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It’s Time for Tech Workers to Get Political

How Khashoggi’s murder can spark action and lead to big change

February 1, 2016 — Uber drivers protest the company’s recent fare cuts and go on strike in front of the car service’s New York City offices. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific murder should be a wake-up call. It may be the nth such canary in the global coal mine—the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 28 journalists have been murdered in 2018—but Khashoggi’s brutal slaying in the Turkish consulate seems to have caught the nation’s attention. Because of Saudi Arabia’s deep ties to the Silicon Valley investment architecture, even the typically aloof captains of technology industry have been forced to respond.

Saudi Arabia, a perennial oil-economy powerhouse, has been reading the writing on the wall. Alternative, renewable, and less environmentally damaging energy sources become cheaper and more efficient with each passing year. Simultaneously, consumer aversion to oil-based products continues to rise. The kingdom’s plan to diversify their assets involves huge investments in the technology world, and Bloomberg reported that the Saudis hope to invest $2 trillion into the tech sector—much of that in Silicon Valley startups.

The Saudi government has invested $3.5 billion into Uber, and they’ve invested more than $45 billion into a fund owned by SoftBank called the Vision Fund. Between the princes, the government-run Public Investment Fund, and their investments via SoftBank, the Saudis own stakes in lots of big names, including Nvidia, Slack, DoorDash, Twitter, WeWork, ARM, Snapchat, Uber, Lyft, Tesla… the list goes on.

Many business leaders, including Uber’s CEO and the CEO of SoftBank, are publicly snubbing the Saudis by withdrawing from the Saudi investment conference. It’s better than nothing, but the technology world needs to do more than play Mean Girls with the Saudis. Tech companies that want to stand up for free speech should do everything they can to forcibly buy back shares tied to the Saudi government. Startups seeking investment should make it known they will refuse to take Saudi money. Big investment groups like Kleiner Perkins should similarly pledge they will not invest in a company that agrees to accept Saudi investment.

It’s unlikely that the CEOs and executives of these big tech firms will do much more than chatter without a bigger incentive.

The willingness of tech companies so far to get on the Saudi dole speaks volumes about their false commitment to idealistic “core values” that drive business decisions. It’s not as if Saudi Arabia became an international villain overnight; the repressive kingdom has a long and brutal history that stands in almost perfect opposition to the cosmopolitan values that Bay Area companies ostensibly align themselves with.

I’d love to see the industry titans make meaningful commitments to important global issues such as free speech. However, it’s unlikely that the CEOs and executives of these big tech firms will do much more than chatter without a bigger incentive. United workers could provide that incentive.

Take the Power Back—From Organizing to an Organization

Workers at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have provided a template for shifting the decision-making process of their corporate governance. Google employees have spoken out against Project Maven, Amazon employees against Rekognition (more than once), and now Microsoft employees are opposing a U.S. military project called JEDI.

By writing and signing open letters, threatening to quit, and making demands, the highly valued technology workforce can flex its muscles and push big organizations to change. Google did not renew Project Maven and published a set of AI principles in line with the complaints levied by employees. On the other hand, Amazon continues to pitch its Rekognition software to government agencies such as ICE.

Tech workers should now call on their companies to sever ties to Saudi Arabia. But if workers want to see holistic change and serious commitment to ethical behavior, they need to do more than single-issue ad hoc organizing. They need to form organizations that span more than a single company.

The professionals of the software world need something akin to the Hippocratic oath. Companies seeking to deploy technology to less-than-ethical ends need to know it will be much harder to get anyone to build it. The first step, though, is for technology workers to think critically about the impact their work has had on society so far—especially close to home.

Technology firms and technology workers are making decisions and designing software to exploit contractors.

As conditions in the U.S. (and worldwide) continue toward increased economic stratification, the need for an organized labor force grows. The technology community is partly to blame for this growing inequality, through automation of manual labor to the invention of the “gig economy,” which insulates tech companies like Uber from the drivers who actually deliver the service to customers. Same goes for AirBnB, TaskRabbit, and the myriad other technology firms that rely on the meat cloud of mechanical turks to enact their corporate machinations.

By employing these workers as contractors, corporations avoid paying for benefits, avoid payroll taxes and liability, and generally shirk the responsibilities associated with employing workers. Not only that, but technology firms and technology workers are making decisions and designing software to exploit those workers. Susan Fowler, who famously exposed the darker underbelly of Uber, wrote a chilling piece for Vanity Fair, which included this unsettling paragraph:

A few weeks into my tenure at Uber, where I started as a software developer just a year after graduating from college, still blindly convinced I could make the world a better place, a co-worker sat down next to my desk. “There’s something you need to know,” she said in a low voice, “and I don’t want you to forget it. When you’re writing code, you need to think of the drivers. Never forget that these are real people who have no benefits, who have to live in this city, who depend on us to write responsible code. Remember that.” I didn’t understand what she meant until several weeks later, when I overheard two other engineers in the cafeteria discussing driver bonuses—specifically, ways to manipulate bonuses so that drivers could be “tricked” into working longer hours. Laughing, they compared the drivers to animals: “You need to dangle the carrot right in front of their face.” Shortly thereafter, a wave of price cuts hit drivers in the Bay Area. When I talked to the drivers, they described how Uber kept fares in a perfectly engineered sweet spot: just high enough for them to justify driving, but just low enough that not much more than their gas and maintenance expenses were covered.

The technology workers I’ve met are generally disheartened—often devastated—by the state of things. Perhaps ironically, the relatively wealthy professionals also feel disempowered to do anything about it. The economy is too complex, the power structures too powerful, the market incentives too unchangeable. And it’s true; as individuals, technology workers are relatively powerless to force change. But as an organized group, they could be a juggernaut in the economics of not just California or the United States, but worldwide.

I am hardly the first to suggest such collective action. The Tech Workers Coalition was formed with hopes to “redefine the relationship between tech workers and Bay Area communities … [t]hrough activism, civic engagement, direct action, and education.” Silicon Valley Rising is another organization that aims to, “[take] on occupational segregation and severe income inequality with a comprehensive campaign to raise wages, create affordable housing and build a tech economy that works for everyone.”

Writers at the Atlantic and the New York Times have suggested that technology workers unionize. White-collar workers are typically reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, but the status quo won’t last forever. Wired magazine predicts that between the rise of coding boot camps, internal training programs for coders, and an increasing number computer science graduates that coding could become a largely blue-collar job.

The workers of the technology world need to use their power before capital can devalue them.

Ben Tarnoff suggested in a piece for the Guardian that technology firms are counting on and encouraging a shift toward programming becoming a blue-collar profession. The shareholders at Uber, Google, and elsewhere don’t want to pay programming staff top professional salaries; they only have to because of the currently competitive climate. The titans of technology have invested significantly into training programs, school programs, and coding boot camps in order to create a bigger supply of programmers. Doing so decreases the unmet demand, and therefore the value, of programmers in general. Tarnoff concludes that “whether a coder or a carpenter, capital will do what it can to lower your wages, and enlist public institutions towards that end.”

Sparks like the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the selling-out of “core values” through military contracts need to find some tinder among the middle-class and upper-middle-class technology workforce and become a flame before it’s too late. The workers of the technology world need to use their power before capital can devalue them. Get a taste for collective action through letter-writing campaigns, but don’t let it stop there.

For the good of the cities and communities where we work and where our work is deployed, the empowered among us should demand the entire staff be compensated with a living wage. Doing so could bring prosperity back to the general population, but the CEOs and executives won’t do it without pressure. If programmers wait too long to stand up, they might just join the huddled masses of the gig economy instead.

A curious human on a quest to watch the world learn. Twitter: @TebbaVonMaths. Website: www.tebs-lab.com. Weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/dy0PY9

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