Tech Workers, Political Speech and Economic Threat

How tech companies claim employees’ identities and speech through direct economic coercion.

by Shanley Kane on January 13th, 2014

In the tech industry, we conflate individual identity and speech with the brand, product, social and ultimately economic production of employers.

Many tech companies have developed an overt or implied cultural expectation that all employees function as evangelists and brand ambassadors for the company. Startups adopt this as an explicit company value, bloggers have been waxing poetic about turning your startup employees into public evangelists for years, and books like Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network by Kate Losse document how the personal identity of early employees at companies like Facebook is used to gain early adoption of product.

Startup Swag from Github: Startups create hundreds of different branded clothing items, items and other 'swag' that is worn by their employees and users all around the world.

Startups create hundreds of different branded clothing items, objects and other “swag” that is worn by their employees and users all around the world.

In San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, the streets are teeming with evidence of the phenomenon: startup workers wear “staff” swag, hoodies and t-shirts emblazoned with their company brand everywhere they go. Corporate identity takes over the physical presentation of its workers, on the clock and off. Even in online spaces, tech worker bios often state their role and employer solely, or before any other biographical or identity information. And individual profiles on GithubTwitter and even personal blogs are all declared the new resume.

In tech, it’s hard to know where companies end and we begin.

Overt and Implicit Threats: We Need to Address Both

There are many threats to social justice discourse in tech. For example, feminist speech is frequently targeted by loosely coordinated online hate groups, groups which execute attacks that directly threaten the physical safety of their targets. Such “incidents” constitute both acts and public performances of violence that can reach an enormous audience as they are covered by the patriarchal tech and mainstream media in search of sensation – simultaneously creating consciousness while they construct a climate of implicit threat to feminist organization.

Image Based Harassment and Visual Misogyny as documented by Anita Sarkeesian.

Image Based Harassment and Visual Misogyny as documented by Anita Sarkeesian.

However, examining or even eliminating these overt threats will not be sufficient to address the more insidious and formally organized mechanisms that threaten social consciousness and speech in tech. Tech culture’s transformation of personal identity into a company asset and site of economic exchange between employee and corporation goes largely unexamined, even though it is one of the most powerful forces threatening political speech across the industry — both enforcing silence and isolating activists, critics, feminists, allies and many others who speak out from tech’s economic and social opportunities.

Identity as Labor?

The conflation of individual and corporate identity is widely believed to be the natural output of a dedicated and passionate tech workforce, rather than an artificial and deliberate corporate strategy. Of course, the ideal of the “passionate and dedicated workforce” so cherished in tech culture relies on the image of the workforce as a self-actualized, united body with no dividing line, much less tension, between the power structure and the individual. At worst, the conflation is seen as a symbiotic relationship in which both company and employees gain access to social opportunity – i.e., working for high visibility companies often results in personal visibility for their employees, and vice versa. As employees draw parts of their social identity and capital from the company, so do employers draw the fruits of that social identity and capital back into the company’s economy.

Yet the cultural expectation that demands employees fulfill public evangelist, marketing, brand, support and community work through their personal and community identity ties those identities explicitly to the economic and power structure of the corporation. This is particularly troubling in the murky spaces of online speech platforms like Twitter, Hacker News, Reddit, Slashdot and Github, where professional discourse, corporate identities, personal identities, technical production and social congress co-exist in the same spaces and are performed in front of the same audiences. For example, an individual might contribute to both corporate open source repositories and personal ones, engage with both personal and professional contacts on public and semi-public forums, and use the same tools, platforms and communities for expressing personal opinions and identities as for performing company-specific acts like online support, technical and brand evangelism, and corporate representation.

Critical text on panopticism is relevant to the discussion of the relationship between today's tech employers and their employees.

Image published under the GNU Free Documentation license, image by Friman.

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. Ultimately, this trend further destroys the barriers between personal space and company space that are epitomized in perk culture, and supports a scenario in which almost all employee facets occur in context of, as a tool of, and under the surveillance and control of the company.

Financial Coercion of Identity and Speech

We end up in a scenario where the individual’s identity, community, popularity and influence – their self and attendant social capital – becomes part of an economic transaction with the company, and subject to its related benefits (for dominant groups) and threats (towards marginalized groups). 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. For example, social capital – particularly in the sense of being well-known, influential and visible in the community – can contribute to the hireability and compensation level of employees in a variety of tech sectors and companies. Particularly for technology companies whose success stems from industry influence, adoption and visibility, these candidates are particularly attractive.

Coercion occurs as a result of tying the individual’s speech and activity within the community to the economic structure of employment. It places all personal expression of employees that occur within community spaces under the ownership or potential ownership by the company, and transforms identity into a company asset. As a result, discourse which threatens the status quo of labor/capital, oppression, inequality and other political issues within the industry occurs directly in the domain of employers. Such speech is automatically and immediately situated within a context of ownership and value exchange that is generally anathema to that speech, as most existing employers within tech benefit from the status quo and are heavily invested in avoiding social justice controversy.

Consequences for Individuals and Communities

Plans for Facebook's Company Town.

Plans for Facebook’s employee housing. As perk culture and tech “company towns” grow, we must also examine how employers claim and police the identities of their employees.

What we need to ask ourselves is this: How many don’t talk about inequality in tech because talking about it is “a career limiting move”? How many people never share their thoughts and feelings about systemic inequality in tech because they are expected to support their employers, and thus the overall system that those employers benefit from, in their personal time, space and identity? How many acts of passionate speech are stifled because passion is the sole purview of our experience as workers? How much do we stay silent because we know our employers and potential recruiters are watching us and what we say in community spaces, and that our jobs and economic positions are tied to what we say there?

Ultimately, how does the company’s increasing encroachment on the mind, heart, soul, speech and body of the employee impact us?

Disproportionate Impact on Under-Represented and Marginalized Persons

It’s critical to note that there are several functions of the overall industry which ensure these dynamics disproportionately impact tech workers who are women and/or PoC and/or LGBTQ, or are members of other marginalized groups in tech. People in these groups often carry the most burden for creating social consciousness in the community and are most likely to suffer from its lack. For example:

  • Due to systemic inequalities, marginalized people are less likely to achieve high-paying leadership positions in tech, and are more likely to be let go and fired. Marginalized people in technology are paid less than dominant groups- for example, women in tech get paid less than men in tech in part because of the way technology jobs are gendered. The fact that VCs don’t invest in women and PoC at anywhere near the rate they invest in white men, means that minorities in tech are denied access to some of its most vital wealth mechanisms. Because of these dynamics which work together to deny economic stability and access, the economic threat of conflating corporate and personal identity can carry more weight.
  • The speech acts of marginalized and underrepresented people are more likely to be tone policed, pathologized and subject to other techniques which discredit via representing them as irrational, angry, unreliable, etc – representations that are particularly likely to get them deemed as “unemployable” by tech companies who lack the social context to interpret these responses, despite the fact that they are well documented in academic, feminist, anti-racist and management texts.
  • People in tech occupying positions of privilege are often rewarded for political speech, while people occupying positions of marginalization and underrepresentation are often punished for the same types of speech. I.e., men in technology who support initiatives for women in tech are often lauded as heroes while women doing the same (or more!) advocacy are villainized, harassed, and considered a social liability to the organization and community.
  • Because of gender roles and norms in the tech community, women are more likely to occupy positions with a specific focus on social and/or caretaking work and community support. They are also held to more restrictive and gendered expectations around politeness and nurturing. Their political speech is thus more likely to be seen as both deviant and threatening to employers.

Devil’s Advocacy

When discussing protection of political speech in tech, we inevitably arrive at the “devil’s advocate” argument: if employees’ political speech must be protected, than we also have to protect faux-political speech acts like discriminatory remarks and jokes that have occasionally (but not often enough) resulted in the termination of persons in high profile positions within tech, such as Pax Dickinson, former CTO of Business Insider.

Pax Dickinson, fired former CTO of Business Insider.

Ultimately, these arguments create a false equivalence between political speech and discrimination, abuse and harassment. Employees whose behavior and biases threaten the equal rights, access and safety of people in the community and in the workplace are a danger to our companies, co-workers and community members. People that engage in behavior that is discriminatory and abusive, or are known to hold values that support such behavior, pose a direct and immediate threat to their co-workers and to the technology community overall. It is for those grounds that such employees are and should be dismissed from their employment, NOT because they are engaging in political speech.

Response AND Representation As a Site for Critique

In discussion of increasing social and critical consciousness in tech, the erasure of diverse technologists and makers from industry representations and consciousness is a critical element. There’s been notable writing on the subject recently, with Miyanda Nehwati writing about erasure of diversity in mainstream representations of Silicon Roundabout, London’s growing startup and tech center, and a new work from Jillian C. York for Democracy Journal focused on the marginalization of women intellectuals in the tech field. Meanwhile, representation of marginalized groups in tech at conferences was a major topic in 2013.

Social and cultural criticism, and discussion of structural and interpersonal inequality, is foundational to reform, or even revolution, in the technology sector. In the conversation about representation, or lack thereof, we must also discuss response to speech around social justice and diversity in tech and how that affects the success, viability and continuity of consciousness-raising efforts in tech. Creating conditions within the technology community that encourage political expression is as pressing as ensuring its representation.

Tech workers need to work against the conflation of their personal identity and speech with their economic status within companies. This is an entrenched cultural value in Silicon Valley and must be attacked by external and internal critique, more explicit contracts between labor and capital, and more open discussion about the implications of the “employee-as-evangelist” model.

Until we can address both the overt violence aimed at political speech in tech AND the underlying economic systems that silence it, we will also not be able to extend true community protection and support to the activists, writers, artists, critics and organizers at the forefront of bringing this consciousness into our practice of technology. And we will fail to create the conditions necessary for widespread critical consciousness in the community and industry.