Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day Nonpost

Labor Day is a day when laborers are not supposed to labor. It is an artificial holiday, created explicitly to separate US labor from the international labor movement, which still celebrates on May 1. Since I am now a member of the blogging proletariat, this particular post is excusing itself from the task of making a point, and is going to ramble and drop links.

I Believe in America

Labor Day Is a Scam To Keep You Poor and Miserable Forever

Developers are the Autoworkers of our Generation (Hacker News discussion_)

Tech CEO autistically offers to automate someone’s job away

The discussion on that last one got me thinking…A good developer is constantly automating the boring parts of their job so they can focus on the more interesting parts. What is a compiler, or a continuous-integration server, but a way for developers to spend less time on repetitive tasks?

It is always striking to me how much software has improved in this respect, and how little. Yes, tools like Wordpress make it possible to set up a website in minutes, where it would have taken a month or so in the past. But the basic tasks of coding don’t seem any easier. Languages have not improved much in the 30+ years I have been doing this professionally, nor have editors or debugging tools (actually things have gotten quite a bit worse since the peak of powerful programming environments, the Lisp Machine, but that is a flame for another day). Revision control systems have improved, but not radically. You’d think we’d have systems that could go from intention to powerful software engine almost instantaneously by now, but no, it’s still an incredibly tedious process. Software seems stuck on a plateau, which is good news I guess for us developers, we just haven’t made ourselves as obsolete as we should have.

Of course the real money is in automating other people’s jobs. That is happening and I believe will accelerate in the next decade, which would cause labor unrest and a resurgence of Luddism if people had any guts, but mostly they don’t. Of course this has been happening for a long time:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. ... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

– Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) (and no, I am not a Marxist but I am very fond of this passage)
The developer/entrepeneur/VC nexus is like the Victorian bourgeois raised to the nth power. Move fast and break things! If the old labor and socialist movements were a response to the rise of industry and the destruction of traditional ways of life, well, we are still waiting for an adequate political solution to the social churn caused by software.

Mitigating the effects of accelerating technological change doesn't sound so hard in theory. I don’t have any trouble imagining what that response should be. The goal is to have a world where the creative entrepreneurial spirit can thrive, but without the side-effects of destroying people's lives.  How about for instance: a guaranteed minimal income; changing our model of education from its industrial model to one of continuous learning; greater wealth equality and more democratic workplace cultures? All good ideas, but with essentially no chance of happening given the currently broken political system.

As a software person I feel our field should have some social responsibility for these issues – given how much we are damaging people’s livelihoods, we should also be working on the fixes. However, we don’t really have the talent or inclination.

Perhaps that is changing. Software may be eating the world, but as it does it gets changed in turn. The more artists, activists, and other people who are not in the generic tech-nerd mold get involved with software, the better (and I say that as pretty much a generic tech-nerd myself). The more important software is, the more important it is that it reflect the full spectrum of human needs, desires, and abilities, not merely the narrow parts of that it currently serves.

Previously. Also there are some obvious links between this topic and my recent guest post on I/Thou, the explicating of which is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some work songs (Spotify link).

And I should add that I have almost no personal complaints about my current employment, at least, none that have to do with this post. I'm pretty firmly in the camp of eaters rather than eaten and hope to stay that way.

1 comment:

scw said...

"Labor Day is a day when laborers are not supposed to labor. It is an artificial holiday, created explicitly to separate US labor from the international labor movement, which still celebrates on May 1"

Canada observes Labour Day on the first Monday in September:

http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/canada/labour-day

Assuming you are still in the United States, Canada ought to count as "international."