Tech workers and journalists, unite?

January 28, 2019 (1156 words) :: Google and Facebook didn't cause the demise of journalism, but they are hastening it, and hurting journalists in the process. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Tags: class-struggle, big-tech, advertising

This post is day 28 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about advertising technology companies and their impact on journalism (especially in the wake of the layoffs last week). Google & Facebook are increasingly being recognised as dangerously powerful in a way that threatens democracy etc etc, which I’m on board with in spirit, but I haven’t been satisfied with any of the mainstream discourse so far. It’s all so shallow and predictable and (to borrow an insult from Adorno) highly undialectical. Personal data markets, more taxation to fund journalism, more privacy protection? Please. These all stem from a place of limited imagination, stymied by the belief that the future will be largely like the present: advertising, commodity production, journalism will all still function the same way, with a slighly fairer distribution of resources.

Google & Facebook are interesting because of the way they unite so many important spheres of our socioeconomic order. As gateways to digital advertising, they essentially sit at the top of these global value chains of commodity production, taking a cut of the marketing budget of a huge variety of commodities & services. Their policies (explicit and implicit) affect how goods are produced, marketed, and distributed in the market (this is also true for Amazon, though that’s out of scope for this post). At the same time, they’ve managed to make inroads into media, in two main ways: for consumers, they behave as portals to content (and can affect perceived legitimacy), and on the revenue side, they control ad revenue for many publishers, because they promise more targeted ads through the data they control.

Most of the criticism I’ve seen of this state of affairs is unimaginative in the sense that it implicitly accepts these companies’ right to continue their structural dominance. Like, the power they derive from being in this crucial juncture is taken for granted. It’s assumed that journalism will always be a commodity, and advertising will always be a big business, and so proposed solutions follow the logic of the market.

My approach starts from the opposite perspective. What if all these problems are related, as surface-level manifestations of deeper problems with capitalism?

I’m still working on it, so apologies if this sounds scattered so far. I’ve read some interesting perspectives from critical media & communications scholars, mostly Marxist, and I’m trying to unite those with my own intuitions about it, derived from having (unwittingly) co-founded an advertising technology startup. I’ve also been thinking about taxation in the context of imbalanced global value chains & dependency theory (this piece by David Quentin for New Socialist is an excellent primer), and I’ve been trying to reconcile that with critiques of overconsumption (from a degrowth perspective) as well.

It’s proving difficult, so far. It’s probably the hardest theoretical work I’ve ever had to do. In the meantime, I want to talk about potential solutions, which is weirdly easier than conceptualising the problem: how do we change things? What are the paths moving forward?

Regulation probably sounds appealing, but I don’t think we should expect good regulation to be crafted and dropped down from above to save journalism, partly because technical literacy among most elected officials is appalling but mostly because of conflicting class interests. A weakened Fourth Estate is good for oligarchs, because there are fewer threat vectors for challenging their power; they can then buy up venerated journalistic institutions at a discount and use them as mouthpieces for their class interests.

It’s bad for society as a whole, of course. But who’s going to represent society as a whole? Tech companies are not structurally set up to be accountable to anyone, except maybe the cold, nebulous logic of shareholder value, a perspective that tends to discount long-term society sustainability in favour of short term profits.

They’re not yet accountable to their workers, for a bunch of reasons that you either already know or can find me discussing in other things I’ve written. But if they were, and their workers joined in solidarity with journalists in recognition of their potentially shared collective interests …

This sounds far-fetched, I know. We’re still such a long way off from a properly organised tech industry, and I’m suggesting organising in solidarity with other industries? But hear me out. Tech isn’t really an industry anymore - its boundaries are porous, and mostly arbitrarily, anyway. The externalities of one company can affect other companies or even other industries. It doesn’t make sense to delimit organising efforts along such arbitrary lines when everyone is part of a larger circuit of capital valorisation, especially when the whole point of tech is to “disrupt” other industries - decisions made in the tech sector can have huge impacts on other sectors, in terms of revenue flow and even day-to-day work conditions (journalism being a prime example).

Capital can transcend these artificial barriers, of course - consider the number of publications that have been bought up by, or have taken money from, rich people who have made their money through tech companies. So, too, must labour.

It’s not entirely clear to me what structures would be needed for this or what specific demands make sense. The first step, though, is to explicitly separate the interests of tech workers from those of the corporation, as expressed by management and percolated on down. Software engineers should be building products that are better for society in the long run, in recognition of the crucial role played by a functioning public sphere, even if this would conflict with revenue or growth or engagement numbers.

At the moment, things are clearly pretty fucked. Software engineers are creating products that incentivise clickbait and feeling guilty about it; journalists are writing for content farms because those are the only companies still hiring; users are treated to shittier and shittier content while democracy crumbles around them, because no one can make a living speaking truth to power anymore. No one gains, except the biggest shareholders, who I guess get to buy another yacht or Birkin or something, I don’t know.

Challenging this extremely dystopian status quo will require more than some new taxes or regulations. It will require a huge social movement, and probably some new/strengthened institutions (especially unions) along the way. Tech workers could play a major role because of the power they wield within a highly prosperous sector of the economy, and journalists are necessary because of their role in shaping public opinion. An alliance between the two would make sense purely as a defensive measure - tech is killing journalism, and it needs to be revived - but there’s a whole world to be gained, too.

That’s all I really have for today. Recommended reading on the topic:

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