Cyberspace and the physical world have now converged, so lets trench the Orwellian cant about gig employees, the sharing economy and reaching out
For me, the tech stories of 2017 turned out not to be really tech narratives at all. Mostly they were about politics, as the non-tech world woke up to the fact that this digital stuff truly affected them . As, for example, when they realised that for a mere $30,000 the Russians could beam subtle political messages to as many as 126 million US voters in an election year without anyone( including Facebook) apparently noticing. Or when big consumer brands suddenly realised that it wasn't a good notion to have their ads running on YouTube alongside beheading or white supremacist videos. Or when parents woke up to the fact that not everything operating on the YouTube Kids channel was wholesome or harmless.
That people were so surprised by these discoveries suggests that the perceptual time lag between technological change and public awareness is longer than we had supposed. The internet, after all, is more than four decades old. For the first 20 years of its existence, cyberspace and the physical world were parallel universes. One was a virtual space with no crime, warfare, violence, politics, espionage or government regulation; the other was precisely the opposite. But from about 1993 onwards( when the web began to take off) things changed, and the two cosmoes merged to render the networked world we now inhabit- a place where it no longer attains sense to distinguish between offline and online activity. It's all simply stuff that happens. The technological has become social.
Given that, we would expect to see new various kinds of literature emerging, composed not by techies celebrating the wonders of digital technology but by writers puzzled or disturbed by what it's undertaken in order to society, or by people who are on the receiving objective of the interruption. We need something like Humphrey Jennings's wonderful compendium Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660 -1 885 , which gave us such a vivid impression of how people experienced the first industrial revolution.
Two marvellous essays seemed this year that indicate promising stirs in our own literary undergrowth. Both are by employees in the so-called gig economy. Jaime Christley is an Uber driver in New York and his A Day in the Uber Life offer a riveting insight into what it's like to be managed by an algorithm in a merciless world. He's a former yellow cab driver who switched to Uber, and his account of the coming of the Silicon Valley barbarians has echoes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson in their heydays.
” Management panicked because we were all independents, and could walk away with utterly no advance notice. Handmade signs and photocopied news articles, videotapeed up by the management, started to appear around the office and waiting time, bad-mouthing Uber for unfair practices. The morning dispatcher who glared at you every day, just for living, suddenly was all smiles, cracking jokes. You started get newer vehicles with low miles , not the junkers that had fun features like rent seat belt and trunks that don't open. There were two or three other employees around the garage, hard guys from the bad old days who'd rather be framed for assassination than treat hackers with an iota of human respect. Because they wouldn't change their styles, well, one day you noticed you hadn't seen so-and-so for a couple of weeks. They vanished like political dissenters under an authoritarian regime .”
The other writer, Sam Riches, is a bike courier in Toronto working for a Deliveroo-type algorithm. Like Christley, he writes taut conversational prose in which the humiliation of gig job hissings like a firehose forced through a very narrow aperture. Here he is, for example, in What Being a Bike Courier Taught Me About Our Broken Economy:” I wonder what happens when someone orders a pizza. A pizza won't fit in the delivery bag. I figure there has to be something in the algorithm, something incorporated into the app, that funnels pizza orders to those with vehicles. Then I get a bellow. It's a pizza delivery. At the restaurant, a server hands me two bags of food and a cartoonishly large pizza box.' I'll let you figure that out ,' he says.
” I push my bike along the busy sidewalk, trying to get back on to the road. I keep the pizza balanced across my handlebars. An older woman glares at me and shakes her head and clicks her tongue, tsk-tsking. I'm trying. I want to tell her, I'm trying .”
We need more of this, more challenges to the Orwellian cant of an industry in which renting out your spare bedroom makes you a part of the” sharing economy”, intrusive messages are described as” reaching out”, and humen getting paid two pennies a period for vetting perhaps pornographic images are called ” Mechanical Turks “.
As Wittgenstein once put it, anything that can be said can be said clearly. So how about this as a New Year resolution: call a spade a spade, even when it's digital?
Read more: www.theguardian.com