Wednesday Quickies: Labour in the tech sector, and the perils of living off-grid

It turns out that if you want to live off-grid in some parts of the United States, the various technological obstacles are the least of your worries. The state of Florida has recently made it illegal to have a house that is not connected to the electrical and water grids. This is somewhat surprising from the United States, where one might think that the nation’s pioneer mythology would stand in the way of this kind of interference, at least at a political level.

All your Amazon stuff comes from this massive warehouse, where it turns out the workers aren’t actually treated that well.


But perhaps that’s naive. It turns out that The State in the USA has a bit of a history of going after modern-day pioneers. Last year, a commune in Texas was raided by federal agents. After several weeks of legal harassment, its residents woke up one day to find men in tactical gear storming the property. They were all shortly handcuffed while the premises was searched, and one of them was carted off to jail for an unpaid traffic ticket. These kinds of radical experimental communities have always been vulnerable; their position outside cultural norms and the dominant socio-technical regime make them an easy target for any state actors who decide they don’t like them. Stuff like this just goes to illustrate that the socio-technical regime can sometimes be embodied in very draconian ways.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Facebook’s bus drivers are trying to unionise. Facebook, like many tech giants in the Bay Area, employs luxurious shuttle buses to carry its employees to and from its corporate campus. But apparently they don’t treat their drivers very well-one man interviewed for the story says that he works absurd hours for less than a living wage. Similarly, Amazon has recently come under fire for forcing its warehouse staff to stand in a metal detector queue at the end of the day-after they have clocked out-to make sure that they are not stealing any goods from the warehouse. I can understand the concern about theft, but employees being kept from going home should be paid. If you’re more interested in the labour issues connected to e-commerce, check out this Mother Jones expose on the subject.

It can sometimes be tempting to see tech companies as existing purely in the digital sphere, as if Facebook and Amazon are composed of nothing but circuitry and a couple hundred pampered programmers. But even digital businesses-especially ones like Amazon-need physical infrastructure, and that means they will be employing low-level workers. We shouldn’t allow our perceptions of these companies to stop us from holding them accountable for their treatment of the people that drive their buses and run their warehouses. Unions might seem old-fashioned compared to the cutting edge stuff that goes on at these companies, but cases like these make it clear that they are as badly needed in the twentieth century as they were in the nineteenth.


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