Behind the screen – Consumers and Free Labor

TIL that working for Google or in Silicon Valley isn’t like The Internship. Instead of fun and games, it’s more like a sweatshop where the gadgets are from.

I’m sure everyone pictured living in California and working in Silicon Valley as “the dream” or an indicator of great success. Social media is hailed to be a place where everything is wonderful and everyone is created equal. After the lecture I went to – it’s all a facade. In fact according to the readings we were assigned, gender inequalities, class and race inequalities arise in many social media platforms backed up by sleep-deprived workaholics.

Jen Schraide drew on surveys done from 2002 to 2008 in her study and revealed this – there are class and race divides in blogging practices. At that time, blogs were “the poster boy” as she put it before 2010 (post Facebook). Most of these blog posts were created by highly educated college students. This made sense, people of higher education level would have more spare time, the devices, skills and so on to make more blog posts compared to high school graduates. This domination in content creation creates a niched environment for these “elitists” and form their own little groups. Facebook was formed by Mark with the intend to be a place for selected colleges to communicate. And such a class divide arises. Schraide also mentioned an interesting phenomenon regarding racial differences. Even though there are many reports showing racial differences (White people tend to create less online content than their counterparts), almost all agree that these distinctions were eroding over time. If we look at social media now, we can see it’s true. Within this decade, the boundaries of race were broken down and the differences are close to none. On the other hand, class boundaries are experiencing diffusion. The diffusion theory speculated that any activity would first be dominated by a small privileged group and by time, the gap widens and at some point the divide disappears as more and more users come in. Isn’t it wonderful? The internet is slowly getting to the place it was meant to be – classless, raceless and everyone is equal. For digital natives like us, it seems like a paradise.

Let’s take a look behind the screens. What about those who work so hard to create this utopia? In order to access social media, we need devices. In all our devices there is one key component that makes everything we do right now work – Coltan. Coltan is the key material that can hold and transmit signals to other devices, it makes everything work. The largest export for coltan is Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you don’t already know, the demand for Coltan is so high, companies like Apple and Samsung would try and take it at any price. Accordning to my professor, on average they expect 10 dollars from Africa for every dollar they invest. As a result, workers get exploited, they are paid for way less than what they should receive and children are used to get into the mines for their small bodies. After these components are gathered, these giant tech companies out source them to other countries. For example Foxconn. Workers are bunched together, treated like machines and forced to work in toxic environments to receive pay that won’t even compare to a fraction of the cost of an iPhone. Fun fact (kudos to my professor), when the first iPhone came out, Steve Jobs had all the iphones remade with a glass screen last minute and expected the products to arrive on the same day.

You may think – most of the money goes to the brains behind it all. And you are right. Most of it goes into the salaries of the people who sit in Silicon Valley. Sounds like a great job, you get to live in a city, have fun while working, great reputation but it’s not what you think it is. What if i told you you get a cool job at the price of overworking, unstable employment and high cost of living. Would you still want it? Tiziana Terranova describes working in the industry as “not as much fun ad it is made to be”. It’s true that there is a general “Playbour” (play and labour) and laid back ideology in most Silicon Valley companies, but these are just strategies that create an illusion to maximize productivity and capital accumulation. Most of the work there is on contract, companies take people in when they are working on a project and fire these contract workers whenever they see fit. The only way to really enjoy the benefits of being in a tech company is by sitting on the top of the chain.

Social media has created this utopia for us users, where everyone is equal and everyone has a voice. But at what cost? If you ask me, a paradise built on the ashes of others doesn’t sound like a utopia at all.

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