Financial assets, a union at Kickstarter, and millennial outliers

Tech/left newsletter - March 24

A weekly newsletter on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley from a socialist perspective. Please forward to anyone who might be interested.

Fragments round-up

  • Making US immigration fair again (day 76): Everyone knows the system is broken. Wouldn't it be great if we reformed it in such a way as to benefit capital?

  • When it's time to refactor (day 77): A programming analogy for how we could see the failures of modern-day capitalism.

  • Why are Asians so good at school? (day 78): On the material factors behind the overrepresentation of Asian-Americans at prestigious high schools in NYC.

  • Three cheers for financial assets (day 79): Bill Gates has joined the $100b club. Lyft is going to IPO at over $23b. You can trade municipal bonds without even doing any research on them.

  • If you have a boss, you need a union (day 80): Kickstarter employees are trying to unionise, but some senior staff are claiming that a union doesn't make sense because they're too 'privileged'.

  • Payday loans but with 'tips' instead of 'interest' (day 81): Fintech startup 'Earnin' may be a glorified payday lender, but it's managed to evade regulation by collecting tips instead of interest. This is ... not good.

  • Not all millennials (day 82): You'll find no shortage of articles on the proscribed economic prospects of millennials. It may be true for the majority, but if you're in the minority, it's confusing.

Recommended content

  • 💰 Fundraiser for Science for the People: A Kickstarter for relaunching this historic magazine of radical science and politics: “Science for the People believes that humanity’s bounty of scientific knowledge should be for all people, and for the furthering of social and environmental justice.” Next issue is coming out in June. I highly recommend backing this project and/or subscribing if you study or work in STEM.

  • 💰 Rideshare Drivers United—LA: Uber and Lyft drivers in LA are organising a 25-hour virtual strike on Monday, March 25. This Guardian article from earlier this week explains why, ending with this comment from one of the drivers: “Uber is getting ready for their IPO, they want to look really good for their investors, and are creating situations where people may be put on the street homeless because they can’t pay their rent […] That’s why we’re organizing.” Donate to their organising efforts if you can!

  • 🔗 Optimise what?: Jimmy Wu’s article in the second issue of Commune Magazine, on the subtle politics imbued within computer science departments: “computer science departments don’t just generate capitalist realism—they are themselves ruled by it. Only those research topics that carry implications for profit extraction or military applications are deemed worthy of investigation.” He then goes on to ask what a communist computer science would look like: “In place of this suffocating ideological fog, what we must construct is a notion of communist realism in science: that only projects in direct or indirect service to people and planet will have any hope of being funded, of receiving the esteem of the research community, or even of being considered intellectually interesting.” Highly recommended reading.

  • 🔗 The Innovator’s Agenda: an article by John Patrick Leary for The Baffler. A critical history of the word “innovation” and how it was “enlisted in the capitalist cause”.

  • 🔗 The Servant Economy: an article by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic that checks up on the status of all 105 Uber-for-x startups that launched in the past 10 years. Really interesting: “Of this group, four—DoorDash, Grubhub, Instacart, and Postmates—are unicorns, start-ups valued at more than $1 billion. (Notably, all are in the delivery business.) Forty-seven are gone—28 simply closed down; 19 were acquired. But 53 are neither unicorn nor roadkill.” Closes with some thoughtful reflections on the industry at large: ““Looking at this incredible flurry of funding and activity, it’s worth asking: These companies have done so much—upended labor markets, changed industries, rewritten the definition of a job—and for what, exactly? ¶ Now you can do stuff that you could already do before, but you can do it with your phone. What it takes to make that work is incredible—venture capitalists have poured $672 million combined into Wag and Rover!—but the consumer impact is small. […] It’s not hard to look around the world and see all those zeroes of capital going into dog-walking companies and wonder: Is this really the best and highest use of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem?” Amen.

  • 🔗 Justice for “Data Janitors”: a highly relevant critique of hidden labour in the tech industry, written by Lilly Irani in 2015. What is often presented as the magic of algorithms is really made possible by the toil of underpaid and unappreciated workers: “Subcontracted work powers technological magic, just out of consumer sight and off the company’s payroll. Google page raters work for outsourcing companies. Google Express is powered by subcontracted courier companies. AMT workers are all self-employed contractors.” And things have only gotten worse in the last four years.

  • 🎙 TrashFuture podcast episode on State of Insecurity: If you’re familiar with TrashFuture, this is one of Riley’s “Commie Book Club” solo episodes where he reviews a book. This episode is about Isabell Lorey’s book State of Insecurity (Verso, 2015), “about precariousness and how neoliberalism has turned us into our own disciplinarians”. I found this a really engaging and accessible episode that builds on Foucauldian concepts like biopolitics while not getting too stuck in the theory weeds. Looks at the neoliberal landscape through the lens of precarity, and how that interacts with hierarchies of power.

  • 🎙The Human Costs of Content Moderation, on Mozilla’s IRL podcast: A short and well-produced podcast episode (more like a radio show, in terms of quality) that delves into world of content moderation at tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google from a critical perspective. It’s kind of light on actual analysis, but it’s worth listening to for a primer on the topic.