Coders Of The World, Unite!
November 2, 2017 9:42 AM   Subscribe

“Recognizing these difficulties, a growing number of activists within the industry are developing a different plan. Their insight is as compelling as it is counterintuitive: the best people to confront the power of the tech giants may be their own employees. First, they want to teach their colleagues to see that tech work is work, even though it doesn’t take place in a factory. Then, they want to organise them, so that rank-and-file workers can begin to bring political transparency and democratic accountability to the platforms they have worked to build. Call them the Tech Left.“ - For decades, tech companies promised to make the world better. As that dream falls apart, disillusioned insiders are trying to take back control. By Moira Weigel for The Guardian.
posted by The Whelk (26 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
I happened to catch an interview with Matthew Prince of CloudFlare on Bloomberg and he seemed really down to earth, he clearly felt his impulse call to shut off the nazis was right but was very clear that it should not be left to him, tech companies or whoever owns a particular box or tech. But these are really hard new unprecedented issues, no one knows, there are many right answers and none.
posted by sammyo at 10:08 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]


Coders will unionize when they're forced to work 15 hour days below minimum wage and no equity.

10-12 hour days are not at all unusual all across the industry, and then there's release-time "crunch", and most of us aren't out in NorCal making $100k+. There are few industries more ripe for unionization but also few industries that are more resistant, culturally and ideologically, to the idea.
posted by dis_integration at 10:10 AM on November 2 [26 favorites]


professional sports players or well-paid entertainment industry workers

Look at the history, it was not millionaires that unionized. The good actors I've heard talk about it stay in the union for their colleagues that would quickly be taken advantage.
posted by sammyo at 10:11 AM on November 2 [5 favorites]


The mushy libertarianish ideology that was baked in from the early days really seems like a major common factor here.
posted by PMdixon at 10:11 AM on November 2 [14 favorites]


glad that people are organizing even in these extremely privileged areas. their liberation ideology is... weird (seeing yourself as a venture capitalist investing your own future? ew) but these seem the type of people who, at least at this stage, are still open to discussions of power and intersectionality

But TWC and Tech Solidarity point out that the privileged position of engineers cuts both ways. They are relatively few in number and critical to the operations of algorithms that, in some cases, serve millions of users every day. Whether their activities take the form of a union or a professional association, the structure of the tech industry gives them special bargaining power.

a very similar vein of work being done in my city is getting all of the privileged, middle-class whites to invest in more than a yard sign from their vast troves of disposable privilege. of course, the mediating factor is whether or not that privilege will turn into power within the field of activism - white donor classes are pretty much the master using their tools to very incrementally take down a small part of the house so it's a far cry from liberation and revolution. but, like most things, it's a start and it is and will always need to be something that grounds de-centering as a foundational value

If my next interview goes well, not unhappy. Burnt myself on the stove last night, outlaw fire.

if you have enough time to front apathetic cynicism on a website during the work day, you have enough time to organize. I'd take a jolly, privilege blind but open-minded volunteer over a self-important internet activist any day. at least the former can recognize the depths of their ignorance and won't see it as an attack on their identity when you push them for more. I have dealt with enough self-important 'Maoists' and other edgy types to recognize who's actually showing up and putting in the work and who's just drossing themselves in hypothetical credibility like it's a fashion accessory
posted by runt at 10:11 AM on November 2 [8 favorites]


Tech companies showed us a better way to juice fruit and brew tea, and we said no. We said no!! How can we expect them to make the world a better place if we won't let them?!
posted by misterpatrick at 10:17 AM on November 2 [7 favorites]


"TWC" gave me a kneejerk negative reaction simply for being shared with Time Warner Cable (shudder).
If the goal is to get more Democrats elected
I mean, on the one hand spouting vague, empty platitudes is no good for anything, and I think that is the main thrust of that section of the article, but also, sidenote, I don't think what we really want is more of "group X wealthy people implacably back political party Y no matter what come hell or high water", either.
if you have enough time to front apathetic cynicism on a website during the work day, you have enough time to organize.
I get the sentiment behind this but it is a literally and factually untrue statement, both in terms of time and of energy.
posted by inconstant at 10:21 AM on November 2 [10 favorites]


inconstant - how so? it's been my experience that you take people where they are. I mean, you have service sector folks in the article who are getting together to organize in their free-time. folks I've worked with are working too, some with more than one job. the less involved folks drop in for civil disobedience, sometimes just to type up notes, sometimes just to regularly commit to posting things on our group page on Facebook to keep engagement up but it's not like we are ever running out volunteer work that can be done

in the past, it might have been so that you needed a solid four or five hour block of time to commit to organizing because it was hard to have unified task assignments but now you can share an excel file with needed tasks and edit documents live. it's gotten so easy to break tasks down to discrete, non-intensive things. of course, people drop in and out and, at the end of the day, someone needs to fill in the gap. but with the number of post-Trump people energized and engaged, it's almost like a second responsibility to get all of these new folks involved accountably and sustainably and it's gotten easier and easier to find committed people who don't flake out at the last moment

I mean, the people in it for the long haul who devote hours and hours of their day to this are great. I've had to do that more than a few times and it's stressful. but if you can spend five minutes ginning up a comment on an internet site, that was five minutes you could've been reading emails for updates on events, scanning comment sections for trolls, cleaning up volunteer rosters, sending out reminder e-mails for tasks, or what have you. speaking of which...
posted by runt at 10:36 AM on November 2 [3 favorites]


if you have enough time to front apathetic cynicism on a website during the work day, you have enough time to organize.

if you have enough time to smoke a cigarette during the work day you have enough time to smash the state
posted by thedaniel at 10:36 AM on November 2 [6 favorites]


Information isn't the only thing that wants to be free.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:38 AM on November 2


Any sort of organizing involves at least an up-front investment of Talking To People (So That It's Actually Organized), plus an element of Commitment. Both of these things are automatically more difficult than screwing around posting comments on a blog post. The worthiness the former doesn't negate those difficulties.
posted by inconstant at 10:41 AM on November 2 [3 favorites]


inconstant seems like 1) talking to people and 2) doing it more than once is pretty much the model for vast swathes of the Internet (like here) or is there something more to these 'difficulties' you're describing
posted by runt at 10:46 AM on November 2


if you have enough time to smoke a cigarette during the work day you have enough time to smash the state

Actually, in Japan you get more time off if you don't smoke so maybe quitting is the right step forward
posted by Apocryphon at 10:50 AM on November 2 [1 favorite]


I mean, the people in it for the long haul who devote hours and hours of their day to this are great. I've had to do that more than a few times and it's stressful. but if you can spend five minutes ginning up a comment on an internet site, that was five minutes you could've been reading emails for updates on events, scanning comment sections for trolls, cleaning up volunteer rosters, sending out reminder e-mails for tasks, or what have you. speaking of which...

More or less--it's that these things take different investments of social energy and attention for many people, and time isn't the only resource that tasks require. It is straight up easier for me to listen to a conversation and comment on it as I have time, for example, than it is for me to commit to routinely providing the same attentional ability and help in a predictable enough and dependable enough time frame for that to be useful to anyone. I can do off and on stuff, but I do not have the predictable commitment to be responsible for a given task at the moment, and I don't have the organizational skills right now to follow up on shit beyond "do paid work, get meds taken at correct time, help boss roommate and family into same." I can build up social networks and convince people that certain ideas are important and make my voice heard and try to get folks voting, and those are all things I do as I can--but that doesn't seem to be what you're describing as organizing, runt. Which is fair; it's not organized at all.

(I am actually in the process of dialling back my routinely-committed organization time at this point because I'm increasingly finding myself burned out and completely overstretched. So that's context, anyway.)

Cognitive load and especially predictability (not repetition) are not nontrivial constraints for many of us, and it's bothering me that you are digging in on that a bit. The problem with dedicating fragmented attention to these activities is that in order to make it worth it to train people to do them correctly, you need to know that you're going to get the reward of a committed person who will do enough work to pay off the initial time investment of training them to do it. If I can't commit to that, volunteering wastes the training time it would take for me to show up.

And I'm saying that as someone who has been on both sides of that particular divide. Pushing people to do work beyond their capabilities is not efficient.
posted by sciatrix at 10:56 AM on November 2 [16 favorites]


tl;dr: it's not necessarily the time, it's the internal pressure to commit. (and I see you saying that you've got a bunch of spreadsheets and things that don't require routinely managed timing and/or are very flexible, short-term tasks listed there, runt... and I look at that and I flinch, because I already juggle the cognitive load of hundreds of very flexible, short-term tasks and right now the idea of adding more is a horrifying and exhausting concept. (Particularly when contrasted against showing up somewhere for an hour, or talking to people, or passing a signal boost through networks to people who are likely to be interested, or or or.)
posted by sciatrix at 11:01 AM on November 2 [6 favorites]


sciatrix there are a dozen things I can name off the top of my head right now that do not require you to do the same thing all the time and do not require you to do it to some professional, best practice standard but yet would also greatly benefit a lot of small, volunteer-run organizations. if you can connect me to an event space, if you happen to have a microphone with a speaker I can borrow, if you know a group of knitters who'd be down to yarn-bomb a Confederate statue, if you just want to share an event that I'm putting. the only bar are my asks dropping into some line of communication you use everyday like e-mail or Facebook or text or any dozen other vehicles

I mean, being an 'activist' doesn't mean you have to go through some official, 501c3 vetted organization with x amount of training that requires you to go canvassing for x hours a week because somebody's grant money is on the line. a lot of activism is just helping groups still looking to cover bare minimums

in regards to self-care: do the needful and take care of yourself, you know your capacity. sustainable activism is self-care and caring for the folks who can't handle that capacity at the moment. I've been the loadbearer in a lot of situations and I've had my load borne by others when I needed to step back to work on my own mental health issues. there's no guilt in any of it - it's already a rare enough gift to have people who are willing to do this kind of work in a society that punishes you for doing so. but you have to hold yourself to some degree of diligence and accountability

my feeling and experience is that folks snarking apathetically aren't the ones practicing the latter. and there's nothing that's more infuriating than seeing that turn into cultural capital, especially not when you've spent the last few years of your life trying to get people involved in whatever capacity they can be
posted by runt at 11:22 AM on November 2


There are different strands here that are starting to be spun together.

Maciej's point of reference is the period after the dot-com bust where creative stuff happened without a massive amount of funding (blogging, web 2.0 stuff, labours of love like Upcoming and Delicious) then got acquired or acqui-hired to death. It's the period before smartphone dominance, social media dominance, Google sucking all the life out of the room. We're also in a kind of post-bust era for public-sector civic tech, which doesn't mean that it can't do good, but it's going to be quiet and based around incremental gains on relatively uncontentious stuff. We've seen where voluntary disempowerment in exchange for less precarious economic prospects leads.

Nobody will ever be able to compete with Facebook in the market for attention. Facebook will acquire them for billions of dollars instead, and the VC backers of any competitor will sign off and take their prize. Same applies to other tech giants. So we're in robber-baron territory, and the appropriate response is to re-assert both the power of those doing the work, and their responsibilities. Until the robots take over those jobs and we're all fucked.
posted by holgate at 11:29 AM on November 2 [8 favorites]


Adam Curtis made an interesting documentary about the evolution (and failure to enhance freedom) of the "California ideology" in part 2 of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.
posted by clawsoon at 12:01 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


Ka-Ping Yee was my TA back in Berkeley in the 2000's. Honestly, he seemed so smart, and I a foreign student trying to get my bearings in a place where everyone (mostly savvy in-state students) basically thought they were brilliant, was afraid to approach him at all. But I remember him from a distance: the day he went to the mic in packed Zellerbach Hall and reading from a little piece of paper, heckled Bill Gates at length, asking him to explain his company's monopolistic business practices, and mostly got booed.

It's little acts like those that set an example, that show those of us who ever feel disillusioned that others with our experiences and knowledge exist, who are thinking critically about society and the future, and thinking about alternatives.
posted by polymodus at 1:13 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


I happened to catch an interview with Matthew Prince of CloudFlare on Bloomberg and he seemed really down to earth, he clearly felt his impulse call to shut off the nazis was right but was very clear that it should not be left to him, tech companies or whoever owns a particular box or tech. But these are really hard new unprecedented issues, no one knows, there are many right answers and none.

No, it really isn't, and Prince's position comes across as a form of moral cowardice that has a long, ignoble history - the unwillingness to grasp with the moral obligations of one's works. No matter how much he tries, he cannot put the power he wields beyond anyone's grasp, so it's on his head to wield it in a moral manner - this is not something he can wash his hands of, and the dogged insistence of techies that they can is in large part why we have these problems.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:16 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


“The daily work of organising takes time. TWC members shyly struck up conversations with the people who cooked and served their meals and cleaned up after them. “It can be awkward,” one soft-spoken engineer told me. “We’re so much more used to messaging and texting.” On Facebook he posted an open call to friends, suggesting that they call one another on the phone more often, to practise speaking.”

Sounds like typical savior behavior to me.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:18 PM on November 2


what does that mean, Ideefixe?
posted by kokaku at 2:21 PM on November 2


It's probably a good idea to stop confusing website publishers with the US Congress. It may be an even better idea to stop confusing website "algorithms", yanno, rules including but not limited to Terms and Conditions of Use, with US Code. NAICS 51, 519: Pass it around.. This way Pat Websurfer and Jordan Troll have an accurate image of who censors who or who to sue, successfully, for their money back when their user profiles and posts are deleted by management.

Conversely, bored "coders" and IT engineers may discover they share an interest in agitating for First Amendment rights denied them at their places of work, if they otherwise are untroubled by rampant and illegal compensation, unpaid compensation, injuries, differential pay, hazardous work conditions, lock-outs, "right to work" sanctions, unfunded benefit trusts, no benefit plans, employment contract breaches, assault and battery, tying, arbitrary shift assignments, no shift assignments, and "role" misclassification, IF one or more superiors erect metaphorical concrete barriers to success of their convo.
posted by marycatherine at 2:26 PM on November 2


It means that talking to a cafeteria worker isn’t “brave” or significant. Acknowledging another person’s existence is not activism.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:32 PM on November 2 [1 favorite]


Acknowledging another person’s existence is not activism.

It is if your activism is "community-building," and it's brave if you've never actually done any of that before. I do agree that this is the kind of activism that's reasonably appropriate for children aged five to seven, and it's appalling that grown men with college degrees need to start there.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:26 AM on November 3 [1 favorite]


"socialization"? There's a loaded concept.
posted by marycatherine at 11:39 AM on November 3


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