Taking on the Tech Giants at The World Transformed

« Speaking

I chaired this session on tech giants at The World Transformed in Liverpool on September 25, 2018. The panel featured the following speakers, in order of appearance:

Below is the prepared statement of my opening remarks and my questions for the speakers (edited for clarity). I had planned to record the session, but the quality of my recording turned out to be subpar, so unfortunately the speakers’ answers are lost to the digital ether (I did my best to add links to relevant articles where possible).

Opening remarks

I’m Wendy Liu, and I’ll be your chair today. I’m a software developer and former startup founder who became very disillusioned with the startup world and the tech industry at large. Luckily, in the process of trying to better understand the tech industry, I discovered the left, and now I mostly write about the political economy of tech and why we need to abolish Silicon Valley. You can read my writing in various UK-based left publications including New Socialist, Notes From Below, Novara Media, and the recently-launched Tribune.

The format of this session will be a little different from typical sessions at TWT. Instead of prepared remarks from each speaker, it’ll be more of a casual conversation, with lots of back & forth. I’ll start by giving a primer to what this session is about, then I’ll ask each speaker a few targeted questions about their experience, and then I’ll open it up to the floor.

So what is this session about? Why should the left care about tech? Why can’t we just focus on building our movement? It really comes down to the scale of it - the scale of the accumulation of wealth enabled by the tech industry. Many of the world’s most valuable companies are tech companies which did not exist only a few decades ago. And this concentration of wealth has come at a dark human cost. Apple is a $1 trillion company even as the workers actually assembling its products are overworked to the point of suicide; Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world while his workers are on food stamps. And things are not going to get better on their own. Any socialist economic programme must grapple with the realities of the situation.

What this means is that we have to view the tech industry in overtly political terms. The most brilliant feat of the tech industry - which has helped it to maintain its legitimacy - is the myth around it that has functioned to depoliticise it. Tech loves to think of itself as apolitical - it’s about innovation and entrepreneurial genius, and the market, which means that the way things are now are just the way things will always be.

But that’s just the ideology of neoliberalism in a nutshell - the whole idea that there is no alternative to the free market. Silicon Valley is really just the most recent manifestation of this paradigm. We just take it for granted that innovation can only be done by corporations and that the corporations that direct this innovation deserve to capture the immense wealth that results. But this itself is an unnatural construct, and one that’s been politically created for a specific purpose. Once you view Silicon Valley through an overtly political lens, it becomes clear that it’s a class project meant to serve capital while disempowering labour at large.

This isn’t how technology has to be. But it is how technology has developed under a neoliberal and ultimately capitalist paradigm, where it was taken for granted that the benefits of innovation would be enclosed by private corporations rather than flowing to society at large.

It doesn’t have to be this way. People are realising that what’s best for Silicon Valley is not always what’s best for the world, and are starting to fight back. In this panel, we’ll hear about resistance efforts coming from below: by Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders unhappy with their work conditions; and by workers at the heart of Silicon Valley itself who are realising the problems with the world they’ve helped to create. We’ll hear about alternative structures to the for-profit corporations that currently dominate the tech industry. Finally, we’ll hear about the possibilities and the limitations of regulatory efforts to change the status quo.

I’m honoured to be able to introduce the following panelists:

Tech Workers Coalition

Jason, you’ve been working as a software engineer at various large tech companies for the last decade, and in the last few years, you’ve gotten involved with Tech Workers Coalition, which is an organisation trying to build worker power within the tech industry. For a bit of background context, there is very little unionisation or even class consciousness among people working in the upper echelons of the tech industry, and TWC is really at the vanguard here. Can you talk a bit about the motivation behind TWC, what prompted you to join it, why it’s needed, and what’s been done so far?

What would it mean for tech workers to strike? Could it involve not coming in to the office, not sending emails? Could working remotely (when you usually work at the office) be part of it? And what about more belligerent forms of direct action?

Recommended reading on TWC, published by Notes From Below:

On contractors

Jason mentioned some of the issues around contractors at big tech companies [which I’ve written about for Notes From Below: Organising Silicon Valley’s Shadow Workforce]. This seems like part of a larger trend towards two-tier wage systems that’s been happening in many industries, both now and historically. I wanted to bring Lydia in to talk about this phenomenon in the context of outsourcing at educational institutions, and whether there are any parallels that could be useful. [Lydia has written about unionising efforts by cleaners at the London School of Economics for Notes From Below: Rebellion at the LSE: a cleaning sector inquiry.]

On a slightly different note: Lydia just chaired a panel about the UCU pay dispute [Solidarity is our Weapon: Lessons from UCU Strike ]. One question from the audience that really struck me was about vice chancellor pay, and whether that would be a good orgaising point to coalesce around. I wonder if there’s an analogue within tech, where even though people working close to the product are usually quite well-paid, they are so much less well paid than the people at the very top. Not just the CEO, and high-level executives, but also those who have been at the company for a long time, or who maybe joined through a startup acquisition and make most of their income in stock. These numbers aren’t always published, so people might not even know the massive pay disparities, but there could be power in transparency.

On gig economy resistance from below

Lydia, you’ve been reporting about some of the resistance efforts by workers for gig economy platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, and yesterday you chaired a panel on transnational strikes [Deliveroo and Uber: Striking Beyond Borders]. Why is this happening, how successful has it been so far, and what is the role of unions like IWGB in this?

Recommended reading on resistance by gig economy workers, published by Notes From Below:

On worker cooperatives

I’d like to zoom out a bit, away from workers’ struggles to talk about alternative structures. Emma, you run a platform co-op for care work. Can you talk about some of the motivations behind that, what are some of the challenges there, and how can they be overcome? Are platform co-ops a viable alternative to the exploitative structures we see with for-profit corporations?

Recommended reading: Why co-operatives could be the answer to the UK’s social care crisis

Duncan, you’ve been involved in an effort to make a co-op alternative to Uber. Can you talk about that?