Tag Archives: technology

Disorientation and decomposition

The modern Internet is an immense and finely-tuned engine for distraction and diversion. The big tech companies have some of the smartest people in the world working around the clock to ensure that their platforms are as engaging, addictive, widespread, and panoptic as possible. (Indeed, I’d like to see the economists who complain about the low observed productivity gains from the information revolution do a study on whether productivity gains were simply undermined by workers wasting a good chunk of their work time with dithering around on the Internet).

I think this is a key reason why the modern world feels like its in a state of constant frenzy, and why its so easy for people today to feel disoriented. As commented on in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, a wonderful essay from n+1 published in late 2015, the Internet has created an endless stream of information, audio-visual consumables, and social media chatter. This is part of a larger trend where capitalist innovation in labor-saving technology has created the paradox where workers (in the imperialist cores) by and large have more free time than they once had, but also find this free time under constant stress, pulled apart by an unceasing barrage of inescapable nudges and tugs, in an infinite number of directions, by an infinite number of competing corporations pushing an infinite number of goods and services. Combine this with the stress of working meaningless jobs and running on the hamster wheel of bills and debts, and disorientation becomes one’s natural state.

Systematic attack on our minds is not new. Such is the entire history of the advertising industry, as laid out in Tim Wu’s excellent book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016). What is new is how effective, intrusive, and ubiquitous advertisements today are, with the ability of advertisement technology corporations to soak up huge amounts of information about our social and psychological dynamics and adjust their ads accordingly. This is not just the result of technological advancements, but also the absorption of huge amounts of social activity into social media platforms, which can then apply data science and artificial-intelligence techniques to continually analyze and manipulate human behavior. Our social lives have become increasingly sucked into intelligent and interactive billboards, and our thought processes increasingly outsourced to advertising algorithms. This Twitter thread by a Google AI researcher is a good description of all this (although it is amusing that he puts all the blame on Facebook, as if Google isn’t doing the same thing).

The framework of class composition can be useful in analyzing all of this. Economic restructuring — shutting down and moving factories, deploying labor-saving automation, stratifying the labor markets by race and gender — disrupts working-class organization by breaking up the economic foundation on which such organization was structured. Likewise, social and psychological restructuring — pulling social interactions and individual entertainment into a world of infinite scrolling, push notifications, and constant information overload — disrupts our own ability to sustain in-depth, complex lines of analysis, and build and maintain relationships that are genuinely on our own terms. Of course, the flip side of economic restructuring is that even as old working-class forms of organization are decomposed, the new economic structures drive new forms of working-class organization, as seen in the major worker rebellions in China in the late 2000s, or in the unrest among tech professionals and gig workers in the US in recent years. Likewise, the flip side of social-psychological decomposition can be seen in the subversive uses of the Internet to drive networked, decentralized movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.

However, it is essential that we don’t mistake these positive flip-sides to mean that there is some kind of teleological, automatic process where capitalist development generates an equally powerful reaction. It should be clear by now that the networked, decentralized movements dependent on social media have been unable to undermine capitalist power, and easily dissipate on contact with the hard, well-organized forces of capital and the state. This should be expected — as observed in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, the social spaces provided by techno-capitalism don’t allow for particularly deep experiences or relationships. These will only come about in the “real world”, outside of and autonomous to state and capital. Thus, while radicals should make use of social media platforms and related communications technologies, it is crucial that the ultimate purpose of such uses points outside of these disorienting spaces.

Netscape and the rise of technocapitalism

Only ’90s kids will remember Netscape, the original browser of the Internet before the era of Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. But what we didn’t realize was the impact Netscape had on capitalism, and the way it symbolized and perhaps even initiated a recomposition of political economy. I have a hypothetical periodization of capitalism that I’ve been trying to work out, involving a distinction between industrial capitalism, finance capitalism, and technocapitalism, based on what industries are dominating the economy and directing the flow of capital, and studying the Netscape era yields some very useful information.

Netscape was the first real “unicorn”, a tech start-up that becomes valued in the billions of dollars by big investors. It was the brainchild of Jim Clark, an eccentric entrepreneur in the likes of Steve Jobs, whose impact on Silicon Valley has been documented in Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing (1999). Clark had already made a small fortune during the 1980s from his first start-up, Silicon Graphics, which had revolutionized graphic cards and 3-D rendering and paved the way for graphic user interfaces and the personal computer. But as the company grew, it was essentially taken over by Wall St. investors, who pushed out Clark and took control of the the profits.

Bankers taking control of up-and-coming companies wasn’t exactly a novel thing; it was how things were in the 1980s. But with Netscape, Clark was determined to not lose control and money to the bankers again. The new company, and its core product — an Internet browser — suddenly made the Internet more accessible to the average person by many orders of magnitude, and thus also meant a massive, massive market opportunity.

Its not clear exactly what kind of bargaining power Clark had against Wall St. Part of it was probably just a case of information asymmetry, and the bankers having severe FOMO. But in any case, he and his team played hard and fast against selling out the company too early, or for too few shares or seats on the board, and the result was that Netscape was the first tech firm that had engineers and programmers at the top, controlling the lion’s share of capital and the flow of profit. Wall St. made money too, of course, but they were simply following along in the wake. When the company launched its IPO in 1995, it turned the engineers and programmers into millionaires, and the co-founders into billionaires, and forever changed the game for Silicon Valley. Even though the company would be very quickly run off the road by Microsoft and Internet Explorer, the nature of its rise created a new standard for the ambitions and strategies of its entrepreneurs, and flipped the balance of power between tech capital and finance capital.

However, the Netscape era was only the beginning of a larger recomposition and re-balancing of global capitalism. The rise of technocapitalism rode on the Dot-com bubble, which burst in 2000 and eviscerated the industry. The survivors would kneel once again before finance capital — until the latter had its own reckoning in the 2008 financial crisis, after the housing bubble burst. Once the smoke cleared, tech would once again be in the vanguard of capitalism, based on the foundations built by companies like Netscape years earlier.

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.

Amazon, the decimation of warehouse worker wages, and a warehouse inquiry

In the latest issue of Economist, there is an article with some pretty stunning analysis about the wages of warehouse workers in US counties where Amazon sets up shop — specifically on how they collapse.  The following two graphs speak for themselves.

What’s behind this?  According to the analysis cited by Economist, it appears to be a combination of Amazon workers being younger, more inexperienced, and more unskilled than in other warehouses, and generally not able to find alternative jobs due to there only being a few employers in the area.  Technology also plays a role here, with cutting-edge automation allowing the company to hire younger and less skilled workers in the first place, which is deeply related to the argument that automation doesn’t eliminate the need for work, but rather helps generate the need for less skilled work.

Amazon is growing fast, already worth more than all the major brick-and-mortar retail companies put together.  Its combination of retail, logistics, and tech is allowing it to devour large swathes of the US economy into itself.  Amazon and its low-wage, cyborg workforce is the future — and the present, for that matter.  Engaging in militant labor struggles in Amazon warehouses will only become more and more critical for all those interested in rebelling against the rule of capital.  Thus inquiries and workplace reports, like this one just released by Angry Workers of the World, are a valuable resource that worker militants should use and produce themselves, in order to pick apart the nature of the workplace and reveal the ambient level of worker unrest and struggle.  To quote from the conclusion of the first report:

This all sounds bad, but don’t believe that the workers just sat and took it like the good victims the newspapers like to write about every now and again. In the beginning a lot of people had high expectations of working with Amazon, but after a few weeks they started to realise what working for Amazon really meant. So after a few weeks you started to hear more and more angry and incensed discussions amongst workers around the aisles of the pick tower. Workers who in the beginning tried to run themselves into the ground trying to reach their targets, now having realised it didn’t make a difference in terms of getting a long term contract, stopped stressing about targets and deliberately worked slower than they could. In the beginning we were all worried about even going to the toilet because we might get a warning for “time off task” but after a few weeks when we started to realise we would all be fired soon anyway more and more people started to take “extra” breaks, spending time talking with colleagues, wandering around the warehouse, going to the canteen to grab a cup of coffee, playing a game of ping pong, and of course not giving a toss about ‘power hour’. The permanent staff already know that Amazon don’t care about the workers and the temps quickly learn it, and a lot of us start to do minor individual acts of resistance. That is all a good start, but if we want to change the way Amazon treats us we have to work and resist together!

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)