Instead, let us travel backward in time, to the very cusp of the Information Revolution. Amid the first stirrings of dissent in Northern California, long before tech moguls were granted the dubious prestige of celebrity, a leaderless collective of disenchanted office workers put out a subversive periodical—a magazine called Processed World. First published in San Francisco in April 1981, the magazine now serves as an invaluable repository of all the mistaken, venal, and authoritarian guiding assumptions of the great digital reorganization of work. The brain trust behind Processed World was composed of people—many of them steeped in radical causes, environmental activism, and Situationist-type affairs—who began to identify the features of today’s high-productivity, low-content corporate workplace. Standing on the frontier of the new Information Economy, they took stock of their working lives and despaired at what they saw—and they made special, mordant note of the new technologies that didn’t make their work lives any easier or more meaningful.
These would-be revolutionaries were eager to see the automated world’s long-promised bounty of self-determined leisure bear fruit at last. They had plenty of marketable skills, but what most of them really wanted was time—to write and paint and act and organize. Some of them didn’t want to work at all. Others preferred not to give themselves over to big corporations and bureaucracies that offered them little in return for their labor. Most of all, they wanted their lives to be their own. Still animated by the antiwar radicalism of the previous decade, they were also bruised by the failures of 1968. Consequently, the magazine, if not its contributors, adopted no official ideology. They knew what they were against: wage labor, authoritarianism, war, nationalism, and the state itself. But they weren’t always sure what they wanted in its place. Figuring that out would be a challenge; it would also be the great project of the next fourteen years, during which Processed World would publish thirty-two issues (give or take),[*] participate in numerous acts of protest, street theater, and sabotage, and launch a range of other initiatives, from Critical Mass, the cycling event now held in hundreds of cities worldwide, to the preservation of some of San Francisco’s history in what may have been the last era a poor person could move to the Bay Area and still manage to get by.
Processed World did much more than supply to depressed office proles a therapeutic outlet. The magazine also managed to diagnose some of the issues that still animate radicals today: housework, sex work, and other unacknowledged forms of labor; unionization and its limits; income inequality; the precarity of the typical worker; corporate power; the state of exception that comes with permanent warfare (embodied then by the Cold War and later by the first Gulf War); and the ways in which the computerization of society was changing work, often to the detriment of workers. In the writing—essays, poetry, reportage, fantastical short stories about rebellious paper-pushers taking over San Francisco’s financial district, only to be brutally put down by government soldiers—one can also find the beginnings of today’s revolt against Silicon Valley and its pernicious mix of libertarian economics, techno-utopianism, and the deracinated remains of the sixties counterculture.