🌹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?”


  • 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.”