Aeon magazine has a great piece on the value invested in web-developers today. It’s a great and honest piece of writing, for which I give a hats off to author James Somers. But there’s a moral void at the heart of the situation it describes so absolute that I find myself shaking just thinking about it.
Web-developers get paid very fucking well. And at the moment they get paid better than very fucking well. We’re in a new tech bubble (some claim), a goldrush in which, as Somers eruditely summarises, the developer “is the shovel”.
In contrast, the written word is bidding itself down to zero value. There’s no denying this point. There are too many writers and too few outlets and often the going rate for a piece of writing is effectively zero. I make the best part of my living from writing, but I’m one of the few who does, and I’m able to do so because I also have a full suite of technical skills that mean I can dip in and out of work much like James Somers describes.
So I understand both sides of this equation. And what I’m objecting to here is not that relatively poorly skilled web-developers make fortunes while highly skilled and committed writers starve.
No, what I object to is the apparent abscence of insight, in our society at large, about why this is.
Let’s cut to the chase. Web developers get paid well at the moment because they do things that rich people believe will make them richer. The main problem the rich face is this…where to invest their money so that it increases rather than decreases or even disappears. You can’t just put billions of dollars in a bank account. It has to be invested. And at the moment, much of the trillions of dollars held by the worlds super-wealthy is being invested in tech startups. And tech startups need developers. Hence, developers get paid well.
There is also money invested in new publishing ventures and other related venues that employ writers. But we are talking magnitudes less than the money going in to tech start-ups. And in fact a lot of what writers write - and I’m thinking here about the kind of material writers get really passionate about - novels, long form journalism, artist and cultural profiles - are actively antagonistic towards rich people. As a writer you are, at least potentially, an artist. And one of the jobs of art is to speak truth to power.
This is not so of the web-developer.
The choice between writer and web-developer isn’t unlike the choice faced by a young Luke Skywalker between joining the Imperial Army or the Rebel Alliance. The Empire will always pay. And pay better. Do web-developers actually produce any value? Do Stormtroopers have mad skillz with their blaster guns? It really doesn’t matter. You get paid well to join the Empire. You always will. That is the nature of power.
Somers article twice returns to the question of why a coal-miner gets paid less than a web-developer? And oh come on does anyone really think this has anything to do with value? No one *wants* to be a coal miner. Coal miners are effectively slaves. Members of the working classes deliberately oppresed by our economic system to do all the shitty jobs that need doing so that some of us can be web-developers and writers. They get paid the minium amount we can pay them so that we can keep the rest of the wealth for ourselves.
When you choose between becoming a web-developer or a writer you are really choosing between unquestioningly joining the oppressive power structures that rule our world, for which you will be well paid, or attempting to do something about them, for which you will not. That warm safe feeling you get from choosing the web-developer route is because you know the Stormtroopers are, for as long as you do as you are told, on your side. Whereas as a writer it’s actually more likely they will one day be kicking in your door. Let’s not forget that writers are frequently arrested, tortured and executed by the powers they go up against. When was the last time that was true of a web-developer being paid six figures by a tech start-up?