Take the job, but organise

January 10, 2019 (1207 words) :: Have the option to work in tech, but concerned about the ethics of the industry? There's a solution for that: organise.
Tags: working-in-tech, class-struggle, career-advice

This post is day 10 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

In the last few months - since I finished my masters degree - a fair number of people have asked me for advice about (critical) masters degrees and/or whether they should get a job in tech. People who are still in school ask about job options post-degree, and whether working for a big tech company would be “selling out”. People who are considering a masters degree like mine ask whether it’s worth it, or if they should just work in the tech industry.

Until recently, I didn’t have an answer. But I think I now have an answer that sort of makes sense. If you have the option to work in tech, and the only thing stopping you from taking that option is a vague sense of guilt (and you don’t have anything else you especially want to be doing), just take it. Take the job.

But organise. Don’t assume that because you’re working in a policy role, or advocating for workplace diversity, or meant to protect consumer interests, that you will actually be able to fully do your job. More likely, you will either be lobbying governments to advance your company’s interests (even when they impinge on democracy), or your role will be little more than window-dressing, something the CEO can trot out to prove that they really do care about diversity or consumer privacy. When your ethical concerns inevitably clash with the company’s need to make profit no matter the ethics, the profit motive will always win - unless you have enough leverage to stand your ground. Say, in the form of a ton of your colleagues backing you up.

So don’t feel guilty about taking the job. After all, you are an individual worker in a larger economic landscape shaped by forces way outside your control. If you don’t have family money, and haven’t yet won the startup lottery, then you’re probably going to need a job. And if you’re interested in tech from a critical perspective, your options outside the industry are limited. You could take your chances with academia, and compete for the dwindlng number of full-time jobs with slowly-eroding benefits; you could try to work for a left-wing think tank, or union, or political party (also very competitive); you could try to get a full-time job as a staff writer (not many of those available) or write freelance (not easy financially, let me tell you). These jobs can be great if you get them, but they’re hard to come by, because that’s just not where the money is. At the moment, the money is in tech.

If you have the option to work in the tech industry, and you think you’d enjoy your job, and the only thing stopping you is ethical discomfort (with what tech is doing to the world), then here’s my advice: take the job, and organise with your coworkers as part of the growing labour movement in tech. The tech industry is pretty awful at the moment, marred by scandal after scandal in a way that points to deeper, structural flaws. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and for me, one of the most hopeful avenues for changing it is through building worker power.

None of this is to say that I think you have to work in tech if you have the chance, or that you have some sort of responsibility to your fellow workers to stay. Your responsibility is to yourself first and foremost, not some amorphous idea of your class interests (put on your own mask before helping others!). Prioritise your own well-being, because no one else will do it for you, and even if your end goal is to help others, you’ll have to help yourself first.

The point I’m trying to make here is that there is another option besides enduring an awful tech job that you don’t really want to do. It’s not a dichotomy between working in tech (and being complicit), versus quitting tech (and being broke). There is a third option: stay and fight. Work in the industry and make use of your passions and skillset to the best of your abilities, while also recognising that the industry is structurally flawed and so needs to be radically changed if it is ever going to really make the world a better place. And you can be part of this radical change if you start organising.

Now, more than ever, is a great time to stay in tech, with tech worker organising starting to really ramp up (see: Tech Workers Coalition!). Find a campaign at your workplace, or start your own, or just talk to colleagues about what you want to see change at your company. Engage with the copious amounts of tech industry criticism out there and try to boil it down to small, incremental, concrete demands. There are already so many people writing excellent and important criticism - it’s just not getting read by the people who actually have a chance at changing things. Criticism is great and all, but it also needs a path to being heard, and that’s where sympathetic people in the industry come in.

I chose to quit the industry and get a masters degree, because that seemed like the best option at the time (I didn’t even know worker organising was, like, a thing, much less in tech). I learned a lot through the program (I’ve posted all my notes and coursework on my website). But I learned much more through moving to London and engaging with the larger left community there (going to events; following people on Twitter; volunteering for political causes - all of which cost much less than LSE tuition).

That’s not to entirely discount the value of academia. If you feel like you’d prefer a structured program, and want time off from work, and can afford the exorbitant cost of a masters degree on a relevant topic, then by all means, go for it. But don’t expect it to answer all your questions, or give you a better idea of what you should do. And don’t treat it as an end in itself, either. At the end of the day, all the scholarly criticism of the tech industry won’t do any good if it’s locked up within the archives of some pay-per-view academic journals - it needs to be read, and acted upon, by people who actually have the power to do something about it.

Right now, the most promising potential agents for change are tech workers. For too long, they’ve been stereotyped as apolitical and uninterested in organising, mostly due to their comfortable material positions (relative to many other industries). This is true to some degree, but as the material conditions in the industry change - especially with the rise of the contract workforce - this won’t be true forever. People are already organising, and these efforts have the potential to become part of a broader movement for holding the tech industry accountable to society as a whole, not just the people lucky enough to already be within it.

Take the job, and organise. Disrupt the tech industry from within. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it.

« See the full list of fragments