Featured image by the Seattle DSA design team.
An oft-repeated story, across industries and disciplines is this: a technical team is called upon to help co-workers improve a workflow, and the programmers learn the ins and outs of the workflows they are supposed to improve. They form relationships with fellow workers and push hard to build platforms that might even be enjoyable to use. But something’s not right; some workers are hesitant. They appreciate the new coats of paint, the speed gains and the lovingly crafted user interfaces painstakingly designed by the tech team. But still, they resist.
This resistance is perfectly natural, whether conscious or unconscious, because it highlights the power tech workers have. This power, unchecked, can directly impact entire sectors of workers. Our colleagues’ jobs and livelihoods are on the line, but is this ever addressed in our rigorous design phases?
This isn’t some complex economic theory — it’s just how capitalism works. A workflow is improved, there’s celebrations all around, and we all have more time to think about our respective fields and worry less about the fiddly details of some dreary corporate intranet that was replaced. But despite these productivity gains — these shiny coats of paint on existing workflow systems– workers continue to suffer. Our work allows them to do their work faster, but for what gain?
No matter how morally just your company leadership may seem via their large donations or woke press releases, workers’ suffering is a given byproduct. The wage disparity in particular is most obvious: how often is someone able to go home an hour earlier with the same pay because software shaved an hour off their day?
If you are one of the lucky few that get to craft something for the general public, this might not speak to you because you are in the 1 percent. No, not the 1 percent Senator Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Street talk about — it’s a different kind. For every “rockstar” application developer slinging apps, there are 100 rank and file programmers making sure the data flows smoothly, that legacy systems are connected, and that the lights remain on.
A tech solidarity movement would present tech workers with an opportunity to be leaders for a better world. We could use our collective power as the workers who keep large parts of infrastructure running as leverage to push our technology to be used for something other than perpetuating the upward flow of wealth to an elite few. When anyone with know-how and a laptop can build labor-saving technology, we must ask ourselves: what value do CEOs and founders provide? Do we even need them at all? How should our technology be used?
These are big questions but they are necessary. Left unanswered, enormous sums of wealth will continue to be made from our work with no benefit to anyone but those at the top.
So, what do we as programmers do? We need to put food on the table just as much as the next employee. Even if we are aware of the destructive nature of our work, surely we can’t just stop? If we flip the switches off, will someone be brought in to replace us? Luckily for us, we have decades of experience to draw from in the labor movement. We can organize, we can strike, we can fight to have our trade used to increase leisure time for humanity instead of increasing suffering and contributing to the inequality in the world.
These things may sound impossible, just as weekends and 40-hour work weeks may have seemed impossible over 100 years ago. As programmers, we have the skills to keep the information age alive, and as such, we should be leaders and exercise control over how the products of our labor are used..
As a tech worker myself, I doubt most of us entered the field to increase suffering in the world. Let’s stand alongside our fellow workers, organize, and put our skills to use building a better world today.