Earlier this year, FCR attended a reading by Corey Pein promoting his book, followed by a Q&A. We approached Pein about doing a more in-depth discussion of his book and he graciously agreed. His book is worth reading, both because it’s frequently funny, but also because it talks in great detail about the precarity of the Silicon Valley economy and some of the unsavory history surrounding it.
The discussion below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Was the tech world worse than you were anticipating? Or was it about as bad as you expected?
That’s interesting. I would say it depends on where you start that question. The book was, I guess, four years from contract to publication. Most of a year spent doing on-the-ground reporting, six-to-eight months in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and a lot more research on top of that. So you can start from there, or you can start from the experiences I had with a really earnest attempt to transition into the tech world from print journalism, or you could start with my childhood interest in computers. I would say from any of those starting points, the industry has always been worse, up close and in person, than I imagined. Even when I thought it was going to be bad, the reality has always proven to be worse and more frightening.
Would you say San Francisco was different from what your expectations were?
I had some sense of the gentrification and changes that have affected the city since the latest tech boom. But I will tell you that a lot of friends said, “Oh, well, you like Portland so you’ll love San Francisco.”
I really got the strong sense that would have been true had I arrived 10 or 15 years earlier. The San Francisco that I got to know when I was doing my reporting reminded more of parts of New York that I didn’t really like, like Wall St. Kind of like the culture had been stripped out of the place. I’m not saying that to pick on San Francisco, there were a lot of things I actually did like about it, but I see it happening in other cities and I think it’s a cautionary tale.
I would say that my vision of San Francisco is informed more by really out-of-date, almost Boomer-era references. I think for a lot of the rest of the country, that’s still the idea that persists. Even in Silicon Valley.
It’s very similar to Seattle. I grew up in Washington state, and Seattle also is unrecognizable from the Seattle of my childhood. And in some ways, some things have been properly fixed. The fact there’s a better mass transit system is a good thing, right? There are some other changes that are unquestionably improvements, but a lot of what’s happened has been displacement, and the removal of the poor, and the transition of a great, major American city into a kind of company town.
Similar to Silicon Valley, in Seattle you had Microsoft’s major presence, but they were happy to have their company town in the suburbs and left well enough alone in the city. And with Amazon it’s been different.
In San Francisco I think that has been the case from the previous tech booms. Their relationship to the suburbs and to San Jose, which is kind of a suburban-feeling city in a way, was that the big tech companies would sort of have their estates out in the country, basically, and leave the city alone. But now it’s like with the big Web 2.0 companies, Google and Facebook especially, you’ve got this reverse commute phenomenon where their well-paid workers take over housing in the city and commute out to the suburbs, which is an inversion of what’s been the traditional sort of American commute since the second World War.
It’s almost like the cities are being turned into parks for the wealthy, as opposed to places where people evolve, where classes and races live. We’re losing that.
One of the things you mentioned at the reading, you talked about Bernie Sanders having significant financial support from the tech sector. Was that something that surprised you, and if not, do you think that's attributable to a certain awareness in the tech sector about the precarity of this kind of work?
It did surprise me, and I think it’s directly related not just to the precarity of the work, but the lack of autonomy that many developers and engineers have, whether they work for a startup or a large tech company.
I’ve talked about how, I get into this a little bit in the book, developers and programmers are segmented, almost like people who work for intelligence agencies or something, into their own little compartmentalized areas, and given one piece of a much larger puzzle to work on. And they have very little control over the final product of their work, or the direction of the company that they work for. Or very few ways to advocate for themselves, and organizing is difficult as well because of that compartmentalization.
The support you’re starting to see at tech companies for candidates like Bernie Sanders, or labor organziations and organizations like the DSA, is a byproduct of people who’ve been at these jobs for a few years kind of wising up to the many ways which they are being exploited and seeking ways to do something about it.
The difference in the reactions that I got to my readings between the East Coast, where the tech industry is still big in terms of the kind of money it can throw around but there are still a lot of other major industries, and the Bay Area was really striking to me.
Because some of the ideas that are in the book, people in the Bay Area seem almost scared to talk about. There is a lot of surveillance in the workplace at these tech companies. There’s a lot of, really, I would say, hypersensitivity to criticism in the tech sector, as well, at all levels.
Because people know how long-time Mission residents feel about some of the newcomers. I mean the tensions are right there on the surface all the time, and nobody wants to be accused of being a gentrifier or a negative presence. But some of the more thoughtful people who are in that position are reflecting on it, whereas others, like James Damore being the safest example to talk about because he’s made himself a public figure, and the easiest reference point, he’d represent the other pole. Confronted with the fact that you have this privilege and are responsible in some way for producing a negative effect among the people around you and their day-to-day lives, the response is to dig in your heels and get more reactionary and more defensive, and we do see both trends.
But I am heartened by those sort of leftward trends that you mentioned in the tech sector, particularly among some of the younger workers.
I would expect that it’s not people who are just out of college joining startups and tech companies who are having that view, by the way, I would expect it’s people who’ve been around for a few years and have seen the way things work, and that’s part of the reason why there’s so much age discrimination in tech.
You can’t have your highly-skilled, hard-to-replace workforce start making demands. You gotta push them out the door before they wise up to your game and start to organize. That’s the challenge I think, one of the challenges, to organizing the tech sector.
Do you see an irony in how much of the industry is built on open-source software? Do you see it as maybe a way of defensively protecting against trouble with software patents?
There is an irony to it, I would say. Especially given the values that the open-source movement espouses, although it is not like a unified movement, right? There are people who are adamantly open source, and adamantly pro-profit, pro-free-marketeers, and then there are people who are more on the Stallman side of things that still exists with GNU Liunx, and the point of open source is that it’s non-commercial.
I would say that I wondered how many companies, start-ups especially, that are using open source software are complying with the licenses for that. There’s no real effective mechanism that I’m aware of for those licenses to be enforced in a meaningful way, and certainly not at scale, and there’s certainly very little incentive to do so.
It could be a kind of defense against patents. The whole patent troll thing is a really complicated discussion. I think there are real patent trolls as they are portrayed by the industry, I also think there are large companies that would like to diminish other peoples’ legitimate patents and copyrights when it’s in their interests to do as monopolies. So the discussion and the jargon around it, much like the net neutrality discussion, it confuses in many ways more than it clarifies. The same is true of the patents issue and open source in general.
There was another book that came out a couple of years ago by a British writer named Paul Mason, I think it was called “Post Capitalism”, and he was very bullish on tech and open source, and he gushed about how the preponderance of open source software at commercial companies showed that the tech sector was creating a kind of post-capitalism, or hybrid capitalism, and I just don’t buy that analysis.
Simply because, yes, the companies are underwriting much of this open source software development themselves, and they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t in their short- and long-term financial interests. As far as whether it shields them against patent-trolls, I don’t know. An IP lawyer might be able to give you a better answer on that. But I don’t think that every time a company uses open source software that it’s good, or that it’s challenging the system in any way. I think that’s the important point to make.
Going back to your book, your character Gazi seemed to think it was pretty clear that the current tech boom is another bubble, despite the fact that companies are making profits and have customers. Do you agree? Or do you think that tech has become such an important means of controlling the flow of information, and enabling certain kinds of monopolies, that the kind of backstopping of banks that we saw in 2008 might be used to prop up the tech sector to prevent the bubble from bursting?
You know that’s the question of the day as far as it comes to Silicon Valley, and I’ve gone back and forth on the answer since I’ve finished the book, and almost on a weekly basis since it’s been published. I think both are possible. There are strong arguments in favor of both analyses, and I just don’t know.
Back when I finished the last draft of the book in late 2017 I think I was leaning towards the latter explanation, that tech had become too big to fail in some ways, and really captured not just the regulatory apparatuses but the Congress and whatever other potential areas of counterbalance on its power.
But seeing Zuckerberg dragged in front of Congress, as ineffectual as the whole spectacle was, maybe if the Democratic Party decides the tech industry isn’t its friend anymore some politicians can start to ask questions that will unravel a lot of 2000-dot-com-era-type accounting shenanigans, which would cause Wall St. to rethink the whole thing. Even if that happens, I think there are some companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, which will probably be able to weather any crash if there is one, and even emerge stronger from a tech bubble bursting, and those companies will need to find a political solution for dealing with their excessive power and influence in our lives.
Would you say the experience working on this book made you more or less optimistic about the future?
I’m a pessimist by nature, and in the past year or so I’ve only gotten more optimistic. That doesn’t have to do with the book, but with the kind of activism and organizing, and kind of clear-sightedness that I’m seeing from many young people. People in their late teens and early 20s especially. And that’s something that really doesn’t have anything to do with me or my book. The only area of overlap, I think, is that you’ve got a generation that’s emerging into adulthood and the public scene that has been completely screwed from the day that they were born. They realize it, and they know that these companies that the Gen Xers and the Millenials sort of uncritically accepted, by and large, have been, at a minimum, stressful aggravations in their life. And they see through Mark Zuckerberg, they see through the politicians who are in power, and they see through a lot of bullshit that comes to them through the press and even through their peers on social media. In that sense I am more optimistic.
As it relates to the book, and the experience that I had reporting and writing it, that was difficult, disillusioning, and discouraging in the sense that I discovered there is no bottom to the greed or depravity that Silicon Valley power players will inflict on the rest of us, for their own reasons.
In the QA you mentioned that we need to be looking to political solutions, can you elaborate on what kinds of political solutions you see as short-term wins that people can puruse, and what do you see as longer-term projects for people to take on?
Well it sounds a little hokey, but calling your members of Congress and harassing them about issues related to the tech sector, the gig economy, and the power platforms is a good start. It’s an easy one, too. It’s low-hanging fruit, those calls are tracked, and these people want to get re-elected. If they get calls they pay attention, most of them.
Pickets, boycotts, I think those are all part of the picture. When companies like Facebook see users organizing boycotts, even though it may be a small portion of users that participate, and even then they may only participate temporarily, they don’t want that. When people have bad feelings about their website and make those known it just makes it that much easier for a competitor. Although it’s hard to imagine a competitor really replacing a company like Facebook, it could totally happen. Especially with younger people, you see they’re not on it, so [Facebook is] very worried about that. So boycotts, picket lines in some cases may be appropritate. The workers for some of these tech companies should be actively organizing and forming bargaining units.
I said recently that if The Dodo, that Vox media animal website that was notoriously, at least according to some reporting I read, kind of a miserable place to work, if they can organize then I don’t see why Facebook can’t, or Twitter, or any number of companies.
Some companies we’ve heard of where a lot of workers are unhappy and the turnover’s really high, that sounds like fertile ground for organizing to me. An organized workforce at a major tech company would be able to not only win concessions for workers, and force better hours and benefits and things like that, but also to advocate on behalf of users.
Also I think that people who use these companies need to develop a sort of consciousness of themselves as providers of labor and creators of value for these platforms. I think about this a lot as a Twitter user. I’m writing for free every day on Twitter and getting nothing in exchange. I suppose they’d say I’m getting exposure and cultural capital, but I’d prefer $0.25/word, minimum.
I think that people that use these websites and platforms need to start thinking of themselves as labor. Even as an Uber user, not even as a driver, as a user though, you’re kind of taking a job from a dispatcher, in a way. They make it seem real easy to get a ride, but anybody who’s had a rideshare cancel on them and leave them stranded on the street knows that sometimes it’s not that easy, and there’s connectivity issues, and it’s kind of a pain in the ass, actually.
When you use an Uber you’re sort of in that position of someone who’s going through the checkout line and using the self-checkout at the grocery store. It’s the illusion of convenience, and you are actually taking a job that somebody used to get paid for.
Even just consciousness like that is something that I think will pretty steadily snowball into affecting peoples’ actions, and how they interact with these platforms, and what they start to demand from them.
That said, it’s not a sort of consumer choice problem, it’s a political problem, and I think we need to use the levers of the institutions that we have, meaning the courts, the congress, regulatory bodies at all levels – city, state, federal – and demanding actions through those avenues, as well as those things that aren’t formal institutional processes like boycotts and strikes and labor actions, and frankly, talking as much shit about these companies as your friends will tolerate. Why can’t that be a Christmas or Thanksgiving, some secular holiday, conversation with family about, “Hey you know, Facebook? What if we all just quit? What if we just started a family email chain or something?” I think that’s stuff people can do.
You mentioned in your talk the idea of maybe nationalizing some of the tech platforms. Do you see potential for snooping abuses with that, like from government agencies?
I’m not sure it would work. I think we need to re-nationalize the internet, meaning the protocols and the pipes. I advocate publicly-funded development of a new set of networking protocols, that would first of all have all those things that privacy advocates say we need, like end-to-end encryption, that would also compensate creators, and do away with, on a protocol level, some of the abuses that we see, not just from criminal hackers but from monopoly platforms themselves. So that’s the level where I think we need to see nationalization.
As for the platforms, I think we need legislation that effectively outlaws this business model of surveillance capitalism. This should simply not be a legal way to make a business, especially not a multi-billion-dollar monopoly corporation that has everything about pretty much everybody in the country, and has profiles on them, even if they don’t sign up for the service, that they can sell to advertisers, or political consultants, or mobsters, or god-knows-who. I simply think that should not be legal.
And there are different suggestions on how that might be done. One has been simply establishing by law that people own their data, whatever that means. Another way might simply be to ban the data brokers like we banned payday lenders, and all other sorts of things. It’s completely within the bounds of legal precedent, regulatory precedent, the Constitution, whatever you want to say. This is completely within our power. The only reason it hasn’t happened is because the telecoms and the tech sector writ large are 1) so close to the government because they get a lot of R&D money from the government, or maybe government contractors, and 2) they’re major political donors.
You can read our review of Pein's book here. Corey Pein's work can be read in The Baffler and The Willamette Week, and he also hosts a podcast called News From Nowhere.