For the third day in a row, I found myself crying in the Dropbox meditation room. A glass box with interior curtains situated in the middle of the sales floor, it was neither soundproof nor private; the sounds of ringing desk phones and salespeople making cold calls made it an impossible space for meditation. Like many office perks in Silicon Valley, this meditation room was mostly designed for marketing, along with the ping pong tables and beer on tap. While virtue signalling towards employee wellness, these perks mostly served to lure people into entry-level jobs they are otherwise uninterested in or over-qualified for. The message was clear: research shows meditation can help workers be more productive, we’ll allow it in the workplace. But do it quickly, and get back on the phones.
I was hired out of college to do an unofficial “rotational programme” job at Dropbox. Recruiters and hiring managers sold a vision of endless opportunity, the ideal place to start your career. After getting your foot in the door with a year or two of sales and customer support, cushy jobs in marketing or product were right around the corner—roles were available in any area of the company you may want to specialise in, including new teams that hadn’t even been created yet. With a new COO and more focus on an IPO, external experience suddenly became more valuable than home-grown talent and for most of us that promised career growth never materialised.
Many Dropbox managers echoed a piece of advice that Google CEO Eric Schmidt once gave to Facebook’s now-COO Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” On this particular rocket ship, I found myself in a dead-end sales team with nowhere to grow. The managers who echo this metaphor never mention that many rocket ships do, in fact, explode.
I was eventually able to transfer to another team that I was interested in before changing companies altogether. However, not all entry-level employees have that same opportunity. Silicon Valley companies are increasingly hiring contract workers to do the jobs that entry-level full-time employees used to do. Reflecting back on the stress of those early years of my career in Silicon Valley, I now understand how my experience fits within a wider narrative of large tech companies exploiting their workers in a variety of ways.
Since the opening days of the United States’ recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, the public imagination has been fixated on the mythic office perks, astronomical pay, and outlandish benefits in the technology industry. However, these benefits are a reality mostly reserved for its upper echelon full-time employees and software engineers, leaving behind the scores of contract workers who test code, moderate content, drive shuttle buses and secure tech campuses. Google, for example, reportedly employed more contractors than full-time employees in 2018. These cost-cutting measures at large tech firms reinforce a neoliberal order that mirrors the widening income inequality across the United States. The same industry that is willing to pay top software engineers $1 million each year is equally able to achieve this by paying contract workers less than 50 percent of the median salary of full-time employees.
But workers have taken notice of this growing fad. Groups of contract workers across Silicon Valley are successfully winning union battles and subsequently reshaping the landscape of jobs in the industry. In August 2018, a union made up of employees from the industry’s four largest security guard contractors won their negotiations for health care coverage and a wage increase. In a ‘progressive’ industry that promises to ‘move fast and break things’, large tech companies have been stubbornly opposed to improving the lives of workers. The security guard’s union took five years to negotiate their health care coverage and wage increase deal—an eternity in the context of boom-and-bust Silicon Valley.
While blue-collar contract workers in Silicon Valley have been fighting for equality for a few years, it seems that the labour consciousness of white-collar contractors and even full-time employees has just begun to catch on. The polarised activism of the post-Trump era has contributed to single-issue worker organisation in Silicon Valley at an unprecedented scale. At Google, an open letter denouncing the company’s plans to sell AI to the Pentagon for use in drone strikes accrued thousands of signatures and publicly pressured their executives to change course. In the midst of the 2018 zero-tolerance crisis along the Mexican-U.S. border, Salesforce employees spoke out publicly against the company’s deal with Customs and Border Protection, encouraging other organisations to refuse the donations of Salesforce’s charity arm until they cancelled their relationship with the agency. While these public displays of defiance have yet to win any major concessions, the message has been clear: organised workers can publicly pressure tech firms to cater for their demands.
So what is to be done? For full-time employees of technology companies, the first step is to remove the rose-coloured glasses and realise that these companies are fallible and capable of treating their workers unfairly. Secondly, full-time employees should support the efforts of their company’s contract workers as they unionise or bargain for better health care, paid sick leave or overtime pay. Seek out internal groups or mailing lists that support these efforts, or simply ask your colleagues who are contract workers if there are any efforts in flight that you can lend your support to. Thirdly, leverage the already-established power of employee resource groups to put pressure behind these efforts. Imagine the pressure of “[email protected]”, “[email protected]”, “[email protected]” and other employee organisations coming together to make demands for a higher minimum wage for cafeteria workers or for their executives to dismantle contracts with ICE.
Employee resource groups already hold a lot of power within tech companies and in many cases, they are already well-organised and self-administered. If you are a leader or future leader in one of these groups, it will be important to impart the DNA of intersectionality in your organisation. It is important to draw the linkage between the struggles of women, African-Americans or LGBTQ employees with the struggles faced by contract workers. When united, all groups can achieve more than they could by themselves. Amazon or Google can always replace an engineer, but it becomes more difficult to replace hundreds or thousands who are bargaining or striking together towards a specific outcome. And, in some distant future where these same employees may own the means of production that have made this industry one of the world’s most powerful, nascent unions and employee resource groups can be the bedrock of an intersectional coalition of workers that can finally achieve those distant missions to “not be evil” and to “make the world a better place.”
There’s currently a huge move happening in Silicon Valley. Big Tech is just starting to figure out that any technology’s design can have unintentional consequences on users, and any intended consequences may have unexpected long-term effects—a realisation that should have been obvious from the beginning.
Lately, this movement has been championed by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, whose treatises on the ways that contemporary technologies “hijack our psychological vulnerabilities” led him to quit the big G and found the Center for Humane Technology. On April 23, Harris presented Humane: A New Agenda for Tech which explained the organisation’s mission to combat the extractive techniques utilised by our modern attention economy. According to Harris and the Center for Humane Technology, the current technological paradigm preys on human weaknesses, exploiting us for financial profit, rather than compensating for the vulnerabilities hardwired into our nature and making the world an easier place to live in.
While organisation’s like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution have existed for years to help preserve the relationship between humans and technology, it is only recently that these topics have taken centre stage in American conversations surrounding ethical applications of technology. As we settle into the post-post-internet era, the critical need to understand the long-term effects of the information economy on a global audience’s ability to tell fact from fiction or exercise self-control has reached a fever pitch. Something’s gotta give.
Online advertising employs certain kinds of algorithmic technology that have made the tension between human needs and the coercive pull of technological design especially apparent. By design, a social media platform like Facebook works to extract attention from a captive audience. The more time a user spends watching or scrolling, the more money the platform makes. Our data is mined and algorithmically exploited to spew content at us that will keep our eyes locked on a screen for longer. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, for example, actively works to break down free will in that it attempts to show us videos that are increasingly difficult to resist clicking on. This has led to the propagation of radical content across the network, as increasingly extreme videos are particularly effective at captivating viewers.
While data use, on the one hand, is a major issue, perhaps more frightening are the ways that black box algorithms invisibly shape the digital bubbles that surround us online—practically without us knowing it. The advertising rules for Facebook, for example, prohibit (among other things) any discussion of mental health, cryptocurrency or sex. These rules don’t just apply for products or services, but also non-profit groups and news publications. Take a small tech news business (like Screen Shot, for instance) that almost exclusively deals with these kinds of topics in relation to digital culture. Or, alternatively, a mental health group that wants to advertise its group grief counselling sessions to a wider audience that might need some help.
It’s true that the engineers behind these decisions probably had somewhat benevolent intentions—something along the lines of protecting young and vulnerable users from inappropriate content or pyramid schemes—the unintended consequences have been devastating. Advertisers who attempt to post content that violates advertising rules without in-depth knowledge of the subtleties of these policies risk content deletion, account suspension, or worse, shadow banning. Moreover, these policies stifle rich possibilities for conversation and cross-pollination of ideas.
As users, our options remain slim to combat these forms of algorithmic control. We naturally want to connect with other people, and we also naturally enjoy the targeted advertisements that more closely fit our needs. These advertising methods work, and e-commerce economies rely on the very high conversion rates that social media platforms offer, which is why these practices have only ramped up.
But, technologies of the extractive attention economy throw up major blinders that prevent users from branching into new digital ecosystems and instead confine us to shrinking online spheres. Instead of protecting users, algorithmic surveillance, biased content moderation, and artificially imposed social advertising regulations threaten free speech and damage the ability of smaller entities to competitively engage in their markets.
The solution? Hard to say beyond ‘don’t use social media’. Raising your voice and letting your chosen social media provider know that you disagree with some of their content moderation strategies might be a good option, but then again it’s hard to think that Facebook might change its mind about this stuff. These same damaging regulatory technologies also prevent child pornography, money laundering scams, and illegal goods from flooding your timeline, provide crucial targeted advertising on smaller scales for smaller entities and pay the bills of your favourite influencers so you can get more piping hot tea delivered to your feed on a regular basis.
More than ever, it is vital that every internet user pays attention to the frame, rather than just the content that passes across the surface of the screen.