Information workers: Workers’ power in the “age of the geek”

Network cableby Daphne Lawless

As Alec Hardison says on the hit TV show Leverage: “it’s the age of the geek, baby”. Information technology workers are increasingly important and increasingly recognizing their own importance. Here’s why.

What makes Marxism different from other schools of thought which seek to understand and to change the world is that it precisely identifies who the agent of that change will be. The working class – to use the old-fashioned term, the “proletariat” – are the section of society who must work for wages and salaries to survive, who are the most exploited part of society, but at the same time potentially the most powerful.

This is because, in the words of the old union song: “Without their brains and muscle, not a single wheel would turn”. Profit, the life-blood of the system, is made by their work. If they withdraw that work, if they seize the means of production and turn them to production for use instead of profit, then the whole basis of the world system could be turned upside down.

But who are the working class in a developed 21st century country like Aotearoa/New Zealand? Some would say that the “working class” as Marx described it no longer exists, or at least, it only exists in places where mass-production manufacturing is still the centre of the economy, like China or other growing Asian economies. It is hard to see how casualised service workers or cleaners on their own could bring the machine to a standstill.

One section of working people in countries like ours increasingly fit the description of “agents of change”, are exploited by the system, and have the power to pull the plug on the whole thing.

IT – information technology, computers, internet, and so forth – made globalization possible. Starting in the 1960s with the first TV satellite, globalised instant communication was now possible. As the capital markets of the Western world were deregulated in the 1970s, the growth of computer technology now meant it was possible to shift money across the world in the blink of an eye.

It also meant that “outsourcing” – decoupling production from administration and design, and sending mass production to low-wage countries – was also possible, now that the boss could keep instant tabs on what was happening across the ocean in China or Korea. And when it became possible, it became necessary to take on the technology to keep ahead.

Finally, the explosion of popularity of the Internet in the mid-90s made IT workers not only important, but rock stars. Wild fantasies went around that the “dot-com boom” meant a new era of capitalism, with no more booms and busts, the business cycle all smoothed out by instantaneous communication. Plus, online sales meant a true globalisation of consumption. People in New Zealand with an internet connection and a credit card could suddenly order goods directly from other countries.

All this meant that information technology was the new god of capitalist production, and IT workers were its high priests. Fifteen years ago, IT workers in New Zealand could write their own ticket. Starting salaries of $60,000 fresh out of university weren’t unknown. That isn’t even to mention the “start-ups” which went from two geeks in a garage to multi-millionaire status in a couple of years.

IT workers certainly didn’t look like exploited proletarians. They were getting paid big money, and were able to dictate their terms of employment. Many firms changed their corporate culture so as to attract and retain IT workers who weren’t into turning up to work on time or wearing a suit. Quite a far cry from fast-food workers being refused a break in a ten-hour shift.

But then something happened to the IT industry. Proletarianisation is when a previously privileged profession – the classic examples are teachers and nurses – start to lose their privileges when the money gets tight. Or maybe too many new workers are being trained in their field, attracted by those privileges, and the bosses get their chance to cut back on their existing employee’s perks and salaries.

During the dot-com boom, IT workers were encouraged to see themselves as partners with the capitalists who hired them. They were often paid in “stock options” – the right to buy shares in their company at a discount price – which, if the company went big, would make them millionaires. But of course, if the company flopped, they got nothing.

And of course, the “dot-coms” flopped in large numbers in 2000-2001. IT work started to seem like a lot of other occupations. In some fields, like videogame design, new programmers were prepared to work for very low wages or even for free, just for the privilege of being involved in such a “cool” industry.

Worse, the industry became deskilled. As software became more complex and more user-friendly, the amount of specialised knowledge needed to programme or operate a computer became less. The easier it became to work the devices, the less privileged IT work became – and so the greater competition for contracts or jobs.

We’re not quite in a position where IT has become a sweatshop industry. IT is still skilled labour and IT workers retain privileges. But it’s increasingly just another occupation. Young kids fresh out of school often have coding skills which rival IT workers with a decade’s experience.

IT work is becoming proletarianised in the sense that IT workers are subject to the same kinds of competition and pressure from the boss as other kinds of workers. But the other side of the coin is the power of the proletarian class. And although IT workers may not have quite so much privilege any more, they have power.

The internet and computers are now so vital to almost every firm, large and small, that for a company’s IT to melt down means disaster. The kind of people who can salvage a disk crash or repel a hacker’s attack on a firm’s website are still vital.So increasingly, skilled workers in IT are flexing their muscle in order to bring about change in their world.

Usually it’s not directed at the boss. The idea of workers’ organisation in the sense of unions has, over the decades, gotten through to nurses and even doctors. It has not got through to IT workers yet. IT culture tends to be individualistic to the point of anarchism, and the idea of disciplined collective action of the kind needed to win an industrial dispute is still quite far-fetched.

But information workers are making their presence felt in political activism. Politicians and the media have long had a cozy deal – they promote the ideas of the corporate bosses, protect their secrets, and are rewarded with a cut of the profits. Other ideas are simply pushed out of the mainstream.

However, the flow of information is the central concept of in IT work. The “cyber-libertarian” James Gilmore puts it this way: “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”.

The phenomenon of cyberactivism – under the banner of “Anonymous” or elsewhere – shows how crucial the role of information workers in today’s society is. And it’s not just as basic as being able to hack into a government mainframe, extract its secrets and pass them on to Wikileaks.

Increasingly media and politicians have to use social media to get their point across. But skilled information workers can put together a counter-narrative – or counter-memes – which, if properly designed, can spread like wildfire and drown out the official message.

The Arab Spring should show us all how important information workers are. They are the ones who make sure that a cellphone video of a protest in Cairo can be seen around the world within minutes. In 2009, when the Iranian government shut down communications out of the country during the Green Movement uprising, Anonymous stepped in to ensure that Iranian dissidents could still get their message out.

Information workers are getting organised. Their politics are not the same as other groups of workers, because the way they live and the way they make their living means that collectivist ideas don’t make sense. But they are exploited by their bosses too. They have to fear for their jobs, or hang onto a precarious freelance lifestyle. And they can read the news and understand that the system where wages stay stagnant and benefits are cut so the mega-rich can keep doubling their money is increasingly obscene.

The work of “geeks” is vital for keeping the bosses in charge – not only in organising and controlling their employees, but in keeping the airwaves and the video-screens full of the establishment’s ideas and their messages. A workers’ movement which aims to change the world and take power for working people will have to build alliances with the workers at the heart of the machine which insinuates brand names and political messages into our very minds. The traditional workers’ movement and the “self-organisation of computer nerds” have to start talking.

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