Tech news roundup for the New Socialist newsletter

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Just my sections (on tech news), archived for posterity. The other editors’ sections are available on Patreon for subscribers only.


September 16, 2018

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Tackling the platforms: on IPPR’s Digital Commonwealth report - by me, for Autonomy (republished by New Socialist)

I wrote this in response to the IPPR report on tech platforms by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton. The report itself is quite good for what it is, and Lawrence’s piece announcing the report in the _New Statesman is worth reading as well. My response focuses on two key themes that aren’t really touched on in the report: the role of intellectual property (drawing on some insights from the free software movement), and the potential of workers at these companies to challenge the status quo.

We need a state-owned platform for the modern internet - by Jimi Cullen, for New Socialist

A sorely needed piece elaborating on a simple but under-theorised idea: nationalising the “cloud” (think Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, both of which make their corporate parents a massive amount of money):

to truly have the freedom to control the way we use the internet, we should look at nationalising the infrastructure that powers much of it. In particular, we should think about a publicly owned and run cloud services provider.

I would love to develop this line of reasoning more - get in touch if you’d like to write something for us! I’m particularly interested in expanding on the education aspect, which is only touched on briefly in this article. Truly democratising technology requires empowering the wider population to effectively use the technology available - not just as “users”, but as creators. I’d also like to further flesh out a strategy for actually “nationalising” these Internet-based services: what governance models are needed, what challenges are to be expected, what a lean/iterative approach could look like. If you have ideas on that front, please, feel free to slide into my DMs.

The Win-Win Fallacy - Anand Giridharadas for The Atlantic

This is an excellent look at the ideology behind entrepreneurship, with a focus on Silicon Valley celebrity Justin Rosenstein (an early engineer at Google and later Facebook, then co-founder of an enterprise software company). This quote from Rosenstein is illuminating:

There are a significant number of opportunities—Google search being the most massive example of all time—where we simultaneously are doing something lucrative and really good for the world.

As Giridharadas notes in his piece, people like Rosenstein really seem to believe that it is possible to “do good” in the world while also accumulating massive amounts of wealth. This is the ultimate liberal capitalist fantasy, stemming from a failure to recognise that the “good” that needs to be “done” in the world includes tackling the concentration of wealth. It’s a convenient lie that socially-minded entrepreneurs and philanthropists tell themselves so they can sleep better at night, all while avoiding the potentially risky endeavour of interrogating where their wealth actually comes from.

There’s a lot more to be said about the function of entrepreneurship under capitalism, and especially its neoliberal variant. In a way, it’s the purest expression of capitalist realism: the drive for capital accumulation is distilled into a heroic myth of innovation and achievement, one that convinces those who actually want to “do good” that there is no way to do so outside of the market. This is the ideological essence of capitalism in its most concentrated form.

Incidentally, the relationship between entrepreneurship and technology is something I’d love to further explore for New Socialist. If you have thoughts on this - grounded in theory, or in personal experience, or both - pitch me!

Workers’ Rights, Silicon Valley-Style - Tanvi Misra and Sarah Holder for CityLab

A reported piece that nicely summarises efforts to build worker power in the tech industry and why they’re needed. I really like this quote:

“The ends are not better conditions for tech workers,” Bracy said. “The ends are a more responsible industry.”

If Jeff Bezos wants to help low-income people why not just pay them better? - Marina Hyde for the Guardian

The headline pretty much says it all. Jeff Bezos - the world’s richest person - recently announced a $2 billion dollar fund targeted at homelessness and schools for low-income communities. This is about ideology more than it is about charity; for Bezos, it’s an opportunity to take the “same set of principles that have driven Amazon” and import them into the education system, by treating children as customers.

This is horrifying on multiple levels. For one, the dark human costs behind “the principles that have driven Amazon” are increasingly clear as more and more stories about its appalling treatment of workers come out. For another, the commodification of education at the preschool level is a terrifying concept.

Taking a step back, though, this saga really demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of philanthropy. Similar to other efforts by other tech billionaires, this is essentially the use of philanthropy as a moral shield. Money is allocated to broadly the same purposes - at least on paper - but without any form of democratic control (making it unlikely that it will actually address the problem), while also allowing Bezos et al to present themselves as humanity’s saviours. Great deal for these guys, but terrible for everyone else.

September 2, 2018

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Amazon and its warehouse workers

Stories on the horrible working conditions at Amazon warehouses - as well as the highly impressive coordinated direct actions taken by workers - continue to mount. Amazon, well aware of the negative PR potential here, has launched a bizarre PR counter-offensive that appears to consist primarily of paying employees to tweet positive things about the company (things like: ‘I even get to use a real bathroom when I want”). So it’s not great for them that Bernie Sanders - currently the most popular politician in the US - is weighing in on this, attacking the injustice of CEO Jeff Bezos being recently named the richest man in the world even as his employees rely on food stamps. Even the right-wing media has picked up on this, with Tucker Carlson on Fox News echoing Sanders’ critique of Bezos:

Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world. Many of his employees are so poor, you’re paying their welfare benefits. And he’s not the only tech billionaire offloading his payroll costs onto taxpayers. This is an indefensible scam. Why is only Bernie talking about it? - @TuckerCarlson

Calls to nationalise Facebook from the left and the right

Speaking of the trend of conservatives hitting upon left-wing ideas: Steve Bannon was recently profiled in Vanity Fair as calling for something akin to nationalisation:

“I think you take it away from the companies. All that data they have is put in a public trust,” Bannon explained. “They can use it. And people can opt in and opt out. That trust is run by an independent board of directors. It just can’t be that [Big Tech is] the sole proprietors of this data . . . I think this is a public good.”

Whether it’s genuine or opportunistic, Bannon’s criticism of the concentration of power within Silicon Valley is, at least, accurate. The fact that someone like Bannon is making this argument, whereas liberal politicians are more likely to court Silicon Valley capitalists than to hold them accountable, is worrying. Mainstream politicians & pundits haven’t yet grasped the dangers of Silicon Valley’s monopolistic tendencies & the resulting power they accrue, and there’s a real risk that Bannon being correct on this front will lead to legitimation of his other (terrible) views in the eyes of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo. The left has been developing this train of thought too - Lewis Bassett’s article in Jacobin this week, responding to Corbyn’s speech about democratising the media, is excellent - but alas, lefties aren’t getting profiled on this in Vanity Fair.

Incidentally, some of the conservative backlash against Silicon Valley is cultural/political, rather than economic. Much of it comes out of a perceived hostility to conservative viewpoints, in the form of claims that Facebook et al are censoring right-wing media because of ideological intolerance (and not because it’s dangerous and/or poor-quality), as well as in the form of dissatisfaction among conservative-leaning employees at these companies, who complain about the cold reception for political views that are not “left-leaning” (read: views that are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc etc). Now, this is hilarious to anyone on the actual left in these companies, whose political views also get a cold reception, especially from leadership. But it’s also quite concerning, and it’s something that attempts to build worker power within the tech industry will have to deal with.

Software engineers who were fired for attempting to unionise will be reinstated

Great news for anyone who’s been following the saga of Lanetix. Earlier this year, a group of software engineers at an American software development company unionised and were subsequently fired. Now, the National Labor Review Board has backed the software engineers, ordering the company to reinstate the workers with back pay. The gender dynamics of the case (and relation to the rise of coding bootcamps) are especially interesting:

Employees suspected Lanetix planned to fire lower-level female engineers, many of whom graduated from Hackbright, an all women’s coding boot camp, as did the female engineer fired in November.

“It became increasingly clear that their strategy was divide and conquer—flatter a handful of us in the hopes that we would go along with their plans, and not put up a fight when they fired half of our co-workers,” Westergard adds.

As Will Luckman (of DSA-NYC’s Tech Action Working Group) says in the article, the incident makes it clear that tech companies - despite their employee-friendly image (free food! kegs in the office! stock options!) - still “operate like traditional industrialists and will go through old fashioned methods of suppressing workers”. This often involves using the contractor system to dodge responsibility, as a recent Bloomberg article on Microsoft contractors who were also fired after unionising demonstrates.

(For more reading on the labour dynamics of coding bootcamps, I’d recommend these pieces in Notes From Below: Organising Silicon Valley’s Shadow Workforce; Diversity, Scarcity, and Labour in Tech; and Prospects for Organizing the Tech Industry.)

Skepticism about worker power in the tech industry

David A. Banks recently published an article in The Baffler that was quite negative on the (progressive) possibilities of building worker power in tech:

There is no guarantee that a union of affluent software engineers will axiomatically fall on the right side of history. Even autoworkers, that venerated core of twentieth century American organized labor, according to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, sided with management when they joined the American Road Builders’ Association, a pressure group dedicated to convincing the federal government to build the American highway system and all the other supporting infrastructure for car-oriented, racially segregated suburbia.

I sympathise with most of the points in the article, but don’t really agree with the implied pessimism - the author seems to think that tech worker unions are inherently flawed, akin to police unions or something. There’s a nice rebuttal to this line of reasoning in the latest episode of General Intellect Unit, an excellent podcast at the intersection of tech and Marxism, which draws on the perspective of railway workers in the 19th/20th century. These workers also controlled key infrastructure, and were a well-off strata of the working class, but despite their relative privilege, they still managed to be militant and not reactionary.

The advertising-driven backbone of digital infrastructure

Google and Mastercard Cut a Secret Ad Deal to Track Retail Sales, from Bloomberg. I spent enough time in the advertising technology world (running a startup) to never be surprised when something like this comes out. One of the things you learn when talking to potential customers/partners/investors in that field is that using data for better-targeted advertising is an extremely lucrative business that is very difficult to effectively regulate, which means it will keep happening, with or without consumers’ consent. The first two paragraphs of the Bloomberg article are indicative:

For the past year, select Google advertisers have had access to a potent new tool to track whether the ads they ran online led to a sale at a physical store in the U.S. That insight came thanks in part to a stockpile of Mastercard transactions that Google paid for.

But most of the two billion Mastercard holders aren’t aware of this behind-the-scenes tracking. That’s because the companies never told the public about the arrangement.

This story is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of super shady stuff going on in this industry, some of which I’ve personally witnessed, some that I’ve heard through the grapevine, and I’m sure lots more that I haven’t heard about. And it’ll keep happening, because the structural incentives to do so (even if some consumers are angry) are so strong. For advertisers and tech companies, it makes financial sense to invest in data-linking to increase the effectiveness of advertising, and because it’s quite easy to do this in the contemporary digital landscape, it would be silly not to. Regulation will only get you so far; to curb privacy violations like this indefinitely, we’d have to excise advertising from the backbone of the Internet, which would necessitate larger economic changes.

A piece on culture under platform capitalism

Not really news, but I came across this excellent piece in Real Life Mag (I tweeted some screenshots here) which fleshes out the cultural phenomena that arise from platforms’ peculiar political economy. Highly recommended reading.

August 19, 2018

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(I finally finished my dissertation this week! 10,000 words on the political economy of Silicon Valley. I might post an abridged version somewhere at some point. If you’re interested in the full thing, drop me a line - ilostwaldo@gmail.com)

Freedom Isn’t Free - me, for Logic Magazine

I’ve shared articles from Logic Magazine (an excellent independent publication on tech from a highly critical perspective) before, but this is the first one written by me! This is on the failures of the open source software movement - specifically, how it never meaningfully connected with broader ideas around radical politics.

I personally fell in love with the free & open source software ethos when I was a teenager, and I completely agreed with the idea that intellectual property was a terrible thing that crippled innovation. Unfortunately, no one ever explained to me that intellectual property was a necessary part of capitalism, and that the only way to really fight back against it involved a larger political struggle to transcend capitalism. So I basically wrote the piece that I wish had existed when I had just started getting into this stuff, because then I would have discovered the left way earlier.

A Union at Amazon? - anonymous, for Notes From Below

Notes From Below recently came out with their third issue, The Worker and The Union, and this 4,500 word piece on what it would take to organise a union at Amazon (written by a warehouse worker) is spectacular. Just the right amount of dense & theoretical while also bringing in real-life, up-to-date examples. I personally found it really inspiring, though it does show how monumental of a task it is.

The rest of the issue is worth checking out as well. I’d especially recommend this inquiry on the lack of unions in the international aid sector (and how that relates to struggles in the Global South), and this piece by Hettie O’Brien (who has written for our economics section!) on possibilities for worker resistance under monopoly capitalism.

How to Beat Uber - Chris Brooks for Jacobin

Earlier this week, a court ruling in New York City landed a blow to ridesharing corporation like Uber and Lyft operating within city limits, by placing a cap on vehicle licenses and, as a result, “essentially forcing them to pay their drivers a minimum wage”. Up until now, Uber, Lyft et al have been operating in a kind of regulatory grey zone under the aegis of their lean platform model, which allowed them to evade treating their drivers as employees even while directing their work conditions and pocketing their surplus value. This victory - pushed forward by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which united traditional taxicab as well as rideshare-app-using drivers - is quite inspiring, and hopefully it catalyses a wave of similar rulings in other jurisdictions. (In London, things have been stalling on this front: TfL’s Uber ban from last September was successfully appealed earlier this summer, and Uber was granted a license to continue operating until late 2019.)

Can Silicon Valley workers rein in big tech from within? - Ben Tarnoff for The Guardian

Good overview of the recent surge of interest in building worker power in the tech industry, by someone who’s written a lot of great stuff on the topic.

August 5, 2018

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Apple’s $1 Trillion Milestone Reflects Rise of Powerful Megacompanies

There’s a lot to be critical about in this article, which covers the rise of “megacompanies” like Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, etc while only timidly venturing that this might be a massive problem. Still, it does at least attempt to present the facts: corporate profits are at an all-time high, and are increasingly resembling a winner-takes-all distribution wherein most of the gains are accruing to a handful of companies. The tech giants are, of course, at the vanguard of this, on the back of the power they command over more and more of the digital sphere:

Apple and Google combined now provide the software for 99 percent of all smartphones. Facebook and Google take 59 cents of every dollar spent on online advertising in the United States. Amazon exerts utter dominance over online shopping and is getting bigger, fast, in areas like streaming of music and videos.

A useful way of thinking about these behemoths is as the forefront of what McKenzie Wark calls the vectoralist class, which “thrives by extracting surplus information on a global scale”. Their role in the global economy is similar to finance, in the sense of their wealth being virtual: instead of owning the means of (physical) production, they merely control key gateways to digital infrastructure so as to facilitate their drive to commodify everything they can. This $1 trillion-dollar milestone for Apple might be a fairly arbitrary one, but it does highlight the urgent need for the left to take these tech giants seriously, which means addressing the structural factors leading to their current dominance.

The Role of Technology in Political Economy by Yochai Benkler

This is a really excellent meditation on two contrasting perspectives on the role that technology plays in rising inequality. First, we have the mainstream approach, nicely summarised by the concept of skills-biased technological change: assuming “reasonably efficient markets”, technology stratifies workers by technological skill, and allows those who are more productive to reap more of the rewards. The critical approach, on the other hand, sees markets as always “pervaded by power”, and thus skewed in ways that are never neutral; technology is always deployed on uneven terrain, and its effects can only be properly understand by looking at bargaining power and class interests.

This blog post is essentially an exegesis of the first approach, and it’s well worth reading to understand 1) why the mainstream view is so popular; and 2) what that view is missing. Summarised neatly in the last paragraph:

So, the fundamental problem of the leading mainstream view is that it takes both markets and technology as having a more-or-less natural and necessary shape, and fails to see how institutions shape both markets and technology in ways that can reinforce or moderate patterns of inequality.

Life Aboard the Rocket Ship: An Interview with an Anonymous Engineer - Logic Magazine

Logic recently unpaywalled this interview from their latest issue, Failure. It’s a rare honest look inside the heart of Silicon Valley, and there are some really insightful takeaways for anyone who’s curious about how the tech startup world actually works, and what “success” actually entails. Lots of this resonated with my own experience in the industry, which I wrote about for Notes From Below earlier this year.

One of the reasons stories like this so rarely get published is that people who manage to succeed on the tech industry’s terms have a tendency to, well, believe their own bullshit. It’s so easy to believe the whole “meritocracy” spiel if you’re personally benefiting from it, by virtue of having been deemed worthy by the existing system. And people who believe in the system are unlikely to question its core tenets. They might throw up their hands about the addictive power of social media, and may bemoan the lack of diversity in the industry, but most of them fundamentally believe the (very neoliberal) ideas that gave the industry so much wealth and power in the first place. Consequently, you’re not going to find many insider perspectives as critical and as frank as this one, so I highly recommend reading this.

My favourite bit is the ending, where the problems with contemporary Silicon Valley are rightly linked to the economic relations lurking beneath:

So long as you’re working for a company, what other metric besides profit could there be? That’s a similar question. You can make small surface-level improvements here and there. But you’re not going to tackle the core problem until you tackle the profit motive.

Jeff Bezos’s fortune has come at the expense of workers and society not receiving their fair share - Carys Roberts for OpenDemocracy

As Jeff Bezos’ net worth continues to climb (currently around $150 billion), more and more stories have come out about the horrific treatment faced by Amazon’s actual workers, many of whom are paid crippling wages and forced to endure physically debilitating work while Bezos ponders “converting [his] Amazon winnings into space travel”. That Bezos’ unimaginable wealth is linked to the worsening plight of his employees may be obvious to anyone on the left, but it seems like recognition of that connection is creeping into public consciousness as well. Amazon Prime Day (last month) was met with consumer boycotts while some of its workers in Europe coordinated direct action.

Given the strategic importance of Amazon’s logistics network to its financial viability, the possibility of worker militancy at key choke points is quite exciting - it could cause huge disruptions in ways that would be difficult to match via consumer-only actions. If you’re interested in that topic, I’d highly recommend a podcast discussion on the power of logistics workers hosted by Pluto Press, centred around their (recently released) book Choke Points.

Outbound Facebook Infosec Chief Alex Stamos Wrote a Note to Staff Urging Major Reforms - Gizmodo

Facebook has had a difficult week - and that’s more than just the title of the memo that former exec Alex Stamos wrote to announce his departure. The memo, which declared Cambridge Analytica as an ethical turning point for the company, was refreshingly critical of the current leadership’s failure to adequately address the issue, and quite frank about the necessity for radical change:

We need to deprioritize short-term growth and revenue and to explain to Wall Street why that is ok. We need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues.

While this is heartening to hear, remember that this comes from a former exec. As Tech Workers Coalition tweeted: “Sounds great! But execs don’t make this happen. Only workers do.” A company the size of Facebook requires more than some suddenly-enlightened execs deciding to behave ethically; given that it’s a public company, there’ll have to be some sort of structural ballast to ensure such ethical awakening aren’t quashed by the vagaries of the market. The fact that Facebook lost $120 billion in market value last week - not due to ethical qualms on the part of investors, but merely because growth is projected to slow - just goes to show the power of shareholder discontent. Combating such a powerful force from above will require, as Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in the Guardian, “a global political movement”. To me, that has to include building power from below - i.e., building worker power in the tech industry, within the belly of the beast itself.

Organising Silicon Valley’s Shadow Workforce - Me for Notes From Below

This article connects nicely to the last point just above. How do you build worker power in Silicon Valley? Well, the first step is to recognise that not all tech workers are coddled software engineers with tons of stock options. I wrote this article in response to a reported piece by Bloomberg from last week highlighting the ever-growing numbers of contractors working at Google and other tech company campuses, who are often paid less and denied benefits. In the midst of this wave of rising political consciousness in the Valley - primarily as the result of discontent with the ethical implications of the products being built - the separation of full-timers and contractor could present an important point to agitate around.


July 22, 2018

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Interview with Nick Dyer-Witheford, for Historical Materialism

A good read on how technology changes the relationship between the worker and their environment. Here’s a quote in response to a question about his 2016 book Cyber-Proletariat:

“Proletariat” continues to be relevant because it names the antagonist against which capital continuously hurls these technological disruptions and so-called revolutions of work and production. […] This offensive takes a triple direction—the outright elimination of human labour by automation; the cheapening of human labour via the electronic supply chains of globalization; and the evasion of human labour by financialization, transposing capital’s transformation of money into more money into a realm now almost entirely taken over by computerized risk modelling and algorithmic trading.

Elon Musk Should Tweet More, for Gizmodo

If you’ve witnessed Elon Musk’s increasingly bizarre Twitter meltdown over the last few weeks, then the title is pretty self-explanatory. The public spectacle may have a silver lining:

The captains of industry we venerate for their perceived brilliance are often huge dumbasses when it comes to anything other than accumulating a lot of money and turning it into more. Time and time again, ignorance of this key fact has proved disastrous for the American people. Public acts of self-dick-stepping might be the only way to dispel the myth of the benevolent rich genius for good.

Project Runway - Editorial for Logic Magazine’s issue on Failure

Logic Magazine is a print publication on technology, and the only tech-focused publication that consistently takes a critical perspective. They’re excellent, and you should consider subscribing, though it’s a shame that they only print 3 times a year. The editorial for the next issue is especially biting, as it carefully unpacks the idea of “failure” within the tech industry’s psyche and shows how deeply imbricated it is with the Valley’s outward-facing display of being innovative and meritocratic and ultimately correct:

[…] it was all right for a handful of former failures to accumulate vast amounts of money and power, so long as what was good for Silicon Valley was good for humanity. If tech was the future, why would anyone, or any regulation, want to stand in its way?

The system may be working exactly as it is supposed to. If so, is the definition of success we have been using wrong? What if the success of Silicon Valley is failing most of us?

The full issue will be released later this summer, and includes a piece by me on the lost political potential of the open source movement! There will also be some really spectacular first-person stories about failing up within Silicon Valley, which I’m personally quite excited to read.

The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it, by Brett Scott

A good illustration of the way technological innovations - which can affect people’s lives in very visceral ways - are predominantly deployed according to corporate interests, not democratically-determined needs. In this case, the financial industry is trying to move more and more transactions into the digital space, citing “convenience” and “consumer preference” when the true motive is, as always, profit. As consumers, we’re helplessly “nudged” along and ultimately unable to offer anything more than token resistance. This, of course, undermines the neoliberal narrative of “consumer choice” - but, as Scott explains in the article, a more fruitful way of looking at the situation would draw on Marxist concepts like Gramsci’s “hegemony” and Althusser’s “interpellation”. The slow transition from cash to card is an attempt to delimit our imaginations by changing the realm of possibility, so that we can no longer imagine a world without the financial industry:

We must recognise every cash machine that is shut down as another step in financial institutions’ campaign to nudge you into their digital enclosures.

Worker Surveillance and Class Power, by Brishen Rogers

Really thoughtful piece by a law professor on how new technologies for surveilling workers are used to disempower workers as a class, with some examples drawn from Uber. The point of monitoring technologies is, of course, to rinse out so-called “inefficiencies”: to “push workers to perform harder, faster, and for less”. Data gathered from constant surveillance builds a map of how workers are using their time, which is then used to “squeeze out nearly all downtime”. This has implications for the traditional view of the nature of the “firm”, drawing from economist Ronald Coase’s work on transaction costs:

In a Coasean approach, the challenge of monitoring workers outside the firm may be a transaction cost that encourages the firm to bring them inside as employees […] Yet where firms can develop near-perfect knowledge about workers’ performance, the calculus changes.

What this implies is that ever-improving technology for monitoring and disciplining workers shifts the contract-vs-employee balance, incentivising firms to outsource/offshore work as long as they can still guarantee an acceptable degree of efficiency/productivity. This definitely corresponds to what we’re seeing with the gig economy - not just the more visible manifestations (Uber, Deliveroo), but the increasingly global chain of gig workers whose efforts are mediated and accordingly surveilled by platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk who, of course, retain most of the power.

Rogers ends by suggesting that countering this trend requires building power from below, rather than merely trying to play regulatory catch-up:

[…] a strategy of worker empowerment and deliberative governance rather than command-and-control regulation […] new forms of unionization and collective bargaining could address the everyday invasions of privacy or erosions of autonomy that arise through technological monitoring. […] Workers could also be woven into state and federal policy-making in a more sustained fashion. They could be guaranteed seats on new administrative boards established to consider responses to technological change, for example, or given a formal role in a more robust industrial policy that aims to create high-skill jobs and to train workers to take them on.

How Silicon Valley Fuels an Informal Caste System, by Antonio García Martínez for WIRED

I’m sharing this with reservations, because I’ve read the author’s book Chaos Monkeys and I find him to be a mildly repugnant human being whose criticism of capitalism never goes beyond a bleak and futile dead end (to be snide, it goes something like: “Capitalism is bad! And communism is also bad! That’s all I got!”). Having said that, however, this piece isn’t a bad diagnosis of how Silicon Valley functions today, which he describes as:

[…] highly stratified, with little social mobility. It’s feudalism with better marketing. Today’s “sharing” economy resembles the “sharecropping” of yesteryear, with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.

There’s a vignette describing an app-mediated grocery delivery which is nicely grounded in an analysis of the political economy of Silicon Valley:

Often, the order will contain errors, revealing that the buyer didn’t quite know what he was buying (fancy cheeses are particularly risky). You’ll peck at the app and leave a tip to assuage your conscience and avoid thinking about the soaring—and largely unshared—returns to technology and capital.

Where I disagree is with his pessimism around the potential of collective action to transcend the current state of things. He identifies four main classes within modern-day Silicon Valley: “The Inner Party of venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs”; “The Outer Party of skilled technicians, operations people, and marketers that keep the trains belonging to the Inner Party running on time”; “The Service Class in the “gig economy.”; and “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal”. He views the Outer Party as having the most potential for “nonviolent political hope”, but doesn’t seem to think their common interests extend much beyond “street cleanliness, crime, schools, and transit.” Tech Workers Coalition would beg to differ - these people are still workers (despite being well-compensated for now), and there is so much potential if they organise as workers, even if it’s initially triggered by ethical concerns rather than the more orthodox avenue of material circumstances.

AI Nationalism, by Ian Hogarth

The central prediction I want to make and defend in this post is that continued rapid progress in machine learning will drive the emergence of a new kind of geopolitics; I have been calling it AI Nationalism.

This has been on my radar for a while but it’s quite long so I only just got around to reading it. The author is a startup founder and investor whose views are definitely more aligned with that community than they are with the left (although he does cite Nick Srnicek! But he also cites Paul Graham …). Still it’s worth reading if you want a better understanding of AI, and I do mostly agree with the author’s vision for how AI should be governed in the long run (by an international organisation, kind of similar to the open source model).

Where I think we disagree is on the primacy of AI as a thing in itself, rather than just a tool wielded by corporations - partly as a way to distract from bigger questions around economic structure and power and politics, really. Seems to me that the author falls into the same pattern (intentionally or not) that Grace Blakeley describes in an excellent piece on globalisation and automation: framing AI as if it’s some natural force is a great way to evacuate politics from the discussion in an almost exculpatory way. The (neoliberal) political climate is treated as fairly static, and the possibility of class struggle - the idea that AI and other tech could actually be deployed against the grain of present-day class relationships - doesn’t seem to be a consideration.

He may be right, of course; the only real way to prove that narrative wrong is to build a mass movement intent on shifting power away from the capitalist class, and the jury’s still out on whether that’s happening quickly enough …

July 8, 2018

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London police chief ‘completely comfortable’ using facial recognition with 98 percent false positive rate - The Verge

The Metropolitan police is trialling the use of facial recognition technology at public events in order to find wanted individuals by their mugshot. As stated in the headline, the false positive rate has so far been 98% (‘meaning that 98 percent of the “matches” it makes are of innocent people’), and there have been no successful arrests. Feels like a standard case of technology fetishism, where the adoption of a particular kind of technology is seen as an innovative step forward no matter what the data actually report. The accuracy may or may not improve over time, but either way, the fact that this technology is being so enthusiastically adopted by a repressive arm of the state feels quite dystopian.

The surveillance economy and its discontents - Socialist Worker

On the other side of the Atlantic, facial recognition technology is in the news for slightly different reasons: less for its inaccuracy, and more for who is (or could be) using it. Amazon’s “Rekognition” service, which helps its customers to programmatically identify objects in images, is already being licensed to police departments, and could theoretically be used by even more controversial agencies like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This article goes into some of the recent incidents of resistance among tech workers at companies like Google and Microsoft (mentioned in the previous roundup) and sketches out what could be done by Amazon workers to force a change.

Cory Doctorow: Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags - Locus Online

An interesting, somewhat critical take on Facebook by a sort of techno-utopian left-liberal who’s done a lot of activism around privacy. Last sentence: “Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.” I’m personally not a fan of the narrative that some people are incorrigibly racist - it’s definitely one that Clinton played up during the campaign, with her “deplorables” comment - but it does put the whole Cambridge Analytica issue into perspective. I also liked this line: “For commercial surveillance to be cost effective, it has to socialize all the risks associated with mass surveillance and privatize all the gains.”

Survival of the Richest - Douglas Rushkoff for Medium

A really excellent first-person piece that deftly reveals the terror that certain extremely wealthy elites feel about the future. Many of them no longer seem to feel in control of what the future will bring - instead, recognising that the present levels of inequality are unsustainable, they’re making contingency plans for when the pitchforks inevitably start coming out. Rushkoff ends the piece by advising these elites that it would be better to take steps to reduce inequality now, in order to avoid this reckoning, to little avail: “They were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we are too far gone.”

Worth reading in full, but here are some more great quotes: “They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader?” / “For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.” / “Thus, we get tech billionaires launching electric cars into space — as if this symbolizes something more than one billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion.”

Union defeats Deliveroo in latest round of gig economy rights case - The Independent

A small victory for IWGB in a complex legal battle over the way Deliveroo has classified its riders as self-employed. (Deliveroo has, weirdly, also claimed this latest ruling as a victory - I’m not entirely sure why.) While it’s great that there are some legal advances, the judicial side is certainly not the whole story, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Deliveroo riders’ autonomous struggles in response to changing conditions. For instance, Deliveroo recently announced changes to its payment system that could lead to falling wages, which has led some riders to decide to strike.

Let’s make private data into a public good - Mariana Mazzucato for MIT Technology Review

A good overview of the problems with allowing the private sector to monopolise and monetise our private data, by Mariana Mazzucato who’s usually quite good on these issues. The crux of it is giving the public greater control over technology, as summarised by this quote: “the key issue here is not just sending a portion of the profits from data back to citizens but also allowing them to shape the digital economy in a way that satisfies public needs”.

What if people were paid for their data? - The Economist

A much more questionable take on private data (unsurprising given where it’s published). This sort of reasoning - succinctly described in the headline - is pretty understandable in our woefully neoliberal times, when the natural tendency is to marketise anything that could potentially be a market. As if markets were this magic wand for fixing power imbalances. While this kind of argument is sometimes tempting for the left - if only instrumentally, as a strategy for diminishing the power of the tech giants - I worry that buying into this framing does more harm than good. Yes, privatised data has resulted in the growth of extremely wealthy multinational tech giants like Facebook and Alphabet (Google), but the socialist response to that is not to somehow charge them for the right to access our data. That only reinforces a neoliberal narrative. The proper response would to push for decommodification of data, and transforming the economy such that these companies are no longer able to exist in the first place (in other words: abolishing Silicon Valley).

June 24, 2018

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The last week has been a banner week for worker power within the tech industry, primarily centred around US tech giants’ role in the military-industrial complex. In the previous newsletter, I linked to a Jacobin article on workers at Google who campaigned internally to cancel a contract with the Pentagon (involving drone strikes). Since then, quite a bit has unfolded throughout the rest of the industry, most of it prompted by recent revelations around “forcible separation” of children from their parents by US federal agency Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The general trend has been of growing internal discontent around the tech industry’s role in supplying services to agencies like ICE, not just at the level of the executives, but at the rank-and-file level as well. The first four articles below are an attempt to map out the different focal points of employee dissatisfaction, with Microsoft being a key locus for now but unlikely to remain that way for long.

My personal take on the matter is that this current wave of employee mobilisation within the industry is unprecedented for tech, and if the anger is channeled in the right direction, there’s a possibility that this could spark something much bigger. After all, the unethical practices of the tech industry go way, way deeper than this most recent spate of anger around collaborating with repressive US federal agencies. If enough workers within the industry take notice and decide to do something about it—by seizing worker power in a way that would be completely at odds with the top-down, profit-driven ethos of the industry at large—that could have a major impact on the industry and, by extension, the economy at large. Only time will tell if this is a watershed moment or not.

The case for building worker power at Microsoft - Notes From Below (June 19)

Myself, on the backstory behind the Microsoft-ICE contract and why employees taking collective action may be the best way to force change.

Amazon Workers Demand Jeff Bezos Cancel Face Recognition Contracts With Law Enforcement - Gizmodo (June 21)

In the spirit of Google & Microsoft, Amazon workers are getting in on the protest, this time over facial recognition software (called “Rekognition”) which is being provided to US law enforcement. Workers are also calling on the company to stop providing cloud services to Palantir (co-founded by prominent Trump backer and “malevolent Silicon Valley billionaire” made flesh, Peter Thiel), which itself provides quite shady software services to a variety of law enforcement agencies.

Google Engineers Refused to Build Security Tool to Win Military Contracts - Bloomberg (June 21)

A small number of “influential” software engineers at Google were able to put up a roadblock in the company’s plans to secure contracts with the US military simply be refusing to build a specific feature. This occurred several months ago but wasn’t reported at the time.

Silicon Valley’s questionable ethics are finally being challenged… by its employees - WIRED (June 22)

An excellent summary of the situation, complete with a guide to external organisations (such as Tech Workers Coalition and the Industrial Workers of the World) that could be help for anyone interested in workplace organising.

How Tech Companies Conquered America’s Cities - The New York Times (June 20)

In a different vein, Farhad Manjoo writes about the slow creep of the tech sector into the municipal sphere, whether it’s via privatised services or electoral lobbying. The big question that the article attempts to answer: “How did tech companies become America’s most-powerful local power brokers?” It concludes, soberly: “[…] there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.”

‘Facebook is taking everything’: rising rents drive out Silicon Valley families - The Guardian (June 20)

Gentrification: the Silicon Valley edition. Another look into the human costs of the housing crisis in the Bay Area.

Here’s How That Tablet On The Table At Your Favorite Restaurant Is Hurting Your Waiter - BuzzFeed News (June 21)

An excellent piece of investigative journalism into the human costs of installing technology as a mediator for consumer interactions. In this case, chain restaurants across the US have been adopting a tablet called a “Ziosk”, whereby customers can place orders directly from their table and, later, rate the service of their server—the Uber model, but for restaurants. In other words, this is using technology to automate the process of disciplining workers (as potential earnings are reduced for servers with lower ratings) while outsourcing managerial tasks to customers. Brilliant for capital, and terrible for labour.

Another Failed Silicon Valley Exec Gets a Crypto Project - WIRED (June 22)

Just the absolute epitome of the “failing up” culture within the startup world. A few years back, Lucas Duplan founded a tech startup while he was still a student at Stanford University and managed to raise $30 million USD from some of the Valley’s most prestigious names. That startup, Clinkle, not only offered pretty much nil in the way of actual innovation but was also plagued by chaotic (mis)management, and so the company burned through its cash within a few years. Now, though, Duplan is back, having raised a fund from “his family and outside investors”. This is an excellent illustration of a phenomenon I wrote about for Notes From Below earlier this year, in my piece Silicon Inquiry:

There are no real consequences to failure. If your startup runs out of money, or you have to sell for less than you raised, rest assured because you’ll probably be able to raise more money in the future. As long as you have a half-decent slide deck and fit some rich person’s preconceived notions of a good founder, you’ll never have to get a real job; your material needs will be taken care of by the Silicon Valley Basic Income.

The American Right Wing Had Another Great Week Online - The Intercept (June 22)

An intriguing piece explaining why tech companies like Twitter and Facebook don’t do more to curb the alt-right, even though they technically have the ability to deplatform people for breaking TOS (including, but certainly not limited to, Trump). This article lays the blame at the feet of tech CEOs, who are more interested in preserving existing power relations - even if they are fundamentally unjust - than in challenging the status quo. For example, Twitter will suspend users who publish the phone number of White House advisers or the personal details of ICE agents, while doing very little to challenge neo-Nazis except where required by jurisdiction. This is where augmented worker power could be really transformative - if enough Twitter/Facebook employees demanded internal change


June 10, 2018

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Does Theranos Mark the Peak of the Silicon Valley Bubble? - Nautilus

An interview with John Carreyrou, a journalist who started writing a series of exposés around Theranos (a blood-testing startup) in 2015, marking the beginning of the company’s downfall. Theranos became a poster child among Silicon Valley unicorns around 2013, when it was valued at $9 billion (having raised around $700 million) only 10 years after it was founded. It was also an extreme example of the “founder cult” mythology in Silicon Valley—Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO, dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19 to start Theranos and managed to assemble an exceptionally impressive set of advisors and investors (impressive on paper, at least; it’s unclear what value Henry Kissinger would contribute to the field of medical technologies). This interview has some decent insights on both the specifics of Theranos, and what it reveals about startup culture as a whole.

Tech Workers Versus the Pentagon - Jacobin

An interview with an anonymous software engineer at Google about Project Maven (an internal nickname for a highly controversial contract with the Pentagon, using Google’s machine learning technology to improve accuracy for drone strikes). A few days ago, Google announced it would be cancelling the contract, primarily as a result of internal pressure after several employees resigned in protest. Some excellent discussion of the possibilities of harnessing power from below in order to influence corporate decisions in the tech industry, sketching out the challenges ahead as well as the opportunities. More details on Project Maven here: https://gizmodo.com/google-plans-not-to-renew-its-contract-for-project-mave-1826488620