Chasing White Supremacy into Tech’s Lairs
By Tamara KneeseApril 4, 2021
Your Computer Is on Fire by Thomas S. Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, Kavita Philip
The xenophobic policies of the Trump administration sparked walkouts at Google and protests against the Muslim registry at Palantir. Silicon Valley had until then appeared detached from the labor movement and social justice efforts. But in 2017, that visibly changed. White-collar coders took up the mantle of #TechWontBuiltIt, refusing to create drones or databases for ICE. Fast forward to 2020 and in Amazon warehouses around the world — amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has enriched Jeff Bezos while killing many Amazon workers — Amazon Prime Day protests showcased the unfair labor practices endemic to the company and the tech industry as a whole. On Black Friday, Amazon workers in 15 countries from across the supply chain, from call center workers in the Philippines to warehouse workers in Mexico, went on strike or protested. Now, Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are trying to unionize.
While such organizing developments offer hope for a more equitable future, the situation for some workers remains grossly untenable. Proposition 22 in California, which passed in November 2020, foreclosed labor protections for gig economy workers. Even as they and many more tech workers are left without benefits and living wages when they desperately need them, the major tech companies are earning record-breaking profits. On February 6, 2021, a San Francisco DoorDash driver left his children in his car while making a delivery because he did not have money to pay for childcare. His car was stolen and it was a GoFundMe campaign, not compensation from his employer, that allowed him to take paid time off. Such stories are at long last considered newsworthy enough to be circulated rather than ignored.
They are newsworthy because Big Tech’s luster is finally fading. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma and news reports about former technologists turning their backs on their iPhones are proliferating. White male technologists’ mea culpas may be cloyingly tiresome, but the fact is that a certain kind of virtue-signaling has become de rigueur. The tide is shifting, and that’s undeniably a good thing. The danger is that tech insiders’ tepid critiques are often used to paper over glaring and historically entrenched inequalities. It’s time to recognize that tech industry critics have been pushing for structural change for ages, and they should be at the center of the current discourse.
Some of these long-term critics’ work is collected in Your Computer Is on Fire, an edited volume designed with students in mind. The volume’s title is taken from a 2018 symposium of the same name. A primer in tech criticism and activism, it uses the underexamined past to better understand the present and shape the future. The four editors are historians of computing, and the contributors, a quarter of whom are women of color, represent varied academic fields and areas of expertise. The volume coalesces around their collective conviction that the tech world is in a state of emergency. The “fire” of the title, inherent from computing’s inception, has three interconnected meanings: the first is literal, in that computing technology runs hot and eats energy; the second refers to computing’s current crisis; and the third emphasizes fire’s ability to propagate. The fire threatens to destroy our digital worlds from within, as it were; its flames are now being fanned by the growth of corporate platforms. While injustice is obviously a global problem, the editors and authors choose to focus on case studies and discrete cultural trenches, thus wisely resisting the lure of broad declarations. As such, YCIOF is the book tech critics and organizers have been waiting for.
The study of history, the contributors all agree, is the only way out; it enables us to understand and potentially transform our present circumstances: to throw water on the flames, as it were, rather than looking away. Part of the problem is easy to identify: in STEM fields, history and other humanities disciplines are almost always left by the wayside, considered unimportant distractions at best; and in general “ethics” courses tend to be an afterthought rather than a starting point. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that one can so easily follow certain kinds of insidious embers through the history of computing — from IBM’s punch-card system being used to track Nazi prisoners to the so-called father of Silicon Valley William Shockley’s flagrant eugenicism to the white nationalist sympathizers in the contemporary tech industry. Those darkly radioactive embers urge us to look beyond the standard fairy tales about genius innovators and streamlined progress. They urge us to understand just how Amazon achieved and maintains its hold. They urge us to make the choice to know, for instance, the history of Sears-Roebuck’s use of logistics networks and data collection in their famous mail-order catalog; and to know that IBM characterized itself as a “family” in its 1950s West Germany outpost, employing Catholic values as a way of staving off unionization efforts.
Going beyond the history of specific corporations, though, it is also vital to consider the material conditions and infrastructures that continue to haunt computing logistics. The fact is that computing cannot be disentangled from larger histories of colonialism, exploitation, and outsourcing. The global digital supply chain, for instance, includes mining laborers who extract the rare-earth elements used to build devices, as well as immigrant and Global South factory workers who produce smart phones, and it ends with the environmental impacts of e-waste, which pollutes waterways and land in places like Thailand and Ghana. The virtual cloud in actuality devours both people and resources. Your Zoom video call relies on servers in actual places all around the world, carrying a hefty carbon footprint.
Revealing the hidden circuits of labor behind automated processes, some YCIOF chapters show how gender, nationality, and race influence what appear to be nonhuman systems, from commercial content moderation and child trafficking software techniques to cute robots and Siri. Technologies reflect the assumptions of the people who design them, and thus by and large the proclivities of white male engineers in the Global North, which accounts for why voice recognition technologies are attuned to the voices of white, US-based individuals rather than, say, to Caribbean-inflected accents. Other chapters center on understanding the social values underwriting technological affordances, code, and the computer keyboard itself. QWERTY is not actually universal, and imperialism even informs how we type. Racism and sexism are features, not bugs, of computing, just as they are features of other sectors and society as a whole.
The volume helps bridge gulfs between designers’ fantasies and the material, embodied realities of how computing happens. A lack of Black and Latinx women engineers at major tech firms explains why facial recognition software fails to register Black people. A recent documentary, Coded Bias, is relevant here in offering a corrective to the milquetoast The Social Dilemma, amplifying the voices of the women, especially Black women, who have been trying to get their fellow technologists and researchers to notice systems of oppression within the industry. Algorithms that perform modern-day phrenology, such as those that supposedly predict crime or attempt to gender people based on facial features, are inseparable from the environments in which they were produced. Algorithmic oppression of this kind is related to harms carried out in workplaces and communities where such technologies are implemented. Even if the crisis of computing is not new, the malignant effects of technologies are now lighting impossible-to-ignore fires.
As some of the individual chapters of the volume show, emergencies are moments of rupture and may create an opening not only to imagine but actually build a different world. Consider catastrophes like the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, during which young women immigrant garment workers jumped to their deaths. Such moments shed light on stark inequalities. The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy helped catalyze the labor movement, but this was not a foregone conclusion. Elites invariably ignore such disasters but for the collective organizing efforts of the people being harmed by their actions. As Science and Technology Studies scholar Janet Abbate quips in her chapter, connecting the tech fire to the climate catastrophe, “Like California’s wildfires, the software industry’s lack of diversity has generated a lot of heat but no real solutions.” Neatly packaged technologically driven solutions will not solve social problems, which is why diversity and inclusion efforts have largely failed to address structural racism in tech workplaces as well as in technology itself. Similarly, the climate crisis, or the pandemic, will certainly not be fixed by an app. Learning how to code won’t ignite structural change, but organizing with your co-workers just might.
The myths and metaphors attached to computing history have a power all their own, and so changing the stories people tell about technology can have real-world effects. The editors and authors of the volume take the maxims of the tech world and turn them on their head. They repudiate the rhetoric of meritocracy, disruption, innovation, and of calls to “move fast and break things.” As historian Kavita Philip puts it, language matters: “One must be open to the insights of language overturning one’s most cherished design principles.” Rather than assuming that networks are inherently democratic, it is useful to examine other networks, including the socialist Soviet and Chilean networks or early internet infrastructures in South Africa and Kenya. Silicon Valley language and ideology is often remixed and reimagined in other places around the world. For example, acquiring technical skills, whether as part of Girls Who Code in Oakland or ICT training for Muslim women in Seelampur, does not equal empowerment. Technical know-how does not fix structural racism and sexism. In my own research, I have interviewed Black women contractors who have coded for decades but are still kept out of the higher rungs of the industry. As detailed through several historically oriented chapters in the volume, women in computing have been overlooked and not considered real programmers despite the fact that the first programmers in the 1940s were actual women who were called computers. The fetishization of software helped shift the position of programmer from human woman to male sorcerer, systematically pushing women out of the industry. There is an aura of mystery when men perform the labor, whereas it is a low-skill mechanical routine when women do it. Labor is valued differently depending on whose labor is in question. YCIOF includes a striking image of programmer Ann Moffatt working at the kitchen table with her baby by her side in 1966. This kind of scene is now familiar, but the history of women’s varied roles in computing is not.
Workplace ideologies about meritocracy, along with a lack of support systems, conspire to keep women and people of color outside of leadership roles. The pipeline problem is a myth. Despite their vehemently stated but lukewarm intentions to diversify their workforces, tech companies, from small startups to the largest tech firms, often create environments where harassment and discrimination flourish. There are many James Damores, the man who penned the infamous Google memo against diversity in the workplace. He typifies a much larger and systemic problem.
Much like academia, the tech industry is centered on a love-based work ethos. Your job is supposed to be a calling featuring long hours, a workplace built around happy hours and late nights, and gyms and snacks at work. The informal aspects of workplace sociality are more often than not inimical to care responsibilities. It’s helpful to trace the history of how IBM imagined the corporation as a “family” as it foreshadows the unquantifiable essence of “Googleyness,” which can be invoked to show that a worker is “just not a good fit” for a position they are more than qualified to perform. Who and what is Googely? Why would you need to organize a union if your workplace is a family? Discrimination is justified through such slippery terms and metrics, which allow for the perpetuation of existing power structures and elitism. Maybe a white male Stanford computer science alum is deemed almost by definition to have that ineffable Googley spark that a Black Girls Code program graduate does not, in which case interviewing the Black Girls Code graduate is just a performance.
YCIOF touches on a range of strategies for changing tech labor relations. Just as the history of computing varies by context, locality, and subculture, approaches to fixing technology’s largest problems won’t look the same everywhere. What’s more, technology itself won’t offer the solution. Mark Zuckerberg can’t personally end misinformation just as Google can’t be trusted to lead the way in ethical AI. Rather than following in the Mars-focused footsteps of futurists like Elon Musk, we need to think about what it would mean to instead conceptualize the future of technology through the actions of people like gig workers. They are now, as it happens, using their own creative ad hoc strategies to organize themselves in every corner of the world.
Near the end of the volume is a section titled “What Should We Do?” Since tech has political and material ramifications in the world, tech activism necessarily must connect itself to larger social justice movements. Some of the questions raised in this section were taken up at a recent Haymarket Books panel titled “The Fight for the Future: Organizing the Tech Industry.” YCIOF contributor and communication scholar Safiya Umoja Noble, a leading voice on how systemic oppression is embedded in seemingly neutral technologies like search engines, was one of the panelists. Adrienne Williams, a former Amazon driver, spoke about her experiences as a Black woman, mother, contractor, and organizer. The panel marks a telling shift: the hands-off theorizing that academics are known for is giving way to more radical organizing and hands-on support for on-the-ground activists. Critics from within the tech industry, along with outsider academics, are pointing out exactly how racism and sexism are still baked into Big Tech’s business models. Google’s targeted firing of Timnit Gebru and its poor treatment of its entire AI Ethics team is a case in point. Big tech companies’ noisy declarations of “doing the right thing” and learning from their past mistakes is, they remind us, about nothing more than image management.
Rather than looking to companies to put the fire out, it is vital to look to the workers themselves, to labor-organizing efforts situated within broader social justice movements. New books like Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel’s Voices from the Valley and Mary Beth Meehan and Fred Turner’s Seeing Silicon Valley, reviewed in this publication, point to the importance of recognizing workers’ perspectives on their own living and working conditions, especially when it comes to technology. So often, the narratives, myths, and stories are already predetermined. It is worth noting that Tech Workers Coalition, which started in the Bay Area and includes chapters in cities all over the United States, also has a chapter in Bangalore. Workers who appear to be atomized, performing piece work in their cars or from their homes, can find ways of connecting through digital channels — e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk workers are finding solidarity through Turkopticon, and California gig workers are self-organizing in light of the fallout from Prop 22. Tech workers all over the world, in every part of the industry, are doing their best to turn up the heat on their own.
Tamara Kneese is an assistant professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco.
LARB Staff Recommendations
W. Patrick McCray lauds two new books for showing how Silicon Valley’s success and image are based on obscuring certain people.
Historian of technology Patrick McCray reviews Morgan Ames’s new book on the MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop per Child program.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!