Tech Workers: Please Stop Defending Tech Companies
Why in the fuck would you stand with billionaires, corrupt power centers, and technology dynasties... over the very people that you work alongside?
One of the most frustrating things (and there are many) about being a tech activist is how vehemently tech workers defend tech companies. Provide ANY critique of a tech corporation – no matter how large, how powerful, how well-funded, or what horrible thing it did – and observe dozens (or more) tech workers leap, well-trained watch dogs, to their defense.
Things that happen every day, all day:
- Someone critiques a tech company, and tech workers bafflingly start attacking the person doing the critique
- Tech workers organize rapidly to support the company being criticized, waxing poetic on how great it is, singing praises to its “good intentions and potential,” while refusing to address the substance of the critique in any way
- Tech workers apply devastating long-term consequences to people who speak out (such as social ostracization, cutting of professional opportunities and jobs) while applying no consequences whatsoever to the tech company in question [see Ashe Dryden, Dissent Unheard Of]
- Tech workers harass the person speaking out, including sending hate mail, creating anonymous accounts to send threats and slurs, digging through an individual’s private life, and otherwise causing them pain, embarrassment, fear and trauma
Take this week, as we’ve watched whistleblower Talia Jane — who called out Eat24 and parent company Yelp for failing to provide a reasonable wage to its employees — criticized more brutally and more broadly (I won’t link to any of the disgusting trash written on the subject) than Yelp itself, even though Yelp is a publically traded company, with a market cap of almost 1.5 billion dollars. For more evidence, see all ongoing voracious defenses of Twitter by people in the tech community, despite the fact that it is almost completely owned and managed by extremely rich white men, possesses vastly disproportionate wealth and power, and continues to daily support an internet culture of violence and abuse of marginalized people while operating a largely homogenous company and issuing false promise after false promise about its “diversity” initiatives. Or the way the tech community has latched on like so many weakling lampreys to Medium, defending it as a “progressive” space despite how it exploits massive amounts of unpaid labor, and its leadership (Ev Williams co-founded both Blogger and Twitter) represents a multi-decade, oligarchic vice-grip on digital content platforms…
Look, in short, these tech companies — which almost inevitably have millions of dollars in funding, the support of influential venture capitalists and partners, PR/marketing teams working around the clock to make them look good, and dozens, hundreds or thousands of employees — certainly don’t need us to defend them. They especially don’t need our defense against the critiques of marginalized individuals, who have little or no access to the systemic forces that uphold and insulate tech companies. So: why do we continue to dog-pile the people doing this hard work, instead of training our time, energy and influence on actual structural problems?
In this article, I discuss the reasons why so many tech workers continue to defend tech companies… and why it’s bullshit.
Why you defend tech companies: People you like work there.
Tech, especially in the Bay Area, can be extremely insular, bordering even on incestuous. A huge portion of people in tech share a very limited number of social sites (Twitter, Slack, LinkedIn, Hacker News), where many people have large professional networks. We often attend the same conferences, both smaller local events as well as larger events like GDC, OSCON, Dreamforce. And with the high turnover seen among well-paid tech professionals, tech workers often work for a disproportionately high number of companies throughout their career.
All this means that there’s a strong chance that you know someone who works at a tech company that’s being called out in public — or at the very least, someone you like or admire works there. Here’s the thing, though: YOUR FRIEND WILL BE FINE, EVEN IF SOMEONE CRITICIZES THE COMPANY THEY WORK FOR ON THE INTERNET. Even if it hurts their feelings a little that something they are part of is being criticized, being able to process criticism of our products, companies and work is *part of our jobs.*
Part of this knee-jerk impulse to defend, defend, defend, retaliate retaliate retaliate, is related to an overall tech culture that is filled largely with privileged, egotistical and sheltered white men, for whom, particularly, “…women’s cognizant unwillingness to be complicit in their world view is an infuriating, non-negotiable blow to their externally-constructed male ego” – Bardot Smith — and who have rarely, if ever, had to deal with anything as proletariat as community accountability. But putting that aside, let’s say some part of you is truly, earnestly worried that if your friend’s company is criticized, it will suffer and fail, and thus your friend’s career prospects and future will suffer also? Well, consider the fact that critique almost never topples tech companies: even tech companies with a heinous record on social justice issues continue to get along just fine – just look to companies like Snapchat, GitHub, Twitter, Genius, Zillow, Uber… the list goes on and on. See, these companies are massively insulated by privilege: venture capital, their rich white management, even the preening tech press. The tech company never lacks for “friendship” (parasitic symbiosis).
LESS likely to be fine? The person speaking up about what’s wrong with tech companies – they will face harassment, social isolation, and the loss of professional opportunities. They will also lose the friendship and support of people like you, who prioritize defending tech companies over individuals in our community. So, next time someone critiques a company your friend works at, and you feel compelled to rush to that company’s defense, think: is your friend’s company actually in any immediate danger of going under because of this critique? Is your friend’s livelihood actually in any risk? Even if somehow your friend’s company DOES go under because of this critique, will they still be OK – like, able to get another job somewhere in the industry?
Next time you see someone critiquing a tech company, and your first impulse is to jump to its defense, please stop for a moment and think: who really needs support right now?
Why you defend tech companies: They spend a LOT of resources on making you feel an emotional attachment to them.
Silicon Valley leverages a lot, a lot of time, money and thought into “brand.” Many company brands have certain things in common, as part of the overriding style and aesthetics of the industry right now. Take the simple, almost childish logos and design elements that make tech companies feel accessible, playful and friendly: Google’s logo feels distinctly elementary-schoolesque (“it now evokes children’s refrigerator magnets, McDonald’s French fries, Comic Sans”); the AirBnB branding uses all lower-case letters and has a bubbly, plush, playful/tactile feel (“It’s playful, unpretentious, and looks good in big and small scales, in digital and print formats, and as a three-dimensional object”); new social network Peach uses bright colors, and a shapely, soft fruit icon.
Going even further to tug at your heartstrings, many tech companies use anthropomorphized creatures and even animal hybrids that are whimsical and adorable: the GitHub’s Octocat is so fucking cute you want to shove stickers of it all over everything you own. I fucking HATE GitHub and I still feel a lurking and reluctant affection for the goddamn Octocat. The allure of the Octocat is so powerful (A cat!! Mixed with a fucking OCTOPUS.) is, IMHO, a huge reason why people have been so reluctant to see GitHub for what it truly is, despite a very clear 8-year history of perpetrating a shitty, exclusionary tech industry, including alcohol culture, “manager-less” structure, discriminatory hiring, and despicable abuse of female employees. (And no, hiring up a few of the activists from the broader community doesn’t change that legacy at all.)
If that’s the price, honestly, you can keep… your…. Catapus.
IT ISN’T EVEN REAL.
Even Twitter has its sky-blue bird, often pictured making adorable, chirping speech-balloons. People like to forget how much power symbols and advertising have over our suggestible and meager brains. Especially in tech, where “we think of ourselves as having elevated intellects and intellectual preoccupations: as uniquely picky about working on ‘interesting’ problems. We self-aggrandize. We tell ourselves that we are intellectually superior to everyone else…” (Betsy Haibel, “Hacker Mythologies and Mismanagement”) we’re reluctant to acknowledge that we are, in fact, susceptible to sometimes extreme influence and manipulation by corporations.
Beyond just its UI/UX elements and logos/mascots, tech goes out of its way to make its most rich and powerful people seem friendly, ordinary, accessible: “Unlike the business leaders of earlier generations, these folks are made to seem just like the average joe. I mean, if you don’t take into the account the billion-dollar bank account, isn’t Mark Zuckerberg, in his t-shirt and jeans, just like you?” writes Kara Melton in a recent MVC piece. The tendency of extremely rich and powerful people within tech to leverage, for example, Twitter and actively respond and engage with people far less famous, privileged, and successful, makes people lose sight of how much power and wealth is actually implicated in the exchange. (Take Marc Andreessen, who seems to tweet all day every day [when he’s not blocking women in tech], in the process making people forget he is NOTHING like them and rather controls a $4-billion dollar venture capital firm with a heinous legacy of funding discrimination, but, details…)
This is the GOAL of tech branding itself: to seem usable, easy, friendly, open. Suffusing everything from interfaces (created by large, well-paid and expert UI/UX teams) to how executives are presented (developed by PR firms and marketing strategists), “brand” is part of making tech products useful and modern… but can also disguise the actual political machinations behind them. We see not billion-dollar machines, but airy user experiences that make us feel good; we see not white male oligarchs, but someone we can chat with over coffee, who makes wild success seem within our grasp (well… some of us anyway, see “The Problem With the Zuckerberg Analogy for Youth of Color” by Kortney Ziegler). We also conflate positive experiences that we have through a company’s products with emotional ties to those companies: our friends use social networks and we like our friends, so critiques of those networks feels personal; we have awesome, memorable stays at AirBnB pads, so acknowledging its issues threatens to dim the pleasant glow of summer sojourns in exciting new locales…
But despite the feelings and defensiveness that we have around critiques of tech companies, we must be able to see PAST branding elements and our own, often unexamined emotional attachments to tech companies. We need to be able to look past the fantasy and propaganda to realize what is behind the surface masks of tech companies: white male-dominated, often dynastic political conglomerates, with incredible, disproportionate access to wealth, influence over users, even power in our local and federal government. And no amount of combining cats with other creatures — no matter how endearing the end result — can change that.
Why you defend tech companies: It’s part of the (unpaid) work we’re supposed to do… even when we don’t realize it.
Even though it’s not made explicit — and we’re never paid for it, nor do we negotiate it — defending and upholding tech companies is part of the work we’re expected to do as tech employees – both for individual companies we work at, and for the broader system. As I wrote in “Tech Workers, Political Speech and Economic Threat”, companies coercively use their employee base as brand ambassadors for the organization: “Through this system, the company is able to benefit from the social capital of employees and spread marketing responsibilities – which are neither formally negotiated nor compensated for – across a much larger surface area of the company… By becoming a marketing, support and community platform for the company, the employee’s speech in public arenas becomes intimately, explicitly or implicitly related to their economic and employment status.” See, it’s EXPECTED that we as tech workers promote not only the companies we work for – even if we have no marketing background, no interest in this work, no guidelines for it and aren’t paid for it – but ALSO that we uphold a general fealty to tech companies.
Beyond the obvious issues around free labor that this invokes, it also points to how tech companies use economic threat to protect themselves from criticism. See, being seen in public criticizing -any- tech company can risk employment options — to start with, hiring managers will show concern that you will be a poor “brand ambassador” for the organization. These expectations — and the economic threat behind them – are so effective that tech workers not only do the work of upholding tech companies overall, but also of SQUASHING DISSENT themselves – tech companies usually don’t even have to RESPOND to criticism, just stand by and watch as tech workers – many of whom DON’T EVEN WORK FOR THEM – lash out at anyone who speaks up to try to “keep them in line.”
Works out great for them, huh?
But here’s the thing: rather than falling, uncritically and unthinkingly, into this trap, we need to instead push back on the ways technology companies coerce and leverage our voices to uphold their power. We as workers must organize for our rights to have and defend our perspectives, our rights, and our platforms, without fear and intimidation. At the very least, we must stop acting as an uncompensated, on-demand defense army for powerful corporations, instead of standing with our peers — as we would want for ourselves, and as we should do for others where and how we can. (For an excellent piece on the importance of worker organization in tech, read Let’s Talk About Pay, by Lauren Voswinkel).
The phenomenon of tech workers operating in the public space as tireless defenders of tech corporations is extremely damaging. It has a terrific negative impact on the movement for social justice and diversity in tech. How do we expect people to continue to speak out about their experiences, call out companies for harmful behavior, and promote a culture of reflection and critique, when they can expect to be dog-piled by their peers, and ostracized from their community for the same? Many people on the receiving end of this report that being attacked by our peers in the community can be even be more damaging, more hurtful, more isolating than the anonymous harassment we receive from hate groups.
So, even if you truly feel you can’t SUPPORT people participating in social justice critique – after all, the costs are high – do you really have to engage in the bullying, silencing, shaming and general bullshit anytime anyone critiques a tech company, even one you have good feelings about? Could you just … not say anything?
But I truly believe this sets the bar too low. What I want to ask from the community is MORE than silence. I want to see tech workers prioritizing EACH OTHER over tech companies… which, may I remind you, are notorious for exploiting our labor, underpaying us, abusing us, colluding to fix our wages… the list goes on and on. Tech companies are not interested in us as people… they are interested in getting more power, and more money: the workforce, the user, hell, even the communities they put their offices in be damned.
So please ask yourself, next time you’re tempted to chime in on the critique du jour with a rousing and patriotic defense of the status quo: Why in the fuck would you stand with billionaires, corrupt power centers, and technology dynasties… over the fucking people that you work alongside?