Honest job ads, npm layoffs, and reforming capitalism

Tech/left newsletter - April 6

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

Personal news

I wrote about Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang for Dissent Magazine, discussing his unexpected appeal to alt-right-adjacent types and the politically disengaged, as well as reflecting on the lukewarm nature of his policies. I don’t think his policies are actually that bad, and he seems reasonably sincere, but I also don’t think he’s what the country needs right now.

Fragments round-up

  • March recap (day 90): A summary of the last 31 posts. Also: subscribe to my newsletter!

  • If tech job postings were honest (day 91): For execs: money, more money, and protection from getting #MeToo'd. For contractors: tepid pay and working conditions, but if you complain you get fired.

  • When your startup turns sour (on npm) (day 92): It's time to make money, which means: cost-cutting, layoffs, and a desperate rush to turn the product into a revenue engine, no matter how much that damages reputation.

  • On YouTube's engagement-driven recommendations (day 93): Reflections on today's Bloomberg piece about YouTube's unwillingness to stop recommending toxic videos in order to preserve high 'engagement'.

  • When gatekeeping is legitimate (day 94): Some amount of gatekeeping in tech is valid, because not everyone is suited for every role. The problem is when the incentives are distorted by economic factors.

  • When the seas rise (day 95): I have still not come to terms with the fact that things could be catastrophic, and I'm not sure how I ever could.

  • The billionaire who wants to reform capitalism (day 96): Hedge fund manager Ray Dalio thinks that capitalism needs to be reformed. Who cares. 

Recommended content

  • 🎙Politics Theory Other ft Corey Robin : I really enjoyed this episode of Alex Doherty’s Politics Theory Other podcast, which discusses the history of conservative thought as well as its modern-day inflections. Robin proposes an explanation for why the right appears to be so lacking in intellectual leadership today, to the point where progressives like AOC are able to come in from out of the blue & set the news agenda: because the right has been winning. They accomplished their task, not only in engineering the kind of free market paradise they wanted, but in shifting the political terrain so as to wipe out any credible competition. Thatcher’s biggest success, as she herself noted, was New Labour; Reagan and the elder Bush paved the way for the Clintonite wing of the Democratic party. As Robin says: “if your instruments are formed in the crucible of battle and then the war is won, you stop being so good at war”. The question, then, is whether the left is able to take advantage of this potential opening.

  • 📖 The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism: a recent offering from Verso Book’s Jacobin series, by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski. It’s a fun, breezy read with an intriguing premise: that the mechanisms needed for central planning are already in use by corporations, and we should find a way to make them work for us, i.e., democratically. The book spans a variety of topics in this vein, including the highly centralised inner workings of Amazon and Walmart; the collapse of retail giant Sears after they tried to institute markets internally; the creation of the NHS; and Project Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile. For more information, I recommend reviews of the book by Hettie O’Brien for New Statesman and Cory Doctorow for BoingBoing, an editorial by the authors in Jacobin, and an excerpt from the book’s introduction over at the Verso blog.

  • 🔗 Inside Eero's $97 million fire sale to Amazon: a Mashable article with some solid in-depth reporting on what actually happened when home WiFi startup Eero sold to Amazon earlier this year. It’s an extreme example of a typical Silicon Valley startup success story: multi-million payouts for execs; much less for everybody else. Employees who exercised their stock options may have actually lost money (the share price dropped to less than 1% of its high), and those who didn’t exercise in time got nothing. Even some investors had to take haircuts, though I’m less inclined to feel sympathy for them, since it’s either not their money, or they’re rich enough to not care. The whole thing was basically an acqui-hire, because Amazon really wanted the execs. Not an atypical outcome in SV, but this was a little unusual in the starkness of the unequal distribution of rewards. Usually, if the payout is big enough, it’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” scenario - founders become zillionaires, investors make 100x their investment, a few early employees get to retire early or start their own company or whatever, and maybe some later employees get to pay off their student loans. It’s still unequal, of course, but less dramatically so. In this case, the execs come off as mercenaries, not even pretending that they’re on the same side as the workers who got nothing. In the future, Eero may well be a useful case study for demonstrating class interests in Silicon Valley.

  • 🔗 Google has now cancelled its AI ethics board after a backlash from staff: from the MIT Technology Review. Google created an ethics board with the president of the HERITAGE FOUNDATION (an American right-wing think tank). I assume they were trying to satisfy conservatives critics by making a vague gesture DiVeRsItY of ThOuGhT (as if they could ever be satisfied). In any case, the choice of board members received pushback from Google employees as well as outside academics/activists, and Google cancelled it within the week, something which speaks to the growing power of worker organising in the tech industry. Here’s my hot take on this: Google doesn’t need another external advisory board made up of technocrats from across the political spectrum; Google needs to be made democratically accountable, to its workers, its users, and society at large. Now, I don’t know how this could be achieved, or what this would look like, but hey, one step at a time.