Issue 41: Optimize what?

22 Mar 2019

This week, Stanford University announced a new Institute for Human-Centered AI, whose stated goal is to foster “a better future for humanity through AI.” The high-profile launch ceremony was attended by bigwigs in industry, academia, and government, from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to warmongering ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Yet in positioning itself as tech’s moral arbiters, Stanford and other elite universities hope we’ll forget their crucial contribution to Silicon Valley’s dangerous power: it’s their research labs that collaborate with corporate titans and defense agencies, and it’s their classrooms that teach students to optimize mathematical objectives first and ask ethical questions later.

In the same moment that the industry has tasked itself with attempting to acquire ethics, one TWC volunteer has chronicled his own education within the moral vacuity of Berkeley and Stanford CS programs, offering a helpful provocation: Optimize what?

The firsthand account details the computer science “intellectual-cultural regime’s” inattention to what they consider “‘soft’ questions about society, ethics, politics, and humanity”. He defines the “engineering straitjacket” he and his peers emerging from the CS programs are cast into: “Our job was to solve whatever problems we were given, not to question what problems we should be solving in the first place. And we learned to do this far too well.”

He suggests that instead of offering itself as a fundamentally compromised “ethics consultancy firm” to corporations and states, Stanford and its academic peers should examine their own long and continuing history of complicity in tech-driven oppression.

What happens when the industry turns its problem-solving obsession on itself as the next most pressing problem to solve? Can there be reform for something rotting from the inside out? Or already dead with decay, will the tech empire crumble in on itself?

Upcoming Events

No Go Roadshow! Lyft, we want a fair share.
Monday, 3/25 10:45AM at 555 California Street in San Francisco

Chasing Innovation w/ Lilly Irani (Silicon Valley Uncovered)
Tuesday, 3/26 4PM at McLaren 251 at University of San Francisco 

Labor Law for the Rank and File
Thursday, 3/28 7PM at MIT Building 32, Room 141 in Boston

🔥Burn Contract Burn: The Rise of Tech’s Contingent Workforce
Saturday, 3/30 3PM at Capitol Hill Branch of The Seattle Public Library in Seattle

TVC (Temps, Vendors and Contractors) Learning Club
Sunday, 3/31 2PM at San Jose Peace & Justice Center in San Jose
Facebook  •  Meetup

The Climate Crisis & Tech
Tuesday, 4/2 6:30PM at TBD 

NYC Tech Workers Potluck
Saturday, 4/6 6PM at Sixth Street Community Center in New York 

Alexis Madrigal on Containers (Silicon Valley Uncovered)
Tuesday, 4/9 4:45PM at TBD in San Francisco

TWC Monthly General Meeting
Thursday, 4/11 6:30PM in Seattle

The Code of Conduct is in effect at all TWC events.

Organizing Tip Of The Week


Nothing scares a boss like an organizing workforce. If they hear even a whisper that workers are seriously thinking about collective action, they’ll use all the tricks in the book to shut it down. Every workplace is unique, but you’ll often see that the arguments of the bosses (and any workers who think they’ll benefit by siding with them) sound pretty similar wherever you find them. Just like you get inoculated against diseases so your immune system learns to recognize them in the wild, you can take other employers’ examples of anti-union rhetoric you find and imagine how you would respond to your employer saying the same thing. This leaked Kickstarter memo from senior employees pushing back on lower level workers’ campaign to unionize is an excellent example to inoculate against, and the incredible organizers with Game Workers Unite put out some good info in their zine shared below as well. The more you know about their tricks, the easier it will be to flip the script.

In The News

Kickstarter workers announced this week their campaign to unionize with Office and Professional Employees International Union. They described their impetus as reclaiming the values that Kickstarter held at its origin; and that in fulfilling the organizing workers’ demands of greater inclusivity, transparency, and a seat at the table, Kickstarter could once again be a trailblazer in tech at this pivotal moment. 

Game workers are getting united, getting organized, and most recently, getting creative! Check out the zine from Game Workers Unite! released in time for GDC 2019 with helpful tips on topics ranging from “Boss Fight Tips & Tricks” to “Workers’ Cooperatives”. And in case you missed it, a union nod from a presenter on the GDC main stage. Just-in-time supply chain tech infrastructure that controls workers down to the second.

Rideshare Drivers United LA is calling a 25-hour strike for Uber and Lyft drivers on Monday 3/25 in LA to rollback the 25% mileage pay cut. Follow @_drivers_united for updates.

Overworked and underpaid at Facebook: Read a first hand account shared on #WorkersForWorkers this week on the trials and travails as a contingent, or “second class” worker.

When Justin Rashad Long took a stand against Amazon’s inhumane working conditions, Amazon illegally fired him. Angry workers, labor leaders and political movers have come together around the rallying cry #WeStandWithRashad to demand all workers receive dignity, respect, and a share in the billions they helped make. We also call for solidarity with Andrea, another Amazon worker who sustained chronic injuries while working at Amazon warehouses. Her account exposes Amazon’s broken and punitive processes, which treat workers as disposable and provide as little care and support as possible.

Finally Silicon Valley places some of its own nails in the coffin of the notion of “meritocracy”

Can’t say we’re not looking forward to watching the documentary released this week on the gory details of the rise and fall of the Theranos CEO. The director draws a comparison between Elizabeth Holmes and Steve Jobs, Enron, and Scientology, ascribing her divorce from reality to “the prison of belief” and a one-sided focus on ends justifying the means.

Facebook stored hundreds of millions of user passwords in plain text for years.” 

Facebook and other social media platforms for the most part successfully scrubbed ISIS propaganda from the internet; in the wake of Christchurch, critics are asking why they’ve failed to do the same for white nationalism.

Instagram is the internet’s new home for hate.“ 

Means TV launched this week with hopes to be the “cooperatively-run, anti-capitalist Netflix” to battle the alt-right in propaganda manufacture.

Song Of The Week

Chicano Batman - Freedom Is Free (Official Audio)

Nobody likes you
Nobody cares
Nobody wants you
Nobody cares
To extend a greeting aid
Connecting lands

Life is just a jaded game to them
They won’t give it a chance
But you know when I know
That the galaxies are all around us
And life will flow on as long as the grass grows and the water runs

And while I’m here on earth I’ll rejoice in this world
Freedom is free
Freedom is free
And you can’t take that away from me

You got your guns up on display
But you can’t control how I feel, no way

Freedom is free
Freedom is free
And you can’t take that away from nobody

Because the ocean is all around us
And life will flow on as long as there are ripples on the waves and sunrays from the sun

And while I’m here on earth I’ll rejoice in this world
Freedom is free
Freedom is free
And you can’t take that away from me