Take This Job and Shove It
Take This Job and Shove It
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week and every week On the Media is a labor of love. But this week it's also a love letter to labor.. .
NEWS CLIP More than twenty five million people quit their jobs in the first seven months of this year, and it is now being called the great resignation. [END CLIP]
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN That office, historically, it's been very good and convincing you that your life is actually the time that you spend in that office. So what happens when that ceases to be the case?
SARAH JAFFE They've laid you off six months after they've told you that you've joined the family and it's like your family doesn't have mass layoffs once a year. Where you evaluate Aunt Susan and decide like "Aunt Susan is fired."
GAVIN MUELLER I think what we have to do is listen to the complaints that people have, to the struggles they're facing and think about reshaping work along those lines rather than just assuming technology's just going to solve the question for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A great resignation. The office gets a makeover and sabotage at the plant. On this week's On the Media from WNYC.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. From hospitals to restaurants to retail establishments. A new sensation has gripped the working nation.
NEWS CLIP It's being called the great resignation. A record number of Americans are telling their bosses I quit. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nearly 39 million workers quit their jobs in the first 10 months of this year.
NEWS CLIP Wages increased again last month as companies tried to attract new employees.
NEWS CLIP Severe or desperate? More than half the nation's school districts describe their bus driver problems...
NEWS CLIP ...And restaurant owners are taking a double hit. A shortage of workers and skyrocketing costs
NEWS CLIP The health care sector has lost more than half a million jobs since the start of the pandemic.
NEWS CLIP Factories don't have enough workers. Even farms are dealing with labor shortages. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's not that we don't have answers for why it's happening, it's that we've got too many.
NEWS CLIP Healthcare workers quit or retired, citing that they were just burned out by the whole thing.
NEWS CLIP People don't want to work because so much stimulus is going out every single day. Small businesses can't get employees.
NEWS CLIP Some older drivers resigned after worrying about being exposed to young, unvaccinated children.
NEWS CLIP For reasons why restaurant workers are walking away. Health and safety concerns. Fatigue from policing customers who don't want to wear masks or frankly, are badly behaved. Many are leaving the industry entirely to retrain for higher paying jobs in tech and finance. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some journalists have followed great resigned hours to read it and Quit-tok where they've been airing their dreams and their rationales.
NEWS CLIP Quitting their day jobs was all about finding happiness and focusing on mental health.
GREAT RESIGNOR Using time off the hamster wheel to focus on myself and to make an impact in my community. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But according to journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of the new book Work Won't Love You Back. The quitting trend can be seen as the product of a long evolution in the logic of work. The call to work, as we've known it, has been exposed. That is to say, the deal proffered by Henry Ford. Security and a certain amount of ease in exchange for boring or dangerous work was withdrawn half a century ago, and the replacement notion that you should love work as a source of fulfillment was never in the worker's best interest because work by its very nature will never love you back. All this finally stripped bare by the pandemic, is why we have what's somewhat mischaracterized as the great resignation.
SARAH JAFFE So for most of capitalism, the industrial work that made up the backbone of the system was miserable. It's hard, it's grinding, it's exhausting and breaks your body. So there is essentially a deal struck between bosses and employees. The work probably sucks, but we're going to pay you all right and you're going to have a weekend and you're going to probably be able to buy a house. And this idea that you will find pleasure in your work was relegated to the sidelines. It was there for sort of critics of the system, like English artisan William Morris, who was both a maker of beautiful prints and also a radical socialist who was writing critiques of the system. He argued that people should get pleasure in the work itself, as well as the fruits of their labor. That that would actually be a more equal and a more just and less miserable society. We don't get that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We get a place to live, the ability to support a family, an occasional vacation, a weekend. Those basics were something that workers were willing to pay for with eight hour, five day work weeks,
Speaker 3 Right, and that was not that historically long a period of time that that ruled. But it is this thing that still has a really solid hold over our imaginations because it gave us some expectation that we would be fairly remunerated for our work. The 1970s brings us a crisis of profits, essentially where workers are getting an increasing piece of the pie and suddenly the pie stops growing. And this has all sorts of reasons, everything from an oil crisis to political changes. But employers start outsourcing the factory jobs. We no longer want to pay people an ever growing slice of the pie. Something replaces those jobs. Teachers, care workers, retail workers, restaurant workers and that work already existed and already had a different set of expectations for emotional labor and things like that, and also the cool knowledge jobs where you get to sit around talking on the radio about the book that you wrote, which are a minuscule part of the economy, really, those jobs too are expanding and those to come with a different expectation that you will like it. You should be grateful for it. And so one of the reasons that I think it's a. Interesting to talk about this history is just to remind people that it's not always been this way, and it's still not this way for every worker. I went to Indiana to get a report on the carrier factory closing after Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had made a big deal out of it on the campaign trail in 2016. And I was talking to workers and I was like, What are you going to miss about the job? And they all looked at me like I had three heads. You know, the paycheck? Maybe they were going to miss their buddies in the union and going to the bar after work for a round of beers before they go home. But like, nobody was like, Oh, I'm really going to miss standing at the machine for 12 hours a day. No, I'm going to miss 26 dollars an hour plus overtime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But I admit they had been roped in by the Fordist compromise, which receded in the 70s and then we got neoliberalism or post-Fordism, or, as you say, late capitalism. A world of fewer social services, fewer worker protections, jobs going offshore and workers begging for them to stay. You quote Joshua Clover in his book, saying labor is locked into the position of affirming its own exploitation under the guise of survival. And you say that was a short step to the labor of love. Explain that.
SARAH JAFFE Yeah. So one of the things that's been fascinating about the strikes this year is that we've seen a lot of strikes in manufacturing, which is a place we haven't seen that many of them in recent years because workers have been too busy trying to keep those plants open. Again, I revisit the carrier plant, the Lordstown GM plant in Ohio, where factories are closing down and the workers are desperately trying to save them. The striking thing about the carrier plant actually was sort of on either side of it. There is an Amazon warehouse and a Target warehouse. You look around and you know what the jobs that you're going to get are when the factory closes. You're going to be making $15 an hour if you're lucky, which doesn't pay the mortgage on the house you bought $26 dollars an hour. And so you go from being able to strike, shut down production, make demands for more, like the workers at John Deere did this summer – to begging your employer not to shut the factory down entirely and move it to Mexico, to Bangladesh, to Vietnam, to China. So that creates a very different relationship to the job and to the employer, and that connects really easily to this idea that was already proliferating in other forms of work that we love our jobs, that we're grateful for our jobs, that our jobs give us meaning and fulfillment and pride.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this idea of love roll back again to the 70s. You quoted Margaret Thatcher saying: "Whose society? There's no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families." And the implication is work is an extension of family, so you should love it and be prepared to sacrifice for it.
SARAH JAFFE Yeah. One of the things that was fascinating when I was reporting my book was I expected to hear a lot of family talk in caring workplaces, in hospitals and health care and teaching, maybe in arts institutions. I didn't expect to hear it so much where I did, which was actually the video games industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE HA!
SARAH JAFFE Games workers were always hearing it, literally one company that I reported on in the book refers to itself on its website as a family, right? And I know about this company because it fired one of its workers for organizing. But you know, I was speaking to the games workers and Kevin Agwaze, who is the person that I based my video games workers chapter on. He was joking about "You know, you move halfway across the country to take a new job at the games company. And then there are these mass layoffs every year. And so they've laid you off six months after they've told you that you've joined the family" and it's like your family doesn't have mass layoffs once a year, you know. Where you evaluate, like Aunt Susan and decide, like, nope, she's out now. No more part of the family. Firing your family is very, very difficult. Firing your workers is very, very easy. One of the things that happens when you have this incredible pressure for everything to sort of be on your individual back is that it becomes all about your individual achievement, your individual relationships with your job, your individual sort of utility, maximizing your ability to keep an eye out for the next good job and jump as soon as it comes along. That kind of pressure, among other things, it really militate against having these conversations with your coworkers, realizing that actually, we're all in the same boat here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it disrupts collective action
SARAH JAFFE Right, exactly. It tells you that the solution, if you don't love your job, is to go find a job you do love rather than to try to make your job better. And that is, I think, the most sort of useful thing that the labor of love story does for employers writ large. It tells us that it's all on us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And with the decline of the factory job of the industrial job with a decent wage. You've got this reliance on love and the jobs that are now proliferating are care jobs, health jobs and so on. And they in particular can engender burnout.
SARAH JAFFE Yeah, the thing about burnout, which has become a sort of buzzword these days, is that the term and the condition originally come out of research on caring workers. On doctors and nurses. That doctors and nurses who were burned out were losing that motivation of caring about their work that they just couldn't bring themselves to care anymore. But what is burnout to the factory worker who maybe never really cared that much about the drill that you lift, however many times an hour to do your part on the assembly line? It's very hard to feel like intrinsically motivated about that, even though you might feel pride in the car that you helped build. And in the money that you bring home, burnout essentially becomes a problem of the labor of love.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I remember talking to a therapist who talked about something that was in the 60s called stewardess syndrome, where you had to smile, even when sleazy business people were touching you or pulling at your skirt. And you had to really convey a love for your job and a kind of happy subservience. And that and the emotional toll it took, was devastating.
SARAH JAFFE Right, and this is very interesting, because actually the research that sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild did that led her to come up with the concept of emotional labor was on flight attendants and it was on that very particular thing that you're talking about. That work of suppressing how you really feel when, like the creepy guy in first class puts his hand on your butt to keep smiling and be like, Can I get you a scotch, sir? Even though I want to murder you? That's work. I was rereading this wonderful article from again early on in the pandemic at Tribune Magazine by Polly Smyth, and she was a retail worker. And the piece was called How COVID turned cashiers into carers. And she told this haunting story of handing a customer his change through the little hole in the plexiglass that was supposed to prevent them from breathing on each other. And this customer reached out and took her hand and just held on to it. And she writes, after about 10 seconds, he let go, looked down at the floor and said, I'm very sorry. The thing is, I live alone. Every customer at the checkout counter, you have to smile at and all of that. But then how much harder is that when you're realizing that this customer hasn't touched a human? And that story just, it haunts me because it's such a perfect example of of how much harder these jobs got in maybe ways that we didn't even think about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does work ever love you back?
SARAH JAFFE I mean, work is just not a thing that can love you. And even if you have a great boss and look, I've had great bosses; that doesn't take away from the pressures that every employer will face and the fact that at the end of the day, they sometimes have to make a choice that isn't the best for me because it's the best for the business. And that is just a fundamental thing that isn't solvable, necessarily, by your boss being nicer. It's solvable by changing these relationships
BROOKE GLADSTONE Between the worker and the work.
SARAH JAFFE Right. And that's a big, broad social relationship that gets changed at the top by economic systems and public policy. There is a limited amount of life hacks that can solve this problem, and the shifting from one job to the next can absolutely change your life for the better, but it's also still going to be a job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH JAFFE Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow and author of Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone. Up next in this hour about work, the architecture of the office and what it tells us about the past and future of our working lives. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. In 1975, fewer than three million people worked from home in the U.S., and a third of those workers were farmers. Major shifts in the economy, a global pandemic and a few minor technological breakthroughs later, that number has surged into the tens of millions, according to the Bureau of Labor. Nowadays, American tele-workers skew upper income, and highly educated. Journalists Anne Helen-Petersen and Charlie Warzel work from home, and that's where together they wrote their latest book on the promise and problems of this very phenomenon called Out of Office. When the pandemic struck last year, the couple found themselves grappling as workers with feeling caught between all deliberating and oppressive effects of tech and design. Warzel, for instance, found himself consumed at all hours by the messaging app Slack, which, by the way, was supposed to make work easier. Much like email was supposed to.
CHARLIE WARZEL Back when email was first invented and codified in the office, it was supposed to kill the memo, and the memo was that cluttering amount of paper that was always being passed around, and all this time you had to spend photocopying it, etc. And so as the whole process of duplicating and replicating became easier due to the technology, people are sending tons of emails when they don't really need to. So Slack comes along and says, Listen, your inbox is almost beyond saving and organizations are wasting all this time replying to emails, and it's not instantaneous. There's still that lag time between sending and receiving. What if we reorganize the way that we work? Ergo, Slack. And Slack is not only to kill email, but it's a big part of the marketing. Anyhow, Slack has not killed email, and I'm sure your inbox is hectic. Just like all of ours. What Slack did was it created yet another channel to check. Another thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you don't save time? [BROOKE LAUGHS]
CHARLIE WARZEL You save time in certain interactions. But people are also going to message you more frequently just simply because it's easier. We're just adding things on because people are always looking for new ways to show that they are being productive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So long before Slack, there was another efficiency trap. The gilded cage of the open office, introduced in 1958 as an office landscape, or as I like to call it: Bürolandschaft.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN I'm so happy you pronounced it and didn't make me pronounce it
CHARLIE WARZEL I had to pronounce it for the audiobook and it was a nightmare.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN I don't think he did it as well as you did. So I am so fascinated by the history of the open office because I think most people think that it was designed first and foremost as a good tool to torture workers. When really it was meant to make workers lives easier. The places where it was first implemented and first designed, a lot of these were very old office buildings that as they hired more people, you placed one person in this building and then another person who should be sitting right next door to them is actually across several office buildings. And so they decided like, what if we completely reorganize this, put people who are working in similar sectors and similar projects close to one another to ease the communication? And then also get rid of this sort of corner offices and the hierarchies that were very standard within offices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But there are no walls. So noisy.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN This is important to note. The original plans have these dividers that were not like what we think of in terms of cubicles. They were much more at, at odd angles, and there were plants all over the place to create natural sound barriers. So it's not the high ceiling open office that has become so standardized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's fascinating because in Germany and Scandinavia and the Netherlands, you wrote that the experience of working in the open office design was so miserable that in the 70s, local worker councils mandated their removal, but not here in the U.S.. The architecture critic James Russell, you quote, said that Americans characteristically reworked the plan into something cheaper and more ordered.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yeah, the cubicle. I think that companies realized that this was a massive cost-cutter, put the corner offices back in because they were allergic to not having that hierarchy in place and then had corners when it came to these dividers. And like the expensive plants that would have been used to group people within these larger spaces and they just put in cubicles, which I find to be very isolating, you're really by yourself in this open office space. It's the worst of both worlds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like being lonely in a city.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You guys cited a study that showed these open formats actually created more inefficient workers. Google was probably thinking about that when it designed a new kind of workspace that was more akin to a college campus. What issues do you think the designers sought to address?
CHARLIE WARZEL One of the founders of Google was actually trying to replicate the campus environment from, I believe, Stanford. And especially the way that the engineering students would get together, and even if they weren't working on the same thing, they would be within arm's reach, just have collaboration. The space was designed to really funnel people to work in different types of environments, right? Not everyone works really well at a desk. Some people want to recline in a beanbag chair, right? Some people like to work in a really dimly lit space with a lot of people around them. Some people just simply want to work in the bustle of a cafeteria. There's multiple workspaces, but also lots of points for people to do either solo or collaborative work. And probably the biggest part was that campus feeling. And so that idea, it is a place where you go and all of your needs are met, and that includes socialization, food, your transportation to and from sometimes even sleeping.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And working out.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yeah, gyms, but also climbing walls, sports leagues. Everything is right there to envelop your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Google Plex was half a million square feet in Mountain View, California. The unifying goal of the design, apparently, was self-sufficiency, but the guy who designed it, Clive Wilkinson, apparently has some misgivings about what he helped design.
CHARLIE WARZEL Yeah, I mean, it is an incredibly influential piece of architecture because, you know, obviously the success of Google as a corporation leads to so many people wanting to mimic that. And so when I kind of put this to him and said, it's a space where you end up spending all your time and essentially live at work, I don't know if it's, if it's necessarily misgivings, but I think it was a realization from him that this really could be abused. And it has led to perhaps a different culture than he imagined. A culture of extreme overwork and commitment and identification with one's job. Because it's not just that you spend a lot of time there, it's also that you make friends there. You could be sitting there having a beer in the cafeteria with a bunch of your friends, but they're also your coworkers. So are you working or are you not working? It becomes very difficult to even tell.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN The way that I often think of it is that you are pumping up one muscle in your body like, let's say, your left bicep by spending all of your time and all of your resources and all of your friend making energy, all of it is is directed towards work and people that you know from work and you're letting the other muscles in your body say your entire right arm atrophy. It's it's just there's nothing there. And what happens in that scenario is, Oh, my left bicep looks amazing, but there's nothing else to fall back on. You don't have any food in your fridge. So why would you go make food for yourself and invite people over? You don't know anyone outside of work. This, of course, really benefits the corporation that your loyalty, your identity is really caught up in them and what they can offer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what about Twitter? You cited as a company that's grappling with the dark side of the Google Plex office model, trying to formulate some sort of hybrid, which removes some of the perks of the office to level the playing field for people who work remotely and people who work on site.
CHARLIE WARZEL All these tech companies, as a way to attract talent, created the most attractive amenities environment as they could. At Twitter, one of them, especially in their office in downtown San Francisco, is an amazing kitchen, espresso bars and all kinds of wonderful things. I've been there a few times. The food is fantastic and it's all free. The people we spoke to there realized that, well, that's a big perk. And it feels, you know, if you're choosing to work from home where your meals are not paid for that, you're leaving something on the table. So when they're looking at actually trying to create a hybrid environment that doesn't incentivize people to come into the office or doesn't penalize people who choose to work remotely means you have to make work less appealing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are they closing their kitchen?
CHARLIE WARZEL This, to my knowledge, was the plan. I don't know how it's been implemented. The kitchen is one element of it, but there's other ones that are smaller but just as important. And one of them is when people go into a conference room for meetings. Everyone at twitter has to turn their laptop on so that the camera and the microphone are easily accessible because there's a number of people who've been odd person out in a meeting being remote where the camera's positioned very strangely, you can't see everyone in the room. One person is impossible to hear. And it creates this tax on people who choose not to come in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This seems uncharacteristically unmindful of efficiency or profit. Or do they just know that most of that's a bunch of bull anyway?
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN I think that tech companies in particular, there's very clear expectations about what deliverables are, and this is part of the reason why many tech companies, not all, but many tech companies were pretty comfortable with people working remotely before. Because if you have clear expectations about the sort of work that needs to be performed and people are doing that work, then you don't care where it's happening. The only people who care are people who don't do that work right and whose job is less legible. And this is oftentimes managers. Their job is oftentimes just supervising. So how do you supervise? How do you make that visible? It's a lot harder, but tech companies actually understand that it is efficient to let people design their own workday and their own work rhythms and seen that borne out over the course of the pandemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is that why Dropbox, the cloud storage company that's based in San Francisco, decided back in October last year to become a virtual-first organization?
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN They also decided to, I think, do a pretty dramatic reorganization of how their company worked. And one of the ways that they could do that, alongside being a remote-first organization, is figure out, OK, we don't need offices where people can go every single day, but we do understand that some of our workers are going to want collaborative space. So we'll put together kind of studios in four of the cities where our workers are clustered. Some of those cities in the United States, I think one is in Amsterdam. But the really interesting thing, and I think the smartest thing about this plan is that it's not a space for just putting your butt in the seat and being present. It is specifically designed as a place to do collaborative work. So you have that space to do the the water cooler stuff that is a little bit less spontaneous, but you don't have the sort of obligatory showing your face just to show your face understanding of what work is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We focused on the architecture of the office, but this is really about work and about life and the intersection of the two.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Yeah. One cheesy thing we say about our book is that it's not about where you work, it's about how you work and how you think about work in your life. The thing about the office historically, is it's been very good and convincing you that your life is actually the time that you spend in that office and that it is the primary gravitational pull on your life. So what happens when that ceases to be the case?
CHARLIE WARZEL There's the thing about remote work. A lot of people try to gloss over because they want it. But the truth is that it's harder. It is logistically more challenging to have a bunch of people spread out than it is to have them in one space. In order to succeed, you have to be very intentional. You have to design it with the best interest of everyone in your organization, but especially the workers in mind. And in doing that, you design something that's more human. They can only work with truly understanding who your workers are as people. I think that is why remote work is a really good Trojan horse for a lot of these bigger ideas about what is it that we value? Who do we want to be? How do we want to spend this limited time that we have, you know, here on Earth? And do we want to spend it in service of a company? We should just always be asking ourselves those questions because we only have one life here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charlie, Ann, thank you so much.
CHARLIE WARZEL Thanks for having us.
ANN HELEN-PETERSEN Thank you. This is such a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen-Petersen are the authors of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home. Coming up, being a Luddite doesn't make you a technophobe, it just means you can see a little further around the corner. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ann Helen-Petersen and Charlie Warzel showed how the tech that was supposed to liberate office workers has trapped them instead into an endless cycle of performative tasks. But that's just a piece of that picture. Gavin Mueller, who teaches media studies at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, says tech has changed the relationship between workers and work in countless ways and rarely with the worker in mind. But we don't always remember it that way. The rebellious weavers of 19th century England took on the name of the mythical King Ludd as a badge of honor. Now it's an insult.
NEWS CLIP You're like a Luddite. You're like the guy who doesn't like technology anymore...
NEWS CLIP Can I just say to all the Luddites in the room who didn't need to see new technology...
NEWS CLIP That's a Luddite idea. That is going backward in time. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In his book Breaking Things at Work, the Luddites are right about why you hate your job. Muller makes the case that the Luddite workers weren't technophobe, but rather tech savvy pioneers.
GAVIN MUELLER These are skilled craftspeople, so they're very good at using technology, in fact and very perceptive about what the effects of technology will be on their trade. And they immediately perceive that these new factory technologies create textiles of lower quality, that lower wages and undermine entire communities of families, towns, regions. And in fact, that is ultimately what happened to these places. To see the Luddites as somehow irrational. We can only do that from the vantage point of 200 years later, thinking that what happened to them was sort of inevitable and they should have just given up. I think if you were in their position, you would probably do something similar to what they did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what exactly did they do and how did they manage to organize themselves to do it?
GAVIN MUELLER They would go on these kind of midnight raids and smash up gig mills and stocking frames, but they actually engaged in a lot of other practices. You know, they would have protests, they would have strikes. But one thing that I think is really valuable to think about was how these practices of machine breaking required a deep community solidarity that really shifted the balance of power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For a while at least, you said it worked. The factory owners were terrified and wages went up. But then they sent in the troops
GAVIN MUELLER More troops than they had fighting Napoleon on the continent, and they were able to crack down effectively on the rebellion. But this kind of militant opposition to technology doesn't stop, even if the Luddites themselves lost the battle. In fact, you had similar kinds of rebellions in France. They actually were so successful that factories closed for another 20 years, and they didn't even try to use those machines until the next generation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It is interesting the international element of this. A hundred years after the Luddites took action, the industrial workers of the world, which was a massive organization of transient workers and unemployed people in the U.S., published pamphlets on the power of sabotage.
GAVIN MUELLER There was this flourishing of interest in the Wobblies, which was a kind of interesting, vibrant milieu of these grassroots activists and militants and workers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Wobblies were members of the industrial workers of the world.
GAVIN MUELLER Exactly. And something that these wobbly writers shared with the Luddites is, they said, well, sabotage can be something that workers do, but this is a kind of parallel response to what they called capitalist sabotage, which is when rotten food was put out for sale or products were adulterated. Right. This is the same time that Upton Sinclair's writing The Jungle. You have really poor quality, in some cases dangerous and deadly products being sold. And so they said, well, if they can sabotage people in the name of profit, we can conduct sabotage in the name of attacking their profits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE During the depression. You write that the international workers of the world initially held up some hope for 'technocracy,' but eventually the group tired of these visions, you wrote. They do not have a program for accomplishing things, wrote the IWW. And they completely exclude the class struggle. So there's nothing left to discuss there.
GAVIN MUELLER Yeah. So by the 1930s, the IWW wasn't what it used to be. Membership had dropped off quite a bit, and there is this weird 'out there' intellectual movement speculation about will have a fully automated society. Technology will solve all of our problems. This movement called the technocracy movement, interestingly, still kind of around, at least they have a website. But ultimately, the people behind that movement didn't really have a kind of politics. They held out a lot of visions of technology will erase work. People will be out of work. What should we do? They had ideas around, you know, state support, transition to a new mode of production, things that people are writing books about today. But for the Wobblies, they said, our politics are the politics of class struggle because fundamentally you're in capitalism, which means there's an antagonism between bosses and workers and all politics has to flow from that. And I think that is also something we need to think about in our current moment, right? It'd be really nice to say, Oh yeah, we have the technology, it could give abundance to everyone, but it's not going to come to us purely out of the development of technology. It's only going to come from some kind of political struggle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You see the tactics of sabotage, today. Specifically, I'm thinking of the American farmers who broke their John Deere tractors, or at least the software in those tractors.
GAVIN MUELLER Yeah, it's such a wonderful story. The new version of John Deere tractors are loaded with software just like anyone's automobile is right. You've got these computers and all these things. The problem was you were unable to access and repair the tractor unless you had a licensed USB drive. So you had to go to a particular John Deere licensed repairer, and that meant you couldn't repair your tractor yourself, even if you knew how you couldn't go to someone else unless they were licensed by John Deere. And of course, John Deere is going to, you know, charge premium prices for that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right, Deere Charge 230 dollars plus 130 dollars an hour for the technician to drive out and plug in the connector.
GAVIN MUELLER You know you're getting a raw deal here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Infuriating.
GAVIN MUELLER So they went online and they said, 'look, is there any way we can get around this software?' And they ended up finding pirated software. I think it was Estonian hackers that created it, installed that and used it to essentially jailbreak their tractors the way that you might jailbreak your iPhone to put on an app or something that's not on the Apple Store. And now you have members of Congress saying, Wow, this is actually really not fair at all. Maybe we should regulate what's going on in these industries. So I think that shows the power of this Luddite perspective on technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, it started the right-to-repair movement
GAVIN MUELLER the right to repair movement, right –yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you identify somewhat more dubious protests as Luddite sabotage too. On Reddit, for example, there's a wave of users who give each other tips on how best to shoplift in order to get back at retailers for forcing them to use self-checkout. They're essentially enabling each other to steal. How do you see this as luddism?
GAVIN MUELLER Reddit took the forum off, but what was really interesting to me is not just the sharing of tips and tricks. 'You know, scan your organic stuff is regular' and get a little discount for yourself. But the way that people justified it, they said, Look, these self-checkouts got installed in my grocery store, I didn't agree to it. And all of a sudden, instead of someone else scanning my staff, bagging my stuff, I've got to do it myself. I'm essentially working for the company. Someone had that job. They don't have it anymore. And now I'm doing the work. If they're going to get me to do free labor for them, then I'm justified in getting a little discount on my bananas or getting a free steak here in there. We have to take matters into our own hands and form some kind of wider challenge. Maybe it would be enough to get the cashiers to come back. Again, this stuff is not inevitable. That happens sometimes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now you see the free software movement as the great example of Luddism succeeding in the here and now, right?
GAVIN MUELLER So the free software movement was born in the early days of software programming. If you were into computers, you were part of this niche subculture. And to learn how to operate your PC that you built from a kit, you had to talk to other people who were making software. You had to borrow their programs, look at their code, change their code. And that was how people learned how to program right. And so when personal computing starts to grow, some people are saying, well, software can be a market, something that we sell, rather than something that people have to kind of make themselves. Bill Gates wrote an infamous letter to this computer hobbyist club saying, 'you're stealing my stuff.' Ironically enough. Bill Gates himself stole quite a lot of what became Windows from other places, but we don't need to go there now. The US Supreme Court decided it was copyright that would govern software, so these practices that this first generation of hackers and programmers were used to would have been gone illegal. And so what these people did, led by this eccentric figure, Richard Stallman, is they said, 'Well, what if we had our own intellectual property licenses that we would paste on top of copyright' because copyright is automatic and these licenses actually relinquish my exclusive right to this software? Anyone else is allowed to borrow my code, change it, customize it with one provision. They also have to abide by those rules for whatever they produce. So that means that free software would beget more free software and you would develop an entire ecosystem and that would preserve these grassroots craft traditions within computer programming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And did it work?
GAVIN MUELLER The biggest success, and one that maybe some of the listeners out there recognize is the Linux operating system started by a teenager sending a message out and saying, Hey, does anyone want to do an open source operating system? And hundreds and thousands of people said, Yes, we want to help out, let's make it. But even if you're out there and you're like, I don't know anything about free software, I just use the programs that are already on my computer. Free and open source software, in many cases, had higher quality, customizable products at the end of the process. Your modem or your router has probably got some free and open source software running on it right now. One reason why programmers still have a great deal of autonomy. I don't have to have a degree, if I'm good enough. I can live in Berlin for 6 months if I want, and make a lot of money. The reason why programmers have that ability is precisely because they were able to carve out this space of autonomy. They didn't let Microsoft control that profession, but I do think it's one really recent example of a kind of Luddite perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And your book wasn't at least initially just a response to how Luddites have been miscast and misremembered. It was inspired by all the renewed discussion about automation in the workforce.
GAVIN MUELLER Yeah, so there was a lot of discussion. 7 or 8 years ago, from economists, from people working in industry, wow, we're going to automate a lot of different jobs and those people that work in those positions, they're going to be out of luck. So what is going to happen? But you also have this kind of interesting moment in leftist and progressive politics of people saying, Well, maybe that's not so bad. Sure. In our current world, it's really bad not to have work because we need wages to live. But what if this was a kind of leverage to enter a new society where we don't have to work to live? And that automation, creating greater wealth, could actually be a vehicle for a post capitalist politics?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't understand that logic. You don't get leverage if you don't have something to hold over the heads of the people who are making all the money. Automation in the 50s caused a huge wave of unemployment in the black community. Automation had a huge impact on housewives. I mean, historically, washing machines were a huge deal, but they did actually increase the workload overall of the homemaker.
GAVIN MUELLER I agree 100 percent with you, Brooke. The way that automation works is not simply it gets rid of work, it redistributes work, and it changes the approach to work in a variety of different ways. Sometimes, yes, jobs are eliminated. In other cases, jobs are deskilled and degraded. In the case of the Housewives new technologies, rather than saving them work, expectations rose. So they were still doing just as much work as before. In fact, the only thing that's gotten women to spend less time on chores is burden sharing with their partners. So it's actually feminism that saved women, not technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet the people that you are talking about seem to be echoing. John Maynard Keynes, who predicted his grandchildren would work only 15 hours a week due to technological advance. That technology is not only inevitable, but it's inherently good for workers, even if it's carried forward by the likes of tech billionaires.
GAVIN MUELLER Right. If you think that the technology itself is neutral and it's like, well, sure, when it's Bill Gates in charge, that's bad. But maybe, you know, if it's Bernie Sanders in charge, it could be different. These technologies have a politics already, and a better approach to take is to understand the impact from the perspective of the people who are being affected by it. I think what we have to do is take seriously how to make work dignified, safe to allow people to be creative and fulfilled, to listen to the complaints that people have to the struggles they're facing and think about reshaping work along those lines rather than just assuming technology's just going to solve the question for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tech is a form of power that can actually disempower workers. You wrote that one of my goals in writing this book is to turn Marxists into Luddites. My argument boils down to this to be a good Marxist is to also be a Luddite. And while I want to make Marxists into Luddites, I also have another goal. I want to turn people critical of technology into Marxists.
GAVIN MUELLER Technology is developed under capitalism, right? There's a lot of dissatisfaction with technology out there. People hate Facebook. People are concerned about climate change. But the response to that can vary quite a lot. I want people to see that the problems of technology are part of the problems of the economic system in which that technology is being developed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, isn't it generally good if it isn't used to disempower workers? I mean –z vaccines.
GAVIN MUELLER Well, I'm not opposed to vaccines. I'm not opposed to all technologies. But I think you have some examples. For instance, the Soviet Union, right? Oh, we're for the workers, but you know, we also need to make stuff, so we'll just use existing technologies. And what happened was, well, the workers were disempowered. Workers were unhappy at work. Workers engaged in sabotage at work. There's a lot of problems with that production process because they had a brief debate, but ultimately decided that what they needed to do is develop the productive forces. You see something similar in China. I mean, it's playing out in a different way, and they've done some impressive things there, but people work incredibly hard doing really degrading jobs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you determine when a technology is good? There's an endless history of unintended consequences.
GAVIN MUELLER Of course, someone who I think is really interesting Marxist thinker on work in technology is Harry Braverman, who was himself a factory worker and goes on to become a socialist and a writer. And he wrote a book about technology at work. It comes out in 1974. What he says is, you know, why is technology always about management? It's all about scientific management? What if we took a bottom up perspective? What if we took seriously the way that workers experience their jobs and incorporated their values, their desires, their needs into the technology? Because that's not what happens now. Even when it gets branded that way, the way technology is developed is in the interest of accumulation in the interests of controlling workers. And so he offers it's a brief moment in this long, but very much worth reading book. This is how you have science and technology without saying we just need to go back to nature. We need to, you know, leave industrial society. I don't think that's a very good solution. I like vaccines, OK? Something that I truly believe is if you want to understand how things are made and how to make it better. Talk to the people who are involved in that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if you'd incorporated the weavers in the creation of those industrial frames..
GAVIN MUELLER You could imagine a world right where certain kinds of textile production remained in control of these weaving communities, and they could adopt new technologies, and they did adopt new technologies. What if they had been as successful as the free and open source software hackers? Maybe my jeans would last a little longer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gavin, thank you very much.
GAVIN MUELLER Well, thank you for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gavin Mueller teaches media studies at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and he's the author of Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen, with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
And I want to say a fond, fraught farewell to our beloved Leah Feder, who is moving on to another job. She's contributed to the show in so many ways, it's impossible to tally, and we'll miss her very much. So all I can say is for all of us. Thank you.