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.


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.