Call it cliche, but I had my first real encounter with Karl Marx in college. His concept of “alienation” struck a chord. It gave words to a feeling I experienced during my internships at larger tech companies. It was a major factor in why I decided to join a startup after I graduated.
Alienation captures the estrangement workers feel from key aspects of their humanity. Consider a shoemaker crafting an entire shoe. He crafts it his own way and experiences firsthand the joy on his customer’s face. But with industrialization, he becomes a worker in a factory line, repetitively assembling lace eyelets. As Marx articulated, “he becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him.”1
The worker’s worth is now based on his ability to execute the same physical motion. Craftsmanship is a liability because it compromises product consistency. It’s the same principle behind Starbucks slightly burning their coffee beans before shipping them to stores. Consistently imperfect is more marketable than occasionally inspired. The worker also loses sight of the final shoe product and customer interaction, unable to witness the transformation of his labor into impact. He is estranged from his labor.
Marx was writing in an industrializing Europe, but it applied to my brief time in Big Tech. There was a stream of tickets the company wanted me to mechanically churn through. It’s why I ultimately decided to join a small firm — a setting with room for expression and where I could see myself in my work.
Communist Manifesto Chapter 1 ↩︎