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Reuters/Gustau Nacarino
If only.
LIVING THE DREAM

Meet the creative underclass of the tech industry

By Leigh Harper

PhD candidate, University of California at Berkeley

Every time I log into my work email—all three of them—I brace myself for the pleading messages. I really wanted an A in your class, could please reconsider? Or, Can I have more time on this? Switching tabs doesn’t alleviate the desperate tone: This post is how we pay for groceries; why has it stopped getting traffic? Or, I am a university graduate in Kenya. I don’t have a job. I want to be an entrepreneur, so I started writing online. The same thing, the same desperation, separated by a few thousand miles.

In my penultimate year of graduate school, I, like countless other grad students, found a part-time job. Like many human beings including women, I found myself working for the Internet.

My work is both the dredges of the Internet and also the majority of what lives online.

While still writing my thesis, I became the anonymous re-organizer, editor, and refiner for countless semi-anonymous writers on various websites that produce user-generated (read: unpaid up front) content. My work is both the dredges of the Internet and also the majority of what lives online. “Content” milled by countless digital pieceworkers, compiled by part-time employees and contract workers. Keyword-stuffed, back-linked, spun, plagiarized, impassioned, occasionally correct. For $15 an hour, I could become an overnight expert on everything from the price of takeout in the Philippines to woodworking.

I am a woman in tech?

In order to explain why I hate the phrase “women in tech,” I need to bring in two terms that stand in for tech’s soft labor pool: content and community.

Content is the intelligible skin of text and images worn by coded platforms. The vulgar aim of the web economy is to monetize your attention, and content layers these cynical bones with “meaning” and “ideas.”

Community is the real social world built around a website or platform, and often the human voice and face of the digital economy. This includes the variants of costumer service, which in startups very often have the word Community built into their title (“Community Manager,” for example, attends to the complaining denizens on a site’s forums).

In the core of the industry, the hierarchy is clear.

By and large, women and non-technical men are the creators of content and the tenders of community. In the core of the industry, the hierarchy is clear. Programmers and developers make more money, have an easier time finding work, and have more secure employment. Content creators and community managers may luck into stable positions in marketing or publicity, but they’re often precarious contract, part-time, or freelance employees. This division is well-known and reported fairly often.

However, within content and community, stratification is geographic. To illustrate: I’m a part-time, at-will employee, and my pay barely surpasses minimum wage. But this is basically my choice. Were I a graduate student in any other part of the country, I would probably be bar-tending or tutoring. Here in San Francisco, California, my participation in tech is not an act of will, but an accident of geography. And it’s fine, I guess.

I am a woman in tech?

Though precarious, my work is far less contingent than the day-jobs of most of the writers I work with. I work out of an office in San Francisco or from my apartment on a laptop that an employer bought for me. I don’t drive an Uber vehicle in the middle of a price war. I don’t work long hours at a call center in the middle of Colorado, shelling out my affable Americana accent for Big Tech Company’s chump change. I don’t do battle on Amazon for a piece of online-infrastructure work as a Mechanical Turk.

I don’t write original content, unsupported, gambling my time for future slivers of ad revenue. I don’t live—like many content writers do—in an economically depressed region of a developing country hoping to generate passive income off global (and particularly American) online traffic. While I’m not quite a “Woman In Tech!,” I’m more “In Tech!” than most of my remote colleagues, who are looking for a way out of their dreary old-economy jobs or unemployment.

But the distant listicle-writing single mothers and widows who make up my email contacts are also women in tech.

My relatively privileged job as a writer and editor is to harmonize the content produced by digital pieceworkers with Google’s shadowy algorithms, which over the last few years have become much more perceptive of “high-quality content.”

Working for one of these companies is not a golden ticket into the middle class.

A lot of this work is retooling regional dialects, standardizing non-American English, and otherwise taking a blunt instrument to colorful provincial prose. Or, as a co-worker once quipped, “translating it into Mountain-View English.” In this way, it’s a lot like teaching undergrads. While I don’t know the secret to professional success, I can guess what kind of standardized writing will be expected of my students someday. I’m perched just high enough over them to see just far enough into the future, to see a little bit more clearly how the economy and their education have failed them.

The valorization of women in tech too often relies on a definition of “tech” that is at once overly narrow and overly broad. Most of what we call tech is really a vehicle for more effective advertising rather than a proper technological advance. “Tech” is neither a discrete or monolithic object, but refers to companies that produce different tools for communication.

Working for one of these companies is not a golden ticket into the middle class, just as how—on the macro-level—the shift from the industrial to the digital has not generated a salve for old-economy drudgery and exploitation. This illusion is created by a narrow understanding of what counts as a “tech worker”, limiting praise to those women who most resemble the archetype of the male founder or brilliant data scientist. Ideal users.

But, like any industry, there is a populous and far-flung proletariat on the margins, deep inside the machine, or not so far away at all.