Current events have revealed that there are two worlds in the employment landscape. One is digital, the other analog. For the most part, those in IT—the digital workers—have been unaffected by the spike in unemployment due to the economic side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it doesn’t mean they’ll be untouched in the long-term. As current events demonstrate, when it comes to the essentials in life, we’re all connected. Yet, the divide will continue to separate us to the detriment of all unless we do something about it.
When observing current events, I can’t help but think about Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie, Metropolis. It’s a science fiction film that depicts a world in which a small number of people live a privileged life in skyscrapers that tower high above the city. The rest of the population toils away below ground, doing the mundane work required to keep the city running. It’s a stunning piece of cinematography. The sets and special effects are breathtaking. What’s also impressive is that, for better or worse, so much of what Lang presented nearly 100 years ago has come to be.
You can view the full-length version of Metropolis here.
Lang’s vision of the future has a strange, almost eerie prescience for me, particularly as someone who has spent most of his adult life working in IT. It’s one that’s entirely possible, yet one I hope we avoid.
Allow me to elaborate.
Life Is A-OK in the Cloud
There’s a good argument to be made that today we live in Lang’s Metropolis, a world in which those who are doing really well live in the light of society while those who are just getting by live below ground in darkness.
The widening gap between prosperity and economic hardship is a trend that’s been unfolding over the last 30 years. We’ve become accustomed to it. Sadly, it’s no longer newsworthy.
What is newsworthy is the dramatic spike in unemployment due to the business shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The uptick in unemployment reveals a troubling set of circumstances: If you’re a digital worker chances are you’re still working. If you work in the analog world, that place where factories, restaurants, airlines, movie theaters, hotels, cruise ships and warehouses exist, there’s a good chance you or someone you know is out of a job, for now anyway.
Take a look at the graph from the US Private Sector Job Quality Index, a project from Cornell University Law School and others, by way of vox.com. It lists the jobs that are most vulnerable to layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. IT workers don’t even make the list. It’s as if we live in another world.
The long and the short of it is that for developers, sysadmins, SREs and all the other people working in information technology, the recent economic downturn is but a blip in the daily news feed. For those manning a cash register, taking a ticket at the local cineplex, cutting hair or driving for a rideshare service, it’s a life-altering event. Or, to put it terms of Lang’s film, those of us who live in the clouds are doing well, and for those on the ground, it’s a different story.
Now, consider this: What if all the people who are presently laid off from their jobs find out there are no jobs to go back to? What if the economic recovery is slower than anticipated or society gets so accustomed to doing without that consumption doesn’t resume? Is such a scenario possible? Yes. Is it probable? Dunno. Will those of us in IT who work remotely all over the planet, from the comfort of our wired office, suffer? I doubt it. But, as for the rest, what then?
Let’s go back to the movie.
A Workforce Divided
There’s a point in the film when the protagonist, Freder (the son of the industrialist who built Metropolis), goes to his father to inquire about a catastrophic underground explosion shown earlier in the film.
The son asked, “Your magnificent city, Father, and you, the brain of this city, and all of us in this city’s light … and where are the people, Father, whose hands built your city?”
The father responded, “Where they belong.”
The son asked, “Where they belong? In the depths?”
His father nodded his head yes. (See the scene here).
There you have it. With that one physical gesture, Lang foreshadows a future which might very well be at our doorstep. As I mentioned earlier, it’s eerie, it’s prescient and it looks as if it’s coming to be.
What Does This All Have to Do with DevOps?
Those of us in DevOps have made valuable contributions to the world. We’ve done dramatically more good than harm. We’ve also been well compensated. The average salary for a SRE in the USA is $131,340, with a low of $60K and a high of $192K. Yet, the top salary for grocery clerk at Ralph’s supermarket is $22 an hour, which comes out to $44K a year over a 50 week year.
Do SREs deserve such a high salary? Of course, they do. Does a grocery clerk deserve only $44K a year in comparison? At the end of 2019, it would have been easy to say, yes. It’s a low skill, low education job. But that was then, and this is now. As of this writing, toilet paper is a premium commodity and the shelves need to be stocked with it. I’ll wager that in some circles, paying someone $50 an hour to get the rolls on the shelf is reasonable compensation. It all depends on how much people want toilet paper.
Am I being a bit dramatic? A little, but still, it’s worth thinking about.
So, what’s the important take away? Let’s go back to Metropolis one last time.
At the beginning of the film, there’s a scene in which the protagonist, Freder, was frolicking about in a lush arboretum-like greenhouse atop a skyscraper. He was surrounded by pretty maidens dancing. An elevator door opened into the garden. Freder observed as a group of raggedy waifs from beneath the city exited out of the elevator. A woman leading the waifs was at the head of the group. The waifs looked around in amazement at such luxury. Then, Freder’s servants ushered the group back into the elevator to exit. Freder was obviously affected by the waifs. He went into the depths of the city to investigate.
Shortly thereafter, Freder went to see his father to inquire about the explosion I described earlier. His father asked, “What were you doing in the machine halls, Freder?”
The son responded, “I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose little children are my brother, my sisters…”
It’s a powerful scene. It makes me wonder how many of the faces I’ve seen of those who were working in February are now sitting home, unemployed and unable to pay the rent in April.
The takeaway is this: We’re all connected at a level much deeper than the trivial interactions of the given social network. Current events have demonstrated the fact in spades. COVID-19 was first reported in China around November 17, 2019. On April 4, 2020, less than six months later, there were 240 cases reported in the state of South Dakota in the United States. If that’s not connection, I don’t know what is.
Those of us who work in the cloud are doing quite well, despite the setbacks caused by the global pandemic. But, there’s a growing number of us who are not doing so well and won’t be for the foreseeable future. It’s easy when everything is peaches and cream to be unaware of a world in which six-figure salaries are not the norm. But, when things go south and there’s no toilet paper to be had, the realization that we’re all in this together smacks us square in the face, like it or not.
The question then becomes, given that we’re all connected, what type of world do we want to share, the one in Lang’s Metropolis or something better?
It’s something worth thinking about. The pandemic will pass, but the underlying disparities will remain unless we do something about them.
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This book takes a serious examination of the history, impact and results from automation on our society and culture. Hope you enjoy it.