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Reclaiming Technology

By Thomas Wang
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July 14, 2020  ▴  9 minute read 🥤🥤🥤🥤
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Photo by Aaron Lau on Unsplash

If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, you just decide to get used to it.

When I first got into coding in 2016, I looked at the tech industry with glassy eyes. I was coming off winning a university business pitch competition and felt like I had discovered this hidden treasure trove of amazing people, ideas, and opportunity. Coding, to me, felt like the key that unlocked the doors to this treasure. I was sure that if I just mastered this skill, I’d be welcomed with open arms into this abundant, innovative community.

On the outside, the modern tech industry epitomizes the American dream. Startups dominate the scene, with funding seemingly available for any wild idea out there. I believed that tech was truly democratizing and that with enough hard work, anyone could find success.

It’s now 2020, and I no longer hold these views.

The pivotal points that informed my worldview came from a failed app startup and subsequent grueling job searches. I got lucky a couple of times along the way: receiving an initial angel investment for my app, and also working full-time at Design+Code. On the other hand, I went through hundreds of arduous processes and rejections from startup accelerators, investors, and companies, and saw the struggles of my peers who had less luck and privilege than me. These experiences culminated in me waking up to the true nature of the tech industry. Despite being confident in my newfound coding ability, I had not been handed a key to any sort of treasure. Instead, I was offered a pick and shovel and told to mine gold – to make the treasure pile bigger for those who already have it. Ironically, many of the institutions I talked to refused to give me their pick and shovel, claiming they needed better and more experienced miners.

The Proposals

The foundation on which the modern tech industry is built upon – American capitalism – is fundamentally flawed, and now commonly referred to as late-stage capitalism. This is because we have reached a stage where a tiny percentage of people have accumulated so much capital that they not only exclusively dictate which ideas are worth building, but also dictate who is worthy of building those ideas. When people say that the American Dream is dead, this is what they mean.

Our society’s continual worship of capital, and of those who hold it, has created extreme inequality that threatens the ideals of a free, democratic society. We are bound to the whim of capital, and to the individuals and groups who have accumulated it.

It’s time we did something about this – but what can we do?

Chapter 11: A New Industrial Model, from Abolish Silicon Valley

The subtitle of Wendy Liu’s new book, Abolish Silicon Valley, is How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism. Chapter 11, A New Industrial Model, specifically proposes five steps to reclaim our world from capital.

Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism

In Abolish Silicon Valley, Wendy details her first-hand experience working at Google as a software engineering intern, and then as a founder of a tech startup. She presents an intimate look into the inner workings of the tech industry and the stark issues that plague it. I encourage anyone interested in a deeply personal, inside look into the tech industry to pick up Wendy’s book. In this post, I will aim to explore the proposals in Chapter 11, A New Industrial Model, and spark a conversation around how we can begin to address the problems created by capital.

...we don't owe capital anything. The things we attribute to capital were built by workers: people who labored and sometimes died in the process, their contributions unrecognized in death as in life. So don't thank capital – it doesn't deserve our gratitude, and it doesn't need it, anyway. Thank the people who created everything that capital always takes credit for.

Reclaiming Entrepreneurship

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Reclaiming entrepreneurship is the first proposal. The central argument is to have entrepreneurship be accountable to the public, versus private shareholders. Today, this is more commonly referred to as “social entrepreneurship,” where the primary goal is to address social, cultural, or environmental issues rather than turning a profit and returning capital to private investors. To this end, a nonprofit structure works best, as nonprofits have no owners and are accountable to the public and the state. ¹

The argument for private ownership usually goes something like this – that without the prospect of reaping the capital benefits of said ownership, people wouldn’t be incentivized to innovate and we would lose all the nice things we have. This argument may hold some truth in a developing world, but today, the incredible wealth concentration created by our current system actually stifles innovation. Real wages have stayed stagnant, fewer companies are being started, and only companies whose products promise to deliver outlandish returns of capital are considered viable. ² To make matters worse, Black women, America’s most entrepreneurial demographic, only receive 0.0006% of venture capital funding. ³

The standard model for entrepreneurship today is to have an idea, receive investment for that idea, then build it, scale it, and finally return the investment by getting acquired or going public. This model is set up to make the founders, executives, and investors fabulously wealthy. There is no nuance nor any regard for side effects; as long as there is a large return on investment, the venture is considered a success. Thus, the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation has been clouded by capital. Only by removing this perverse incentive structure and reimagining this standard model, can we expect to have innovation return to America.

Reclaiming Work

One thing I find incredibly frustrating is when extremely well-paid, full-time tech workers in Silicon Valley or other tech hubs complain about their salaries. To me, it’s the equivalent of sitting in a fancy restaurant, whining that you didn’t get the same amount of desert as the table sitting next to you, all while people eat garbage in the streets.

At Google, there exists a large contractor workforce referred to as their “shadow workforce,” a group that outnumbers full-time employees. Most tech companies have contingent labor that makes up for 40-50% of their workforce. This division of the American workforce in the tech industry has created a culture of entitlement at the top and resentment at the bottom. Capitalism requires the wealthy class to own the means of production, so keeping full-time employees (who work on the product) happy is important. However, companies are constantly trying to optimize production, so when a contract workforce can replace production without sacrificing control, companies will outsource this work. As long as we are in a capital-directed system, we can expect the growing trend of contract workers to continue.

For companies that have increasing contractor workforces, contractors must have a clear path to convert to full-time employees. Contractors who choose not to convert must be paid a higher wage than full-time employees since they aren’t provided benefits. Gig economy workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers, should be given control and flexibility over the jobs they take, the ability to negotiate pay, and a way for workers to collectively bargain and resolve issues with their company. An interesting alternative model for gig workers could be platform co-ops, in which a digital platforms like Uber and Lyft would be owned by the people who depend on and participate in it (the drivers).

The other proposed solutions in reclaiming work have to do with shifting the power to the working class, reducing income inequality, and improving technological development. These proposals include:

  • Giving corporate board seats to democratically elected workers
  • Implementing a maximum wage whereby you base the highest-paid wage (typically the CEO) to the lowest-paid wage
  • Ensure more equal distribution of stock, or removing stock grants for employees entirely
  • Public salary transparency with posted salary bands
  • Nationalization of companies with excess profits obtained through rent-seeking, or a combination of lowering prices, increasing R&D spending, increasing wages, and raising taxes
  • A strict wealth tax on individuals with a high amount of savings drawing passive income from investments
  • Worker control over new technology introduced in the workplace to fit the needs of workers over management
  • Software/technical licensing for individuals that comes with a tech version of the Hippocratic oath, with free training and a stipend for higher levels
  • A “hiring hall” model that works by a project-by-project basis, instead of being employed at a specific company

A shocking metaphor for the modern workplace is this idea that workers exist in a system of feudalism, under a complex hierarchy and power structure that intends on making bosses feel like kings and queens. The further we go into late-stage capitalism, the ugliest sides of human history repeat itself. To avoid a further downward spiraling of our most basic freedoms and rights, it is paramount that we take steps to reclaim work for all workers.

Reclaiming Public Services

The above tweet by digital researcher and librarian Erin Rose Glass captures succinctly the need for certain industries to be public services rather than owned by private corporations. With software innovation dominating the past decade, we have seen an emergence of surveillance capitalism, where our private data is used to drive engagement and profit. The Internet, which was created based on the principles of free information, decentralized ownership, and open protocols and infrastructure, has been hijacked by private enterprise. We have seen our data analyzed by computational products which aim to predict our behavior, these predictions traded on a new futures market, and sold to other businesses for further capitalization.

I have very fond memories of my childhood local public library, where I went every week to read, do research, study, and check out a wide variety of books. More recently, when I was jobless and struggling to find stable housing, I went to the public library to maintain a sense of stability and have a place to do work in peace. These public spaces are treasures and deserve to be treated as such. Instead, they are chronically underfunded with recent proposals to cut federal funding for public libraries entirely.

There are many sectors in our economy that should be public services. These include healthcare, education, banking, mobility, community, and housing, among others. Instead of for-profit colleges and coding bootcamps, we should have tuition-free post-secondary education that not only teaches skills to do a job but teaches how to be a critical thinker and an ethical human being. We also need better universal healthcare, public transit, and social housing – all with the goal of decoupling profit from public services.

We must ask the question: why is it necessary to pay for everything we use? If we challenge this core ideal of capitalism, we could be closer to a society where having money is not required to maintain basic human dignity.

Reclaiming Intellectual Property

Intellectual property, in the form of patents and trade secrets, is something that I have less of an opinion about but is still worth mentioning. Patent trolling is counterproductive to innovation, and trade secrets, especially in the form of complex software algorithms, can do a lot of harm within a system of secrecy. The proposals include: reducing copyright and patent term lengths, tightening the requirements for patentable products, and allowing fair use for non-profit usage.

Another particularly interesting proposal is to have private companies of a certain size release their software and technology under an open license. This would not only significantly improve transparency but would increase computer literacy and give users more control over everyday software. Ultimately, this would also encourage competition and innovation as well.

Reclaiming Culture

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

You're not supposed to enjoy anything without being reminded that these corporations exist and would like you to buy their products.

American consumerism began in the 1920s.. At first, it served a pragmatic purpose, helping to uplift the American economy from the Great Depression, and was the origin of the white picket fence – an American dream of owning a home and the consumer items that came with it. Today, our culture feels inseparable from consumerism, and the advertisements intended to fuel it.

Advertising is a waste in several ways. It creates artificial demand for unnecessary goods and services, and fuels astonishing unsustainability – exhausting resources and overfilling landfills. This ability to buy customers also allows those companies with the most capital to outbuy their competitors, who may have better products, but a smaller marketing department.

The proposals to reclaim culture have to do with curbing the power of consumer advertising. We need better-funded consumer research and independent journalism so as to give consumers information that allows them to make informed decisions, instead of subjecting consumers to targetted and manipulative advertising. There also could be more regulations on advertising, on top of the ones we already have, in the tobacco and gambling industries. Products that are shown to be harmful in ethics or sustainability should have their advertising heavily restricted. In addition, the most invasive ads – pre-roll, full-screen, pop-up – should be banned entirely or have it be configurable by the end-user.

Reclaiming culture also involves tying in many of the previous proposals. Having shorter copyright terms for culturally significant characters and stories would allow more creative and artistic freedom. The games industry need strong unions to give workers more control over the work they create, and how it’s created. Public and digital libraries should be expanded to decommodify access, rather than having to pay a monthly fee to a dozen streaming services.

Final Thoughts

For the past few years, I had immersed myself into startup culture, thinking it was my ticket to a higher plane of existence. I fell into every ideological trap there was, and each time I fell, I had to climb out of it, more and more defeated each time. Reading Abolish Silicon Valley and Wendy’s story, I felt understood. This is the story that most people actually relate to – not the story of the billionaire genius founder.

With all these problems, feeling helpless is normal. However, knowing there are proposals out there and people trying to create a new path forward is the key to remaining optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. We don’t have to be complacent because there are solutions, we just have to be brave enough to go fight for them.

Relevant Organizations

References

  1. Foundation List: What is a Nonprofit? Explanation of the types of nonprofits, definition, and the difference between “Public Charities” and “Foundations.”
  2. Slate: Can America Afford Innovation?
  3. Inc: Just 34 Black Women Founders Have Raised Over $1 Million in Venture Funding Since 2009
  4. New York Times: Google’s Shadow Work Force: Temps Who Outnumber Full-Time Employees
  5. Washington Post: Bosses want capitalism for themselves and feudalism for their workers
  6. The Verge: We Have Abandoned Every Principle Of The Free And Open Internet
  7. Time: The Surveillance Threat Is Not What Orwell Imagined
  8. Bookriot: Are Libraries Doomed? How Libraries Are Funding Themselves
  9. PBS: The Rise of American Consumerism


avatar · © 2019 - 2020, Thomas Wang.