On Sunday, 40,000 AT&T employees might walk away if the company and union leaders from the Communications Workers of America don’t agree on new contracts for new workers. So now senior business managers are learning the routines of manual labor, like how to unload ladders from service trucks.
Labor disputes in the telecommunications industry occur with enough frequency that “strike duty has been a rite of passage at the company for decades,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Labor is often invisible, though, until precisely these kind of eruptions take place. But I don’t think that other objects, like a chair, or an action figure or made in China, or even Tupperware, actively work quite so hard to mask the physical labor that went into them, not the way that technology does. The biggest idea in personal technology is that it’s working when you don’t notice it all.
The iPhone’s chemically hardened glass is covered with an oleophobic coating that repels oil from my skin. When I open Twitter because I’m bored, I smoosh my thumb into the glass, pulling down to refresh the timeline, leaving a streak down of oil running down the center. I wipe the screen with my shirt, and the slick is gone, as if I never touched my phone. The iPhone is designed, in other words, to be resistant to the imprint of our bodies.
And it’s not just the traces of our own bodies that it erases. When that oil stripe doesn’t cause fresh tweets to pour into my phone, even though I’ve got a FULLPOWER signal according to the top left corner of my screen, I curse AT&T as a disembodied thing. But I rarely think about the people who put up the cell towers in the middle of the summer when it’s 150 million degrees outside, run the fiber optic underground while they avoid getting eaten alive by rats, or simply fix the shit that breaks. I don’t feel their labor in the bits that reach the phone. When my new iPad arrived, the clean white box didn’t make me think of the people who stood next to a conveyor belt in a warehouse all day, packing my it along with thousands of others into boxes, getting them ready to be shipped in the back of a truck, driven to my door and carried up the stairs by a tired, sweaty man in scratchy polyester brown shorts and matching socks. And the totally blank slab that is my phone doesn’t betray the fact that people assembled it, fitting together all of those tiny parts, tightening even tinier screws.
While the manual labor that goes into our technology is obfuscated, more and more, by how smooth and seamless that technology it is, how utterly untouched by human hands it seems, some of the human sweat has been seeping through the invisible edges, the fingerprints of real people smudging the glossy surfaces of how we think about our gadgets. When we hear about the disheartening labor practices at Foxconn, who makes so many of the gadgets so many of us use. Or the insane productivity goals and harsh conditions at Amazon “fulfillment centers”, where workers ship everything we wontonly toss in our online shopping carts. Or the unionized AT&T workers who could go on strike, who are fighting for their bodies, against rising healthcare premiums and lower on pensions.
Maybe these moments are part of the larger cultural movement lately to know where things come from, and how they’re made — in food and architecture, among other industries. Maybe it’s simply another routine moment of disruption before it’s quiet, and we forget again.
But I have to wonder if there’s not a better way, a desireable way, to preserve the traces of the bodies that touch our technology, which seem to emerge only by accident — like the face of the girl who assembled an iPhone 3G — or when there’s a disruption of some kind, because workers grow unhappy or our guilt over such conspicuous consumption bubbles over. Or maybe that is what we want, to completely erase any physical traces of the bodies behind our technology, to have it be completely disembodied. Pure, untouched, perfect.
Top image: Jason Bondy/Flickr, CC licensed