Upward mobility and the tech industry

January 5, 2019 (1356 words) :: Musings on the concept of upward mobility, and how it's used to excuse inequality, no matter how stark or unjustifiable.
Tags: inequality, meritocracy, gig-economy

This post is day 5 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Spend any amount of time in San Francisco and you’ll be inundated with ads imploring you to learn to code. Billboards, subway ads, promoted tweets and YouTube pre-roll. Whether it’s enrolling in a coding bootcamp or signing up for an online program, the implication is clear, and it’s compelling: learn to code, and your life will get better. Unhappy with your crappy job without health insurance and living in a shoebox with 3 roommates? Don’t worry, there’s a way out; you just have to be smart and work hard.

A glance around the city would seem to confirm this fact. Tech companies are buying up urban parks and skyscrapers. Their private shuttles quietly idle next to tired municipal buses at bus stops, looking inestimably glam in comparison. Their well-paid employees - more of them every year, it seems - are buying Teslas and shopping at Whole Foods (or paying someone else to). Upward mobility = tech, and tech = upward mobility.

The learn-to-code ads never tell you what will happen to you if you refuse to buy into the vision they’re hawking. But they don’t have to, because the city will tell you that, too. Take a look at the homeless encampments, or talk to anyone who makes a living through any of the “gig economy” platforms - many of which originated here. If you’re smart, you’ll read that as a cautionary tale about how punishing the system can be to those who don’t make the cut. If you’re smart, you won’t let that be you - you’ll follow the path out, follow it upward. If you figure out how to navigate the system, you’ll be fine.

If you don’t, well, no one’s going to listen to you anyway, because you’re obviously just not good enough, and your jealousy of your betters is showing.

Any halfway decent system of hierarchy has to produce a means of sustaining itself. Of course it does, because otherwise it wouldn’t last very long. That requires both a material dimension (those on top must command more resources) and an ideological one (people must believe that this is the best system). You can see why the two dimensions must be considered in unison: if those who don’t believe in the system also have no resources to contest the system, then you can maintain it basically indefinitely. No matter how unjust it is, as long as it manages to contain potential opposition, it can survive.

The point is that just because people defend a system does not mean that the system is good. You cannot always understand these things through rational debate, on the grounds that everyone’s perspective is equally valid. Sometimes there are opposing interests (dare I say classes?). There will always be people defending any unjust system, or else it would have been abolished already. The people who are benefiting from such a system are generally its loudest - and most powerful - defenders, but sometimes even those who are currently suffering from the system will still believe in it, because it’s easier to believe that things could someday get better than it is to accept that they’ve been systematically fucked over. Not to mention all the ideological apparatuses designed precisely to purchase their buy-in to the system. There will always be defenders.

The system that currently suffuses Silicon Valley - that epicentre of digital capitalism - is inextricably entwined with the idea of merit, and upward mobility. Unlike more rigid systems like monarchy (which needs to be justified by an external anchor: that of the divine), “meritocracy” is more fluid - at least, to a degree. There is a path upward, even if it’s steeper for some than it is for others. And the existence of this path is, in itself, evidence of the virtue of the system.

I’ll concede this: some social mobility is better than none. The old systems of striation and oppression based on less mutable characteristics (like gender and race) are worse. But it’s not an either/or, especially because these old hierarchies didn’t magically disappear when The Great Meritocracy Show arrived in town. They leave stains, directly or indirectly. Their dismantling is a slow, painstaking, and not always monotonic process. No system of meritocracy can ever be implemented in a vacuum, disconnected from historical blight. There is no concept of “merit” that is not steeped in all the prejudices this concept was trying to transcend.

It would be a failure of imagination and nerve to laud the current iteration of “meritocracy” as it exists in tech. Not only does it have conceptual flaws - akin to appealing to some divine anchor, where “merit” is defined according to whatever those already in power decide - but it is also highly wasteful as a means of allocating resources. We all know this. Some just prefer not to see it, because they’re comfortable with their own place within the system. The ones who know it’s bullshit tend to be ignored, easily dismissed as crybabies who just weren’t cut out for the system (clearly they just weren’t good enough at coding). It’s the perfect self-perpetuating system.

The concept of upward mobility becomes especially illuminating when used as a lens to view the gig economy. In older industries - say, automobile production - you could start working for the company in a shop floor position with a high school degree and eventually end up as CEO of the whole company. There was a path from the bottom to the top, even if it was a very narrow one.

With the classic gig economy companies, though, there’s not even a pretense of this path. I can’t see Uber’s next CEO being someone who started out driving for Uber because they didn’t have any better job options. The next CEO of Uber (or Postmates, or Instacart, or Deliveroo) will be drawn from the usual pool of tech sociopaths, and their (increasingly militant) reserve army of “self-employed” drivers/couriers will probably not be part of the shortlist.

It used to be that you could rise through the ranks of a company simply by doing your regular job. But these gig economy companies are discarding that model in favour of one that separates the “tech” part of the enterprise from the “labour” part. The former comes with great employment benefits; the latter comes with precarity disguised as flexibility. You can maybe cross over to the “tech” part if you spend some time “investing” in yourself (learning to code, getting a degree, networking, whatever), but that’s not going to come about through just doing your job. It’s not like you can be an extra great Uber driver and eventually you’ll get promoted to the point where you’re making as much as a software engineer. It’s just not going to happen.

If Silicon Valley is meant to be a place of unlimited upward mobility, it comes with a caveat: there is upward mobility for the “tech” class (you can go from Harvard dropout or Stanford grad student to tech billionaire!). No so much for the rest, who are valued only for their labour-power to train an algorithm that will eventually replace them, and who are derided and told to “learn to code” when they ask for basic workers’ rights.

So in a way, we’re really moving backwards, to a much less progressive system. And sure, the system that offered a narrow upward path as justification for a highly skewed hierarchy was itself flawed, and was in dire need of disruption. But Silicon Valley disrupted it in the wrong direction. I hate to have to defend upward mobility - it makes me sound like a liberal - but if you get rid of it entirely, how are you going to maintain the ideological buy-in you need to maintain the system? That just feels extremely short-sighted.

That’s all I have for today (I always end up finishing these posts perilously close to midight … it’s a pathology). For more thoughts on upward mobility, and why we need to move beyond it, see my notes from an LSE seminar on social mobility.

« See the full list of fragments