Gatekeeping in the tech industry

February 19, 2019 (1129 words) :: On the 'computer priesthood', negative solidarity, and the story of a hit man who kills other hit men so he can make more money.
Tags: ideology, class-struggle, intellectual-property

This post is day 50 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Hit List is a mass-market paperback from 2002 that I used to own for some long-forgotten reason. It’s a highly engrossing thriller novel - the second in a short series by Lawrence Block - featuring a man named Keller whose job is to kill other people for money.

Keller comes across as a regular guy, and even a sympathetic one, who just happens to be in a socially-ostracised line of work. He collects stamps, talks to a therapist, has cordial if usually short-lived relations with women. His job is just a job, in other words; he views violence as an undesirable but necessary part of the process. He’s uncomfortable with the moral implications of his job, so he does it somewhat reluctantly, even if he never seriously contemplates quitting: he’s too good at it, and it’s such an easy way to make money, in any case. But at the end of the day, it’s just a job. He takes the work he’s given, and it pays well enough to allow him to live the rest of his life, so he doesn’t think too much about it.

The plot of Hit List concerns Keller’s discovery that not everyone sees it as “just a job”. One of his fellow hit men has seemingly started killing others in the profession, which he accomplishes by turning down jobs and showing up anyway to see who comes to do the job. The reason? Keller surmises that it’s economic: the price of a hit is determined in large part by the number of assassins willing to consider it, and killing one’s potential competitors is a fantastic way to permanently up your own income.

To that end, this guy, the Dexter of hit men, has been spending tons of his own time and money to fly around the country in order to puritanically murder anyone who might inadvertently lower his potential earnings. Killing other human beings - the exact human beings who would probably understand him better than most of humanity - solely because he see them as standing in the way between him and a bigger flat-screen TV. It’s the most extreme form of gatekeeping to a profession, where the gate is literally death, courtesy of someone who sees your life as merely an impediment to his ability to accumulate wealth.

By now, you’ve probably already guessed where this is going - I am indeed going to read this as an allegory for the grim outcomes incentivised by capitalism. I first read Hit List well over a decade ago, long before I had any semblance of what Marxism was, but the tragic tale of this Dexter-like character stuck with me even then. There’s something so bleak, so sad about the possibility of devoting your life to the project of destroying others’ lives just so you can make a little more money. All in the name of reducing supply to an already under-supplied labour market.

Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib is a radical underground treatise on the need for widespread computer literary. The political demands expressed in the book are great, and it’s worth reading just for those, even if the actual technical how-tos are way out of date. In the book’s introduction, Nelson suggests that understanding of computers is dominated by a “priesthood”:

Knowledge is power and so it tends to be hoarded. Experts in any field rarely want people to understand what they do, and generally enjoy putting people down.

Computer Lib was published in 1974, and it’s kind of eerie that those words ring so true today. The tech industry that grew out of this knowledge still feels like a priesthood, one dominated by men who are either white or a specific kind of Asian, who define the parameters of what’s considered “real” tech talent according to what they themselves are good at. They hire people with similar academic backgrounds, programming journeys, and knack for solving brainteaser questions in interviews as themselves.

The worst of them outright resent the existence of coding bootcamps and other efforts to get underrepresented groups into tech, seeing them as a threat to their own privileged status, even if they wouldn’t admit it as such. They’re not real programmers, so the reasoning goes, if they didn’t go through the desert of learning how to code in the days before GitHub and StackOverflow and Codecademy, when you asked for help on mailing lists and IRC channels and usually expected no response. Unlike the high priests who discovered tech long before they knew how lucrative it could be, these newcomers are motivated primarily by the money, and that makes their qualifications suspect. For many of them, it’s just a job - the worst possible sin to those who believe you should do what you love, and who perhaps spent some of their most formative years in social isolation in pursuit of that love.

I definitely went through a phase, probably entwined with my Ayn Rand phase, where I wholeheartedly believed this view. It took a while before I saw it for the self-aggrandising gatekeeping it is. It’s similar to what Alex Williams has called “negative solidarity”: a requirement that other people suffer as you have, not because you believe that it will be better for them, but because it makes you feel better about yourself. The most common form of gatekeeping that occurs in tech isn’t driven by a noble desire to build better products by keeping out the less capable; it’s driven by a much more selfish desire to implicitly validate the choices and skills and perspectives of those already doing well in the industry.

Gatekeeping is a way for those inside the gates to feel better about themselves. They can justify their inflated wages by pointing to how much better they are than those outside, citing failed answers to interview questions that they helped design. At the same time, it allows them to improve their own conditions at the expense of others, by keeping wages high through limiting labour supply rather than through organising with their fellow workers to ensure decent wages for all.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying gatekeeping in tech is equivalent to killing the competition. But the tech worker who complains about his company trying to hire more women, or who resents his co-worker for clocking out at 5pm rather than devoting his life to their company, is practising a form of negative solidarity all the same, even if less extreme.

Negative solidarity is bad for your soul, and it’s bad for your class interests, too. Positive solidarity is great, on the other hand, and the process of building it with other workers could transform the entire industry.

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