Tag Archives: engineering

Google and Microsoft workers are starting to rebel against imperialism

Several weeks ago, Google workers successfully got the company to not renew its contract with the Pentagon around the development of artificial intelligence technologies for drone warfare — a surprising victory, and a demonstration that such struggles have room to continue to grow and move into more radical directions.

Now, a similar struggle appears to be developing at Microsoft, where workers are vocally upset at the company’s contract with ICE.  This contract isn’t new, but the current political mood has shifted drastically into one of disgust and anger at the Trump administration’s policies around family separation and child detention at the border, and so its an opportune time to shed light on one’s company’s connections with odious institutions.  And as discussed in the case of Google, this is also an opportunity for Microsoft workers to push for workers’ control, as argued in this piece from Notes From Below from Wendy Liu, a former Google worker, which dives deeper into issues of engineering ethics and worker power.

It is interesting to examine how the two struggles reveal particular contours of contemporary imperialism.  Project Maven is about drone warfare, which is primarily taking place across the Greater Middle East (North Africa to South-West Asia), in areas that have been drawn into the increasingly flailing and unending War on Terror.  The Azure-ICE contract is about immigration and border control, whose main hot-spot is at the US-Mexico border, where people are attempting to flee northwards away from gang warfare and generalized social decay, which is in no small part due to the effects of US-backed militarization and free trade policies.  The infrastructure that keeps imperialist violence in operation in these areas is sprawling and monstrous, far beyond the scope of tech contracts.  But nonetheless, the fact that tech workers are struggling to deny the Pentagon access to cutting-edge AI tech, and ICE access to advanced cloud-computing, should be a good morale boost for all.

Notes on Endnotes on class decomposition and technical labor

As summarized in my last post, the main essay series of Endnotes Issue 4, “A History of Separation”, is all about dismantling orthodox Marxist mythology around the importance of the industrial worker as the main protagonist of overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism.

A key part of this argument, which I didn’t touch on in the summary, is relationship between technology, class, knowledge, and political identity.  Back in the earlier stages of industrial production and industrial labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when revolutionary workers’ movements were blossoming, it was very easy for a worker to see themselves as part of a class that was the actual force that built and maintained society.  Workers sweated and toiled alongside each other in massive centralized plants, stitching clothes, building cars, refining oil, chopping trees, etc.  Workers were key to the production process, and they understood the process just as well as, if not better than, the capitalists who pocketed the profits.

However, as development and industrialization proceeded (under both capitalist and Marxist-Leninist regimes), worker knowledge of the means of production diminished.  The industrial use of technology fragmented the labor process, separated the supply chain across entire regions and countries, and made work repetitive and dull, and in general, destroyed the old basis for a common, positive identity around being an industrial worker.  From “The Strange Victory of the Workers’ Movement”:

In spite of the development of the productive forces, labour, it was insisted, remained the source of all wealth, its latent power and knowledge reflected precisely in that development. That turned out not to be true: knowledge of the production process was no longer located in the place of the collective worker, but rather (if anywhere), in the place of the collective technician. That was a key point because — while it upended the foundation-stone of the workers’ movement — it also finally confirmed Marx’s perspective in the “fragment on machines” (reproduced more soberly in Capital).

…It was increasingly the case that human labour was no longer the main productive force; science — often applied to the worst ends of industrial “development”— took labour’s place. That profoundly affected workers’ self-understanding, their experience of what they did and their place in the world: workers could no longer see themselves as building the world in the name of modernity or a better, more rational way of living. On the contrary, that world was already built, and it was entirely out of their hands. Modernity presented itself as this imposing thing, which workers’ confronted, not as subject, but rather, as an object to be regulated and controlled.

…Society is no longer just the means of production, a set of factories that can be taken over and self-managed by the workers who run them…The bases of social power are now much more dispersed. They are located not just in the repressive apparatuses of the police, the jails and the armed forces and the so-called “ideological” apparatuses of schools, churches, and television. They include also power stations, water-treatment plants, gas stations, hospitals, sanitation, airports, ports, and so on. Just like the factories themselves, all of this infrastructure relies on a legion of engineers and technicians, who keep the whole things running from minute to minute. These technicians possess no collective workers’ identity, nor were they ever included in the programmes of the workers’ movements.

The comments on the rise of science, and the importance of technical labor, stuck out since of course it connects with what I’ve been musing about regarding the current politicization and radicalization of workers in the tech industry in the US.

To me, what’s key here is the fact that the workers’ movement did not adapt or evolve in step with the evolution of class as it was restructured by capitalism, to acknowledge the growing importance of scientific and engineering labor in the increasingly complicated complex of production, distribution, and circulation.  Some groups did this, but had to split from the old vanguard in order to do so.  Two examples that I’ve taken a closer look at: 1) the Students for a Democratic Society’s “Port Authority” statement looking at the new class composition of the US, that included skilled technical workers, and 2) debates among French Marxists in various parties over the nature of the new classes in light of the post-1968 period.

The latter is particularly interesting in the context of the comments by Endnotes because it precisely shows how class recomposition provoked crisis and splits in Marxism and the workers’ movement.  The French Communist Party (PCF) stuck with the industrial workers as their social base, but bizarrely tried to build a reformist coalition with the new middle classes who they saw as non-revolutionary and more conservative.  This was presumably a reaction to the fact that parts of this middle class, particularly the skilled technicians, played a key role in the upheavals of 1968, even as the PCF was playing a backseat counter-revolutionary role (which begs the question why they continued to see these classes as less radical than themselves).  Meanwhile, theorists like Serge Mallet of the  an Alain Touraine adapted the old logic of the workers’ movement to uphold the skilled technical workforce as the new vanguard of technologically advanced and automated capitalism, as the only fraction of the working class which could grasp the complexity of post-industrial society.

However, at this point in time, it certainly doesn’t seem like any identity around a “collective technician” has emerged, let alone one that is revolutionary and anti-capitalist (yet!).  Nonetheless, its very worthwhile to go back and look at these older debates around the class nature of technicians and engineers and scientists, to help us in the present figure out how to go about composing a revolutionary proletarian composition that is dynamic and cohesive across an increasingly fractured landscape.

Creating a new Lucas Plan for Google

One of the many, many excellent essays in Issue 2 of Notes From Below discusses the Lucas Plan and the potential to replicate it for the tech industry.  The Lucas Plan was a proposal developed in the 1970s by workers at Lucas Aerospace, a major aircraft designer and manufacturer in the United Kingdom.  The plan sought to overturn management and capitalist control over technology and the use of the workers’ surplus value, in favor of the reorganization of the company and a worker-lead vision for the creation of products far more useful to society.  As quoted from a Guardian essay on the subject:

Over the course of a year they built up their Plan on the basis of the knowledge, skills, experience, and needs of workers and the communities in which they lived. The results included designs for over 150 alternative products. The Plan included market analyses and economic argument; proposed employee training that enhanced and broadened skills; and suggested re-organising work into less hierarchical teams that bridged divisions between tacit knowledge on the shop floor and theoretical engineering knowledge in design shops.

At the heart of all this is the fundamental, radical question: what would we like to do with our labor?  The answer has never, and will never, be “whatever capitalism has me working on now”.

This contradiction between what one would like to work on, and what one is forced to work on, exists in the tech industry.  As it currently stands, the tech industry mostly revolves around the accumulation of data collected from people using search engines, social media, service platforms, etc., and using this data to make it easier for advertisers to sell people stuff.  When you really break it down, the fact that Silicon Valley is largely about advertisement technologies is decidedly uninspiring, even without getting into the other aspects of this system, such as the engineering of addiction and political/ideological polarization.  Surely tech workers would rather work on technologies that are more socially useful than this?

Thus the call for a Lucas Plan for the tech industry is coming at a very timely moment.  And in fact unrest within the industry around its products is already growing.  Google workers are making international news with a petition, signed by thousands of employees, to get the company to abstain from military contracts.  This drive is coming after news that Google has been helping develop artificial intelligence technology for improving the precision of drone strikes.  It is excellent news that so many workers in a major tech company are disgruntled with its entanglement with the military-industrial complex, and shows that the trend of tech workers politicizing and radicalizing is continuing.

Of course, a petition will do little by itself — what is needed is for worker power to be built up, and for organizing happening in Google and elsewhere to strategize around how to actually put some muscle behind their demands on management.  As the Notes From Below essay discusses, the investigation into the class composition of Google and other tech companies is key, in that it is necessary to build up alliances between different layers of tech — from the skilled technical layers (programmers, engineers) to the subaltern layers (gig economy workers, campus service workers).  This way, further organizing, and any new Lucas Plan for Google and other tech companies, will truly reflect the interests of all workers, not just a skilled labor aristocracy.

Its worth nothing that creating a viable Lucas Plan for tech companies will be much more difficult than creating one for an aerospace company that is centered around defense contracts.  The latter has a close relationship with government, and its not a stretch to imagine that nationalization and state support would have been able to play a key role in reorganizing the company and completely overhauling production.  But for the tech industry, its a much greater leap to think about nationalization, and whether this would be desirable at all given the hyper-nationalist and imperialist nature of the US state.  But without some kind of nationalization, how could the tech industry revenue — which is currently based on surveillance and advertisement — be replaced?  Perhaps some sort of municipalization, involving the break up and decentralization of the big tech companies, is the way to go.  This could even be linked with a rural and rustbelt renewal program, to heal those old industrial areas that have been left behind by contemporary global capitalism.  In any case, its clear that drafting an alternative worker-centered vision for the tech industry would require a concurrent revolutionary reorganization of all of society.  A tricky task, to put it lightly, but a necessary one.

Moving beyond Marx’s fetishization of science and technology

One of the starting points of my attempts at arguing the importance of analyzing and organizing techno-scientific workers has been a perceived shortcoming in existing Marxist theory on the matter.  McKenzie Wark, in the in introduction to General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (2017) has some excellent comments on this shortcoming, starting from the arguments of Karl Marx himself.

Wark focuses on Marx’s Fragment on Machines, a set of notes that speculate that technological development is the transferring of skills and knowledge of workers into machines in a process mediated by and for the interests of capital.  However, there is a gap here in terms of the actual process of how this information is turned into machines in the first place.

For Marx, science will appear to the laborer as something alien to him.  Science appears in the form capital dictates.  Science is a productive force: “all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital”.  But who makes science?  “Invention has become a business,” says Marx, but who does the inventing?…

…The problem is that as actual organized social activities, science and technology do not fit so neatly into the schema of labor and capital.  Hence in Marx they simply come from without as a reified thing called “science” which then becomes part of the machine system as fixed capital. (8-9)

In order to move past this fetishized understanding of science and technology, Wark offers analysis by both J.D. Bernal and himself.  In Bernal’s Science in History series, he argues that contemporary techno-scientific labor (as of the 1950s) was a fusion of high-skill technical labor and the bourgeoisie “gentlemanly culture” of leisurely philosophical-scientific inquiry.  Thus, the new scientific workers who make the science and do the inventing constitute a new class with hybrid origins.  Wark, in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), similarly argues that there is a new techno-scientific class of workers that he dubs “the hacker class”, who today mainly labor with information and are dealing directly with capital’s commodification and enclosing of information and knowledge.  (It would be interesting to compare the arguments of Bernal and Wark with those in “The Californian Ideology”, which seems to take a much more pessimistic view of the new techno-scientific classes).  All of this echoes other efforts at a class analysis of techno-scientific workers, such as analysis by student leftists in the US in the 1960s, debates among French Marxists in the 1970s, and of course recent writings on the new “Tech Left”.

Wark’s comments on this can be summed up in this paragraph that ties the above comments to the project of the book overall:

One task for general intellects might be to imagine a kind of common hacker class interest among those whose efforts end up being commodified as some sort of intellectual property: artists, scientists, engineers, even humanist and social science academics.  We could imagine all of them as belonging to the same class from the point of view of the commodification of information.  We all process information that is part of a complex natural-technical-social-cultural metabolism.  But nearly all of us get to see a ruling class of a rather unprecedented kind extract most of the value from the combined efforts of hackers and workers worldwide.  As general intellects, maybe we should stick our heads above our little cubicles, look around, and figure out how to cooperate with others who understand different parts of the labor process. (11)

Techno-pessimism in the early 1990s

There seems to have been something about the early 1990s that lent itself to intensely pessimistic ideas about the direction of an increasingly technological society.  At least that’s the impression I’m getting from reading two different and highly influential pieces of literature: a 1995 leftist polemic against Silicon Valley, “The Californian Ideology”, and a 1992 cyberpunk sci-fi novel, Snow Crash.

“The Californian Ideology” had a huge impact on discourse about Silicon Valley and its politics, enough to make the editor of Wired issue a very angry and snarky rebuttal.  It analyzed the way the ideology of Silicon Valley — a combination of techno-utopianism with a hostility to any kind of government regulation — is historically rooted in the merging of two previously antagonistic classes in the San Francisco Bay Area, counter-culture hippies and money-grubbing yuppies.  When the various social movements of the ’60s were defeated, a significant faction broke off to try to continue their project in developing new technologies and new ways to mediate social life free of states and corporations, but in the process accepted the boundaries of the free market and slowly mutated into the anti-regulation libertarians that define the stereotypical Silicon Valley techie.  The essay predicts a future of intense economic inequality, environmental collapse, and renewed forms of apartheid in the US.

Snow Crash seemingly builds its dystopian cyberpunk vision directly from the arguments of “The Californian Ideology”, despite being written three years earlier.  Its world is one where techno-libertarianism has been taken to absurd lengths: the government has completely collapsed and private corporations run the entirety of society while also competing with each other, the military has fragmented into rival security firms, the Central Intelligence Agency is now the Central Intelligence Corporation, the mafia has risen to the heights of political economy via innovations in the pizza business, some nations-turned-corporations use fully automated robotic security systems, the global biosphere has totally degraded, tends of millions of refugees from the Third World are fleeing to the First, while California suburbanites construct explicitly white supremacist and segregationist suburbs.  But perhaps the most stunning aspect of the world of Snow Crash is the vision of a labor market that has been fully fragmented via digital platforms, where each worker is a pure individual who must compete with other works to fulfill discrete tasks — indeed, the main characters are a freelance hacker (and ex-pizza delivery guy) and a delivery girl, both of whom work through automated digital platforms.  Somehow, despite being written in 1992, Stephenson predicted the rise of the gig economy and platform companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and Task Rabbit.

Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what about this time period would have produced this kind of techno-pessimism.  After all, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, all the “end of history” chumps were cheering loudly, and US politics was turning sharply toward the right with the Democratic Party going all-in with “Third Way” neoliberalism.  I guess you can chalk one up for left-wing media studies scholars and cyberpunk novelists.

Rise of the “Tech Left”

There was a pretty good piece recently published about a month ago in The Guardian about left-wing organizing and activism in the tech industry, titled “Coders of the world, unite: can Silicon Valley workers curb the power of Big Tech?”  The article touches on much of what I talked about here, and extends it to look at what is called the “Tech Left”, a movement within the tech industry that focuses on tech workers as a potentially radical agent of change:

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…

…The Tech Left believes it must urgently transform the industry in order to stop it from serving nefarious ends. It is not focused on getting Democratic politicians elected. On the contrary, much of the Tech Left distrusts mainstream Democrats. It does not believe that more engagement with digital tools necessarily means more democracy, or that the tech industry will necessarily lead the way to social progress. It is sceptical that people who became billionaires under the current system will transform that system. Instead of venture capital, the Tech Left talks about worker power, believing that the best chance to reform these companies will come from people who work there.

The article looks at two organizations, the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) and Tech Solidarity, both of which are organizing tech workers for left-wing and progressive ends.  The TWC is organizing to both raise class consciousness among engineers and programmers and other techies, and to unite these white-collar workers with their blue-collar counterparts who work in food and janitorial services in the same buildings and campuses.  Tech Solidarity is working along similar lines, to build labor-oriented networks among tech workers and empower them to resist a reactionary Trump administration.  Other organizations and networks are observed as well, such as the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and their Tech Action committee, and the Never Again pledge that was passed around among thousands of techies.

The article is long, and good.  Check it out.  Also related is a more recent op-ed, published last week, on basically the same topic, titled “Tech capitalists won’t fix the world’s problems – their unionized workforce might”.  The op-ed notes the TWC’s activities in the US, as well as parallel activities in India and Brazil among radicalizing tech workers.

Hopefully, this is all just the beginning of a wave of organizing and mobilizing in an industry that is the engine of contemporary capitalism.

Institutional murders at Uber and University of Hyderabad

In August 2017, a senior engineer at Uber — a 34-year old black man — committed suicide, after months of working under extreme stress.  According to his wife, he was working long hours, had uneasy relations with his boss, was fearful of losing his new job, and was generally suffering extreme stress and anxiety.  The question of racism in the workplace was also raised, given Uber’s repeated controversies around diversity, discrimination, and workplace culture.

In January 2017, a PhD student at University of Hyderabad — a 26-year old Dalit man — committed suicide, shortly after the administration suspended him and several other Dalit students in the aftermath of a lengthy period of controversy and unrest between a Dalit students’ organization and a rival Hindu nationalist students’ organization.  His suicide note sparked a new surge in protests against the caste system and against discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes at the university.

During the protests in Hyderabad, the idea of “institutional murder” was raised — the argument that these kinds of suicides cannot be looked at as merely individuals “lapsing” into suicide, but as the consequence of oppressive and alienating systems that deteriorate the mental health of individuals of marginalized backgrounds at a disproportionate rate.

This framework of institutional murder could be brought back to understand the case of the suicide of the Uber engineer.  As a comrade put it recently, it is striking that this man felt like there was no escaping his situation other than to kill himself, despite seemingly being extremely intelligent and hard-working, with access to many alternative jobs and career prospects.  The combination of alienation, racism, over-work, and a culture saturated with yuppie ambition, makes for a hell of a prison, where death slowly becomes preferably to failure.