Are We Facing a Future of Invisible Workers?

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Are We Facing a Future of Invisible Workers?

February 25, 2014
This undated photo provided by Facebook shows the server room at the company's data center in Prineville, Ore. (AP Photo/Facebook, Alan Brandt)

This undated photo provided by Facebook shows the server room at the company’s data center in Prineville, Ore. (AP Photo/Facebook, Alan Brandt)

At The New Yorker, George Packer considers one significant way in which this Gilded Age differs from the last one. Amazon, Apple and Google are not Standard Oil, Ford or General Motors, but there are parallels.

Packer writes:

A hundred years ago, the popular image of the worker was a sweaty toiler, his face smudged with coal dust or scorched by the blast furnace, oppressed by the industrial machine but not its total victim. He was coiled with potential energy that was frightening to some and inspiring to others — he had the country’s future in his muscular hands. By the time Studs Terkel published his oral history “Working,” forty years ago next month, that image had blurred. The Chicago steelworker at the start of the book was a working stiff, bored and trapped by his job but still able to take its existence for granted. And he now had company — among others, a hospital aide, a supermarket cashier, a pair of hair stylists. These were the last days of secure blue-collar work, and the beginning of wage stagnation in the service economy.

In the decades after 1974, the archetypal worker became a store greeter at Walmart — part time, nonunion, making near-poverty wages. The animating spirit of her working life was no longer the dignity of labor, the drama of factory strife, or the slackness of union bureaucracy — it was required cheerfulness barely concealing an unhappiness that she was too afraid to show. She was isolated, anxious, and, basically, powerless, under the constant threat of having no job at all.

As the bottom fell out of the working class, this attitude spread to other kinds of work, including the once formidable assembly line: employees at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, who recently voted against joining the United Auto Workers, cited the fate of their counterparts in Detroit. Solidarity had become too risky — they were lucky just to be making nineteen dollars an hour.

When I wrote about Amazon – which is as emblematic of the American corporation in 2014 as U.S. Steel was in 1914 and Walmart in 1994 — for a story in The New Yorker, earlier this month, I began to wonder what a company worker looked like. I found it hard to come up with an image. Amazon’s workforce is made up mainly of computer engineers and warehouse workers, but when you think of Amazon you don’t picture either one (and there aren’t many photographs to help your imagination). What you see, instead, is a Web site with a button that says “ADD TO CART” and a cardboard box with a smile printed on the side. Between clicking “BUY” and answering the door when U.P.S. arrives lies a mystery — a chain of events that only comes to mind if you make a conscious effort. The work is done by people you don’t see and don’t have to think about, which is partly what makes Amazon’s unmatched efficiency seem nearly miraculous.

The invisibility of work and workers in the digital age is as consequential as the rise of the assembly line and, later, the service economy… With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.

Read the whole piece at The New Yorker.