Google backs out of Pentagon cloud contract after workers protest…20,000 Googlers walk-out to protest sexual harassment and workplace discrimination….Microsoft workers protest use of Halolens by US Army…Googlers protests AI board..Google closes AI board..Microsoft workers stand-up for Chinese tech workers….Googlers claim retaliation for walkout….
On and on over the last 18 months we’ve seen headlines and stories like this, stories about political advocacy at what are technically -and legally- private workplaces, but which, in reality, function differently. We see these stories on our screens, and we read about the workers and their workplaces, but what are all these stories really about? Are we seeing the birth of a proto-labor movement, or is this something else? Why did I feel support & solidarity with Googlers walking out following sexual harassment at their workplace, while secretly resenting their ability to organize & protest?
Their Workplace and Our Workplace
These are workplaces where all the familiar trappings of American workplaces are present. Por ejemplo, if a Google workplace is in California, I’m 100% certain there’s a “Your rights & responsibilities” placard in the facility that’s meant to inform workers of their rights. There’s likely OSHA placards too. Information about worker’s comp. Minimum wage notices. Exit signage. Fire & building regulations. There’s probably compliance hotlines for employees to dime on bad or unethical behavior they see at their employer. All the legal trappings and rights that labor won for us politically in the 20th century, all those things are at Google, at Microsoft, at Amazon, just like they are at your workplace & my workplace, no matter how big or small it is.
And yet, step back, and these tech workers enjoy much more liberty -indeed, are entitled to more rights- at their workplaces than we are at our’s. So much liberty, in fact, they can be themselves on our screens. During work hours even. Rarely do they have to say, “Thoughts & Opinions expressed here are mine nad mine alone and do not represent those of my employer, ” like I have to say. They can even show off the gifts they’ve received on social media -no need to disclose how or why they are receiving compensation from other companies- they can just show it off.
They are evidently entitled to so many rights within their workplaces, they can even criticize their superiors in public, by name. Wild!
Meanwhile, the rest of us don’t have that power. We’d be fired *instantly* if we did a 10th of what the tech workers do.
The Tech Worker’s Entitlement to Rights We Don’t Have
This then, is their entitlement, their privilege. They are entitled to lobby and organize and effect political change at their workplace -which intersects with our workplaces & homes by virtue of the internet and our screens- during work hours, while we cannot do the same at our’s. What explains that and what are their goals?
Well, their entitlement to rights we don’t have springs from their ability to code a world -a frontier- that achieves returns in an effecient manner for the shareholders. They are, in effect, hired guns building out a frontier that ultimately will deliver a reliable annuity to their sponsors, the bank*. Let’s take a look at this chart I made in Excel to understand how this works.
Particularly pay attention to the revenue per employee number & market cap/employee. Those numbers are the Rosetta Stone for divining the political power of these tech workers, and indeed, the economic model that SiliconValley itself uses in its conquest of the world, and of the 20th Century’s verticals.
Notice that, for instance, every Google employee generates almost $1.4 million worth of revenue for the company. A Costco employee, on the other hand, generates only about half that much. Notice too that the Googler’s share of market cap (this chart was done on 2017 numbers but generally is accurate) is almost $9 million, 18x that of the Costco employee’s share of that corporation’s market cap.
Apple’s revenue/employee figure is off the charts too. Nearly $2m of revenue is generated by each Apple employee**. Microsoft & Amazon’s are more modest -particularly Amazon’s due to the larger number of people they employ- but even they are able to protest and organize politically at their workplaces, though their employees seem to make fewer waves as compared to Google’s.
Facebook employees, in contrast, are the great outlier. What little we hear from inside Facebook comes from ex-employees. The firm, like Apple, seems to have a stronger management culture than Google, but a less politically aware one. But notice that Facebook -whose revenue per employee numbers are very high- outsources the dirty work of managing its frontier to third parties like Accenture. We recently heard from Accenture employees about the work they do on the Facebook frontier. It was not a happy story.
Now look at Walmart: Walmart employs almost 3 million people yet its revenue per employee is the lowest of the bunch, as is its market cap/employee figure. How often do we hear from Walmart employees?
The Political Objectives of Big Tech workers
Every political movement needs to unite disparate and sovereign peoples under a banner of change and a well-understood set of objectives. Typically, we calll this an “agenda” or even a manifesto. As best I can tell, the tech workers’ agenda is this:
- To have a say in how AI Systems are built and work, such that these products don’t discriminate or target marginalized groups inside the company and outside the company
- To be free to not work on products that will be used by the US military, public sector governments, or even cities and municipalities
- To blunt the power of foreign nations like China by delivering products that guarantee anonymity, encryption, and privacy on the internet in opposition to China’s laws
- To freedom at their workplaces from harassment & discrimination
- To not be censored at work, and to not have their external communities be censored within the products they build
Notice, this is very much a political agenda. These -apart from harassment & discrimination- are not things most people working in most workplaces expect or demand to have a say in. I certainly don’t at my work place. We use our government for that. We got to the polls for that. We pester our representatives in government to write laws for this kind of stuff.
But on the frontier, there is no government and there is no law.
Notice too that these employees’ demands are not material. That is to say, they aren’t about compensation, a shorter work week, more time off, or a greater share of revenue. They are not about the relationship of the employee with the employer, largely. They are more about product development, about the next stage of the conquest of the frontier.
Notice too that these employees are free to leave the employ of their workplaces, just like you and I are. But they aren’t.
And notice that largely, these employees are looking out for their own cohorts’ interests in the development of those products. Not your’s necessarily, nor mine necessarily.
And unlike my workplace, or your workplace, the work these employees do at their workplace intersects and impacts us at our homes and work. Daily. Globally. Their work impacts you and me, and our loved ones, and people as far away as Myanmar, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Mostly, I like their agenda. But it’s inherently a non-democratic agenda because I have no say in how the products are being developed. It’s an agenda that includes some laudable aims & goals -especially as it pertains to empowering marginalized groups- but it’s still an agenda that’s predicated upon their employers & sponsors conquering what little remains of Hannah Arendt’s ‘public’ and all the institutions thereof. It’s an agenda not necessarily at odds with Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism, so long as their cohorts are protected -favored even- on the frontier.
And I’m not sure I’m okay with that.
*I call this arrangement Capitaltech, and you can see how it works here, in this chart which I made in Visio, based largely off Everett Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovation with some bits added on from Wardley & Brechin.
**Notice Apple still primarily designs, builds and sells tangible products to customers. The business is therefore different & relationship between buyer & seller is transparent and easy to understand