09.26.20

The Cheapening of the Programmer is a Threat to Human Rights of All Computer Users

Posted in Deception, Finance, Free/Libre Software at 10:32 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Cheaper comes at a (hidden) cost

Putrajaya Night Scenes

Summary: From the era of computer experts (down to the low level of computing with transistors), mathematicians, physics gurus and respected technicians we’ve come to orders-following, user-apathetic engineers who are overworked, grossly underpaid, and way too fearful of raising ethical concerns (voicing disagreement can result in prompt dismissal, followed by perpetual unemployment) and this ensures digital oppression without checks and balances

THE really old computers were very expensive. They used to be the luxury of large universities, large research institutions, nuclear simulation facilities and so on (putting aside corporations and the private sector at large). At the very least one programmer/engineer was needed for each machine (an operator) and on-site repairs required whole teams, coordinating with off-site manufacturers and other suppliers. Many machines were leased, not owned, and real owners didn’t just buy new components each time anything broke down (it was still cheaper to repair, not outsourced to cheap-labour markets or ‘cheap labour’ countries). Computers used to be large beasts (as big as whole rooms/entire buildings if not bigger… as in cross-building/site) and a real pain to maintain.

“Many things have changed over the past half a century.”In 2020 one can buy a new computer for as little as a hundred bucks. A decent computer, not some bare-bones chip that’s pluggable to a screen and keyboard/mouse (those cost a lot less than a hundred bucks or even fifty bucks).

Many things have changed over the past half a century. Computing generally evolves a lot faster than most scientific disciplines, both in terms of hardware and software (the latter typically evolves in line with quantity and speed of available hardware). Notice, for example, last year’s video about UNIX inventors and what came before UNIX (obviously these predecessors perished). It’s not a long clip and it’s quite strictly copyrighted by the ‘IP’ sticklers. Hence YouTube:

UNIX deviated, shifting away from that time’s norm. Blind obedience begets trouble and repressive societies (lack of scientific advancement). Brilliance starts/originates from divergence. We need ‘rebels’.

As figosdev told me a few hours ago about Richard Stallman, “I still admire him a great deal (he’s never not going to be the founder of all this, indeed he and Gilmore are the main reasons BSD is free as well. So that’s TWO Unix-like operating systems he’s helped free, and no, that’s about it if you count stuff in production use. But it’s two he’s helped free and zero he hasn’t helped.”

The “mini-computer” (or minicomputer) they allude to in the video is PDP-7 — so very “mini” that it was ‘only’ 500 kg (half a tonne) and cost as much as a house. “In a 1970 survey,” as Wikipedia puts it. “The New York Times suggested a consensus definition of a minicomputer as a machine costing less than US$25,000 (equivalent to $165,000 in 2019), with an input-output device such as a teleprinter and at least four thousand words of memory, that is capable of running programs in a higher level language, such as Fortran or BASIC.”

Back then, computers were a lot more expensive than their operators.

“A few years ago we started noticing the growing expectation — as in job descriptions — that sysadmins should be programmers and vice versa, with buzzwords like “DevOps” or various other nonsense (e.g. buzzwords with “AI” or “Sec” inserted in-between).”To be clear, the cheapening of computers since then isn’t the fault of China. “Western” companies (as well as “Eastern” ones, notably those in Japan and South Korea) chose to outsource to mainland China for their own selfish interests. The abundance of low-cost computers then meant that more and more people had them, even since childhood. That presently persists and the trend accentuates. It meant, especially in recent decades, that low-income places (like India) had access to/capability of computer literacy and programming competencies.

A few years ago we started noticing the growing expectation — as in job descriptions — that sysadmins should be programmers and vice versa, with buzzwords like “DevOps” or various other nonsense (e.g. buzzwords with “AI” or “Sec” inserted in-between). The general idea is, you pay people less to do more work and handle/learn more tasks (steepening the training curve), in some cases handling more responsibilities for the same salary (e.g. programming in daytime, then being ‘on-call’ at nighttime, just in case of downtime-inducing incidents). You then hire fewer people. So much for “job creators”…

“If the computer industry was meant to enrich life and provide job security, then it’s certainly not doing that (not anymore).”Much has been said about the harms of computing, notably privacy erosion, addiction, misinformation and so on. Not much is being discussed in relation to professions of those crafting and maintaining computer systems. A lot of the argument boil down to unbridled nationalism (basically blaming the “other”, as Donald Trump does so hypocritically with China). Within this context, free software (free-as-in-freedom) is mostly a side issue. Human and labour rights are of greater relevance and unless we start the dialogue about these matters, it’ll continue getting worse each year. Wages have already stagnated, many more technical jobs have been deprecated (COVID-19 gave more excuses towards this outcome, long sought by greedy managers regardless), and stress is typically increasing while burden shifts from organisations to individual people. Under the flag of “AI” (pronounced “HEY HI!” — how fitting) they introduce themselves at the door with pink slips, passing all the savings (on salaries) to heads of corporations and rich shareholders.

If the computer industry was meant to enrich life and provide job security, then it’s certainly not doing that (not anymore). Ask some recent Computer Science graduates. People scrolling up and down Facebook “walls” isn’t happiness and it does not enrich life. Facebook, it should be noted, sent many workers home. Many will never come back. Not on site, not offsite either. This predated COVID-19. As somebody put it last year: “Facebook laid off around 6% of the workforce and no one knows… omg FB management is awesome. How they did it.. for a WARN notice the threshold is 500 people… So they laid off 400ish for the past 4 months” (Microsoft did the same this past summer, laying off about 5,000 people in total, including in datacentres).

“The way things are going isn’t sustainable, nor is it tenable if we rely on the digital equivalent of conscientious objectors to better steer technology towards benefit to users, as opposed to corporate overlords.”The general trend is, technical professionals are treated as increasingly disposable as computers become growingly ubiquitous and the public mostly complacent about the whole thing. Nobody bothered thinking about the impact this can have on morality and ethics. when people are desperate to keep the scarce job they still hold they’re a lot less likely to object to or dissent against immoral orders (or even polite instructions that are in principle open to debate). They tell us that we’re overpaid and “expensive” (senior workers more so, hence they get thrown out earlier on in their careers), then they replace us with low-paid labour elsewhere. Again, not the fault of ‘cheap labour’ countries; for them those jobs may mean as much as literally putting food on the table.

The way things are going isn’t sustainable, nor is it tenable if we rely on the digital equivalent of conscientious objectors to better steer technology towards benefit to users, as opposed to corporate overlords.

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