Dear tech workers:
Long year, huh?
I get it. Your industry is under siege. Whether you work at an established giant such as Facebook or Google, a private company such as Uber or Palantir, or a lesser-known startup, it feels as if you’re being attacked from a thousand directions. People are comparing your companies to Big Tobacco, and Congress is accusing your executives of undermining democracy, poisoning users’ brains and censoring content.
All of a sudden, Silicon Valley – once the golden child of U.S. industry – has become a villain.
Some of the backlash probably feels excessive. After all, the tech industry still creates useful things and employs lots of decent and ethical people. But I’ve talked to a number of tech workers recently, and I’ve seen you wrestling with your consciences. Some of you have stopped wearing your company T-shirts around town, fearing dirty looks from strangers. Others have taken extended vacations after a particularly shameful scandal, or asked for a transfer within a company. More than a few of you have had awkward conversations with your parents.
Here’s the thing, though: You don’t have to keep your concerns bottled up.
You are your employers’ most valuable assets, and your bosses are desperate to keep you happy. As tech companies take on increasingly vital roles in global commerce and culture, you have the power to shape the way they operate and the ethical standards they uphold.
If you want change, all you have to do is organize and speak up.
In most industries, rank-and-file workers don’t have much say. The power of organized labour in the United States has been shrinking since the 1980s, and other than a few notable teachers’ strikes this year, large-scale collective action is rare these days.
But tech is different. Unlike factories or airlines, tech companies live and die on their ability to attract and retain top talent. A shortage of skilled workers has led to lucrative bidding wars, tipping the balance of power in workers’ favour. Because many of them are attracted to altruistic missions – and unhappy or morally conflicted workers can easily find other jobs – executives are compelled to listen to them.
“Tech workers are the only point of leverage on these big companies,” said Maciej Ceglowski, the founder of the social bookmarking service Pinboard.
Mr. Ceglowski, who has started an advocacy organization called Tech Solidarity, said that the typical instruments used to rein in corporate misbehaviour – customer boycotts, shareholder activism and outside regulation – aren’t likely to work on the largest Silicon Valley companies.
Instead, change at these companies will need to come from the inside.
“Even a couple hundred employees working in concert could bring a site like Google to its knees,” Mr. Ceglowski said.
Some tech workers are already starting to flex their muscles. Employees from large tech companies led an effort to oppose the travel ban announced by U.S. President Donald Trump last year. And employees of Facebook, Google, Intel, Cisco and Stripe attended a demonstration at the headquarters of Palantir to protest the company’s development of surveillance technology for federal immigration enforcers. Just this month, more than 3,000 Google employees signed a letter objecting to the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that could use artificial intelligence to improve the accuracy of drone strikes.
But these are just warm-up skirmishes. For maximum effect, tech workers will need to scrutinize not just their employers’ government ties, but their products, business models and basic standards. And they’ll need to do it in public.
Recall what happened at Uber. Women inside the company complained for years about the problematic behaviour of former chief executive Travis Kalanick and other company leaders. But it wasn’t until Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, published her story of sexual harassment that things changed.
Without Ms. Fowler’s brave disclosure – and her colleagues’ willingness to back her up after she went public – it’s entirely possible that Mr. Kalanick would still be CEO and Uber would still be run by boorish bros.
Typically, when workers speak out or organize, it’s because they want higher wages, better working conditions or stronger job security. Those aren’t your problems. You probably work manageable hours in tastefully decorated buildings with free food, ergonomic desk furniture and plentiful amenities. Your compensation is generous. And you’re in little danger of being fired or retaliated against, especially if you’re part of a large group.
The possibilities for you are so much greater. What if Facebook employees publicly took their executives to task for neglecting the real-world violence their products are causing in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka? What if Google or Twitter employees threatened to walk unless their executives took major action against radical extremists and hate speech? What if Apple employees insisted that the company stop parking billions of dollars in offshore tax shelters, or Amazon engineers threatened to quit unless the company paid its warehouse workers higher wages?
And that’s before we even get to the thorny ethical debates surrounding technologies such as artificial intelligence, in which companies’ goals – amass huge amounts of data to help train increasingly sophisticated machine-learning models – may be at odds with what’s good for society.
There are few signs that Washington is capable of policing the use of emerging technologies. And while companies such as Google have formed their own AI ethics groups, those groups are ultimately powerless if executives decide to ignore their advice.
That leaves an opening for you.
“It’s not clear where the pressure’s going to come from otherwise,” said Leslie Berlin, a Stanford historian who has studied Silicon Valley’s labour culture.
Some tech workers are already making noise about unionizing, and service workers at several tech companies have already joined unions. But even if traditional labour unions don’t take hold in Silicon Valley, there are still plenty of avenues for influence. The Tech Workers Coalition, a group of hundreds of concerned industry employees, has chapters in San Francisco, Seattle and San Jose, and a group called Tech Action began meeting in New York this year. The Center for Humane Technology, a group of ex-tech workers, has been pushing for ethical product development.
These groups are still small, and none has produced concrete results yet. But they are early signs that greater political consciousness is stirring in the industry.
In a tech-dominated world, when the decisions made by a handful of Silicon Valley executives have the ability to reshape countries and transform billions of lives, there’s no better time to stand up. Together, you can encourage your employers to behave in ethical and humane ways, and blow the whistle publicly when they fall short.
Organizing yourselves to push for change isn’t just a viable option – it may be the only way out of this mess.