The Full Fruits of Our Labor

Be warned that what follows is undoubtedly socialist. This makes sense because these days I identify unabashedly as a libertarian socialist / anarcho-communist. Feel free to grasp your pearls, fall back on your fainting couch, and watch some Sean Hannity instead of reading further if you feel so inclined.

When USians think of inequality, we tend to think in terms that were clearly set by someone else with very different interests than our own. In the US, we are often more concerned that someone might be getting more benefits than us — or even just more welfare benefits than they need for a minimal level of survival — than we are with the money our bosses make from our labor while just sitting around counting money. Seems a little off to me personally.

Metaphorically, we're all baking bread, giving that bread to an owner/boss, watching the boss share several loaves of bread with friends, and then fighting our prospective friends and allies over our share of the crumbs. I am routinely reminded of this visual image when I think about "gig economy" business plans like those of Uber or Lyft.

The 21st century digital economy and its new strain of capitalism often resembles something more akin to medieval serfdom than anything we would consider a good job. Companies set up a platform with a storefront, and workers step up to do work "on their terms," letting those companies passively make money off of their users/contractors. As a tech worker, it shames me to admit that this model is often propped up by the efforts of programmers and sysadmins. Rather than using our skills to benefit everyone by contributing to an open source platform, we're choosing to make metaphorical bread for our bosses as well.

Traditionally, leftists of many different labels have understood that economic freedom is necessarily tied to workers, artisans, and everyday folks being able to "own the means of production". Stated differently, if you have a good idea, you should have access to the tools you need to make that idea happen. On a personal level, I was optimistic when I saw the Internet culture of the 90s and the open source explosion of the 2000s. On the Internet, anyone could set up a site and become a citizen journalist, folk philosopher, or a working-class historian. Yes, there was a barrier to entry, and programmers and geeks were working very hard to make freely available tools that would make access more universal.

And then the profit motive fucked everything up. I have mentioned many times in the past that I mourn the loss of the hobbyist Internet. When I first got online, the Internet was a loose confederation of servers set up either by universities or weirdos like me who hooked up old shitty computers to a permanent network connection. We produced content about topics we felt passionate about without any expectation that anyone would ever want to pay for our manifestos on Star Trek or our amateur comics about penguins. When companies like Facebook, Google, and Reddit made platforms that made Internet content production much more available and accessible, they chose to monetize their creations with an unholy blend of selling ads, selling user details to companies to help them make more successful ads, and generally blurring the distinction between content and paid advertising. In some ways, this funding model is the logical evolution of the advertiser-supported newspapers. Where newspaper publishers paid journalists a wage to produce stories that readers were interested in reading and then rented out the eyes and attention of those readers to companies, social media just removes the expense of paying writers. Want to keep up with your friend from high school? Maybe you'd like a new dry mop from Swiffer! Want to see pictures of your grandmother's garden? Have you considered putting Scotts Turf Builder Weed and Feed on your lawn? If you're a liberal or a leftist and you've found yourself wondering how the Supreme Court could rule (as they did in the Citizens United decision) that corporations have rights that were traditionally reserved for individuals, think for a moment about your Facebook timeline and how paid advertising blends seamlessly with content from private individuals.

Also, as many have discovered in recent years, when a company disagrees with the content you produce on their servers or platforms, they have a private property right to remove your speech. Rather than being a thriving commons of speech and ideas, the Internet has become a series of fiefdoms where rights are only allowed to be exercised so long as they are acceptable to the lords of Silicon Valley. After all, if you don't like it and you don't agree with those Terms of Service you clicked by without reading, their argument goes, you can always go set up your own servers.

The coming struggle for ownership of the full fruits of our labor is likely to be fought at least in part on the issue of digital platforms. The urge to centralize on technologies that allow marginalized people to have a voice is not a bad thing. In fact, I'm optimistic that bringing more people to the table will help us as a species confront some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced. However, we need to make sure that we're all leveraging our skills to build spaces that are freely available to the public, where speech is neither commodified nor restricted. We need to work together to build freely available software that enables and sustains a rich public commons where all of our freedoms are respected and protected. We must work not only to liberate the means of production but also the means of distribution.

If you have programming skill, find and contribute to open source projects. Or start projects and make your code freely available for other people to improve. If you're tech-savvy but not a coder, use open source software and write bug reports. Write documentation to help others use software. If you're not a techie, contribute to organizations like the Free Software Foundation or the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Most importantly, regardless of your technical skills, support your fellow workers in their struggle and in their daily lives. You have far more in common with your fellow worker than you do with the modern day aristocrats of Washington and Silicon Valley.