Contribution to the CSCW 2022 Workshop: Solidarity and Disruption
By Tamara Kneese
As a long-time ethnographer of Silicon Valley technoculture and an experienced union organizer, I find myself in a strange and somewhat contradictory position as someone who left an academic job to take a "tech for good" job at a major tech company. I went from being a member of a tenure track faculty union at the University of San Francisco to being an at-will employee in tech. In my current role at my day job, I am researching bottom-up, grassroots activism within the tech industry, specifically around green software and climate change. While some sustainability jobs in tech are in corporate responsibility and result from ESG regulation, which asks companies to release data on their social and environmental impacts, many sustainability jobs in tech result from pushes from the shop-floor; tech workers build their own ad hoc green tech positions and communities, within their own workplaces and across the industry as a whole, from Amazon Employees for Climate Justice to Climate Action Tech. While I am also performing UX and DX research to inform green software tooling, I am personally more interested in the tensions between corporate Net Zero pledges and the realities of a business model that is predicated on new releases and endlessly growing markets. Especially fascinating to me are the developers and other software practitioners who are not officially working in sustainability jobs, but who are passionate about mitigating the effects of climate change. Perhaps climate activism in tech can be an entry point to thinking about larger social justice issues and labor rights, a potentially radicalizing force. I look to historical examples like the Lucas Plan of the 1970s, in which workers at Lucas Aerospace Corporation attempted to transform their industry from the shop-floor, calling for the production of socially useful technology. From what I have seen, I am also keenly aware of the limits of "tech for good" and the suppression of radical collective action, or even feminist complaint.
In my new role, I have also become a research subject for PhD students who are studying responsible AI or other such developments in the tech industry. Sometimes I wonder how my comments will be interpreted or if my data will be protected. It’s an interesting role reversal that has me even more critically examining the relationship between research and organizing. While I don’t think academics need to take industry jobs to have a right to criticize the tech industry, I do think it’s helpful to know exactly how power and bureaucracy work in the context of specific companies. I like seeing how the sausage is made, and I am also a vegetarian.
I've long been intrigued by the similarities between tech and academia when it comes to entrenched hierarchies, myths of meritocracy, and endemic precarity papered over by privilege. There is so much money flowing back and forth between academic institutions and tech companies, and I have a hard time seeing university-based research as inherently more ethical than research in the tech industry. Many of the problems found within gig platform labor, including part-time or temporary employment status, few workplace protections, and lack of health care and other benefits, are found in other contract positions, including adjunct positions at universities. Discourses about “doing what you love” or the flexibility afforded by part-time or on-demand work echo those in creative industries and academia. Through my ethnographic research in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have encountered Caviar deliverers who double as freelance network engineers and Lyft drivers who also work part-time in IT. As academics and other cognitive workers have known for decades, prestige and training do not always equal a stable paycheck. Contractor coders’ experiences can mirror those of adjunct professors in academia, who may have PhDs from top universities and extensive teaching experience, but not be recognized as valuable members of their departments. TVCs power the tech industry, just as rampant but under-acknowledged contingent labor allows universities to survive and profit. Historically-driven race, class, and gender-based hierarchies and relationships with gentrification and growing inequality exist in both tech and university contexts. Subcontracted janitors, security guards, van drivers, and food service workers provide essential labor for tech campuses, just as clerical workers, adjuncts, cleaners, and cafeteria workers fulfill similarly vital but under-appreciated work on university campuses. Situating the gig economy and platform labor within larger frameworks of precarity creates more space for coalition building and organizing across apparent class boundaries. What might organizers in academia and tech, past and present, have to teach each other? How might we form more robust coalitions, even while recognizing differences among positions and job sites?