Pluralistic: Podcasting "Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk" (20 Mar 2023)

Today's links

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.'

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)

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Colophon (permalink)

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Latest podcast: Gig Work is the Opposite of Steampunk

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