Saturday, September 27, 2008

William Gibson Meets Ginger Goodwin

A little dated almost a year after it first appeared in print, but with the Second Life demo for decent work (part of the global campaign for the same) coming up in about a week...

I ran across a story on the other day that made me think some one had taken the brains of two Canadians, one well-known and read and alive, and the other not-so alive, but just as deserving and had thrown them both into a bender.

William Gibson the speculative fiction writer and inventor of cyberspace, and Ginger Goodwin, mine union organizer, shot in the back while viciously attacking the police.


I am getting old. I can tell: mostly because I keep finding more opportunities in life to say ‘I am getting old’. The biggest and best of those was when a granddaughter picked me up at the airport and drove me home.

The latest came when I stumbled across a story about 9000 Italian IBM workers, members of the RSU, taking job action against their employer – virtually.

As in online. Not real. Using little cartoon-like characters to represent real workers. This just a few years after I wrote an article saying such things would never happen, that organizing workers requires face-to-face contact.

Turns out that may be true of me my generation, but what’s coming up behind may have a different take on things. Note I resisted the temptation to make reference to ‘whippersnappers’.

There will be picket lines (though mebbe no oil drum heaters), leaflets for shoppers and other workers - everything you’d expect in a strike. Just no people. But lots and lots of avatars, because this is happening (if it can be said to be happening at all), in Second Life.

Second Life, for those of you who don’t know, is a virtual world in which 9 million users adopt facsimiles of themselves called avatars. Avatars then live out their lives at the direction of the users, interacting in most if not all the same ways their users do (so far as I know actual reproduction isn’t possible). But anonymously.

To the point where you can now buy real estate on Second Life, undertake all kinds of financial transactions find romance and figure out if you really could have made it as a painter.

You can also, now get this, visit a real embassy. Several in fact, with more coming. Get a visa, plan a vacation. Or take a university course.

While technically a computer game, Second Life resembles the Pong of my day the way I resemble whatever it was that first climbed out of the primal ooze.

Except mebbe a bit around the eyes…

Second Life has become so popular that a wide spectrum of corporations have established themselves there, the better to advertise themselves and their cutting-edginess, and to sell stuff to the online-addicted.

IBM is one. A big one. It has reportedly been spending big time on the establishment of a variety of online presences. On Second Life IBM has it’s own virtual island.

Corporations on Second Life actually use the environment for what they consider to be meetings that are more productive than conference calls or video conferencing. They sell stuff. They test stuff (especially graphic-intensive applications). And they advertise stuff. Oh boy, do they advertise stuff.

So what is this? The shape of strikes to come? A publicity stunt? Just a way of avoiding taking real action? Or just one more reminder from the Universe that I am getting old?

It’s perhaps all those things, but mostly it’s a case of whiplash for IBM. If transnational corporations like IBM have invested heavily in a presence on Second Life, then the workers would be stupid to ignore the possibilities for getting their employer’s attention it presents.

IBM can run, but it can’t hide.

Transnational virtual corps spawn transnational virtual unions. IBM doesn’t play nice with its workers; their union organizes something embarrassing on Second Life. And for some corporations it may actually be possible to have an economic impact on their business. If they are well established on Second Life (or any other social networking site), dependent on it for a significant chunk of sales or advertising or meeting time, then a virtual strike like this could have an impact back here in the real world of profits and share prices.

A virtual job action also the potential to make building support for unions, especially unions representing professional workers, workers with a long tradition of workplace conflict.

Better yet, potential for organizing high-tech home workers and telecommuters. These are workers that unions have traditionally had a hard time reaching and organizing. It’s hard to convince workers like these that what they are doing by organizing and mobilizing is real when you have nothing real for them to do. . As unreal as second Life is, the action the RSU members are taking against IBM is very real. Not concrete mebbe, but real.

For workers in a sector not traditionally union, the RSU is organizing a kind of job action that allows workers (if they work at it just a bit) to stay anonymous. They don’t, unless they want to, have to make it easy to identify who is behind their avatar. As a way to build confidence amongst workers who need and want to take that first action against an unfair employer this may have some advantages. Start out slow and work your way to more direct actions.

In and of itself it’s unlikely a virtual job action will bring IBM to its knees. Ten years from now I’ll be even older, both granddaughters will have driver’s licences, and perhaps the odds will have shifted, but not yet.

But the confidence in themselves, their co-workers and their union, that an action like this could create might just make possible and successful more, dare I say it, traditional, forms of job action.

Workers are not stupid. They may be in the position of having to react to their employers’ actions, but when you react you go looking for new weak points. IBM’s Second Life image may be that point. We’ll see. But if it isn’t, who cares? The workers may be, as a result, just a little more ready to move on to actions out here in meatspace.

Look at their press releases and statements: nothing new in their goals, incremental pressure on IBM to meet some well-defined and limited goals. With the exception of the details of the action that’s planned, there’s nothing exceptional in what the workers want (respect), or in how IBM has behaved (badly). Just in how the union is reacting.

Like the Borg, unions are adapting.

Ginger Goodwin might not approve (though William Gibson sure would), if he understood, but if you work for a tech company that does business in non-places like Second Life, you gotta fight them on their ground.

Even if that ground doesn’t really exist.

But the really nice thing about a virtual strike is that even if a car on a picket line hits your avatar, even if the riot squad shows up, you don’t wake up in hospital or spend an evening trying to get the stinging to stop.

Stay tuned. We’re going to see more of this.

For what seems to be the first story on the virtual strike see

For info on Second Life, see The Sniffer Podcast at

The IBM Italia Union:

For more on Second Life:

Ginger Goodwin

William Gibson:

RSU Website:

RSU public statement on the upcoming strike:

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