Towards an Organized Tech Industry—Part Two
by Wendy Liu (@dellsystem) on July 29, 2018



This is an abridged transcript of a panel co-hosted by Tech Workers Coalition and NYC-DSA Tech Action last month, at Left Forum in New York City. This panel, called Towards an Organized Tech Industry—Part Two, was the second of two panels hosted by Tech Workers Coalition.

The first panel, Towards an Organized Tech Industry—Part One, focused on the specifics of worker organising in the tech sector, and an abridged transcript of that was published by Notes From Below. This second panel built on that conversation, with a focus on the economic considerations around the role of the tech sector within capitalism, and what the left should be pushing for. It was chaired by Judy Tuan and featured Will Luckman, Holly Wood, and Wendy Liu.

Even abridged, this transcript is extremely long, so we’ve included links to sections:

Introduction

JThis is the second part of our two-part series on organising the tech industry. The first focused on the specifics of organising workers in tech. This panel is about the forward vision of what we should be trying to organise for. What’s wrong with the way the tech industry works now, what do we want to change, and how do we get there through collective action?

This panel is co-hosted by Tech Workers Coalition, which is an organisation trying to build worker power within the tech industry, and DSA-NYC Tech Action working group. I’m Judy Tuan. I’m a software engineer and part of Tech Workers Coalition.

Panelists

WiWill Luckman, a co-founder and acting member of the organising committee of the NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group, a New York City-based sub-group of the Democratic Socialists of America focused on the technology sector.

HDr Holly Wood, a recent graduate of Harvard University’s sociology department, who works to get democratic socialists elected into public office.

WeWendy Liu, who chaired our last panel. Wendy is a software developer and writer who writes about the economic considerations of the tech industry from a socialist perspective.

Personal stories

JWhat brought you to the left, and what brought you to tech organising?

Will’s story

WiWhen I was a teenager I was active in some of the concerns that were happening at the time - globalisation, animal rights work. At some point – around when George W. Bush was elected for the second time - I got really cynical about politics in America, and became more of a spectator. I followed politics as a sport, and I rooted for the team that I wanted to win, but was not super involved outside of occasionally showing for things like Black Lives Matter or Occupy.

With the rise of Bernie Sanders as a candidate, I saw someone who reflected, a lot more closely, my personal politics. Initially, I got behind it just because he had a national platform, and he came closer than anyone would’ve imagined so that was really thrilling. On top of that, to see the utter crumbling of the establishment Democratic Party, and their inability to stop Donald Trump from being elected, that really galvanised me.

What brought me into tech work: one of the jobs of the left is to analyse power, and to see who has power – to look at society, see who’s in control of things, and to confront that. It occurred to me that these big tech companies put out an altruistic face to the world, and they have this line they present to the public that they’re doing good. They’ve done a good job of skirting any sort of political conversation around what they’re doing, any real analysis of the power they’re amassing. Meanwhile, they’re amassing it at a huge rate.

As I was getting involved again in left politics, I thought it was important that we drag the tech industry into the political sphere, and have this conversation in public. When I joined DSA, I said we need to take this socialist perspective and apply it to the tech industry immediately, because we’re already behind.

Holly’s story

HI grew up in poverty, and I knew from a young age that the living situation I was going through was not right. I was fuelled by a deeply entrenched sense of injustice.

When you’re a poor kid, you get two choices: it’s either your fault, or it’s the systems fault. I was one of those kids who was like, “It’s the system’s fault, but I don’t know how and I don’t know why”. I used that as fuel to be an academic superstar. I got all the scholarships, was valedictorian in my high school, went to Wesleyan and Harvard and thought that was the right path for organising resistance. I thought if I could get the degrees, then I would get taken seriously; once I get those credentials after my name, maybe people will start listening to me.

Turns out they don’t. I went through a moment in grad school where I dropped out for a while, sold my shit, moved to San Francisco and became a nanny for a tech worker.

It changed my life. He was a genius; a serial startup founder, really glued religiously to the cult of startups. If any of you are from San Francisco you know exactly what I’m talking about – there is a cult of innovation in San Francisco.

I was sceptical until I became the man’s nanny. I had to be in the room when people were talking to him about his company, and I overheard all these conversations. I had to occupy this wonderful space of being someone who is working on a PhD dissertation, who is being treated as a nanny in a tech space.

There was no class consciousness amongst many of these people. They would think of me as a servant. It was fascinating to be treated as working class in the milieu of a very wealthy world. The person I worked for wasn’t like that, but it was like a game for us – to be the fly on the wall in the room full of people who don’t realise there’s a PhD sociologist writing down everything they say.

It was a fascinating experience for me as an ethnographer, and it activated my political consciousness, because I had originally written all these people off. I’d written this whole world off as a bunch of pampered proles who don’t give a fuck because they make 6-figures.

But then I started getting into the ideology. I had to deal with libertarian capitalists who were like, “Smash the state! But money’s fine.” And then crypto comes along and solves that dialectic for them - “Smash the state, and money! Because crypto works now.”

There are these wonderful loops of reasoning, which is interesting because they’re all engineers of some kind. They don’t value credentials; they value the profundity of their systems thinking. That’s the opportunity for a smart person to get them to see how their systems thinking is leaving a lot of gaps, because that’s a language they understand.

For me, that was a way to have radical conversations with people who never thought of themselves as political – to get them to go three steps down their systems thinking. I started using startup jargon to talk to people in tech about politics. Then they get it, because they want to solve problems with startups, but they don’t want to apply systems thinking to politics. And when you start engaging them in the language they understand, I was having very different conversations.

That changed my opinion about tech as a radical space for organising. I realised that these people might not be not on my “side”; they just don’t know that there are sides. That’s what I had to get them to understand.

That’s how I got into tech. I was always a socialist - I was that 15 year old thumping Marx - but the tech stuff was new, and that didn’t start until my late 20s when I became a nanny of a tech worker. Now I’m a tech defender in the sense that I’ve seen the opportunity in this space, and it’s expansive, and I don’t write it off.

Wendy’s story

WeMy story’s almost the opposite. I’ve been in tech for a long time, but I’m new to the left. I spent a lot of time on the internet as a kid - I started building websites when I was 12, I spent a lot of time on 4chan and Reddit and IRC. I would read people like Paul Graham (famous venture capitalist) - essays about technology and “the hacker mentality” where because you know how to write code, that gives you power. I wanted to be like him.

That created this rose-coloured lens through which I saw the tech world. I wanted to succeed according to the structures of this world. So I started doing a lot of open-source programming; I did computer science and math in college; and I spent basically all my spare time writing code.

There’s a strong gendered component, too. When I started programming, there were very few visible female programmers. The few there were got massively harassed. Men would tear apart their code - “She’s an idiot, a standard dumb girl who can’t do programming”. I thought, I don’t want to be like that; I have to be really good at what I do.

I got an internship at Google [in 2013], and everyone was telling me, “You must be so proud, you’ve worked so hard, you must be excited”. And then I started the internship and the glow slowly faded. I was like, “Wow, is this really what I’m supposed to be excited about? This is kind of shit.” Yeah, they pay really well - they pay you an extraordinary amount of money - but they pay you well precisely to distract you from the fact that it is kind of shit. It’s structurally shit, is the problem.

I was sitting at my desk 9-5, working on this project for capacity planning (Google needs to predict how many servers it needs in a year’s time, etc). I was building this graphical user interface for it. It was important, but I found it hard to believe that I was doing something good for the world. Because to believe that, you have to believe that Google is good for the world.

During that summer in San Francisco, seeing other techies on their phones, walking past homeless people and not caring - I thought, “Maybe there’s something about the world that I do not know about”. It was this feeling in the back of my mind, and I would talk to other interns about it, but we would conclude that the best path was to work for big tech companies and make a lot of money. Maybe donate to charity. Because we saw the world as mostly fine - we just had to game the system and do our best to succeed on the system’s terms. There was no real questioning of any systemic problems.

After that internship, I was really burnt out by Google and didn’t want to go back there, but I also didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t figure out what other company I’d want to work for.

So I ended up doing a startup. In my last year of university, some friends and I decided to start this company. We didn’t know what we were doing. We interviewed with Y Combinator [which is a startup accelerator program] - they flew us out to San Francisco and interviewed us. That was thrilling, having read all this stuff by Paul Graham [who was one of the founders of Y Combinator], and then seeing him through the window.

We didn’t get into Y Combinator (probably for the best). But that kick-started my desire to start this company and be the best entrepreneur I could, to succeed on those terms.

That was miserable. It was three years of this slog - we didn’t make any profit for most of it, and we realised what we were doing was far from what we actually wanted to do. We wanted to build cool technology and solve interesting problems. What we ended up doing was selling data to, literally, Urban Outfitters. They bought our data so they could send more targeted emails.

I remember being, on the one hand, proud that we had managed to secure a contract with Urban Outfitters. But on the other hand I thought, “Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? Is it something I can be proud of?” And it wasn’t.

Eventually, we couldn’t do the startup anymore and ended up selling it. For me, being so disillusioned with the startup world made me question a lot of the assumptions that got me to that point – this whole (very liberal) entrepreneurship ideology, this fetishisation of the entrepreneur. I started thinking, “Where does that come from, why do I believe in it?”

As a result, I started questioning all these other assumptions. Actually, Holly’s work was a big part of my radicalisation process. I followed Twitter and her posts made me realise that there are people from different disciplines who are seeing the same problems I’m seeing [in tech], but they’re grounded in theory. They’re grounded in a better understanding of the world, and I need to understand what that is.

I started a Masters degree in sociology last year, partly because I saw that Holly was a sociologist. The degree itself hasn’t been great, but moving to London, getting involved in the political scene there, and reading radical literature … and it gets more radical over time, right? I started reading pretty milquetoast stuff (just criticising tech), but eventually you get to the point where you can connect the dots – why is tech the way it is, why are there so many problems within the industry, what does that tell us about the economic system as a whole?

How is tech different?

JHow is tech different and what makes it right for organising?

Technology as infrastructure

WiTech has come to take over physical infrastructure in the form of broadband - the actual pipes of the internet. In a bigger way, the big companies who are harvesting data and building AI, who control communications platforms - all these are the infrastructure on which our society and our economy is increasingly built.

What we’re seeing with the tech industry is that as its powers and influence have grown, governments become more reliant on their contracts with big tech. They help them analyse the data they collected, help them around financial systems and things like that. More and more of the hypothetical infrastructure of our whole society is coming under the control of the tech industry.

That makes tech particularly dangerous, and different from other industries because they’re starting to subsume other industries, through the destabilisation we were talking about earlier (platforms that undermine worker power, things like this). That is an increasing threat that sets us apart from some other industries.

Disruption and revolutionary thought

HThe biggest thing for me about tech is that it’s almost categorically oriented around the concept of disruption. From that perspective, that’s in line with revolutionary thought. What is disruption? It’s a categorical attack against the existing paradigm.

So you have all these people at the gates of the city being like, “We gotta take down these gates to open them.” People like Paul Graham [who wrote this essay defending economic inequality, which Holly responded to] say they want to capture inefficiencies in the market, capture all that money that’s going to nowhere.

That money’s not going nowhere - that money’s going to human lives. That money’s going to nurses, that money’s going to teachers. Automation is just a way of killing people; it’s just slower.

Everybody’s on the same page about wanting disruption - we all want the paradigm to crumble - but who is at the gates because they want inequality to crumble, and who is at the gates because they want more inequality? That’s part of the reason I started targeting Paul Graham in a lot of my essays. He was defending inequality, he was defending stratification, he was saying these things were good for innovation, that they inspired people to work harder – for what? It was morally vacuous.

I saw this as a political opportunity. If some of the most powerful people in the world are reading this, all I have to do is throw up a title like “Paul Graham is begging to be eaten” and that goes viral. All I have to do is be honest about why the people who are into disruption are so vulnerable: because they’re stupid. These are not smart men.

There’s such a concentration of wealth and power on the shoulders of very few men, and finding those vulnerabilities is less difficult than you think, because they’re human. That’s what got me involved in tech organising from a feminist slant: realising that the feminists organising in this space have the dirt, and the #MeToo movement is just the start of it. These women have things on these dudes. It’s probably the only lynchpin we have, the only branch we have in the system. That’s a ticking time bomb we’re still waiting for, because of the culture of harassment and assault in tech.

What’s really interesting about tech: a lot of the people in the industry are smart, and when you point out that their heroes might not be so heroic, some of them will start listening.

What is [Paul Graham] really saying in this essay? He’s saying it’s okay to hurt people for profit. When you boil it down to its essence, that’s what they’re all saying. They’re saying it’s okay for people to suffer as long as one guy gets rich. That’s not okay with me, and it’s probably not okay with most people, but they’re writing as if they think it’s okay with most people.

There’s a huge opportunity to start doing this moral re-evaluation in tech, to understand why destroying jobs might not be the greatest thing we could do with our tech value.

I was so happy when I found out [Wendy] went to school for sociology - being able to think outside of tech with different tools, and then bringing those tools back into tech, is gonna be explosive. I’d encourage people to leave tech for a year to do something like Americorps or work on a teachers union - do something outside of tech and then come back. You’re going to have ideas for startups that nobody who never leaves the cult will ever have.

Paul Graham, thin skin, and meritocracy

WeThe Paul Graham thing is fascinating. This is a guy who has a million followers on Twitter and is super wealthy, super powerful. Last year, he blocked me on Twitter.

HBlocked me, too.

WeHe blocks so many women on Twitter who criticise him. He has the thinnest skin. I got blocked because I quote-tweeted something he wrote (which was really vacuous), saying, “this guy’s turning into a human horoscope”.

And he blocked me! This guy, with a million followers, blocking people who make jokes about him. So I wrote about it and apparently a lot of people had similar experiences, because it went viral. People told me, “He blocked me as well, because I faved a tweet that criticised him”.

The world likes to think that people like Paul Graham are smarter, better, deserving of their wealth. That is a myth they themselves love to propagate.

For example, Sam Altman (the person who now runs Y Combinator, who was hand-picked by Paul Graham to be his successor). I saw a tweet that characterised him as a manchild who had done nothing more than create a derivative location-sharing app [called Loopt], and now he’s running Y Combinator. If you look at this guy - what has he actually done? He created a startup that failed but still got bought for some ridiculous sum [$43 million], and because he managed to be around Paul Graham, Paul Graham was like, “I love this guy, he’s my surrogate son, I’m going to give him my empire”.

If you look at the reasons these people have wealth and power, the whole meritocracy narrative falls apart. Where is the merit? How do you define merit in a way that’s consistent with the patterns we’re seeing? There is no natural definition that accords to our innate sense of what merit is - it’s just luck and connections and being at the right place at the right time.

What you were saying about the MeToo movement – something happened last year with Dave McClure, who runs 500 Startups (another startup accelerator, second to Y Combinator in terms of prestige). He had sexually harassed quite a few women, and he was forced out of 500 Startups.

Which is a good sign, but that’s just the beginning. We need to recognize that with people like Dave McClure, it’s not just that they’re bad people because they sexually harass women. It’s that they don’t deserve to be in that position in the first place. Someone like Dave McClure should not be in a position where he is able to tell a founder, either you get my money or you don’t. There’s no real reason that legitimates him having that, other than the fact that he can, because he got lucky.

An infinite amount of surplus capital

Going back to the original question about what’s different about the tech industry – if you look at the larger economic context, technology is a way to try to increase the rate of return to capital. What we think of as technology is really just a bunch of investors saying, “Oh, interest rates are low, so I’ll invest in Silicon Valley”. There’s this dream that the tech sector can absorb this infinite amount of surplus capital - “Someone’s going to come up with the next billion-dollar idea that’ll revolutionize everything; if I invest now, I’ll eventually get a return.”

What sustains that dream is the fact that it has come true recently - we’ve seen actual disruption coming from the tech sector. But people think it’ll keep going on forever. At a certain point, you have to ask, is this a bubble? Has it always been a bubble?

This narrative of technology being this engine of great wealth creation … Magic Leap, a company which is valued at over a billion, still haven’t produced a product. It’s still in beta. They’re augmented reality or virtual reality, no one really knows.

HThey’ve pivoted like four times.

WeThey’ve raised so much money based on this dream that they’re going to revolutionise the world, simply by convincing investors who then say, “I’ll give you money, you deserve to be worth this much”. There is a total disconnect between the valuations in the industry and what any regular person would think of as being worth a certain amount of money.

This is a point I always stress when talking to people outside the industry. Most people on the left - they have no idea how much money circulates in tech. They’re struggling to pay rent. And the idea that some kid can drop out of Stanford and raise $30 million just because he fits the mould of a good founder – because he looks like Mark Zuckerberg - and an investor will say, “Take my money, I don’t care what you do with it, and I’ll get my friends to give you money too” …

When you look at it from the outside, it’s easy to see how messed up it is. But when you’re inside, it’s like this amazing party that you think will never end.

It’s going to end, at some point. The big question is how, and will it make things better or worse.

Organising beyond labour

JThe power that I am even more interested in is the power that is being built on the ground in organising. Holly, I wanted to ask you to tell that story, because this could show us what power could look like.

Gamergate organising

HWhen I was going through my “I hate Paul Graham” phase, I was doxxed by Milo [Yiannopoulos]! I was written about in Breitbart, because I was writing about Paul Graham.

I kind of knew it would happen, because I had been involved in this Twitter fight. A man named Vivek Wadhwa was getting paid a lot of money to talk about feminist issues, and the irony was just too much to bear. He got a woman in trouble because she had the audacity to talk about him on a podcast and he didn’t like the way she talked.

I was involved in the tech world because I had seen him use his power to destroy women, and yet has the audacity to speak on behalf of women – it was patently absurd. So I started getting involved with people who were organising to get him out of the industry (he was making money doing speaking engagements on diversity and inclusion), tweeting about how we need to get rid of this guy, and so many women in tech were like, “This guy’s an asshole, I’m tired of seeing him brought into Google to literally mansplain feminism to Google employees.” He was also associated with Breitbart and Milo - he would retweet and promote their shit. The levels of absurdity were so high with this guy.

So I started organising with a lot of women, and a lot of women of colour, because he was also racist in a weird way, and he would be like “I’m a man of colour so I can’t be racist”. That’s how I got involved in the tech diversity and inclusion movement, back in 2014 when I was living in San Francisco and kept meeting people at events who were like, “I saw your tweet about how much you hate Vivek Wadhwa! I hate that guy too.”

Eventually I started writing about Paul Graham, who Vivek Wadhwa defended. Milo picked that story up and so I got doxed. I was safe because they doxed my Boston apartment which I no longer lived at, because I was in San Francisco. But it was becoming clear to me that this was bigger than what people were thinking. This went to Milo, Milo went to Breitbart, Breitbart went to Trump.

And it was happening on the backs of women. This was how they were amassing power: by basically slaughtering women on the internet. That was how they were building their movement - how the alt-right was starting. Before we called it the alt-right, it was basically just anti-women. That’s what Gamergate was - Gamergate was the precursor to alt-right, and where they were building their power.

I started working with people who were being doxed by Gamergate - people like Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu. A lot of women in tech were organising resistance against this thing that nobody in the tech industry thought was going on. They were like, “This is a women’s thing; it’s not a big deal.” This is happening in your own backyard - they are amassing a Nazi army in your backyard - and none of you are paying attention.

So we worked to create ways to protect women from doxing. Crash Override, which is Zoe Quinn’s thing, was this effort to organise because women were constantly being fed into this harassment machine, and most of them don’t have tech skills. They weren’t in tech, they were just women who were outspoken on the internet; they didn’t have the capacity to lock down their accounts and protect themselves from this kind of harassment – who does? The typical user in these spaces does not have the organisational capacity to protect themselves from systemic harassment. It required people to quickly organise ways of protecting innocent women from the kind of bullshit that Breitbart made millions of dollars doing, because no one was taking it seriously in the tech industry.

For me, this was an important part of building power. At the time, I wasn’t working in tech, I was just a graduate student who tweeted a lot. But because of that, I became seen as this node in the network of people who were affected by this, a resource who could get people in contact with each other. It became this huge feminist self-organised thing to protect women, because of the failures of tech.

I don’t see my Twitter feed as a passive thing - I connect my followers with other followers. [My phone is] the biggest organising tool in my life.

It’s a way of organising that we don’t traditionally recognise as organising, because when we talk about organising we think of it in this hegemonic way of labour and getting better labour rights. We don’t think about it as protecting women in spaces where misogyny is rampant and being weaponised.

We still haven’t acknowledged that Gamergate is where the alt-right came out of - it decisively came out of Gamergate. But people still don’t take Gamergate seriously. They don’t see it as a thing that had any impact on culture, as if it was just an internet thing. It was literally a hobby for millionaire men to harass women.

For me, Gamergate was the crisis, not Trump’s election. I’m still fighting Gamergate, five years later, because I see the line from Gamergate to Trump.

Tech Action organising

JWhat you said about not calling it organising because it’s not specifically labour organising - that bleeds into the last panel, where the work of creating content for these platforms has been called other things. Like making tutorials in the games industry, or the content on Twitter and Facebook.

There’s a wider question: how can we start organising ourselves as creators of content? What are the similarities and differences compared to labour organising, and what strategies can we bring in? I wanted to ask Will for some stories about building power on the ground with Tech Action.

WiWe haven’t necessarily been talking too much about content creation as labour, although that does come up in some of our meetings.

On the group itself: Tech Action Working Group is part of the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. NYC-DSA is a very large chapter, and we have a lot of different working groups on different issues (like socialist feminism, electoral work, housing work).

I don’t work in the tech industry, but it’s an issue that affects everyone, and it intersects with everything else - there’s a tech angle to housing, to crime and policing, to feminism. I wanted the left to pay attention to how the tech industry contributes to these other problems.

It’s like an affinity group, attracting people from NYC-DSA who work in the tech industry but didn’t have places to talk about this stuff - who didn’t have places to organise in their workplaces - to come and have conversations with like-minded people. In that way, we’re a lot like Tech Workers Coalition. It’s a way for us to share ideas, to develop left perspectives, to do political education for ourselves. It’s a safe space for people to complain about their work conditions and see how their lives align with those of other workers.

We’re taking the approach that other DSA chapters do to actual organising – organising in our communities, with a local campaign to start pushing back against problems with the tech industry. We’ve been looking into municipal broadband, and whether there’s a way to set that up in New York, where you’d basically have a public utility version of the internet on a local level.

There was a bill going through city council recently about algorithmic transparency, which would have asked the city of New York to make their automated decision-making systems - which they’re currently getting from third-party private vendors, for the most part – open source. That was something we supported - that’s an ongoing issue. Generally, we’re pushing back on the relationship between the (private) tech industry and the (public) government, and getting the government to spend money on public services instead of giving tax breaks and cushy contracts to tech companies. We’re diagnosing where the money’s going and trying to de-commodify things and bring more things into the public sphere.

Liberal feminism versus democratic control

WiTo add to what Holly saying about tech billionaires: no one should be in a position of power like this. These people who have so much power - that’s a great reason to organise not just women, but everyone. No one should have this much power. We need to rethink the whole system. Whether it’s a man with bad politics, or a woman with good politics - whoever it is - no one should have that much control over the lives of their workers.

More broadly, no one should have this much control over the way society functions. Look at Mark Zuckerberg - he has so much control over how we communicate with one another. He owns 25% of Facebook. No one individual should have that much control over our society. This needs to be democratically controlled, so we need to figure out strategies for doing that.

JHow do we ensure that tech workers are mobilising for futures that are in the benefit of not just the workers themselves, but for us all?

WeWhat Will’s talking about is exposing the failure of liberal ideas around diversity. When you think about what [Sheryl Sandberg’s] “lean in” feminism is - it’s saying, “There are too many men with positions of power; let’s have some women up there as well”. It’s not questioning this whole power structure in the first place.

There’s this famous quote from Christine Lagaarde of the IMF: “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, then the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened”. Women can make stupid mistakes, too. They can be socialised to be greedy. It all comes down to the system.

A lot of this liberal analysis just doesn’t take into account the systems. With my time in tech, the problem was that I kept looking at the world in this piecemeal way, without seeing how things were interconnected into this greater whole. It’s funny, because as software engineers that is what we’re supposed to do - we’re supposed to see how everything works together - but instead we sometimes focus myopically on individual elements.

Galvanising points

JI feel like we’re at a turning point where people are realising that tech is not all for good. What are some of the galvanising points that you see an opportunity to unite around, as a stepping stone towards a better future?

Net neutrality

WiOne good example of public disillusionment with the tech industry, as an opportunity for organising further and creating a better vision of the future, is the net neutrality fight. This got a lot of public attention - people have a conception of the way the internet runs now, and like the idea that it should be open and everyone should have the same access.

It was really a fight between the internet service providers, and the people who had these content platforms, over who controls the bandwidth. It’s encouraging, because net neutrality got a lot of publicity and people thought it was an important issue. A way to go beyond that is to say, okay, we’re scared the internet service providers have too much economic control. They’re going to have monopoly power and will be able to charge whatever they want, squeeze out the little guys, etc.

But why do we take for granted that internet service providers exist in the first place? Why is the internet - which is not just a luxury - in the hands of private industry in the first place? Especially when it was initially built with public funds. Why did it get privatised? And how can we take that back? How can we say, this should belong to the people, and we can fund it ourselves?

Having those conversations is a way of taking this stepping stone of net neutrality - where people are already thinking about these things - and then pushing them beyond that, to ask deeper questions. That’s a way to start pushing things forward.

JIt’s not only an economic issue - all of it is tied together, right? SESTA/FOSTA, access to internet … it’s a womens issue, a class issue, a race issue. There are communities that don’t have equal internet access. I also think that internet access and net neutrality are proceeding to be flashpoints for organising.

Juicero and waste in Silicon Valley

WeIf I can talk about glimpses or cracks beginning to open up in the edifice … look at the way that people have been talking about startups in popular culture. Everyone knows about Juicero? This startup that made the 700 dollar juicer (originally $700; they reduced it to $400, but even then it wouldn’t sell). Theoretically, you put this package into the juicer and it squeezes it and gives you juice. But someone found that you could squeeze it by hand, and the investors were pissed off.

But let’s take a step back and think about all that money being poured into Silicon Valley to create startups like this …

JHow did we get here?

WeExactly. Who would actually want to work on this product? Does anyone think it benefits the world? No, they do it because they’re an employee and being paid good money, or because they’re a founder and this is the best way to build their personal brand, so they can raise more money in the future for what they really want to do.

But, of course, they’re never going to do what they “really” want to do. The incentive structure’s not there. When it does align with what society actually needs, it’s an accident - a coincidence - rather than what the system’s designed for. Right now, people are incentivised to create pointless startups that they can sell to another company.

That’s what I did with my startup - we ended up building a [somewhat less sketchy] version of Cambridge Analytica. The world does not need more shit like that. There were so many startups doing the same thing. So many people - like me - spend their lives chasing that startup dream and building technology the world just does not need.

On a macro scale, this is a catastrophic waste of resources. These people could be working on something more socially valuable, it’s just that the opportunities to do so are few and far between. There’s so little money going to social entrepreneurship, and the system is not set up to let people work on things that society needs.

That is something people are starting to realise. Someone will tweet a joke about Juicero and it’ll get thousands of retweets, because people see that this is a waste of resources, that the valuations of these tech companies are inflated.

And I think that is an opening. From there, people ask, “How did we get to that point?” What are the structures that led to this? And what do we need to rethink about the economy - and the way it prioritises resources - in order to avoid this?

We’re still at an early stage of this conversation, but what we have to do now is acknowledge the need to rethink fundamental assumptions we have about the economy. Because it’s not like the whole tech sector came out of nowhere - it’s rooted in deeper axioms about how the economy should be organised. Fundamentally, what the tech sector is - it just magnifies other elements of the economy.

And it does it in a way that it makes it really hard to question. If you’re sucked into the tech bubble, you’re spending your whole life chasing the startup dream, surrounded by people who believe the same thing as you.

What we need, at this point, is to ask ourselves how we got here, and how we get somewhere else. How do we take a different fork in the road? What do we have to change about the economy to make sure that the dramatic waste of resources we’re seeing in tech right now doesn’t keep happening?

Decentralisation

HThere’s been more conversation around the concept of decentralisation. People who were not previously politically active are calling for it, because of Facebook. Facebook was this huge centralisation, and now people are like, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was the opposite, the way the internet used to be?” As a millennial who grew up in a very decentralised internet, where we were learning HTML and making our own websites as teenagers, and now everybody’s on Facebook - it’s a nightmare. People are starting to criticise that this is how we’re spending our lives, and they’re calling for decentralisation.

As an anarchist, I’m like “Yes!”. But the other point about decentralisation, the crack that might start happening - it’s getting to the point where it’s actually logistically impossible to protect intellectual property rights, as we globalise.

If you do a startup pitch, the thing you’re ultimately selling is a product. If you want to expand your market you have to sell it overseas, where they can make it cheaper and smarter, and another startup can take your idea and do it better.

So we’re seeing this iteration speed-up, where people can’t keep up with the state of manufacturing. You can’t come up with an idea, pitch it, get funding, and actually create a successful product without it getting scooped by another company that can do it faster. We’re seeing this churn of intellectual property - cases that can’t even get heard in court because they’re ridiculous.

I think the collapse is coming, because there’s no more market for consumer products. There’s just a bunch of stupid product ideas, because they don’t have any good ideas but they have a lot of free time and money, and that’s a sign that the bubble’s about to burst. The products I’m seeing pitched - I sat on a pitch panel last year. 20 pitches in a row; 18 about delivering consumer products to the home. I’m like, that is a fucking catalogue, you literally innovated the catalogue. Is that where we are? But that’s where we are. I think the bubble’s ready, because all they’ve got now are home deliverables.

WeAnd wearables!

WiHere’s my question. When the bubble pops, who survives? Does it mean a collapse of the entire tech industry? Probably not, right?

HRight.

WiThat means that startup culture will fall away, with the big companies remaining. That’s a problem we’ll need to address even if that bubble does burst. If you look at the financing structures of the tech industry - a lot of money is coming from things that left-wing people wouldn’t approve of. If startup culture is about developing a company and then selling it, the people who have the biggest wallets are in advertising, financial services, surveillance, the military. That’s fundamentally where a lot of the money that’s propping up this industry is coming from. And it seems like that might persist.

Audience questions

The questions have been summarised, and the answers roughly re-grouped by question.

Radicalising tech workers

(To Holly: what sort of conversations she has with tech workers in order to radicalise them)

HFor me, the opportunity for radicalisation comes from having conversations. For example, about the visa workers at Facebook. I would ask Facebook employees, “Do you know where they live? They can’t afford to live in San Francisco, so where do they live? When immigrants are brought over to do this work, do you know where they are?” When they’re doing subcontract jobs [for a company like Google], it’s even worse because they’re a layer removed from Google, so Google doesn’t have any oversight over them, so they live in these houses in Mountain View where it’s 20 people and it’s a health code violation.

But [full-time Facebook employees] don’t know this stuff. So you have these conversations with them. I asked people, “Have you talked to anybody with a visa in this company? Have you had a conversation about what their life conditions are like?”

And so you start rolling conversations. It’s more about talking from the heart than it is about politics. It’s about getting people to recognise - “Do you know your cafeteria workers are not unionised? Do you know how hard it is to live in San Francisco? They have to commute and they don’t get to ride the [company] bus, how do you think they can afford to do that?” I would just ask questions like that. That is how I started having radical organising conversations with people in tech.

To your point about municipal broadband - that’s a huge issue for people in tech. In San Francisco, this is a hot topic of conversation in tech circles, this radical injustice - “I shouldn’t have to pay for data! This is ridiculous!” For them, that’s injustice; God forbid you have to pay for data! But that’s meeting people where they are. That radicalises them.

People running for office in San Francisco have to have municipal broadband on their platform. The “pampered proles” of San Francisco are activated by municipal broadband, not homelessness.

As an organiser, you’ve got to meet people where they are. You start with that conversation [about municipal broadband], and then you get to municipal housing. They’re like “I love free data!”, “Well what about free housing?” You’ve got to meet people where they are and then go from there. You can’t start from where you are and be like, “You’re an idiot, you don’t care about homelessness”.

I don’t think everybody in tech is this thoughtless, soulless idiot. But I do think they have blinkers from being very privileged. If you can wear down the blinkers by listening to what they do care about - like municipal broadband - you can build these organisation conversations across lines.

I worked as a policy advisor for city council candidates, and I get this upper-crust elite of New York interested in local politics because I can get them in on this idea. “How do you feel about free broadband? How do you feel about a summer food programme for kids?”

The lost potential of open source

(Not in response to an audience question - just building off what Holly said about meeting people where they’re at)

WeOne thing I feel has always been this lost potential in the tech world is the open source movement, which started off the “free software” movement. I got into open source when I was pretty young and I loved the idea - because information could be replicated for free, it should be. It’s a pretty radical idea, that challenges dominant narratives around property.

That’s something that got lost as it got co-opted by corporations. But this idea of meeting people where they’re at - there is some potential that can be salvaged from the movement.

When I was writing open source code, there was this debate about whether contributors should be paid. Because I was 15, living at home, I was like, “Who needs money? I don’t need money; no one should need money. It ruins your principles. You should contribute to this community because you’re passionate, not because you want to get paid.” I had these blinkers - I didn’t realise that people actually needed to pay for housing and food.

If you think about the open source movement and this ideal where people are able to contribute for free - how are they able to live unless everything else is decommodified? Unless housing and internet access and food are free, it doesn’t make sense.

Open source is this place that’s potentially radicalising - you just have to connect it to a broader political movement around what it actually means for information to be free. Everything else has to be free, right? That connection hasn’t been pushed enough.

Municipal broadband

(In response to an audience question about what political work is being done around the municipal broadband issue)

WiI don’t think that it just applies to tech-savvy people. A good political starting question that you can ask anyone is, “Do you like your cable company?” No! They’re ripping you off. Everyone agrees that they hate their internet service provider. It’s a way to get people involved.

In terms of the specifics of trying to implement municipal broadband in New York: it’s difficult. We talked to Bob Master, the political director for the CWA in the North-East and one of the founders of the Working Families Party. In New York, Verizon recently got a contract to build a [fiber-optic] system here. It’s this big infrastructure project that NYC already sunk all this money into, so it’s unlikely that the city’s going to do that again. It would put DSA, who is friendly with the CWA, into competition with them, because the CWA fought really hard to get a good contract from Verizon, and they don’t want public competition for jobs. So it’s tricky politically, and it seems we may have been a little late. Perhaps the lesson to be learned there is that we need to be politically organised when these systems are being built, and be ready for them.

One thing we’re trying to look at now is 5G. There’s going to be a 5G rollout in New York, and the terms of those deals have yet to be settled, so maybe that’s a place where we can inject ourselves and fight for the people, for a public concern.

Going back to “Why municipal broadband?” New York has a really bad digital divide. A lot of people, especially in poor neighbourhoods, don’t have access to internet. But the internet is not a luxury; it’s a fundamental resource that we all need to survive. If one group of kids is using an internet connection at home to do their homework, and another group of kids has to go to the library and wait for computers, that’s inequality that needs to be fought.

In the past, the city has often made deals with private companies. Bill de Blasio made a deal with Google to install this wireless network throughout the city, and in doing that is giving away our data, and didn’t make protections for the public. Our group is trying to fight - we think this stuff should be done on a public level.

In general, if we want to make it equitable, we need to put more funding into public jobs. Instead of giving tax breaks, we should take that money, reinvest it into the city - into jobs programs - and have competitive salaries and benefits compared to private companies, and build a more robust, public version of technology systems.

HOne of the things we want to be able to do with municipal broadband is incorporate it into a federal jobs guarantee. If it becomes top-down at the federal level that everyone has a job guarantee, we can rebuild infrastructure and also guarantee a $15 minimum wage. That’s a huge resource in building municipal programs - not just in New York, but everywhere.

Perpetually maximising returns

(In response to an audience comment about the tech industry being driven by this idea of “optimisation” from the lens of neoclassical economics theory)

WeThe point about neoclassical economics comes down to a matter of ideology in a way that’s invisible. This is not something specific to tech, but it’s definitely magnified and accelerated by technology. We’ve all been taught from childhood to think in terms of maximising economic efficiency.

When I got my first job offers out of college and I was looking at salaries, the only thing that mattered to me was, “Am I going to be making enough money?” To accumulate savings - for what? What is actually the point, a nice bank account when I die? What the hell is the point in that?

Most of the time it’s invisible and it’s hard to think about because you’re used to it. But when you start to question it, that opens the door to different possibilities.

Tech Workers Coalition circles

JTo answer the question of what we’re doing practically and politically: Tech Workers Coalition has a programme called “circles” which is conducting a workers’ inquiry. We’re matching tech workers up into small groups, and saying, “meet a couple times a week, for a couple months; let’s see what happens”. We’re watching our political education happen in real time.

One of the major themes I keep hearing is that when we get people in the same room, it can be very valuable. We want to bring this to more cities. We’re working on the questions list for workers’ inquiry, and a lot of it starts with talking about conditions. That’s what we’re doing, building from the ground wherever we are.

Can tech workers go on strike?

(Highlighting the recent case of Verizon workers going on strike over issues like municipal broadband and affordable internet access, and how that countered the typical narrative of expecting CEOs to make decisions. What would it mean for tech workers, near the point of production, to go on strike?)

WiThere’s so much to gain from organising tech workers. So much of our infrastructure (communications, logistics) - think of Amazon and its delivery systems - are controlled by the tech sector. That’s bad, in that they’re dominating society, but it also makes them vulnerable. If we were to organise, say, Amazon warehouse workers, and they all went on strike, that would cripple the economy.

So it’ll be a strong tool for the left as part of a broader movement. Same thing for white-collar engineers, like sysadmins could shut down a server farm. Or - Amazon is providing cloud computing for the Pentagon, and if you could shut that down through worker action, those are massive levers of power that could be exercised against the government, or against bad actors in the economy.

That’s kind of extreme, but that’s the idea. On a smaller level, there’s a lot of surveillance of employees in the tech industry. That surveillance, if it’s not already being ported out to other industries, it will be more and more. Engineers are in a particular position where they understand that technology better than anyone else, and if they organise now and put up a red flag, and try to stop that within the tech industry? That could have enormous effects that ripple out across industries. I’m a democratic socialist, I’m not a Wobbly, but sabotage shouldn’t be left off the table if we’re talking about real issues of challenging power, and if we run out of options.

Interrogating technology and co-opting municipalism

(On whether the idea of “technology” itself is one that should be interrogated. Tech companies play up the idea of technology being this superhuman transhistorical force, ignoring the social forces, and position themselves as “neutral” or even “good”. For example, Apple’s rebranding of its stores as town squares in order to position themselves as private providers of public services - municipalism, but without any of the messy “politics”. How does the left push for municipalism without it getting corrupted by private companies?)

HThe easiest way to push back against that is to say “Is it democratic? Did people vote for this? Was there buy-in? Or are you just co-opting the public sphere for private gain?” In electoral work, as a democratic socialist, I’d ask, “Where was the democratic input into this policy? Did you talk to people in the community who’d be affected by it?”

In America, we don’t have people asking our politicians, “Where did you get this legislation? What lobbyist vote it for you?” But we need to get into that praxis of asking, “Where are these policies coming from? Who’s writing them, and why?”

WeOne of the problems in the tech industry is that most people don’t study much outside of computer science and math. It’s rare to find someone who has a good understanding of the theoretical aspects of technology. Social theory talks about what technology actually is - its role in a capitalist system - but most people working in tech don’t see the world in that way, because they’ve never been exposed to that. I definitely wasn’t until recently. It’s fascinating how technology is being used as this buzzword to justify these things. People in tech need a better understanding of what technology actually is, and look behind the veil - what is the word trying to conceal?

A positive spin on technology

(In response to an audience question criticising the panel for being too negative)

WeWe have this space [at Left Forum] because there is not enough critical coverage. Mainstream media covers technology in such a positive way, and the point of this space is to put forward alternative narratives, which means we have a negative view of the tech industry. But I think that’s a conversation that is not had enough.


author

Wendy Liu (@dellsystem)

Wendy is an economics editor.

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