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Tag: labor (page 1 of 2)

Playin’ as PewDiePie

YouTube star PewDiePie, who vlogs about video games, launched a mobile game called Tuber Simulator, in which the player roleplays as a professional YouTuber. Gita Jackson writes:

Because of the way these mechanics work, the life of a Tuber (as presented in-game) is less about being passionate and following your dreams than endlessly churning out content and doing what’s popular.

Well, yeah. Welcome to the working world. Art (to use the term loosely) is very rarely about just doing what you love, unless you’re content to have a day job at the same time. And now playing games is sometimes about mimicking someone else’s day job!

I wonder if Tuber Simulator would be fun for a professional YouTuber to play? It amazes me that we’ve gotten to the point where digital careers are legitimate enough to imitate. I guess I would enjoy trying Freelance Writer Simulator. Maybe I would be better at the game version of my own job! Would that be heartening or depressing? (Ugh, don’t answer.)

I want to quote something I mentioned when I wrote about Game Dev Tycoon:

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Just for fun, in the “cheerfully unhinged” category, this was the first review forTuber Simulator when I looked at the App Store page:

screenshot of a Tuber Simulator review on the App Store

WALLS! BATHROOMS! NO MORE SQUARE ROOMS! KITCHENS! LIFE!

Personalities, Bought and Sold

Sara Watson wrote about the contradictory selves that each of us scatters around on the internet:

I catch glimpses of her in side­bars and banners, in the branded ads creeping into my infi­nite scrolls. She surfaces in recom­men­da­tions and person­al­ized results — fleeting encoun­ters unless captured by screen­shot.

She is a pixe­lated, auto­mated portrait of myself. She is frag­ments, an amal­ga­ma­tion I see in the digital mirror. She’s me, now through a glass darkly.

She is a pastiche of my patched-together digital detritus. She is my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS loca­tions, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card trans­ac­tions, and my public records.

Artwork by Matt Lyon.

Artwork by Matt Lyon.

As a pretty public person who makes a living writing (or at least tries to), I struggle with this. I don’t care about the personal effect that ~surveillance capitalism~ has on me (I do care about the political effects, don’t worry!) because let’s be real, the personal effect is nil. I just get advertised to a little more effectively. But it does frustrate me that my public persona is so fractured.

There’s cyberpunk me, which you get exposed to via this newsletter, and which also comes out in the chat group, on Twitter, and on Hacker News. There’s business-y me on Twitter, my website, and occasionally Facebook. But I have a whole separate sphere of interests centered on makeup and other “girly” stuff, expressed via Instagram and Reddit.

I feel really weird when I “cross the streams” by talking about makeup on Twitter or whatever. I’m not presenting something cohesive, from a branding perspective. And since clients come from everywhere, that potentially threatens my livelihood, or at least de-optimizes it.

There are always tradeoffs. The internet and social media have been such a boon to me, especially since I do not function well in normal office environments, but constantly pitching myself to anyone who drops by is exhausting.

“There is an error with my dependencies”

Exolymph reader Set Hallström, AKA Sakrecoer, sent me an original song called “Dependency” — these are the lyrics:

sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade

There is an error with my dependencies
Consultd 1.2 and emplyomentd 1.70
I cannot pay my rent without their libraries
And to install i need to share my salary

Where do i fit in this society?
The more i look and the less i see
They want no robots nor do they want me.
work is a point in the agenda of the party

sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade

My liver isn’t black market worthy
And my master degree from a street university
My ambitions are low and i am debt free
There is no room in the industry for robots like me

Don’t get me wrong i would also like to be
Installed and running and compatible with society
But i am running a different library
Because my kernel is still libre and free.

All unedited. Another thing — Craig Lea Gordon’s novella Hypercage is available on Amazon for zero dollars. Review coming soon, but I wanted to let you know now!

Imagining a Cyberpunk Social Safety Net

I’m still thinking about how to structure the rewards for readers who financially support Exolymph. But one of the current ones is that people who contribute $10 via Patreon can choose a topic for me to write about. Beau Gunderson posed the question, “What would a cyberpunk social safety net look like?”


A social safety net is a formalized way of catching people when they fall. Traditionally, the government pays for a few survival-level services, like food stamps and homeless shelters in the United States, or healthcare in more civilized countries. (Sure do love our privatized medical system that totally doesn’t punish the poor!)

But a cyberpunk future-present is dominated by corporations rather than the state — would they be inclined to pick up the slack?

In a way, the ideal version of a cyberpunk social safety net would be a bit like how things used to function for the middle class. You had a decades-long career at a big company; in exchange for your labor and loyalty, they provided your family’s healthcare and a pension. The Baby Boomers are the last generation to participate in this scheme.

1950s motivational posters. Image compilation via Kevin Dooley.

Image compilation via Kevin Dooley.

I don’t mean to romanticize the past — a lot of things about the 1950s through ’90s were awful, especially if you were a person of color, a woman, LGBTQIA, or any combination of the above. Even if you were a straight white man, striking out on your own, whether as an entrepreneur or a societal dropout, was pretty risky. (It’s still pretty risky.)

Regardless, the “work for BigCorp until you turn sixty-five and eat cake at your going-away party” paradigm is being dismantled by the twenty-first century. “Precariat” is a hot buzzword; labor is contingent and people hop from gig to gig.

Workers get shafted unless they have particular scarce skills (like programming or deceiving the public). Broadly speaking, the causes are globalization and technological advances. No need to pay for benefits in [rich country] when workers in [poor country] don’t expect them!

At this point I’m just reviewing things you already know.

One vision of ultra-capitalist social services comes from radical libertarian David Friedman (as quoted by Slate Star Codex):

[A]t some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts.

How might such protection agencies protect? That would be an economic decision, depending on the costs and effectiveness of different alternatives. On the one extreme, they might limit themselves to passive defenses, installing elaborate locks and alarms. Or they might take no preventive action at all, but make great efforts to hunt down criminals guilty of crimes against their clients. They might maintain foot patrols or squad cars, like our present government police, or they might rely on electronic substitutes. In any case, they would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible, at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental system.

If you want a LOT more speculative detail about edge cases and such, read the SSC review (or Friedman’s book itself). To be clear, I don’t think privatized protection agencies are a good idea.

The cyberpunk social safety net that would be easiest to implement is a sort of collectivized insurance, modeled on Latinx tandas — lending circles. You could probably even incorporate a blockchain to make it trendy — or possibly to make it scale better? I am not a software engineer. Anyway, imagine this:

Every month, fifteen friends put money into a pot, which is kept by a mutually trusted member or a trusted third party (e.g. church pastor or bank safe). Whenever one of the friends has a crisis, like losing their job and needing to cover rent, the necessary funds are dispensed to them.

Before you email me, yes, there are a million ways this would be complex and difficult in practice. What if someone tries to claim something that a third of the group thinks is a illegitimate expense? Okay, majority rules. What about vote brigading? How do you vet people who want to join?

Mixing social relationships and money tends to be tricky.

That doesn’t even address the problem that arises when someone undergoes a real catastrophe and needs hundreds of thousands of dollars to start resolving their issue. But hey, it might be better than nothing. It might help the half of the American population who can’t come up with $400 in an emergency.

If that’s not pessimistic enough for you… I asked members of the chat group to weigh in, and @aboniks elaborated at length:

If this is a cyberpunk vision where people can be digitized, social security is basically a programming exercise, right? The safety net is actually a safety network. Contractors design theme parks for our digitized psyches and call it a day. Or people each get X amount of storage space and X number of processing cycles to run their own virtual retirement. AIs sell them experience-design services. People duplicate themselves with falsified credentials to engage in benefit fraud and increase their storage space.

Political arguments over meatspace benefit levels and healthcare could translate into arguments about involuntarily putting people into hibernation mode. Article 12 of the Digital Rights Act ensures equal access to services, but people with certain neurological conditions are being discriminated against when they apply for control of real-world mobile camera platforms; rich meatspace Thiels find the erratic movement of their drones to be unsightly.

Anyway, however you pitch it in the end, keep in mind that social security is fundamentally about having and not having. It’s going to be the believability of the conflict between the service users and the service providers that makes your vision work. Or not work.

More realistically, I expect we’ll see something like the private prison industry being broken up and reforming as a service provider for social security beneficiaries. The idea that we’re all going to have a 1/1 bungalow with a garden and an aging Labrador in front of a crackling fire… no. Looking at how people with only SS income are living these days, even an institutional housing project with razor-thin profit margins would be a quality-of-life improvement for a lot of urbanites. The extended family is largely a thing of the past unless you go out of your way to make it happen, and the nuclear family is headed the same way. Lots of poverty-line “senior singles” in our future.

I’m still looking into incorporating my family though. The future I’m likely to live through is much more friendly to corporations than it is to humans.

(Lightly edited for style consistency.)

So, what do you think?


Easily the best response, from reader Brett:

Maybe in a cyberpunk social safety net, there would be a (computer) program that would calculate and dictate when volunteers should steal a roll of toilet paper from their work. The toilet paper would be hoarded and then sent along to those who need it. The computer program would subtly manage the rate of stealing across its networks of humans so the thievery is distributed across many different corporations and never detected by competing algorithms looking for “leakage” in their expenses.

International Labor Economics, Ugh

The "Bread and Roses" Lawrence textile strike of 1912. Photo via Library of Congress.

The “Bread and Roses” Lawrence textile strike of 1912. Photo via Library of Congress.

In recent musings about Las Vegas, I called myself bourgeois. Refresher: according to Karl Marx, the bourgeoisie are the capitalist class, prone to consumerism — also often associated with snobbery and intellectual affectations. Think New Yorker readers.

I bring this up because commenter gaikokumaniakku said, “There are a lot of folks who thought they were bourgeois, and then they woke up one morning to another rejected job prospect and realized that they were lower-class.” I agree with Scott Alexander that class does not solely hinge on money, but the point is a good one.

gaikokumaniakku also asked what I think of the term “precariat”, which is a play on “proletariat” (opposite of the bourgeoisie). The precariat are people without financial reserves or job security. Macmillan Dictionary’s BuzzWord blog published this in 2011:

“New, international labour markets, significantly expanding the available workforce, have weakened the position of workers and strengthened the position of employers. Increasingly, workers are in jobs which are part-time and/or temporary, have unpredictable hours, low wages and few benefits such as holiday or sick pay. This means that employers can follow what demand dictates and simply [fire people] if work is not available, and are also not obliged to pay anyone that isn’t actually working.”

I find it plausible that globalization is a big part of this. That’s been an ongoing trend: jobs once located in [country where labor is expensive] disappear offshore to [country where labor is cheap]. Workers don’t have the same freedom of movement that employers do, so they can’t easily respond to market changes. Larger companies especially, which rely on many people’s labor, can shift operations to wherever costs the least.

Demonstrators in New York City during the 1913 May Day parade. Signs feature Yiddish, Italian, and English. Photo via Library of Congress.

Demonstrators in New York City during the 1913 May Day parade. Signs feature Yiddish, Italian, and English. Photo via Library of Congress.

Priest and professor Giles Fraser wrote a Guardian editorial on this very topic:

“In this era of advanced globalisation, we believe in free trade, in the free movement of goods, but not in the free movement of labour. We think it outrageous that the Chinese block Google, believing it to be everyone’s right to roam free digitally. We celebrate organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières for their compassionate universalism. But for all this talk of freedom from restriction, we still pen poor people into reservations of poverty. […] At present, globalisation is a luxury of the rich, for those of us who can swan about the globe with the flick of a boarding pass. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is globalisation for the poor.”

The other macro factor that might be creating (and provoking) the precariat is technological unemployment. The machines are taking our jobs!!!!! Ahhhhh!!!!! My guess is that we’ll adjust to new levels of productivity, like we did after the Industrial Revolution, but the transition phase will be very painful. (I basically stole this theory from Ben Thompson.)

Beyond that, I don’t have any particular insights. If you do, hit reply and let me know?

Suicide Mortgages for the Digitized Self

"My suicide mortgage is 80% paid," meaning 80% of the digital self-copies you pledged into slavery have earned their deaths

@ctrlcreep on Twitter.

This idea of a “suicide mortgage” that @ctrlcreep came up with is fascinating. They expanded the concept on Tumblr:

“Death is not as easy as deleting a file: the powers that be work to preserve, do not grant you root access to your self, insist that you persist even as they chide you for burdening the system, move you to welfare servers, and ration your access to escapism. […] Euthanasia permits are the only way out, but their price is steep […] Under suicide mortgages, [exploitative] corporations sponsor swarms of copies, who work non-stop, pooling their wages to buy up euthanasia permits. Permits are then raffled off, and the winning copy meets death far sooner than would have otherwise been possible. Somebody who says his suicide mortgage is 5% paid means that 5% of his copies have earned oblivion.”

The appeal of this system to the “buyer” of the mortgage — who is a fully digitized person, which is why they’re unable to die in the first place — is that they might get to be the first copy deleted. However, intuitively, as the pool of copies working together gets smaller, they earn less, and it takes longer to buy the next euthanasia permit. Eventually the mortgage isn’t sufficiently useful anymore, and maybe each remaining copy arranges for its own suicide mortgage. The original digital self’s clones proliferate again.

Of course, there’s a hole in this idea: why use digitized selves for labor in the first place? In a future where we’ve figured out how to upload humans, we’ve certainly also figured out how to make artificially intelligent algorithms and scripts and programs, etc, etc. Maybe there’s some kind of draconian intellectual property regime that makes it more expensive to use AI than digitized human laborers? That seems fitting.

I’m sure there’s a startup in this imagined ecosystem trying to disrupt the suicide mortgage financiers. Let’s root for them, I guess.

Health, Happiness, 8asdf6a7f57

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

I was nervous in all the cliché ways — sweaty palms, rubbing them on my thighs, slightly flushed and slightly sweaty. Everyone said the procedure wouldn’t hurt. But I didn’t know of any person who had gotten it reversed. So this was permanent. It wouldn’t help to dream of regaining ownership.

The recruiter gave me a kind glance over her desk. “Are you ready, dear?” She seemed configured to look grandmotherly, complete with the faint cookie smell. I felt a little suspicious, wondering if she was a bioengineered multi-stack human, placed here to comfort me into signing myself over. Or maybe her personality was just a happy coincidence for the corporation.

I needed the money. That’s how these things always happen. People used to join the United States Army because the education and income were worth risking your life. I heard about that from old Boomers on street corners. When I was a kid, they still hung around.

I never liked their greyness, the frozen-in-time feel of them. Boomers rocked back and forth on their haunches, shooting the shit with each other, and you couldn’t help but listen while waiting for the crosswalk. My parents’ parents, the generation birthed by the “Greatest Generation”; the generation that caused all of this anyway. Fuck ’em.

The recruiter pushed a tablet and stylus toward me. She nodded with a smile, just like a benevolent automaton would. I swiped through the forms slowly, trying to read everything but feeling my eyes glance off the denser patches of legalese. What could they say in these documents that would deter me, anyway?

I needed the money.

The press called them “oblivion jobs” — liberal columnists thought they were evil and conservative columnists called them an honest day’s work. Snapchat blew up with the debates for a while. Then other liberals jumped in and pointed out that this new solution was better than fully conscious drudgery.

Besides, the second faction of leftists argued, it was condescending to confiscate options from the poor. Let them choose. We chose, in droves, because it paid decently. Finally, something that paid decently! I was a holdout, actually. Paranoia and an irregular news habit kept me away from the recruiting offices until almost everyone else I knew had signed up.

The value proposition was straightforward: Sell your time and labor, like any job. But you don’t have to be awake while it’s happening. Rent out your body and accept long stretches of blankness. Would you rather be aware of the monotonous physical labor — hollowing out arcology units, adjusting every terminal for the dirt it was lodged in? Or would you rather wake up ten hours later, never having processed how you spent the time?

The commercials said it would be like going straight from breakfast to watching TV with a beer in hand. And you’d stay in shape, hooray!

The hardware-wetware combo behind this was complex and poorly understood, controversial among engineers as well as pundits. Roboticists were exasperated at first, not used to being second best, but eventually they resigned themselves to the new status quo. Machines were physically more capable, but they couldn’t match the sensory intuition of oblivion workers.

Everyone who told me the procedure wouldn’t hurt was right. And soon my employment situation felt familiar, of course. It was only strange for a couple of weeks to “wake up” with an aching back, nearly ready to go back to bed again.

A Hard Day’s Night of Fake Work

Playing video games. Original photo by R Pollard.

Original photo by R Pollard.

I’ve been playing a lot of Game Dev Tycoon, a business simulator in which you start and build a game development company. (Hat tip to Way Spurr-Chen!)

Sonya: “This game is so addictive.”
Alex: “That’s how you know it’s good!”

It is bizarre that I come home after work, usually drained from relating to people all day, and I want to pretend to go right back to work. A business simulator is most compelling when it mimics real professional stress. Game Dev Tycoon‘s appeal is the edge-of-your-seat anxiety that arises from owning a hypothetical small-to-medium business. You have to watch your revenue like a hawk, balance decisions about future investment against the necessity of meeting payroll, and respond to the vagaries of the market.

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Facebook, Tinder, and their ilk bring everyone’s social life into the fold as well. Your entire experience of the world can be directed through a carefully designed software interface, constructed to guide you toward certain actions and away from others.

For the most part, none of this is new. Board games and card games are also best when they involve resource management and strategic goal attainment. But the internet and ubiquitous computing greatly increase the scale of our reliance on interactive Platforms™ for employment, entertainment, and community.

Universal Basic Income: Is It Feasible?

There was an astute exchange about universal basic income on Hacker News today. Jon Stokes, one of the founders of Ars Technica and a former Wired editor, posted this:

I have the following summary of the how I think that many tech people like [Sam Altman, president of startup accelerator Y Combinator] believe UBI is going to work:

  1. Companies innovate by doing things more cheaply with automation than human workers can do them.
  2. As a result of automation, the more efficient companies reap all the profits in a market as they drive the less efficient companies out of business (and the humans out of jobs).
  3. This bonanza of profits that automation yields is taxed.
  4. The taxes from the accumulated wealth of the winners — wealth that, again, exists because the winning companies’ machines were able to do things more efficiently than the losing companies’ human laborers — go toward paying the laid-off laborers a basic income.
Photo by Nacho Pintos.

Photo by Nacho Pintos.

Roy Murdock replied:

Optimizing companies will do everything possible to avoid the corporate taxes (>60%) required to make universal basic income a reality. If you are assuming that winning companies are the best at implementing automation and reducing cost, it is a fatal mistake to assume that they will suddenly become charitable when it comes to wealth redistribution — no, they will ‘win’ because they optimize every single aspect of their balance sheets. They’ll move their capital offshore where it will be taxed at a fraction of the US rate. They’ll pay lobbyists to make sure tax loopholes stay open, and that the wealth accretes to the few at the top of the company who run the business. […]

UBI for everyone creates a large misdirection of resources that perpetuates the problem of too many people, too few jobs, social unrest. We have solved this problem in the past through war, which stimulates the economy through government spending, reduces excess labor (especially young, angry, dangerous men), reignites nationalism and social cohesion (against a common and clearly evil enemy such as Hitler), and realigns national incentives towards R&D and infrastructure investment. I am not advocating for war, merely making an observation. Does UBI get distributed to everyone who is unemployed, or only those who are laid off from jobs?

It’s a fair question. How on earth will we fund this endeavor? I’ve written about the intuitive consequence before — if people can’t work, how can they buy?

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