There is a rift in the tech landscape that has been shifting quietly for some time. But 2018 is the year it has finally properly opened. This is the rift between the tech’s entrepreneurial ‘superstars’ and a nascent solidarity movement, both of which demonstrate the two faces of the modern tech industry. But within this ‘culture war’ there’s a broader debate about what technology is for and who has the power to make decisions about it. And that can only be a good thing – this is a conversation we’ve needed for some time.
With the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the shock election results to which it was tied, much contemporary political conversation is centered on technology’s impact on the social sphere. But little attention has been paid to the way these social changes or crises are actually enforcing changes within the tech industry itself. If it feels like we’re all having to pick sides when it comes to politics, the same is true when it comes to tech.
The rise of the tech ego
If you go back to the early years of software, in the early part of the twentieth century, there was little place for ego. It’s no accident that during this time computing was feminized – it was widely viewed as administrative.
It was only later that software became more male dominated, thanks to a sexist cultural drive to establish male power in the field. This was arguably the start of egos tech takeover- after all, men wanted their work to carry a certain status. Women had to be pushed out to give them it.
It’s no accident that the biggest names in technology – Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs – are all men. Their rise was, in part, a consequence of a cultural shift in the sixties.
But it’s recognise the fact that in the eighties, these were still largely faceless organizations. Yes, they were powerful men, but the organizations they led were really just the next step out from the military industrial complex that helped develop software as we know it today.
It was only when ‘tech’ properly entered the consumer domain that ego took on a new value. As PCs became part of every day life, attaching these products to interesting and intelligent figures was a way of marketing these products. It’s worth remarking that it isn’t really important whether these men had huge egos at all. All that matters is that they were presented in that way, and granted an incredible amount of status and authority.
This meant that complexity of software and the literal labor of engineering could be reduced to a relatable figure like Gates or Jobs. We can still feel the effects of that today: just think of the different ways Apple and Microsoft products are perceived.
Tech leaders personify technology. They make it marketable.
Perhaps tech ‘egos’ were weirdly necessary. Because technology was starting to enter into everyone’s lives, these figures – as much entrepreneurs as engineers – were able to make it accessible and relatable.
If that sounds a little far fetched, consider what the tech ‘ninja’ or the ‘guru’ really means for modern businesses. It often isn’t so much about doing something specific, but instead about making the value and application of those technologies clear, simple, and understandable. When companies advertise for these roles using this sort of language they’re often trying to solve an organizational problem as much as a technical one.
That’s not to say that being a DevOps guru at some middling eCommerce company is the same as being Bill Gates. But it is important to note how we started talking in this way. Similarly, not everyone who gets called a ‘guru’ is going to have a massive ego (some of my best friends are cloud gurus!), but this type of language does encourage a selfish and egotistical type of thinking. And as anyone who’s worked in a development team knows, that can be incredibly dangerous.
From Zuckerberg to your sprint meeting – egos don’t care about you
Today, we are in a position where the discourse of gurus and ninjas is getting dangerous. This is true on a number of levels. On the one hand we have a whole new wave of tech entrepreneurs. Zuckerberg, Musk, Kalanick, Chesky, these people are Gates and Jobs for a new generation.
For all their innovative thinking, it’s not hard to discern a certain entitlement from all of these men. Just look at Zuckerberg and his role in the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Look at Musk and his bizarre intervention in Thailand. Kalanick’s sexual harassment might be personal, but it reflects a selfish entitlement that has real professional consequences for his workforce.
Okay, so that’s just one extreme – but these people become the images of how technology should work. They tell business leaders and politicians that tech is run by smart people who ostensibly should be trusted. This not only has an impact on our civic lives but also on our professional lives too. Ever wonder why your CEO decides to spend big money on a CTO? It’s because this is the model of modern tech. That then filters down to you and the projects you don’t have faith in.
If you feel frustrated at work, think of how these ideas and ways of describing things cascade down to what you do every day. It might seem small, but it does exist.
The emergence of tech worker solidarity
While all that has been happening, we’ve also seen a positive political awakening across the tech industry. As the egos come to dictate the way we work, what we work on, and who feels the benefits, a large group of engineers are starting to realize that maybe this isn’t the way things should be.
Disaffection in Silicon Valley
This year in Silicon Valley, worker protests against Amazon, Microsoft and Google have all had an impact on the way their companies are run. We don’t necessarily hear about these people – but they’re there. They’re not willing to let their code be used in ways that don’t represent them.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the first instance of a political crisis emerging in tech. It wasn’t widely reported, but some Facebook employees asked to move across to different departments like Instagram or WhatsApp. One product designer, Westin Lohne, posted on Twitter that he had left his position saying “morally, it was extremely difficult to continue working there as a product designer.”
morally, it was extremely difficult to continue working there as a product designer.
— westin lohne (@westinlohne) April 5, 2018
But while the story at Facebook was largely disorganized disaffection, at Google there was real organization against Project Maven. 300 Google employees signed a petition against the company’s AI initiative with the Pentagon. In May, a number of employees resigned over the issue. One is reported as saying “over the last couple of months, I’ve been less and less impressed with Google’s response and the way our concerns are being listened to.”
A similar protest happened at Amazon, with an internal letter to Jeff Bezos protesting the use of Rekognition – Amazon’s facial recognition technology – by law enforcement agencies, including ICE.
“Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents,” the letter stated, according to Gizmodo. “In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS.”
Microsoft saw a similar protest, sparked, in part, by the shocking images of families being separated at the U.S./Mexico border. Despite the company distancing itself over ICE’s activities, many employees were vocal in their opposition. “This is the sort of thing that would make me question staying,” said one employee, speaking to Gizmodo.
A shift in attitudes as tensions emerge
True, when taken individually, these instances of disaffection may not look like full-blown solidarity. But together, it amounts to a changing consciousness across Silicon Valley. Of course, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that a relationship between tech, the military, and government has always existed. But the reason things are different is precisely because these tensions have become more visible, attitudes more prominent in public discourse.
It’s worth thinking about these attitudes and actions in the context of hyper-competitive Silicon Valley where ego is the norm, and talent and flair is everything. Signing petitions carries with it some risk – leaving a well-paid job you may have spent years working towards is no simple decision. It requires a decisive break with the somewhat egotistical strand that runs through tech to make these sorts of decisions.
While it might seem strange, it also shouldn’t be that surprising. If working in software demands a high level of collaboration, then collaboration socially and politically is really just the logical development from our professional lives. All this talk about ‘ninjas’, ‘gurus’ and geniuses only creates more inequality within the tech job market – whether you’re in Silicon Valley, Stoke, or Barcelona, or Bangalore, this language actually hides the skills and knowledge that are actually most valuable in tech.
Where do we go next?
The future doesn’t look good. But if the last six months or so are anything to go by there are a number of things we can do.
On the one hand more organization could be the way forward. The publishing and media industries have been setting a great example of how unionization can work in a modern setting and help workers achieve protection and collaborative power at work.
If the tech workforce is going to grow significantly over the next decade, we’re going to see more unionization. We’ve already seen technology lead to more unionization and worker organization in the context of the gig economy – Deliveroo and Uber drivers, for example. Gradually it’s going to return to tech itself.
The tech industry is transforming the global economy. It’s not immune from the changes it’s causing.
But we can also do more to challenge the ideology of the modern tech ego. Key to this is more confidence and technological literacy. If tech figureheads emerge to make technology marketable and accessible, the way to remove that power is to demystify it. It’s to make it clear that technology isn’t a gift, the genius invention of an unfathomable mind, but instead that it’s a collaborative and communal activity, and a skill that anyone can master given the right attitude and resources. At its best, tech culture has been teaching the world that for decades.
Think about this the next time someone tells you that technology is magic. It’s not magic, it’s built by people like you. People who want to call it magic want you to think they’re a magician – and like any other magician, they’re probably trying to trick you.