The following is a transcript of my lightning talk at The People’s Disruption: Platform Co-Ops for Global Challenges — held at The New School.
When you listen to people in tech talk about the future of labor, they will tell you that AI is taking over all of the jobs. What they gloss over is the gendered dynamics of the labor force. Many of the shortages in the workforce stem from labor that is culturally gendered “feminine” and seen as low-status. There’s no conception of how workforce dynamics in tech are also gendered.
Furthermore, anxieties about automation don’t tend to focus on work that is seen as the work of immigrants, even at a time when immigration is a hotly contested conversation. As a result, when we talk about automation as the major issue in the future of work, we lose track of the broader anxiety about identities that’s shaping both technology and work.
Identities matter because they shape how people respond to the society around them. How do people whose identities have been destabilized respond to a culture where institutions and information intermediaries no longer have their back? When they can’t find their identity through their working environment?
Our current crisis around opioids offers one harrowing answer. Religious extremism offers another. Yet, we also need to consider how many people turn to activism, both healthy and destructive, as a way of finding meaning.
People often find themselves by engaging with others through collective action, but collective action isn’t always productive. Consider this in light of the broader conversation about media manipulation: for those who have grown up gaming, running a raid on America’s political establishment is thrilling. It’s exhilarating to game the media to say ridiculous things. Hacking the attention economy produces a rush. It doesn’t matter whether or not you memed the president into being if you believe you did. It doesn’t even matter if your comrades were foreign agents with a much darker agenda.
For a lot of folks in tech, being a part of tech has been a way of grounding themselves. Many who built the social media infrastructure that we know today grew up with the utopian idealism of people like John Perry Barlow. HisDeclaration of Independence of Cyberspace is now of drinking age, but today’s reality is a lot more sober. Cybernaut geeks imagined building a new world rooted in a different value structure. They wanted to resist the financialized logic of Wall Street, but ended up contributing to the latest evolution of financialized capitalism. They wanted to create a public that was more broadly accessible, but ended up enabling a new wave of corrosive populism to take hold.
They wanted to disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication.
You’re at this event today because you also want a new world, a sociotechnical reality that is more cooperative and equitable in nature. You see Silicon Valley as emblematic of corrosive neoliberalism and libertarianism run amok. I get it. But I can’t help but think of how social media was birthed out of idealism that got reworked by economic and political interests, by the stark realities of what people did with technology vs. what its designers hoped they would do.So many of the people that I knew in the early days of tech wanted what you want.
The early adopters of social technologies — and many of those sites’ creators — were self-identified and marginalized geeks, freaks, and queers. Early social tech was built by those who felt like outsiders in a society that valued suave masculinities. Geeks like me who flocked to the Bay felt disenfranchised and vulnerable and turned to technology to build solidarity and feel less alone. In doing so, we helped construct a form of geek masculinity that gave many geeky men in particular a sense of pride that made them feel empowered through their work and play.
But as many of you know, power corrupts. And the same geek masculinities that were once rejuvenating have spiraled out of control. Today, we’re watching as diversity becomes a wedge issue that can be used to radicalize disaffected young men in tech. The gendered nature of tech is getting ugly.
A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.
Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:
What hath we wrought?
We’ve seen massively decentralized networks coordinating and mobilizing on both for-profit and not-for-profit platforms, challenging the status quo. But the movements that they’re so strategically building are shaped by tribalistic and hate-oriented values. There are many people coordinating online who are willing to share tactic without sharing end goal, yet their tactical moves collectively achieve a form of societal gaslighting that causes unbearable pain.Tech wasn’t designed to enable this, but it did so none-the-less.
This room is filled with people who hold dear many progressive values, who see the tech sector as the new establishment, and who are pushing for a more equitable future. I share your values and desires. You rightfully want a more fair and just society. And you rage against the machine. But I also want you to know that I saw similar desires among the early developers of social media as they worked to eject the dot-com MBA culture from Silicon Valley, as they worked to resist the 1980s Wall Street culture, as they tried to operate differently than their parents.. I saw idealism corrupted, good intentions go awry, and malignant forces capitalize on weaknesses within the system.
So as you relish each other’s presence today and tomorrow, I have a favor to ask. Don’t simply focus on what would be ideal or critique the status quo.Genuinely examine how what you’re seeking could also be corrupted and abused. I believe, more than anything, that deep empathy and self-reflection is critical for us to build a healthier future.
Too often, it’s easier to rally people to tear down what we hate than it is to build a sustainable future. And yet, at this moment in time in particular, we desperately need builders. We need you.