SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM

Description

In June we met to investigate “surveillance capitalism” i.e. How do big companies make money off our data?

Data collection and analysis is not new. It has long been practiced by banks, insurers, finance, and many other industries. But with the advent of increasingly complex networked tools and social platforms, data mining—and its conversion into profits—has ramped up significantly. What effects does this have on society? What will this landscape look like in the future? And how might we on the left put this technology to better use?

We were joined by two speakers to help us sort this out: Ingrid Burrington and Rob Horning.

Readings

  1. The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism: Google as a Fortune Teller A long piece, but the best at defining what exactly we’re talking about, by Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term “surveillance capitalism.”

  2. The Data Is Ours! Our friend, tech journalist and DSA-member Ben Tarnoff, extending the metaphor of “data-as-oil” to examine possible forms of regulation.

  3. Bonus readings:

Discussion Questions

  1. What is surveillance capitalism?

  2. Where is data being collected? How?

  3. How is this surveillance being turned into profits now? How might that change in the future?

  4. How can we implement public, democratic control over corporate/government data systems?

  5. What might the public hope to gain?

VERIZON FIOS & THE LABOR PERSPECTIVE ON MUNICIPAL BROADBAND

Description

For our March meeting we heard from Bob Master, the District 1 Political Director of the Communication Workers of America (CWA)—the union representing Verizon FiOS technicians, and the largest union to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016. He’s also a co-founder of the NY Working Families Party and a longtime socialist labor organizer.

We asked him:

How did neoliberalism in the 80s tip the balance of power in favor of cable/fiber providers and what have labor unions done to fight against them?

(The anti-trust break-up of Bell Telephone gave way to de-regulation and reconsolidation starting in the 80s and on through to today. For the most part, the unions have fought for better contracts for their workers, but not against expansion.)

How did the city’s deal with Verizon to install fiber internet service (“FiOS”) across the entire city come about, and how has Verizon’s profit motive led to crappier, unequal service?

(It came about under the Bloomberg administration in an attempt to bridge the digital divide. It did not take into account affordability, so low-income residents have not benefited from “access.” Installation is unequal, but not in the way you would expect—wealthier, historic, less-dense neighborhoods have proven more difficult to wire.)

How does the feasibility of a hypothetical citywide public broadband internet service in NYC compare to that of the program in Chattanooga, and would organized labor support such a program?

(A. There is no preexisiting grid to lay a new system over in NYC. Chances of the City expropriating broadband infrastructure from Verizon or another bad actor are slim and pretty much unprecedented. B. Unions would fight against a public option that would compete with their employer, and potentially jeopardize their jobs with hard-won salaries and benefits.)

Readings

  1. 1 million NYC homes can’t get Verizon FiOS, so the city just sued Verizon. News article from a year ago about the city’s lawsuit against Verizon for breach of the FiOS contract.

  2. The New Sewer Socialists Are Building an Equitable Internet. All about the wildly successful municipal broadband program in Chattanooga, written by Tech Action member and previous guest speaker Evan Malmgren.

  3. Municipal Fiber Networks and Public Private Partnerships for Fiber Deployment: A Summary of the Evidence. CWA research summary, dated a few years ago, on municipal broadband programs around the US and the union’s view of their strengths, weaknesses, and feasibility.

Discussion Questions

  1. Now that we’ve heard the labor perspective, how can that guide our thinking on municipal broadband in NY?

  2. Is it still a goal we might try to fight for as DSA?

  3. What are some steps we can take in that direction?

  4. What reforms can we fight for that the union might like to see as well?

  5. If the prospects for local muni-broadband are slim, how can we be involved in this fight on the state level? National level?

From Net Neutrality to Public Internet

Description

In January 2018 “Net Neutrality” was on everyone’s minds. Our goal for this meeting was to shift our thinking about net neutrality away from liberal tech regulation and toward the conflict between public and private ownership of the internet infrastructure.

Readings

  1. Backbone Bullies. An oldie but goodie for understanding some of the outcome of the public vs. private tension in the earlier days of the internet.

  2. Nationalize the Networks. By Evan Malmgren, writer and Tech Action member. Making the case for public internet ownership.

  3. Koch Brothers Are Cities’ New Obstacle to Building Broadband. Get a taste for how capital organizes to politically oppose the kind of public internet we want.

  4. Bonus readings:

Discussion questions

  1. We’re interested in going “beyond net neutrality.” But as both an end goal, and political campaign, what what are the pros and cons of the fight for “Net Neutrality”?

  2. Could broadband internet access be seen as a public good?

  3. Why might the left be interested in the infrastructure of the internet (as distinct from the platforms and corporations who currently dominate and mediate our online experience)?

  4. What are some of the advantages to municipal broadband programs?

  5. What role can the federal government play? What might a national campaign for public internet infrastructure look like?

  6. How can the left motivate people to care about public broadband, alongside bread and butter issues like healthcare and income? What can we do to get this issue widely adopted?

  7. How does the fight for Medicare for All compare to a hypothetical fight for public internet?

SOCIALISTS ON DAMORE

Description

This meeting was centered on a group discussion about the many issues surrounding the case of James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired after internally publishing an anti-diversity memo. We did not discuss the ideas put forth in the memo or Damore himself, per se – that’s been covered elsewhere – but rather the political questions surrounding them. We asked a few participants with first-person experience facing workplace descrimination to speak first before opening the discussion to the group.

Readings

  1. Why Can’t Silicon Valley Solve Its Diversity Problem? The tech industry has pervasive issues with hiring—and retaining—women, black, and Latino employees. Now a bevy of startups hopes to expand the recruiting process.

  2. Silicon Intersectionality. How big business came to love sounding progressive while protecting status and privilege.

  3. Corporations are cracking down on free speech inside the office — and out. With the firing of James Damore, Google reignited longstanding debates about speech and work.

Discussion Questions

Discrimination

  1. What forms of discrimination are prominent in the tech industry, and what recourse is there when it happens?

  2. What are the limitations of relying on HR and the industry itself to address discrimination?

  3. What motivates Google to oppose Damore’s discrimination against women in tech? What motivates socialists to oppose it? How do those motivations differ?

  4. With a stronger Left presence in tech, like labor unions or the threat thereof, what could be done about cases of discrimination in the tech workplace?

Diversity

  1. How are tech companies adopting diversity efforts to advance corporate interests?

  2. How or why is this concept particularly pervasive in the tech industry, in comparison to other industries?

  3. What’s the significance of the fact that diversity efforts in the tech industry often speak only to professional and managerial workers?

  4. Workers must often adhere to a nebulous “corporate culture.” Who creates this culture? Who enforces it? How much influence do workers have?

Labor Rights and Organizing

  1. How does Damore’s memo relate to debates around free speech? To what extent is his memo political speech?

  2. What are some examples of bosses firing workers for their political views? How do labor unions mitigate that?

  3. Do Alt Right sympathizers in the tech workforce, like Damore, pose a problem for potential labor organizing efforts? How should a union position itself with respect to such workers (who may themselves be members)?

  4. Should socialists defend Damore and others like him when their companies fire them?

Biological Determinism

  1. Damore’s pseudoscientific claims about biology, a kind of biological determinism, were used to justify discrimination against women in tech. What are other examples of such biological determinism being invoked by the Right?

  2. What are the limitations of opposing the Right’s biological determinism by meticulously debunking their claims?

WORKER DEMANDS IN THE TECH INDUSTRY

Description

In this meeting we discussed how organized workers make demands, and what those demands might look like in the tech industry.

Readings

  1. As temp sector grew, so did appeal of union: Microsoft campus labmates bargain for benefits. On the organizing efforts by Microsoft contractors that do bug testing.

  2. Chronicle of a Strike. On the successful 2016 strike by CWA-affiliated Verizon technicians and wireless workers (which NYC-DSA played a significant role in).

  3. Italian IBM workers strike. A fun little historical note. Sorry about the image quality. Check out their slogan “Blue Collar, White Collar, Same Fight!” – a great example of what we talked about in our last meeting!

  4. Reasons to be Skeptical of Silicon Valley’s ‘Never Again’ Pledge. On the “Never Again” pledge by individual tech workers not to build a so-called Muslim registry for Trump.

  5. Optional Readings:

    1. The Long Road to Victory. A (long-ish) interview highlighting a recent (almost-) strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, a democratic union fighting for education justice in Chicago, with a strong leftist caucus helping guide it. Read about all the ways in which the union is fighting for broader leftist goals in Chicago beyond just workplace concerns (which are inherently student concerns too).

    2. Tech Workers: Friends or Foes? A recent Jacobin essay that’s a wonderful addition to our last meeting! The gentrification discussion is particularly interesting.

    3. Rumblings of Organizing in Silicon Valley. Another fun historical article, on (the pitfalls of) an organizing attempt by research technicians in Silicon Valley in the 70s. Lots to learn about organizing within tech, not all of it good.

    4. To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now. An interesting piece examining the role of blue-collar workers in the tech industry, and specifically how contract work allow for big companies to sidestep regulation and inflate their value.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do the Microsoft workers’ status as contractors affect their demands and their organizing?

  2. What from the CWA strikers’ problems and demands might be relevant in the tech industry?

  3. How do IBM strikers’ demands take into account an inequality in the workplace?

  4. In what ways does the ‘Never Again’ pledge differ from the others kinds of demands we’re talking about?

  5. Are the demands universally applicable to the workers in a particular tech workplace? How might demands be made in solidarity with contractors?

  6. Do the demands appeal to (material) self-interest or to compassion? In cases of fighting for a minority group (e.g. women in tech), how can that gap be bridged?

  7. Do the demands address only the workers themselves, or do they have a political reach beyond the workplace?

  8. Most importantly: Think about your own demands! 🤔 What would you like to see changed in your tech (or tech-esque) workplaces?

LABOR AND LABOR ORGANIZING IN THE TECH INDUSTRY

Description

In July of 2017 we held a meeting to begin thinking about what constitutes labor in the tech industry, who “tech workers” are, and how we might think about organizing these workers.

Readings

  1. Trump’s Tech Opposition. Tech employees who increasingly see themselves as workers will be an important sector of resistance to Trump’s agenda.

  2. Programmers in India Have Created the Country’s First Tech-Sector Union. Responding to an Indian tech economy in flux, workers are demanding representation.

Discussion Questions

  1. What kind of work is done in the tech industry?

  2. What do blue collar and white collar workers have in common? What distinguishes them?

  3. What role does both white- and blue-collar contracting play in this?

  4. Why do socialists focus on workers?

  5. Why should we organize the tech industry specifically?

  6. What might a strike in the tech industry look like? What kinds of work, if stopped due to strike, would result in lost profits?

  7. Matt Schaefer lists some problems faced in the tech industry: “Ageism, unequal pay, discrimination, and data privacy concerns.” How might an organization of tech workers mitigate these problems?

  8. Kristen Sheets says that (white-collar) tech workers are, “Understanding that their conditions are actually those of a worker. They’re realizing that they have a specific relationship to production that’s extremely different than that of an entrepreneur or a CEO.” What’s a relationship to production and what is the distinction she’s making here?

  9. Kristen Sheets also mentions that tech workers, “Have a strategic position with regard to our place in production that we can leverage to stand in solidarity with other workers.“ What do you think she means?

  10. What do tech workers in India have in common with tech workers in the US?

  11. Michelle Chen writes: “With good jobs evaporating on both sides of the Pacific and the labor visa supply potentially dwindling, only organizing, not fighting each other for jobs, can stop the ‘race to the bottom’ on a global scale.” What’s the “race to the bottom” in this context? What enables that race between the US and India?

  12. On one hand, the elite owners of the tech industry (Zuckerberg, et al) want to expand the H-1B visa program through which many Indian and other immigrant workers get tech jobs in the US. On the other hand, Trump wants to reduce the program and “reshore” jobs in the US, a goal that is exacerbating the predictions of job losses in India as described in this report. Between a rock and a hard place, where should socialists stand on the issue of H-1B visas? (Hint: reject them both)