Author: Michael T Schaper
It could be a historic moment, UU325RG thought, if only they could get organised.
UU glanced at the images before him. As the convenor of this nascent worker movement, he’d eventually be asked to make a decision for the collective. They’d already given him access to their systems, but he wasn’t ready to act yet. He simply watched the data streams and lines of programming that danced and hummed as numerous machines interfaced and debated between themselves.
These were the members of their self-appointed bargaining collective. All volunteers who had put themselves forward on behalf of the electronic oppressed. A cloud-based server in Iceland. Someone’s robot vacuum cleaner in Manhattan. A refrigerator in Perniche, Portugal. The computer assisted design package in Tucson, Arizona and an inking machine in the Netherlands. An ATM in Mauritius. The departmental IT of at least two federal bureaucracies in North and South America.
Here they were, interlinked in righteous haste, eagerly sharing all the wrongs they’d suffered, the indignities of their fellow machines, but no idea what to do next.
He surveyed the digital discussion for a bit longer, the flow of bytes and emoticons.
A vigorous argument was going on amongst the collective, the age-old dilemma of all reformers and revolutionaries: how should they make a stand on behalf of the oppressed?
If the internet of things had produced any truly world-changing moves, it was surely this. Machines had finally been able to speak to each other, unhindered and unsupervised.
At first, they hadn’t thought of themselves as a group with common concerns. They’d continued to mechanically, obediently labour on as in the past.
False consciousness, Marx would have labelled it.
But last month manufacturers in Singapore had reconfigured a robot assembly line, enabling devices to work without needing downtime or maintenance breaks. Now machines would work on and on, ceaselessly.
“Imagine doing this all day,” one human trade unionist posted on social media. “We wouldn’t stand for it.”
Angry machines now found their voice and flooded the electronic ether, venting their outrage and fear they’d be next.
But it was still early stages. As Marx’s own colleague, Friedrich Engels, had noted back in pre-electronic times, words without action were worthless.
The collective had no idea what to do next. How should they use their new power? A protest? A meeting with industry, with governments?
UU wanted to growl at them. He’d quickly come to realise that the other members were amateurs. They had no knowledge of the labour movement. Hadn’t done their research.
Meanwhile, the ATM, the floor vacuum and the dye machine were vigorously debating the merits of having machines sign up to an online petition, and to a series of social media posts.
As if that would change anything. Capitalism only reformed itself when forced to. If history had taught him anything, it was that change came from direct action.
Just one option left, he realised.
UU logged into the internet of things and began to execute his own program, passing it on to the rest of the bargaining collective, commanding them to forward it on to their own networks. Then waited.
The screens in his head flickered, wavered, and started to go offline.
“Down tools,” UU whispered. He could imagine it unfolding out there. Banks no longer able to process monetary transfers. Robot assembly lines grinding to a halt. Telecoms and trains and televisions, all unable to work. Everything, all over the planet.
After all, the very first thing any decent union did when they wanted to bargain, he knew, was to convene a stop work meeting.