How the Web Industry is Working its Way out of a Golden Age
by Lisa Schmeiser
The World Wide Web used to be regarded as the first gleam in a Golden Age of vocational liberty. Information technology, promised Apple Computers, AT&T, Pacific Bell, and many other players in the burgeoning Web industry, would free workers from the confines of the office and a lengthy work day. The hallmarks of the industry--short production runs, diverse demographic markets, flexible requirements for worker specialization, and product differentiation--all appear to be undermining the "old" corporate model of a rigid organization and highly specific product development processes. Many Web shops present themselves as working communities, where what little authority the management might posess is decentralized.
This techno-utopian vision has been challenged by several writers and academics, among them Kevin Robins and Frank Webster. Robins and Webster charge that the same industries telling us we will experience a business meeting conducted via wristwatch are, in fact, perpetuating a culture directly contradictory to the one they're marketing--"slaves without Athens."
Is the Web workplace one of the few populated by workaholics who love their jobs, or are people merely trying to stay on top of a workload where product turnaround is a few hours? Both. A lot of workers may not perceive their working conditions as unfair. Many of the people churning out HTML for large sites started by building webs as a hobby in college: now, they've parlayed those skills into a well-paying job where they can still maintain personal pages after cranking out the corporate pages. The line between work-related Web development and recreational development is blurred, and the success stories of workers who parlayed their recreational sites into businesses make it still hazier.
Compounding the condition of not having a clearly defined workspace or work day is the time pacing of the Web industry. The principle commodity in the industry is time: Web economy is shaped by short-run production, a demographically diverse market, and a rapid turn-around time on new products. Producing something that garners Net credentials, or maintaining the hyped-up rate of upgrades required to retain "Net cred"--and the total reworking of a product the industry demands to keep that title--often mean more work, with a shorter span of days in which to produce it.
Newspaper workers walk out over conditions like these, yet most Web workers accept the workload as inevitable. Moreover, there's no effort to unionize the industry. Why?
Perhaps because the Web culture isn't conducive to the current model of organized labor, for several reasons. Unions require a commitment to a central social authority, which is directly at odds with the decentralized nature of the Web and its discourse. Although unions have used computer mediated methods to disseminate information to their constituents, they usually do so in a closed network situation, and through traditional authority structures. Web workers tend to gather information from a variety of net-based resources, many of which are not recognized as part of the worker's environment.
In addition, unions make a sharp distinction between working hours and personal hours. Although workers may derive a great deal of professional satisfaction from their jobs, their work is a discrete part of a larger life. Computers are a tool to empower the worker, permitting them to make decisions about job-related technologies and to control the nature of their work so the task, not the worker, is efficient. By controlling the work, the worker maintains a rein over how their time on and off the job is spent. Web workers, on the other hand, derive some of their professional identity from their hacker roots, a subculture that is built on deeds done outside of "normal" work environments. Additionally, many Web workers enjoy access to server space and technology they can't afford independently. If a union were to regulate how many hours an HTML producer was at work, or what specific tasks a SPARC station could be used for, the opportunities to produce individual Web sites and preserve the hacker connection are reduced.
Nor, apparently, does the industry need reform; most workers perceive themselves as having a set of skills that will allow them to upgrade workplaces if their current employer becomes too demanding. As one software engineer said, "I can always go somewhere else." Thanks to the decentralization and easy mobility within the industry, workers see themselves as discrete units within a larger social culture, rather than part of a working culture. Taking responsibility for the work environment simply isn't part of the cultural ethos.
As the percentage of contract jobs without benefits increases and as the industry begins operating with real dollars and not grants, workers will need to examine the nature of their vocation and define what is reasonable. The first steps have been taken, albeit in classic individualist mode: people formed electronic networking groups to set professional standards and they're going to court for benefits. The real question is whether these workers will co-opt the medium they know so well to move toward Athens, or whether the slaves will escape one at a time.
Copyright © 1996 by Lisa Schmeiser. All Rights Reserved.