Last week, thousands of Google employees walked out of dozens of Google offices around the world. The galvanizing moment seemed to stem from a recent New York Times investigation revealing the founder of Android was a gross sex pest who Google not only protected during his time there, but when his offenses became too much to deal with, provided him with a $90 million golden parachute. But Rubin was just the latest incident in a number of workplace offenses Google commits against its employees, as illustrated by the list of demands the walkout organizers published at New York magazine’s The Cut. This was a glimmer of collective action: simple, impactful assertion of power by laborers. Tech employees need to do a lot more of this, for themselves but also for the people who their companies impact. Given that most other forces have failed to reign these companies and platforms in, tech employees might be our last, if semi-irrational, hope.
The actual U.S. government, incompetent as it is at many things, has whiffed every single chance to manage the tsunami of impact companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google have had on our political process: Foreign influences on social media effectively stole the presidential election; Facebook lets literally anyone run a political ad under anyone else’s name and even lets them target white supremacists, if they’re feeling it; both companies regularly, prominently feature fake news stories in their carousels, trending tags, and on news feeds, and normalize a shocking amount of racism and discrimination through features like search autocomplete and optimized search results. Orrin Hatch only recently learned how Facebook is able to offer its services “for free.”
This is all to say nothing of the unrest companies like Facebook have caused in other countries, fueling a refugee crisis in Myanmar, laying waste to the recent Brazilian election, and possibly fostering anti-refugee violence in Germany. Concrete results aside, it is quite clear that these platforms have played an enormous role in overindexing, amplifying, and thereby generally normalizing far-right, nationalist, racist sentiments in any country unfortunate enough to have access to them, which at this point is unfortunately most of the planet.
Obviously platform executives know what they are doing, at least better than any of us, and have started to concede that beyond a certain point, fake conspiracy garbage and traffic are too united in purpose for growth to be a sustainable sole aim of any platform that doesn’t end nuclear apocalypse; it needs to be tempered somehow with community management. Unfortunately, shit is already quite out of control, and disentangling the mess is, at best, against any of these companies’ short term business interests. They’ve made some vague gestures: Facebook put a bunch of people and computers in an election ‘war room’ in hopes of bamboozling some credulous tech reporters into thinking that would help anything; Twitter forcibly removed the #KillAllJews trending tag. Their trophies are in the mail.
But you know who has probably a great sense of not only what the problems the world is facing thanks to these companies, but also what resources might be marshaled to fix them? The people who work there. At the risk of stating the incredibly obvious at those people: Your companies need you. There are more of you than there are of them. You have the power to terrify them into action, if you care about injustices (that the Google walkout happened suggested many do). At the risk of saying something that is easy for me to say and probably hard for you to do: You should walk out. Help us, please, god, our country needs this.
I know this is a hard sell due to the fact that the company you work for is the company that also pays you, and also that when they make money, you make money, and everyone wins. However, this has always been true of any organized labor effort, particularly in skilled specialist labor (Which, no Facebook, Twitter, or Google employee should believe what they do is anything but extremely specialized and skilled. Anyone who tells you otherwise has Silicon Valley circlejerk brain worms. Software engineering is hard.) I’m not exactly sure what Facebook messages to you, Facebook employees, but the other side of the “your skills are special, rare, and cherished” coin is “you have bargaining power.”
Even if you are blithely happy going to and fro and around the tech company campus, enjoying the free cereal and beer and gyms, for which I eminently cannot blame you, it’s long past time we look outside ourselves. Tech companies directly enforce inequality, and collective action when it comes to labor hasn’t been so anemic in a long time. Should this responsibility fall to you? Maybe not. But wouldn’t it be nice to feel actually good about what you’re doing to and in the world, to see that impact actually play out, rather than have to buy Zuckerberg’s and Dorsey’s and Brin’s narratives that directly contradict what you can see with your own two eyes, which is that where everything continues to fall apart, Twitter, Facebook, and Google are conspicuously always there?