The Class Struggle in Silicon Valley
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Author: Cory Doctorow
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Project Syndicate

A generation ago, tech workers viewed themselves as billionaires-in-waiting, working extremely long hours at the expense of sleep and social life in the hope of making “a dent in the universe.” But deteriorating working conditions have led to a shift in perspective, sparking an unprecedented wave of worker activism.

BURBANK – Tech companies were once known for making high-quality products and treating their workers well. Now, they make inferior products and treat their workers terribly. This is not coincidental. It is a prime example of enshittificationa term I coined in 2022 to describe the process through which monopolistic tech platforms decay in the absence of any checks on their leaders’ worst impulses.

Historically, tech companies have been disciplined by four forces: competition (the fear that users might switch to rival services); regulation (the fear that government penalties will exceed the profits the firm expects to realize from questionable practices); self-help (the fear of aftermarket modifications, such as ad blockers or third-party clients, which undermine the firm’s ability to profit from users, perhaps permanently); and the firm’s workers – specifically, the fear that key personnel would quit rather than obey certain directives.

These forces are interlinked. A truly competitive industry, with dozens or hundreds of firms aggressively nipping at each other’s profit margins, is less able to capture its regulators. A concentrated industry dominated by a handful of firms can easily align on policy priorities and present a unified front to regulators, judges, and lawmakers. But an industry constituted as a swarm of competing firms would find it nearly impossible to accomplish such unity.

Big Tech neatly demonstrates this dynamic, with mergers and acquisitions giving rise to an inbred oligopoly that then captured its regulators. On one hand, monopoly power freed these firms from the fear of regulatory backlash, enabling them to trample our privacy, labor, and consumer rights with impunity. On the other, it allowed them to secure the passage of new laws and favorable interpretations of existing ones, rendering self-help effectively illegal.

Back when the internet was dominated by open platforms like the web, users routinely resorted to self-help measures. Even today, nearly half the internet’s users use privacy-enhancing ad blockers. But while it is legal to modify a website without its maker’s permission to shield yourself from surveillance, modifying an app for the same purpose is a potential felony. In fact, just the act of decrypting an app before reverse-engineering it could violate Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, resulting in a five-year prison sentence or a $500,000 fine for a first offense. Essentially, an app can be viewed as a website wrapped in just enough intellectual property to felonize ad blockers.

Tech firms have thus become unshackled from the discipline imposed by competition, regulation, and self-help, leaving labor as the last potential check on their power. Historically, the tech sector had one of the lowest rates of union density. Tech workers viewed themselves as entrepreneurs engaging in peer-to-peer negotiations with other entrepreneurs who need workers as much as workers need paychecks.

This mindset fostered a culture of punishing dedication, glorifying being “extremely hardcore”  –  working physically and mentally ruinous hours. The elaborate “campuses” tech companies built for their employees, equipped with daycare centers, fitness facilities, and luxury cafeterias, were an obvious ruse to wring unpaid overtime out of workers. But many workers convinced themselves that these amenities were provided in recognition of their value to their employers.

This ethos encouraged tech workers to view themselves as an ascetic priesthood on a mission to digitize the world, even at the cost of sleep and family. Meanwhile, as workers’ conditions deteriorated, their bosses’ wealth soared. But tech workers are no fools. Their prospects have diminished so significantly within a single generation that it is no wonder that many now view themselves as employees, leading them to pen manifestoswalk off the job, and form unions.

When I entered the sector two decades ago, the prevailing belief among tech workers was that they were billionaire tech-barons-in-waiting who could spend a few years at a large company before eventually founding a startup capable of toppling the industry’s giants. Over time, the dream shrank. Instead of aiming to disrupt the industry, tech workers began to aspire to leave their Big Tech jobs, launch pretend startups making pretend products, and be “acquihired” by their former employers – an inefficient Rube Goldberg way to secure a promotion and a bonus.

Then the dream shrank even further: stick with a big company for life, with good pay, stock options, and weekly free massages. But that dream died when Google cut 12,000 jobs in early 2023, just months after a stock buyback that could have paid these workers’ salaries for the next 27 years.

Tech workers and users deserve better than this. Together, we can get it. Nowadays, tech workplaces are white-hotcenters of labor organizing, as employees increasingly reconceive themselves as workers first, techies second.  This shift in perspective is also leading them to align their struggles with those of “blue-collar” tech workers like rideshare drivers, warehouse packers, AI data labelers, and customer-service representatives.

Once, tech workers aspired to “make a dent in the universe.” Now, they increasingly understand themselves as a disposable source of free cash flow for stock buybacks. But there is a silver lining to proletarianization: by intensifying the already-growing trend of labor unrest in tech workplaces, it has turned a rising wave of employee activism into a veritable flood.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, activist, and journalist, is the author, most recently, of The Lost Cause (Tor Books, 2023), The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation (Verso, 2023), and The Bezzle (Tor Books, 2024).

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