing https://memex.craphound.com/2013/03/19/minimalist-parenting-getting-things-done-meets-childrearing/
#10yrsago Oklahoma Republicans are tearing themselves apart as they confront the economic wreckage of their policies https://apnews.com/article/us-news-ap-top-news-elections-oklahoma-politics-f058811fa1fb4bf68a34e3c243a14a6f
#5yrsago People are stashing irrevocable child porn links, dox, copyright infringement, and leaked state secrets in the blockchain https://fc18.ifca.ai/preproceedings/6.pdf
#5yrsago GPS routing increases city throughput by shifting traffic jams onto residential streets https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7795614
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#5yrsago Now that public companies must publish the CEO-median worker wage ratio, cities and states can tax the most unequal firms https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/mar/18/america-ceo-worker-pay-gap-new-data-what-can-we-do
#5yrsago Marx’s birthplace celebrates his bicentennial with Communist traffic-lights https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43470315
#5yrsago Chinese surveillance/tech giant Alibaba joins ALEC, will start co-authoring US legislation https://theintercept.com/2018/03/20/alibaba-chinese-corporation-alibaba-joins-group-ghostwriting-american-laws/
#5yrsago The future legal shenanigans that will shift liability for pedestrian fatalities involving self-driving Ubers https://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2018/03/test-case.html
#5yrsago Alabama Sheriff legally appropriated $750K from prison meal budgets to build himself a beach house, locked up his whistleblowing gardener https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/14/593204274/alabama-sheriff-legally-took-750-000-meant-to-feed-inmates-bought-beach-house
#5yrsago 1.7 million viewers tuned into Bernie Sanders’ Inequality Town Hall webcast https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bernie-sanders-economic-inequality-town-hall-million-viewers_n_5ab08fb6e4b0e862383ab6b4
#5yrsago Billionaire Cartier boss returns from fishing holiday gripped with terror that the poors are going to start building guillotines https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-08/billionaire-cartier-owner-sees-wealth-gap-fueling-social-unrest
#5yrsago Why no one has made a tool to turn off Facebook oversharing https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/03/why-we-didnt-make-fix-my-facebook-privacy-settings-tool
#5yrsago Just because Cambridge Analytica tells its customers it can sway elections, it doesn’t follow that they’re any good at it https://www.wired.com/story/the-noisy-fallacies-of-psychographic-targeting/
#5yrsago RIP Anna Campbell, a British woman who joined an all-woman Kurdish Protection Unit in Syria https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/19/briton-anna-campbell-killed-fighting-kurdisharmed-unit-syria/
#5yrsago A recipe for the deliberately obscured task of changing your Facebook settings to opt out of “platform” sharing https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/03/how-change-your-facebook-settings-opt-out-platform-api-sharing
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The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW
A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. ON SUBMISSION
Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. ON SUBMISSION
Latest podcast: Gig Work is the Opposite of Steampunk https://craphound.com/news/2023/03/19/gig-work-is-the-opposite-of-steampunk/
- Ostrom Workshop: Beyond the Web Speaker Series, Mar 20
IFTF Changing the Register, Mar 22
Antitrust and Competition Conference – Beyond the Consumer Welfare Standard (Chicago), Apr 20-21
Red Team Blues at Mysterious Galaxy (San Diego), Apr 25
Red Team Blues event with Tim Harford (Oxford), May 29
UCL Peter Kirstein Lecture, Jun 1 (London):
- Roskom Svoboda Privacy Day
Factually With Adam Conover:
Making Big Tech Better vs Making it Smaller (Brussels Antitrust Conference):
- "Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin", on how to unrig the markets for creative labor, Beacon Press/Scribe 2022 https://chokepointcapitalism.com
"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.
- Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023
The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023
The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023
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