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Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel, Microserfs, compares the lives of Microsoft coders in Silicon Valley to medieval s...
Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel, Microserfs, compares the lives of Microsoft coders in Silicon Valley to medieval serfs toiling away in feudalistic Europe. With Bill Gates as the lord, programmers live a life focused on serving the needs of the company, under the shadow of an uncertain future. The novel is also credited with predicting the dot-com bubble of the next few years. As with any “boom and bust” economic cycle, the biggest victims of the dot-com bubble of the end of the last millennium were the disposable workers, whose skills were no longer in demand as market shares plummeted.
A 2010 Fortune Magazine article referred to the explosion and subsequent glut of Apple and Twitter apps as turning developers from “superstars to serfs.” Welcome to the new digital working class, programmers.
While not “blue collar,” salaried programmers have always been part of the proletariat, according to Marxist analysis. The digital working class simply manufactures code instead of washing machines or car parts. The global market exploits any advantage it can, while workers increasingly compete over tech jobs. Outsourcing has never been easier. Knowledge-based firms don’t need to open a factory in a developing country; they just need a good Internet connection. Alternately, conflicts like the one currently taking place in Ukraine can disrupt the carefully-orchestrated relationship between present day, internationally outsourced microserfs and their feudal masters in the United States and other wealthy countries. Fortunately for the programming industry, the new digital working class is often not tied to a physical location. As long as there are decent broadband speeds, these serfs can toil from anywhere.
However, besides conflict zones, there are other factors that complicate the relationships between employers and the new global digital working class. On the one hand, much like manufacturing workers are beset by the prospect of their factories being moved overseas, programmers must worry about their jobs being outsourced to other countries. On the other hand, those holding the newly outsourced programming jobs may have to deal with problems of infrastructure like slower Internet and unreliable electricity supplies when compared to programmers in highly developed countries. All these factors can serve to drive wages down, regardless of worker skill.
While some comparisons between programmers and traditional workers are apt, there are factors that differentiate the two. During the last recession in the United States, members of the “creative class,” which includes computer programmers, fared much better than blue collar workers, who saw unemployment rates reach 14.6%, compared to 4.1% among creatives.
Another factor that may separate programmers from the true working class is class-consciousness. In other words: are you working class even if you think you are middle class? This is of course not a Marxist definition of class, but rather a practical definition based on education levels and working with your hands vs. so-called “knowledge-based” work. Then there is the question of class aspirations. Few study programming with the ultimate goal of becoming a rank-and-file worker.
Perhaps as our global society becomes more and more transformed by the digital communications revolution, both common and academic definitions of the working class must change. Whether workers are sewing soccer balls in Bangladesh, answering customer service queries at a call centre in the Philippines or sweating over code in a cubicle in Texas, they all fulfil similar roles in an ever-changing global economy. The recently coined Binary Proletariat refers to the workers operating in the evolving capitalism of the digital revolution, but also the increasing divide between the rich and poor with ever-fewer economic classes in between.
Sometimes working in the digital age can get a bit “meta.” Remember the story from early 2013 of a US programmer outsourcing his own work to other programmers in China? While his performance reviews showed him to be the best developer in the building, the US programmer spent his days looking at cat videos and browsing social media. Although his employers were getting exactly what they wanted, the fact that the worker had turned exploiter didn’t sit well with the bosses. After all, he was reportedly collecting a yearly salary of $250,000 US, while only paying $50,000 to the Chinese consulting firm. He obviously didn’t know his place.