Weird Virtual Thanksgiving: The Tech Workers Trying to Save It (and Tech CEOs Who Don’t Care)
(Note: this essay is adapted from a presentation made by the author at IEEE’s ISTAS2020 — it can be viewed here.)
If you’re reading this in the United States, it’s statistically quite likely that you were traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday around this time last year, and are now staying home.
First of all, thank you for your sacrifice and responsibility in not risking the further spread of covid-19 and contributing to the second wave.
I also want to ask you a question that might not seem like it has much to do with Thanksgiving, but I promise you, it does. That question is this:
When I say cyberspace, what comes to mind?
If you’ve done a Google News search for Cyberspace anytime recently, you’ll almost exclusively see stories about the threat of what’s called ‘cyberwarfare’. But that happened gradually. When I hear the term ‘cyberspace’, I can’t help but think of the 90’s internet.
And I’m not the only one. For example, if you google “cyberspace movies”, you’re likely to see Google remind you of 90’s classics like The Matrix, Existenz, Hackers and The Lawnmower Man. (That one is admittedly not as much of a classic, but we’ll let it slide.)
The point is that, back when cyberspace was still a largely and commonly used everyday term, it was the 90’s. And In the heady days of the 90’s web, some early users influenced by cyberpunk would gather to complain on message boards and usenet groups about how their online experiences were being mocked as merely the terrain of ‘cyberspace’. Virtual. AKA — not real. It’s easy to forget how many seminal cyberpunk works are about the idea of the internet as a sort of literal alternative to reality, in which one could become enveloped, hooked into, ensconced safely away from the surly bonds of the often unsatisfying physical plane of existence altogether.
This could feel like being a member of an extremely niche subculture at the time, and it bred some resentment. I think how niche it sometimes felt can be easy to forget. To cite just one example: do you remember how deeply weird it once sounded to so many people to go on a date with someone you met online, or had emailed with for months before ever meeting in person.
Meet one of the first online dating couples from the ’90s — The Puentes
In our Love App-tually series, Mashable shines a light into the foggy world of online dating. It is cuffing season…
There is still some residual stigma over meeting your significant other on an app in 2020. But what’s interesting is that if you look at videos of 90’s TV news segments about this new world of online dating, people often say things like, “I knew, after months of emailing, that he loved me for my mind, and who I really am.”
The idea of cyberspace as this utopian world of mind, severed from the physical realm altogether, was not just something you came across in popular culture and early online dating sites. It was something that some of the most prominent thinkers of that moment actively advocated for as a real and good thing. Almost 25 years ago, John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, published his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. (There’s that word again.) Here’s how it began:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.”
But if the term ‘cyberspace’ was going to be romanticized as the home of Mind, what was that weary realm of flesh and steel, i.e. people and things, to be known as? If I live in cyberspace, and want to defend it as a place to spend my time away from the physical world around me, what do I call that messier natural world to remove its sheen of authenticity and, well, reality?
The message boards had an answer. Users started circulating an alternate term for real life that some have claimed Barlow himself coined. This term started spreading as a derogatory descriptor of all that was not in the internet. That term was as evocative as it was disgusting.
The Canceling of ‘Meatspace’
Nature? That’s meatspace. Going to a party? Meatspace. Holding a newborn baby? Meatspace, meatspace, meatspace.
At this point you might be wondering: why talk so much about the proto-memetic artifacts of 90’s message board culture? I thought this article was about Thanksgiving?
It’s precisely because it’s about Thanksgiving that we have to talk about meatspace and the retreat to the realm of cyberspace. Because almost 30 years later, covid-19 and the demands of public health have quite accidentally delivered the worst curse possible on those who derided the real world as meatspace: they got what they said they wanted.
In much of the world, and virtually all of the United States, meatspace has been provisionally canceled — and for good reason.
This is not an exaggeration. Has anyone reading been to any good big concerts lately? Went running into the pit? Rubbed shoulders with people who loved the same bands you do? Or gone to a sports stadium? Or an extended family wedding?
Or have you just really held a close friend you made plans with in the park? Someone you don’t see in person that often, who’s having a hard time? Hugged them for a while, not worrying about it being awkward, simply processing the immense weight of the news in recent months?
If you’re in the United States, almost certainly not.
Because what all of the above activities have in common are two things: they’re ways we access communal experienced and shared resources to build community and discharge the weight of living in this world; and they’re high to extremely high-risk activities to transmit covid-19.
Everything Feels Like Weird Virtual Thanksgiving Now — Or, When Everything Feels Like Everything Else
We’ve all suffered, to some degree, at least a baseline level of persistent, low-level emotional trauma continuously for eight months now, at different registers — it’s all the more amplified if you’ve lost a job, or a loved one, or risk infection every day to go to your job. And part of the trauma is that one key avenue to discharge the trauma has itself been taken off the table: building community in person.
Not going to in-person Thanksgiving gatherings this year is an expression of love and stewardship. It’s a way of signaling that seeing each other in person this one time is less important than the continued safety of our loved ones, of our broader community.
But part of why we resent it is because everything feels like weird virtual Thanksgiving now.
How many zoom calls have you been on this year? 20? 50? 100?
Almost certainly dramatically more than 2019. Which means, more literally than ever before, we’re creating a shared neighborhood whenever we create social technology for the general public. In the era of covid-19, virtually all of our truly public spaces, our common spaces, are online spaces.
Meatspace has been canceled. All that’s left is cyberspace. Most of the places we’d normally look to change society are stuck in a kind of cryogenic sleep, waiting to be woken up. And meanwhile, the people creating our online sphere have carte blanche.
That terrifies me. Because the people with that carte blanche — disproportionately economically comfortable white men in the global north — are building the world we used to physically inhabit: our schools, our houses of worship, all of our community-making, including how we see our families this Thanksgiving. And the people who control cyberspace in virtually every respect are less accountable to the public interest than the people who control meatspace.
Those world-builders are under no obligation to adhere to any public norms outside of what they’re confident the law, as it stands, will let them get away with.
The Difference Between Building Cyberspace and Meatspace
Right now, for all intents and purposes, the single most important public spaces in the world are being run by amateurs. They’re improvising. We wouldn’t accept a bridge being improvised. We shouldn’t accept it when a lot more than a single bridge is at stake.
As any municipal planner can tell you, there are a lot of considerations when you build any kind of public “meat”space, or public structure. There are zoning laws, and likely environmental impact statements, and questions of who’s funding which part, and safety regulations, and at every step of the way, the people planning and building your public spaces need to be accredited professionals.
Even in the smallest, poorest communities, the people building the bridges and roads are qualified in some ways, which is to say they possess qualifications. It is no surprise when there are consequences, professional and legal, for claiming you know how to build a bridge, and then having it collapse and injure or worse, kill people upon rollout.
That’s because virtually every profession involved in building public utilities are, in fact, professions. Not so in cyberspace.
The concept of a profession comes from the act of professing: of making a vow or taking an oath and declaring publicly that they are qualified to perform certain duties. Think profession of faith.
What do professionals declare or profess? First, that they are cognizant of their power and that they appreciate the opportunity and responsibility that come with that power; and second, that they are committed to practicing their craft for the benefit of society, up to the standards they collectively set for the profession. They have a duty of care.
How would we react if our construction crews just decided to wing it with the creation of our literal neighborhoods? Traffic signs? Bridges?
We’d respond with outrage, of course. Engineers can’t freestyle bridge planning without ceasing to be engineers. Just like surgeons can’t skip the class on proper disinfection and then stay doctors when their patients keep dying. But the people who are literally building the data-driven world we live in right now have no such serious constraints or guardrails.
At this moment, our world turns on the private decisions of a select few, unelected programmers, who craft algorithms that in turn are crafting human society. Their choices, assumptions and mistakes are forming the digital building blocks of our global society, from their ivory towers in Silicon Valley, for better and for worse. And while the platforms may be digital, the experiences — and their consequences — are very real.
It’s a kind of cyberpunk prophecy made real — quite literally.
Ordering a pizza. Selling a couch. Sharing photos. Getting a job. Finding a doctor. Falling in love. Supporting a cause. Spreading a lie. Bullying a child. Stalking a woman. Starting a revolution. Orchestrating a genocide. Everything from the mundane, to the joyful,to the nefarious, to the tragic, to the inhumane takes place on the internet, with meatspace limited to only the most liminal role possible. Which brings us back to this cyberspace Thanksgiving — while covid-19 runs ruin, we have no choice but to occupy the world built by the practitioners of social technology.
It’s not too much to expect more care from them in return.
Let’s Be Thankful For Those Fighting For A Better Cyberspace — Because Right Now It Means Better Everything
Right now, some of the people who risk the most in fighting for something better online are the tech workers who challenge management — often putting their jobs on the line. They risk their livelihoods — no small thing in any context, but especially now — often to be the internal whistleblowers before crisis hits.We can thank them by supporting efforts like Tech Workers Coalition and CoWorker.org — and supporting models, like professionalization, that protect them.
And we can also thank those who have paved the way — practicing their craft thoughtfully, caring about long-term outcomes, taking the public interest to heart, welcoming oversight — in other words, whether they thought of it as such or not, calling for tech to be a profession, not a hobby or wild west. I think foremost of Margaret Hamilton, the woman most responsible for the software that powered the Apollo 11 moon landing, who coined the term ‘software engineer’ to convince her bosses to take the crafting of software more important as a discipline and science.
The intention to call herself a “software engineer” was a good one: she wanted to signal that, hey, this is serious work. This is work of consequence. It should be taken seriously, because there could be real weight to not taking its destructive power seriously. By the way, she is now, more than 5 decades later, still working on the same overall mission: getting the tech sector to orient itself as engineers, not improvisers.
We can make cyberspace more like the real world — and prepare for the real world to come back, no longer denigrated as some grotesque “meatspace,” but a place that can build on the institutions worth keeping.
It’s a time for tech workers and technologists to imagine another world: a world in which they have the right and the power to work in accordance with their values, to reclaim their craft from the private-sector apprentices demanding entertaining stories of new conveniences and vast personal riches, instead of a world that works humanely, inclusively, safely, thoughtfully. In other words, for the public interest.
I sincerely hope they do, because while we wait for physical reality to return, what tech workers are being encouraged to build, and what they are being rewarded for building, is our communal space. It’s worth being grateful for those ensuring that it is as thoughtfully constructed as human dignity demands.