🌹Zynga's office, billionaires, learn to code

May 28 - tech/left news

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

This may actually be the last newsletter I send for a while, as I’m taking a break of unspecified length from writing daily blog posts, and I don’t know if it makes sense to write these newsletters if I’m not doing the fragments.

Thanks to everyone who has been following me on my blog post journey. Writing a different original blog post every day is an absurd thing to do, and I’m amazed I managed to last almost 150 days. It was a massive chore at times, but I don’t regret it at all: I learned a lot, and got some practice writing (almost 200k words!), and hopefully made some people see the world a little differently. The only real downside is that my wrists started hurting midway through, but I now wear wrist braces and they kind of make me look like a Pokémon trainer, which is to say, really cool.

I’ve decided to stop writing daily fragments partly because I need to focus on my book, but mostly because I’m running out of steam, as researching and developing a thesis about a whole new topic every single day takes a lot of energy and I’ve been kind of low on energy lately. It’s weird, because I finally have a lot of time to write - something I’m incredibly grateful for - and yet some days I’m like, why do I even bother writing? What is the point?

Maybe this is an inevitable side effect of my unsteady Damascene-esque conversion over the last couple years. I’m still grappling with the person I used to be: the way I used to see the world, the things I used to value. I may have spent the last ~150 days writing about the horrors of capitalism, but I spent most of my life subconsciously learning to be a good capitalist subject, optimising for personal success in the system as it exists now. It is still disorienting for me to try to optimise for a very different life goal - one rooted in a collective project rather than an individual one - that feels like a repudiation of everything I had previously believed. There’s jarring disjuncture between the motivations that used to drive me & my newfound desire to question all my old motivations, and I haven’t yet been able to conclusively resolve that in a satisfactory way. Though I’ve adopted a new paradigm for how I think I should spend my time, my mind still clings to old habits, which means that some days I feel like a total failure and I have no motivation to work on anything at all.

I don’t know if that made any sense. The growing pains of being a baby leftist, I guess. It’s not easy to have the rug metaphorically pulled out from under you, especially when what’s underneath is just a gaping lightless chasm. The reason I turned to the left in the first place was because I was unhappy with my life, and while the left gave me an analysis that helped me understand that unhappiness, diagnosis isn’t the same as cure. At the end of the day there is just me, alone with my unhappiness. Knowing why the world is going to shit is great and all, but I still have to live in this world.

Anyway, it’s fine, I’ll figure it out, my life is easier than most, my book will get written and with any luck I’ll go on to write more (and will never have to work in tech again). If you’ve read this far, I thank you for bearing with me as I navigate the murky waters of writing and figuring what to do with my life. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing. Words of wisdom and/or motivation are always appreciated.

Fragments

Recommended content

  • 🔗 Spadework: a really incredible n+1 article by Alyssa Battistoni on her experience organising a graduate student union at Yale. I especially loved the references to Stuart Hall on ideology, some of which clearly inspired my writing in the “Personal news” section above: “To organize, and to be organized, you have to keep in mind Hall’s lesson: there is no true or false consciousness, no true self that organizing discovers or undoes. You too, Hall reminds us, were made by this world you hope to change. The more distant the world you want to live in is from the world that exists, the more deeply you yourself will feel this disjuncture.” It’s a long article, but it’s thoughtful and moving and beautifully written, and I would especially recommend it to anyone involved in organising white-collar tech workers.

  • 📖 Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism: A new book by John Patrick Leary, published by Haymarket. Bills itself as an updated version of Raymond Williams 1985 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, an apparently seminal piece of cultural theory that I have yet to read. Like Williams’ Keywords, this book is a truncated dictionary, with histories, critical explanations, and usage examples for words like “innovation”, “meritocracy”, “empowerment”. Recommended for anyone who wants a better understanding of the left’s critique of capitalism, or anyone on the left who wants to keep up with all the new words brought to us by Silicon Valley et al.

  • 🎙 Doug Henwood’s podcast ft. Anand Giridharadas: a really fun discussion on the subject of philanthrophy, inequality, and why we need more people to be class traitors. If you’ve already read Anand’s book, Winners Take All, this episode probably won’t be anything new, but if you haven’t, it’s a nice and accessible introduction to the topic with lots of political polemic but little leftist jargon.

Rent loans, walnut scrub, & leftist hypocrisy

Tech/left news - May 20

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

Game of Thrones is over, and in such a spectacularly disappointing fashion, too. The only thing that I actually liked about the episode was the surprisingly radical critique of American imperialism (symbolised by Daenerys’ sudden bellicose turn), but maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Drogon burning down the throne made no sense but at least it gave rise to some great memes. Also: a thread by historian Brent Sirota recapping the politics of the show.

Zeynep Tufekci wrote a riveting critique of the show for Scientific American, focusing on its regretful turn from being a sociological story (“having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them”) to being a psychological one, concerned with the unique foibles of individuals (with a touch of genetic determinism). She cites The Wire as an exemplary of good sociological storytelling (which I really need to watch), and also connects this distinction between psychological/sociological narrative to her primary area of research: tech criticism. For Tufekci, too much attention is paid to the idiosyncrasies of specific founders/execs/investors, and not enough to “the structures, incentives and forces that shape how they and their companies act in this world”. Amen.

Fragments

Recommended content

  • 🎙The Dig on gentrification and real estate: featuring Samuel Stein, author of the recent Verso book, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. At 1.5+ hours, it’s a really long episode, but I found it quite illuminating, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding the role of real estate under capitalism and how that shapes the cities we live in. Some things touched on: the damaging consequences of devolution of power for providing public goods (from federal to state to municipal levels); the crisis of social reproduction (as more burden is shifted away from capital and the state, and toward labour); how local struggles over development are pitched as a false dichotomy between YIMBYs and NIMBYs, when what’s really needed is a larger battle to challenge the commodification of housing in the first place.

  • 🔗 Everything to Lose: a long read by Alyssa Battistoni for The Nation about the politics of climate change. Though framed as a review of two books (The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich), the article goes beyond the scope of what’s covered in the books to lift the veil on why our current political and economic system is so bad at dealing with ecological crisis. I especially liked the case against shared culpability: “It’s true that pointing a finger at fossil-fuel companies, oil lobbyists, and Republican Party activists alone is insufficient. The entire world runs on cheap oil, and fossil-fuel executives have done what any good capitalist would do—that is, whatever they could get away with. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should absolve the fossil-fuel industry or its political backers of responsibility, but rather that we should indict the economic and political system that drives them.”

  • 🔗 The Constant Consumer: a lovely essay by Drew Austin for Real Life Magazine. The essay traces some of the historical factors behind the rise of customer-focused capitalism (where “customer” becomes not merely a temporary role, but rather a “primary and perpetual identity”) and draws out some of the negative consequences of this turn on society, as it as helped some corporateions (e.g., Amazon) to gain terrifying amounts of power. As Austin writes: "this shift occurs because it works for the group implementing it, not because it’s best for everyone". “Customer obsession” is more PR strategy than it is a legitimate moral compass; it’s a way to render the company immune to customer criticism, even as workers everywhere down the value chain are heavily exploited.

  • 🔗 Solidarity in Silicon Valley: a terrific article for Boston Review by law professor Brishen Rogers, whose work I’ve previously shared in an older version of this newsletter. The article contains a good summary of tech worker organising efforts, but the focus is on the positive vision for organising efforts: true workplace democracy. As Rogers writes: “we should ensure that tech workplaces are governed in accord with basic democratic norms and ideals. In practice, there are many different ways to do that, ranging from greater protections for whistleblowers, to protections against forced arbitration, and even to unionization or other sorts of collective voice. What unites these approaches is a commitment to ensuring broadly distributed power in the workplace.” Rogers then goes on to discredit the myth that tech companies are already democratic because they allow Q&A at town hall meetings: “there is a vast difference between permitting feedback and sharing power, which is essentially the difference between benevolent authoritarianism and democracy.” He then cites Elizabeth Anderson description of corporations as “private government”, one where its workers are subjected to its laws but not citizens with an equal say in decision-making. (I love the concept, and Anderson’s book of the same name has been sitting near the top of my “to read” pile for a while now.)

  • 🔗 Technology Is as Biased as Its Makers: An excerpt from Lizzie O’Shea’s book Future Histories, which just came out from Verso Books. This excerpt begins with a vignette about sidelined safety considerations for a car produced by Ford in the 70s, an incident which shows the absurdity of allowing financial considerations to trump all others in corporate decision-making: “Burn injuries and burn deaths were assigned a price […] these prices were measured against the costs of implementing various options that could have improved the safety of the Pinto.” She goes on to say: “The people who made these cars were working in a specific corporate climate. Their organizations were led by ruthless executives. The leadership of companies like Ford and GM ignored safety concerns in competition with other companies that did the same. It was not even a problem confined to the auto industry; there have been many other similar scandals involving corporate indifference to the human consequences of poorly designed consumer products. These scandals are not aberrant; they occur in a context, and to avoid them happening again requires a political strategy to attack the logic that produces them.” A lot of this seems relevant to ethical issues in the modern-day tech industries, and I’m looking forward to reading the whole book.

Losing limbs, tipping, Adam Smith's mother

Tech/left news - May 13

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

(This section is temporarily home to Game of Thrones recaps. It’ll be over next week, don’t worry.)

A thoughtful analysis by Megan Garber for The Atlantic: “Dany is a savior, and Dany is a monster, and it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. ¶ In that foundational ambiguity, there is despair. This is what happens, after all, when individual leaders accumulate strength that refuses to be questioned or moderated: Everyday people become subject, in the most intimate of ways, to the workings of leaderly minds and hearts and spleens. The world and its inhabitants get shaped by the fickle emotions of the powerful.”

And some Twitter content about the episode: a comparison to US foreign policy; a practical explanation for why this last season feels so rushed; and a historian’s perspective on ‘Targaryen restorationism’.

Fragments

Recommended content

  • 📖 Radicalized: A collection of four short stories by sci-fi writer and activist Cory Doctorow. It’s a thoroughly engrossing series of predictions about what our tech-mediated dystopian future will look like, underpinned by a thoughtful analysis of the horrors of late capitalism. Topics covered include: US immigration and refugees; the cost of housing; when DRM meets IoT; institutional racism and police brutality; the cruelty of a for-profit healthcare system; how you should prep for the apocalypse; and the importance of sanitation workers (something I mentioned in last week’s newsletter). Superman and Batman make an appearance in one fun story. If you’re in SF, you can get a copy from the San Francisco Public Library. Highly recommended.

  • 🔗 Facebook Caves, Increases Salaries and Benefits for Contractors: Nice straightforward labour reporting by Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo. A combination of critical press coverage (like this great piece from the Washington Post) and internal labour organising has catalysed Facebook into raising pay for its US-based contractors, from the current minimum of $15 an hour to up to $22/hour in expensive metropolitan areas like DC, the Bay Area, NYC. It’s not much, given the absurdly high cost of living in these places (especially the Bay), but it’s a start.

  • 🎥 DSA SF’s short videos on homelessness: the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has been doing important work around homelessness in the area. This series of 3-4 minute videos - on interactions with police, the housing crisis, and access to healthcare - is a useful introduction to the topic, featuring the voices and stories of some who are currently homeless. I would also recommend this NBC video about the proposed navigation centre along the Embarcadero, which really clarifies what’s at stake here, and makes it incredibly difficult to sympathise with the local residents who are attempting to block the construction.

  • 🔗 The automation delusion: why robots aren’t the biggest threat to your job: an important short piece by Hettie O’Brien for New Statesman questioning the validity of the automation narrative (47% of all jobs will be automated, etc etc) and suggesting that we should instead be worrying about how digital technology is deepening employers’ control over their workers. (I came to a similar conclusion in a fragment about a tech startup that does workplace surveillance.) The article concludes: “while anxieties over automation abound, the greater risk is of widening disparities between workers. Some will have every aspect of their labour measured and analysed, while others will have the power to avert this fate, Figueroa predicts. Dystopian visions of advancing robots shouldn’t distract from the more familiar struggles we face.”

Domain name colonialism, regulation, customer happiness

May 7 - tech/left news

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

There’s an Uber/Lyft strike happening tomorrow (May 8) in a bunch of cities around the world! You can support drivers by not using either app, and if you’re in San Francisco, come to the demonstration outside Uber’s office at 1455 Market St, starting at noon. I’ll be there carrying a Tech Workers Coalition banner and handing out flyers about how to file a claim for lost wages in the wake of the Dynamex ruling. Come say hi!

Fragments

  • Domain name colonialism (day 124): A brief history of Colombia's .co TLD as a neat little illustration of modern-day digital colonialism.

  • Assume a spherical cow (day 123): If you ignored all the important details, you could end concluding that the economy is going great and everything is fine.

  • When regulation gets in the way (day 122): The traditional gig economy business model (using independent contractors) has just been confirmed to be illegal in California, in a ruling that applies retroactively.

  • Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome (day 121): If you don't have the latter, do you really have the former?

  • April recap (day 120): A summary of the last 30 posts.

  • You are not your code (day 119): Why software engineers need to worry about the social, economic, political implications of the products they build.

  • Customer happiness isn't enough (day 118): The typical goal of antitrust enforcement is to ensure better outcomes for consumers. But customer happiness is not the most important factor when it comes to tech companies.

Recommended content

  • 🎙The Dig: A History of Neoliberalism with Quinn Slobodian: an insightful and wide-ranging episode of Jacobin podcast The Dig, featuring the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. There’s an interesting discussion on the relationship between markets & democracy under neoliberalism: as Slobodian tells it, the architects of neoliberalism were not merely seeking to unfetter markets, but rather attempting to encase them, in order to shelter them from democratic governance. The international dimensions of this are important, too: contrary to what many liberal defenders of globalisation might think, the main freedom of movement prioritised by the neoliberal agenda was of capital, not people. Overall, the goal was to create a world where bounded nation states would be disciplined into compliance by a globalised economic order, governed by forces and institutions invisible to everyday people (I’m paraphrasing Slobodian here). At over 2 hours, this is one of the longer episodes yet, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in economics, political theory, or international relations.

  • 🔗 Tech workers are organising – and asking what technology is actually for: a recent New Statesman article about tech worker organising that features two of my Notes From Below colleagues (Callum Cant and Jamie Woodcock). Also cited is an article I edited for Notes From Below last year by Jason Prado: Prospects for Organizing the Tech Industry. It’s a good summary of the context around worker organising in the tech industry, with a focus on the UK context (which centres around the gig economy).

  • 🔗 An Ode to Sanitation Workers: A Jacobin article by Meagan Day about the poor working conditions faced by sanitation workers despite the obvious importance of their profession. There’s a nice tie-in to the conditions faced by Amazon warehouse workers: “Right now Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, makes over four times the average American sanitation worker salary every minute. The capitalist justification for this state of affairs is that Bezos himself is driving innovation through a game-changing enterprise, Amazon. But Amazon would not be possible without the workers in the warehouses who sort and pack shipments, the workers who transport and deliver those shipments, and indeed the sanitation workers who clean up the sites where the products are made, the warehouses where they’re organized, and the streets where the packaging for those shipments is discarded.”

  • 🔗 Red Sky Thinking in the Platform Economy - Courier Organising Beyond Pay and Workers’ Rights: a New Syndicalist article written by a gig economy worker who organises with the Industrial Workers of the World. I loved this: “The platforms we work for seek a full re-organisation of society, where they become the universal intermediaries, extracting a small ‘rent’ from each and every social or economic relationship. While defensive struggles around pay and rights are necessary for our own survival, they can only slow the process which has been set in motion. […] If we, as a workers movement, seek to genuinely challenge these business models, and the ‘platform capitalist’ plan for the future, we need to think big, and think broadly, about where the terrain of struggle is, and develop a positive collective vision of the future we want.” To use a term coined by Callum Cant, my ideal is platform expropriation: platforms run for the benefit of workers, customers, and society as a whole, not merely a means for generating immense wealth.

  • 🎥 This American Embraced Socialism And Fought ISIS In Syria: this 6-minute Huffington Post video features Brace Belden, most famous for having joined the YPG in 2016, and who was recently part of a (successful) unionisation campaign at Anchor Steam Brewery, the oldest American craft brewery and a San Francisco stalwart. I can’t really explain the video, so you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

  • 🎥 Knock Down the House: this 90-minute Netflix documentary about four female progressive candidates in the 2018 Congressional races had me in tears. Of the four who ran, only one actually won her race: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A rare look behind the scenes of her candidacy, as well as the other women who ran and lost. Some of my favourite scenes from AOC’s campaign were the ones featuring incumbent Joe Crowley, simply because he had the smugness of a powerful man who could not imagine ever losing that power, and there’s something truly wonderful about seeing hubris so definitively crushed. I was also really moved by Paula Jean Swearengin’s campaign, especially the scenes discussing the effect of coal mining on working-class communities in West Virginia (toxins, cancer). Sadly. she lost to the incumbent, Joe Manchin, who has made quite a bit of money from the coal industry. This film is 100% recommended if you’re interested in learning more about AOC and the movement of which she is a part.

🌹996.ICU, economic inequality, work

Apr 29 - tech/left news

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

I think it’s safe to assume that for the next three weeks, these newsletters will come out on Monday instead of Sunday, because I will be spending Sunday night watching Game of Thrones and then subsequently drowning myself in user-generated content about the episode. I am not especially happy with this habit, but what can I do.

Here’s a good quote from an LARB write-up of the last episode: “We’ve spent entire seasons watching Jon convince everyone that nothing else matters but the war with death; now that there is no war with death, are we supposed to pretend that all that other stuff matters again? Having been reassured for seven seasons — eight years — that the battle with the Night King would elevate all this other stuff into something more interesting, are we going to go back to acting like the “Game of Thrones” is the key thing?”

Fragments

  • 996.ICU and the rewards of hard work (day 117): Some Chinese tech workers are being asked to work 9am-9pm, 6 days a week. Will this serve as a wake-up call for Silicon Valley to start working harder?

  • When the sorting function is broken (day 116): Our current 'meritocratic' sorting function is a terrible way to sort people into a system with highly variable economic rewards.

  • Economic inequality is almost never harmless (day 115): (continued from day 113) The reason economic inequality is a problem is because it grants some undue power over others.

  • We can have entrepreneurship without extreme wealth (day 114): (continued from day 113) Contesting the idea that you need the promise of massive financial reward to spur socially-useful entrepreneurship.

  • What's wrong with inequality? (day 113): Surely inequality is just a natural consequence of innovation. And anyway, it's not that bad.

  • On internal migration restrictions (day 112): When China restricts rural-urban migration, it's bad. When the same sort of restrictions are created by capitalism, that's totally fine.

  • Why do people work? (day 111): Under capitalism, the way to encourage someone to work is to offer them money. But the effects of offering more money are neither guaranteed nor uniform.

Recommended content

  • 🎙Current Affairs podcast episode 23: This was a fun episode featuring several Current Affairs editors talking about their personal backstories of how they came to the left, and why they continue to fight. Nathan J. Robinson, founder of Current Affairs, shares a quote I really liked by Jacobin staff writer Luke Savage: “On a basic level, I am a socialist because I simply cannot fathom reconciling myself to a society where so many needlessly suffer because of circumstances beyond their control; where human dignity is distributed on the basis of luck and a social caste system is allowed to permeate every aspect of daily life; and where all of this is considered perfectly normal and acceptable in a civilization that has split the atom and sent people to the Moon.”

  • 🎙NovaraFM podcast episode on algorithmic management: A very thoughtful episode of Novara Media’s podcast, hosted by James Butler, and featuring Craig Gent. Discusses “the rise of the algorithm, the new workplace under algorithmic management, and the scope and practice of workers’ resistance to new techniques of domination”. Includes some insightful commentary on the prevalence of algorithmic management beyond the gig economy (with which it’s often associated), an against-the-grain history of the development of work paradigms (Fordism, Taylorism, etc), as well as on why management is needed in the first place: to overcome the indeterminacy of labour power and ensure that you get the right results (citing Braverman). Highly recommended for anyone thinking about the past and future of work.

  • 🔗 California Technology Exports: A great blog post by Jeff Wilson connecting the California Gold Rush (and all its horrors) to Silicon Valley today. My favourite bits: “You’ve got to dig deeper, you’ve got to peer across whatever industry vertical you work in in 2019 to see the real costs. To see the con and misdirection. Until you do that, you’ll miss the externalized costs and exploitation of the 21st century mining cartels. You need to look at the razzle dazzle on your screen and realize the words you’re seeing are deceptive, that the metaphors have been used to misdirect you, to create a ‘smoky hall of mirrors’ effect […]” and “[…] the costs of the first mining cartels were hidden from the eyes of the wealthy urbanites in San Francisco as they extracted value out of people and the land far away. […] They never saw any of the costs because those costs were intentionally remote.”

  • 🔗 Bug Report! - issue 2: a fun short zine featuring stories and essays by tech workers about their experiences in the industry. I especially loved the “robots against climate change” comic on pages 12-13 and the offer letter mad libs near the end.

  • 🔗 Hacker News thread about the “talent shortage” in tech: Hacker News comments are typically not especially progressive, but this thread is a rare exception, featuring tech workers discussing exploitation in the industry. Some featured comments include: “There is NOT a shortage of software developers. That myth was developed by big tech, and pushed all the way up the ladder, to the top of government. The goal? Reduce labor costs.” and “I’m so tired of feeling constantly at war with the industry to justify my own existence. The business people desperately need you but they hate you for what they have to pay. They’re always thinking what if? ¶ What if we could outsource this to some magic 3rd world slave mine? What if we could hire some recent graduates or interns instead? What if we could get someone on an H1B and chain them to the desk? ¶ It’s the natural result of being labor. Don’t like it? Be an owner. […] In the meantime, I’m getting ready to hang up the keyboard. All the dynamism and potential has been ground out of this career path. What’s left is crushing demands and compensation that just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

  • 🆕 Common Wealth: Mat Lawrence’s new UK-based left-wing think tank launched this week. Worth keeping an eye on if you’re interested in issues of ownership, economic inequality, and re-engineering society in order to pay sufficient attention to environmental collapse. From the Tribune article introducing the project: “Tinkering at the margins cannot address the challenges we face or build a broad enough political coalition to drive change. Nor can a reliance on the same old tools and approaches that got us here. Our response instead must be a collective and democratic project to build a net zero-carbon society, justly and swiftly; one that centres the needs and voices of those who have borne the brunt of economic and environmental extractivism, that reimagines public affluence, the commons, the household economy and the market for the 21st century, and which sustainably meets the needs of human and non-human life alike.”

  • 🔗 The One Collar Movement: a brilliant opinion piece for Splinter by writer Hamilton Nolan on why white-collar workers have been organising, and why everyone should organise. “Unions are the fix for a structural imbalance of power in the workplace—an imbalance that exists in all workplaces under capitalism. That imbalance may manifest itself in more atrocious ways in a hot, dangerous, low-paid factory than in the offices of a media company, but in both places, a union acts to even out a tilted field in which employers have much more power than their employees. ¶ In awful workplaces full of oppression, it is often the awfulness and oppression that provides the initial motivation to unionize. But in less awful workplaces, the motivation can come when employees grasp the nature of that inherent power imbalance; when they understand that, despite the free office snacks, they are at the complete mercy of the whims of the boss, of the manager, of the CEO, of the far-off investors; that, even though they have a much nicer office environment than a factory worker does, they are both equally powerless when it comes to having a say in what happens to them at work.”

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