I order a spiced honey latte and a strawberry-banana smoothie with mango juice. The barista goofs the second order, and I’m about to say something but decide against it on grounds of feeling like a huge douche. The coffeehouse conversation revolves around not people but algorithms. My friend Zack gesticulates a little too wildly, spilling a drink.
A barista smiles and mops up the mess. She goes back to her post and the shop talk resumes, filling a service-worker-sized void.
It’s weird. No wonder tech workers labor so hard to lessen labor: Tech freeing the poor from working means programmers can be surrounded by nice things, insulated from the wider world, with no humans to remind them it’s broken. At Google—on its surface the least objectionable of Seattle’s big three software companies—the mad-extravagant digs are kept running by stinted service workers, who are never tipped or approached as if anything resembling a commercial transaction is taking place. The class dynamics at most workplaces, or anywhere people are served, are awkward; at Google, they’re extremely awkward—and dangerously close to being taken for granted.
The service workers work regular hours, but their plight might give you a strong whiff of the “sharing economy,” where “instaserfs” will deliver food, do laundry, and make lattés for the beneficiaries of software. In return, the software companies will make them as invisible as possible, less like co-workers or subordinates and more like servants at an English country house. The creators of apps and the service serfs are kept apart, a world of class between them. I’ve come up with a word for this tech-meets-segregation phenomenon: app-artheid.
“You ever feel weird about going in here and asking for free stuff, every day?” I ask my buddy.
“You mean from workers who make one-tenth of what devs do?” he says, “devs” being shorthand for software developer. “Yeah, of course.”
“It’s all the excess that makes it awkward.”
A member of our group actually used to cook for Facebook, and he speaks despairingly of the conditions: “Low wages, no benefits. Beyond all that, we were just treated with very little humanity by the tech workers. It really felt like we did not exist to them—not fully.”
He describes a vast hinterland beyond the shallow hill and squat McMansions: “I was working with one woman who was living in a two-bedroom apartment with four children in Burien,” he continues. “Another guy lived in one of the worst apartments I’ve ever seen, directly below the freeway in Wallingford.”
He concludes: “Why are these people being paid one-tenth of the programmers? When two-tenths, for example, which Google or Facebook could afford, has the potential to dramatically change their lives for the better?”