How technology is changing the conditions of work
Self-documenting and self-branding are becoming basic not just to “influencing” but to all forms of work. The mark of influencer creep is the on-edge feeling that you have not done enough for social media platforms: that you can be more on trend, more authentic, more responsive — always more.
A fantasy life of push-button convenience and technological coddling is just as much a “virtual world” as any metaverse. With the gig economy as their operating system, these “userverses” isolate consumers from each other and protect the exploitive system tech companies and venture capital have built.
Women’s home-based work is often invisible and undervalued. This has been the case for much of its history, and today it includes platform labor. Reconsidering more feminized, pink-collar forms of online work helps broaden the definition of “tech worker,” which is still often perceived in narrow, masculinist terms.
Techno-utopianism has held longstanding appeal to the left, both as a means of keeping faith alive and of deflecting familiar critiques. As Gavin Mueller writes in his new book, however, this strain of thinking is deeply flawed. Is breaking machines the better way to build a better world?
Technologies once used only in clinical settings are now smaller and more mobile, enabling more people with chronic illnesses and disabilities to live at home. However, these technologies create a new, often invisible labor force in the form of caregivers, who must become expert in working the machines, and covering for their failings. These caregivers’ innovations go unnoticed.
Before the pandemic, many of those now working from home may not have given much thought to what it is like to be managed algorithmically, having an app snitch on them the way the “independent contractors” for Lyft or Fiverr are used to. Life on the other side of the convenience trade-off means less privacy from bosses, poorer working conditions, and less leverage to change any of it.
It may seem strange for music scenes to spawn labor theories, but musicians, who were among the first gig workers, have long had to deal with challenges that neoliberalism has extended to more of the workforce.
Google’s smart city project links its quality-of-life improvements to the deskilling of maintenance work and the elimination of human workers. The alternative is not in a more “humane” corporate approach but in a worker-centered movement that begins and ends in care.
Algorithmic vocal-tone analysis uses machine learning to purportedly identify and quantify the affect of call-center agents and customers alike and turn it into a profitable data set for companies. This process turns customers’ racial, sexist, xenophobic, and ableist prejudices into profitable data also, used to justify further marginalization and economic precaritization of groups already most likely to experience them.
The way major video games are made — by a crew of thousands under exploitative labor conditions, with a dehumanizing division of labor emphasizing small, repetitive tasks — is reflected in the kind of games you get: massive open-world adventures full of thousands of discrete things to do, objects to collect, tasks to complete, and so on, held together by character and design and perhaps a narrative.
The music industry has dealt with constant technological upheavals throughout its history, and its own gig economy predates the one we now associate with Silicon Valley. Its legacy of union organizing offers lessons for other industries facing automation and upheaval.
The internet lowered the barriers to entry to sex work and, for some people, made it feel safer. It helped break down barriers between different kinds of sex work. Sex workers were also early adopters of social media platforms, learning how to use them commercially and for advocacy.
Cries of “technology addiction” may seem to stem from a moral concern with users’ quality of life, but more often the problem is with how it interferes with their ability to work. Making the workplace more distraction-free may seem to make it “healthier,” but it merely re-Taylorizes it, decluttering the networked assembly line.