attempting to find my place in struggle
I'm four months into working for The Drivers Cooperative, an effort by thousands of rideshare drivers in New York to take control of their livelihoods and build a worker-owned platform for ride hailing. It's too early to say much about this effort–like any startup, it feels exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, all the time. But I'd like to talk about how I got here and what experiences drove me to the decision to work in mass-oriented cooperatives.
The lesson I hope to drive home is this: If you are a technologist or otherwise a person possessing skill and talent (which you almost certainly are), and if you have the means to do so while sustaining yourself (which if you worked in tech for long you likely are), and if you have come to understand that the problems facing our planet are primarily political, not technological, then what you need to do is find a group of people who are struggling collectively to shift power from entrenched tyrannies towards the masses, and then you need to use your skill and talent to make that group successful.
The Stanford d.school was founded in 2004, the same year I arrived at Stanford. The d.school teaches design thinking, which I understand to be a systematic approach to understanding the needs of a population of users and then iteratively designing solutions to those needs, usually in the form of a product.
The buzz about design thinking hit its peak, at least in my life, in the early 2010s when I joined Facebook. The company had made a series of high-dollar acquisitions of design-centric firms and the story was that design was coming to save Facebook from the sprawling mess it had become. Coming from my experience at Stanford where I was enamored with design, I joined a team focused on design. Over time, my understanding of the role of design in corporations shifted.
I have come to see design thinking as an anti-democratic system that is fantastic at delivering "win-wins" of a certain flavor but is ultimately a dead end for building emancipatory technology. The win-win is a Silicon Valley sacrament; an endeavor is worthwhile if and only if it provides positive value for all its participants. Never mind if one participant is a low-wage worker and another is a planet-scale corporation with an army of highly-trained designers, psychologists, lawyers, and lobbyists. Before the win-win, all are equal. And never mind if one side's win grows without bound while the other's shrinks to epsilon, the win-win cares only that the sign is positive.
My final project at Facebook was working on the Diem cryptocurrency and Novi consumer finance product. The company assembled an unmatched team of engineers, economists, researchers, and designers for this project. They had a lofty goal of bringing blockchain finance to the masses, with a focus on the international remittances market wherein workers leave their home countries to earn wages abroad which they remit home to their families. The fees on such transfers are often so high as to be criminal–some money transmitters make obscene profits exploiting the already most-exploited. One hope of Diem is that the price of moving money could be shrunk to nearly zero.
But I do actually believe that beneath the layers of speculation and charlatanism, blockchain technology has immense emancipatory potential. It enables mass participation in consensus-building in environments of low or moderate trust. But most any technology has emancipatory potential–the steam engine, the nuclear reactor, and the transistor could have been used for our collective liberation instead of the construction of imperialist war machines. We have lost repeatedly on the political terrain, not in the development of new technologies. In this domain workers have excelled beyond all imagination.
What I noticed at Novi was that the belief in the power of design thinking led to workers at the company being completely comfortable making decisions for a group of users after conducting a research process upon them. Obviously rituals and practices around money and its movement vary around the world, and only by researching such practices in their specificity can they be understood and affected. But absent in this method is any actual empowerment of the users being researched. The promise of design thinking is that any sufficiently motivated and resourced designer can create products that intervene in the lives of the product's subjects to positive benefit. Modulated through the absolute requirement of the win-win, design thinking can improve others' lives so long as the result is also good for the designer's employer's shareholders. What if the interests of the users and the shareholders are at odds? Well, this must be handled artfully–not by directly harming the interests of the user, but, whenever possible, by helping the right kind of user in the right kind of way such that the win-win is preserved.
For me, the divide in the rhetoric of the Diem project and my growing understanding of US imperialism became too much. Does Venezuela really need a stablecoin to right its economy, or does it need to rise up against centuries of colonial extraction? Why do we ask how foreign workers can send money home instead of asking why does the global labor market routinely dislocate certain kinds of workers? I was burned out by my job, by attempting to organize within tech, and by organizing with DSA all at the same time. I wasn't being effective at any of them so I left Facebook to work on the Bernie 2020 campaign in DC for six weeks until lockdown and the end of the primaries sent me home.
Against technological determinism
In Silicon Valley circles it is taken as a given that the story of history is a story of technological progress. The telegraph changed everything and then the transistor changed everything and then the iPhone changed everything, again.
But technology is much more inert than that. All we can really say is that particular technologies were used in particular ways by particular actors in particular positions. It is actually social relations, mediated through technology, that move history. By understanding that social relations and technological development proceed together in a dialectical fashion, we can imagine different futures where technology is constructed and applied differently.
Without this social relations-centric understanding of technology it's easy to make mistakes and misapply ourselves. Frequently I see technologists flock to a problem affecting our society hoping to build a technical solution to it, and nearly as frequently I am certain that the solution to whatever problem is primarily going to involve changes in our social relations rather than incrementally more technological innovation.
I believe this is the case when it comes to the common belief that a techno-fix is coming to save us from climate change. Many technologists I talk to believe that the best thing they could do to help avert climate collapse is to contribute their skills towards attempts to find the techno-fix. While, say, renewable energy sources and geo-engineering solutions may be necessary conditions for avoiding collapse, they are certainly not sufficient. Looking at the causes of climate degradation at a slightly deeper level, it might make more sense to conclude that the very small number of powerful entities that control all carbon production have already decided to extract and sell every drop of accessible carbon to be found on earth. The technologies needed to reverse this course have more to do with empowering masses of people to forcibly resist extraction than with providing energy monopolists with green alternatives that they are not interested in.
We can say the same about the crisis of misinformation on the internet. Many technologists I've worked with see the problems around misinformation as primarily issues to be addressed by machine learning, or, god help us, blockchain. But it's easy to see that scaled misinformation is just the shadow of the growth tactics employed by digital communication monopolists. Rather than attempting to fix the problem with the same level of thinking that caused it, we should change the ownership and regulation structures that incentivize growth-at-all-costs shareholder-maximization corporate structures.
Generally, if you see a problem and you think "An app could solve this," I am skeptical.
Against folk technologism
There are currents within the workers' movement that are, in my analysis, excessively distrustful of institutions seeking power. In the world of class-conscious technologists, this can often look like a preference for the small over the large, or for decentralized structures over centralized. It can also be a preference for older, easy-to-manage technologies over technologies designed for massive scale. It can be a reticence to get entangled with capital or hire staff or transact with money. But technologists adhering to these tendencies still advocate for the development and use of technology, specifically software, towards emancipatory ends. I think of this set of beliefs as folk technologism.
Folk technologism is an analogue of what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams identified as folk politics in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. From the Wikipedia synopsis:
The book begins (chapters 1–2) by critiquing dominant left-wing thinking in the West, suggesting that since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s it has been characterised by a "folk politics" which aims to bring politics down to the "human scale". By emphasising temporal, spatial, and conceptual immediacy, folk politics tends to privilege reacting to change (through protest and resistance) over imagining new long-term goals; the immediate and tangible over the abstract; personal involvement in direct action over institutional responses; single issues over complex strategies; horizontal organising over hierarchical; and the local over the large-scale. While arguing that these approaches are important and can at times be effective, Srnicek and Williams argue that they are insufficient to tackle global capitalism and specifically neoliberalism.
To paraphrase a friend to whom I related this complaint, "The world is burning. We do not have time for this." The institutions in power have steered technological development into collapse. They cannot be confronted in the small. They must be challenged at the largest scales, seized, and toppled. This means the state, logistics networks, fucking Google, all of it. We need to be thinking on industrial scales and creating projects and codebases that disrupt and replace the capitalist entities that hold power today. While we must bring immediacy to our work, affecting real workers with real needs, we must build with an eye towards scale. And we must not dampen our own prospects by pretending we can build anything at scale without access to capital and the compromises that capital will entail.
Solving a problem for a small group of people is always the first step. Small-scale solutions that exist outside the standard system of capital accumulation are an existence proof that alternatives are possible. But an act is not revolutionary unless it contains within itself a path to achieving revolutionary scale.
Agile embedded interventions
Having rejected design thinking, technological determinism, and folk technologism, what strategies can a technologist embrace towards the success of our project? My thoughts here are early, but I am coming to think of the correct strategy as being chiefly agile and embedded.
In software construction, agile refers to a set of values and principles about how projects should be pursued and how teams should operate. In agile development, software creators continuously deliver value to clients on a frequent, regular schedule. There is no one initial "planning session" where the five year plan is laid out and then followed to a tee. Any creative person with a few years experience understands that any real project that attempts to plan everything in advance is guaranteed to fail. Instead, agile developers ship little bits of value every day and get immediate feedback from their customers. Instead of getting everything right, they try to get a little better each cycle. It should be obvious that practices that lead to a faster feedback loop between experimentation and observation will outcompete those that do not. "Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth."
While taking this iterative, scientific approach to problem-solving seems obvious in theory, in practice well-intentioned people usually get it wrong. There is a venture-funded startup called Get Frank that exhibits many of the flaws I've outlined thus far. Get Frank is meant to be a workplace organizing tool. It hosts a forum for coworkers to use to organize things like petitions to their bosses asking to improve their workplaces. I have not used this product and I do not know the founders; maybe I am way off here, but it seems clear to me that Get Frank is a failure and a product of design thinking.
The Get Frank product appears to me as if its founder, a product designer from Airbnb, did a design process on workers to understand their needs, then went into an office for a year and built a product with no further feedback from workers. It is highly doubtful that this talented designer first found groups of workers attempting to organize and struggling to do so because of poor technology. If they had, and if they had struggled and organized with such workers, they would have built something more useful and Get Frank's laudatory press coverage wouldn't be about the launch of an empty website but about the victories its users had won. I suspect design thinking stood in for finding real workers and empowering them using technology. The result is a waste of time and talent that we do not have to spare.
Not only must our work be agile but also embedded. "There is something missing from tech worker organizing," writes Carmen Molinari. Issue-driven and guilt-driven organizing among high-wage tech workers have not succeeded. The reality is that not enough of us have skin in the game. Without real stakes, our organizing efforts will remain shallow. Conditions will eventually push us forward–our jobs will be outsourced, our state will burn, our investors will fund police drones, but for now our organizing efforts will remain nascent.
I have been no different. If the cafeteria workers won or lost their union at Facebook my life would not have materially changed. I could only make their plight my plight through emotional entanglement. As part of a union drive I would go to workers' houses along with another worker and an organizer to tell them about the union. I met people's families and saw the homes they would need to leave if they didn't get a contract. If they lost I would cry for them, but I would also be able to walk away.
This is how it will be until more technologists have a stake in disrupting the status quo instead of maintaining it. Eventually the same forces that led to the de-industrialization of the West will come for us tech workers, too. But if we want to make progress before then, we need to be embedded in the struggles of other workers in a meaningful way. Their problems need to be our problems.
Having something you don't want to lose sucks. Making the struggle something more than a volunteer shift when you get home from your half-mil-a-year job is painful. Making someone else's struggle truly your own is a risk, but we need to be taking risks. Not a small risk like signing a petition to your CEO. Not a fake risk like joining a post-Series-A startup with a guaranteed soft landing. I mean real risks where it will be devastating if you lose but a victory would inspire other victories at larger and larger scales.
Being agile and embedded makes priorities crystal clear. Rather than just imagining what tools and features workers fighting for self-determination might need in the abstract, being part of a real workers' struggle sharpens our senses and keeps us on the right path. It allows us to test our theories fast enough to meaningfully improve them. And by being embedded in a real workers' struggle, we will give a shit enough to bring all our talents to bear.
We've got to stop acting as if we can design away problems from a distance. We aren't going to code our way out of capitalist collapse. And we aren't going to change the world without confronting its masters at the largest possible scale. Instead, we technologists must reach out to people who are ready to organize and fight and we must make them succeed.