Issue 5: Leaving the bubble for Texas

26 Jun 2020

R.K., a controls engineer and yet another Californian to leave the Bay Area, talks about quitting his union tech job to do techno-scientific experiments at a rural Texas electric co-op. Meanwhile, Juneteenth and continued protests pull the façade off of tech companies.

A solar farm owned by a rural Texas electric co-op.

Tech outside the bubble: a solar farm owned by a rural Texas electric co-op. Photo by R.K.

The Worker’s Perspective

By R.K.

Tech today has eaten the world, but its sprawling footprint tends to be overlooked in the media’s focus on massive, consumer-facing companies like Facebook and Amazon. It is worth looking outside of the bubble to investigate how tech is shaping niche corners of the economy and society — not least because you can find new possibilities in how technology and society can interact, beyond the stale capitalist norms.

This is relatively easy for me, since my particular line of work as a controls engineer has kept me well away from the core of the tech industry. My last job was at a waste processing plant, working at the electrical and computational center of a sprawling industrial system, and maintaining the hardware and software that monitored, controlled, and automated all manner of clunky machines. There were quite a few contrasts here with the kinds of work that my TWC comrades tended to get into. I was unionized — unthinkable for most techno-scientific workers, at least prior to union drives in the industry like at Kickstarter. And I worked 40 hours a week, and not one second longer — there was little in the way of project deadlines or “crunch culture”, which meant I had a pretty decent work-life balance. On a more technical level, the code I was working with was just a few steps removed from physically setting up relays and switches; and in fact I often did have to work with my hands, sifting through ancient panels and tracing out dusty, unlabeled wires connected to equipment that was installed back when the Black Panther Party was still in control of neighborhoods in Oakland.

Ultimately, however, I found the job somewhat dull. At best I was a “controls anthropologist”, fiddling with automation codes for some piece of machinery and trying to understand what the hell the last engineer was thinking (I usually concluded that they, in fact, weren’t thinking). At worst I was a “controls janitor”, cleaning up decades worth of accumulated messes (sometimes literally, with a vacuum). There were interesting elements here, from a historian’s perspective, but I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of doing this sort of stuff for the rest of my life — which I easily could have, given this was a public-sector, unionized gig. This was certainly most of my coworkers’ plans.

So, I ended up quitting, with plans to take a lengthy break from work and ponder what to do next. I had some vague ideas. I wanted to leave the bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was born and had spent my whole life, and move to somewhere in the Southwest, where it was nice and sunny, there was good local food, and life was (presumably) somewhat different than the coastal metropoles that dominate American culture. And I wanted to pivot my work and get into a sector like renewable energy, where I could help address the climate crisis (while keeping in mind the applicable caveats about ethics, labor markets, and capitalism).

However, not working suited me quite well, and I ended up bumming around for about a year or so, hanging out, reading, writing, and organizing. Of course, eventually the existential dread started knocking at my door more and more insistently, in suspicious lock-step with how much my bank account was dwindling. Time to get off my ass and make some moves. I started applying to jobs everywhere between Arizona and Mississippi, at first focusing on the renewable energy sector, and then to anything and everything that I was qualified for, as panic about my hilariously uncertain future started to set in.

Finally, mostly through sheer luck, I managed to land the exact kind of job I was looking for: an engineering position at a rural electricity cooperative in Texas. I practically stumbled through the front door; the interview process consisted of a grand total of one phone interview, and a brief on-site, with nothing even resembling a technical interview. Pretty breezy, especially compared with the standard days-long roller-coaster process that so many of my techie friends have gone through during their job hunts. But perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising — rural electricity cooperatives are a world apart from the tech mega-corporations of the West Coast. Most of the some 900 rural electricity co-ops in the US were set up in the 1930s under the New Deal, as a way to organize rural communities to build, maintain, and own their own power infrastructure. Co-ops are structured as democratic institutions, where members (usually everybody in the service territory) vote on representatives to the board of directors. And as non-profit entities, any excess funds generated from electricity sales are put toward keeping rates low, for the benefit of the membership, instead of siphoned away into the pockets of shareholders and banks.

Despite the quaint sleepiness that this history might invoke, this job turned out to be anything but. The coop was in the middle of developing its own residential energy analytics platform, complete with an app and data analysis tools, in an effort to support rolling out more solar power systems and energy efficiency initiatives. And given the small team that was working on it, the culture felt like a tech start-up: constant discussions around what data to collect and how to use it, swapping roles around depending on the day’s needs, abruptly changing development directions every now and then. I had the faintest sense of irritation at first — after all, I was supposed to be leaving Silicon Valley behind, not sinking even deeper in it. But of course, this really wasn’t Silicon Valley. Even though we were doing stuff with data and user interfaces, we were still grounded by the fact that we were a power co-op in rural Texas. We weren’t doing this to make a bunch of money; we were doing it to serve the membership. There is no plan to monetize the data, as I’m certain many of our private-sector competitors are angling to do, not least because our hardy rural constituents would not hesitate to protest and block (with guns, if necessary) any attempts to surveil and commodify their lives. And despite the start-up-y feel, work hours are standard — 40 hours a week — and work-life balance is easy. It has been a fun and rewarding experience so far.

I’m in Trump Country now, where social conservatism and even white supremacy run deep; but on the flip side, the possibility of a rural electricity co-op developing technology for a decarbonized grid outside the profit motive is something I’ve never come across at home, despite the Bay’s radical history. Even if I have now landed in a somewhat different kind of bubble, perhaps this is the best way to expand our minds and our imaginations — by observing the similarities and contradictions between different spaces. As someone who genuinely enjoys techno-scientific labor, this has thus far been a great counterexample to the myth that only the profit motive can drive innovation, and only capital will allow us to further our understanding and mastery of science and technology, or that we need to grind 80 hours a week to do so. And regardless, bubbles are only bubbles to a point — the fact that even small towns in Texas have seen protests in support of Black Lives and against the police, in the wake of nation-wide demonstrations and rebellions, is proof that we’re still ultimately in an interconnected world.

In conclusion, fuck conclusions and fuck 12, yeeee haw!

In The News

As numerous big tech companies and other corporations have released statements affirming their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, we must ask what concrete steps they are taking beyond symbolic actions. A new study from San Jose State University reveals the painful truth: ten large Bay Area tech companies employ zero Black women. Three have no Black employees at all. Furthermore, only 46% of employees at Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo are white, yet they hold 70% of executive positions at these companies. And for the companies that do have a more diverse workforce, how are their non-white employees treated? For the fourth year in a row, a report by Hired Inc. confirmed that racial disparities in workers’ salaries persist. Workers who identify as Black or Latinx receive lower salary offers than their white and Asian peers. If your company has released a Black Lives Matter statement, we encourage you to demand that your leadership teams publish a report on pay equity in your organization.

Unfortunately, from what we’ve seen, many tech company’s actions to address racism have remained largely symbolic. In recent weeks, several companies have recognized Juneteenth by making it an official company holiday, or announcing other plans to commemorate the day. Uber declared it a paid holiday — but only for its formal employees, not its drivers, who are much more likely to be non-white. Tesla also declared the day a holiday, of sorts: employees who chose to observe it had to use their PTO time. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he would be cancelling all his meetings that day in order to use that time to learn and reflect, and urged employees to do the same; of course, the vast majority of Amazon’s Black employees do not have the luxury of cancelling meetings, as the New York Times reports. And let’s not forget Amazon’s recent firing of a Black warehouse worker who had raised safety concerns. Truly tackling racism will take more than ‘learning and reflecting’ by billionaire CEOs, because racism isn’t merely a matter of individual attitudes; it’s a matter of power. The way power is distributed in society at large may be outside the scope of the tech industry, but tech companies do have a choice in how to treat their employees.

Earlier this week, a group of Uber drivers and allies demonstrated outside the San Francisco home of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. The protests shone a light on the massive gap between Uber’s benevolent rhetoric and the unpleasant reality: although Uber had promised to provide drivers with PPE, some drivers reported that they had not been provided anything. Protesters also highlighted Uber’s funding of an astroturfed coalition to overturn a California state law that would classify Uber drivers (and other gig workers) as employees. The choice to protest outside Khosrowshahi’s lavish Pacific Heights home was strategic; as one driver says, “We’re out here in front of this $16.5 million house, while they’re living comfortably and we’re out here fighting [to] secure our bills and have a place to live.”

Last week, we reported on Facebook employees protesting Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to act against Trump’s inflammatory posts as well the company’s recently added union-busting tools in its Workplace product. This week, we learned that Facebook is refusing to fact-check climate deniers on its platform, which adds to its previous decision to not fact-check political ads. Given Facebook’s stance on these important issues, how can we trust Zuckerberg when he posts that “Black Lives Matter” on Facebook? Black and Brown communities are most at risk in our highly polarized political environment, as well as the most disadvantaged when it comes to the negative impacts that climate change has on our society. Zuckerberg claims that he believes “Black Lives Matter” but his platform is responsible for fostering the hate groups that have put Black Lives at risk. Actions certainly speak louder than words, and Zuckerberg cannot evade his responsibility nor launder his poor reputation with donations that barely put a dent in his fortune.

The Coalition for Critical Technology — a group of researchers and practitioners calling for more ethical technology — have published an open letter titled Abolish the #TechToPrisonPipeline. The letter urges academic publisher Springer to scrap a forthcoming book on the uses of machine learning to predict ‘criminality’, noting that “crime prediction technology reproduces injustices and causes real harm.” At a time like this, when the many failures of the criminal justice system are being brought to light, it is worth reflecting on the ethical responsibility that we have as tech workers. How do the tools we build interact with the world in which we live? What systemic injustices are (perhaps inadvertently) exacerbated by the products we help to design? And what can we do to change that?

If your company is using its products to communicate relevant information to consumers — like COVID-19 announcements, or Black Lives Matter statements — it’s worth asking what messages your company wouldn’t be willing to share, and why. How political is too political? It’s easy to put a banner on your homepage saying that you care about Black lives in the abstract, but what about putting up a banner in support of defunding the police? What about publicizing news about eviction moratoriums, or offering tips on how to stage a rent strike (or, for that matter, a labor strike)? And if your company is unwilling to share resources that would help people build power, then it raises the question of what leadership actually stands for. Do they truly want to help people fight back against structural barriers? Or do they just want the appearance of generosity while conceding none of their power?

As workers, we can do a lot. A better world — without landlords, without police — is possible. But we’ll have to fight for it.

In History

In the late 1960s, the Petrolchimico facility — Italy’s “chemical cathedral” — employed 4,000 full-time engineers and technicians and 2,500 contractors and temps in the industrial city of Porto Marghera, near Venice. These workers faced literally toxic workplace conditions and ecological disaster flowing from their facility, all propped up by higher-ups. After years and years of organizing, they took matters into their own hands.

The following is from a pamphlet titled “An Example of Workers Autonomy in Italy, 1960-1980: The Experience of Porto Marghera, from Workers’ Committee to Regional Autonomous Assembly”:

The chemical industry is one based on continuous processes and plants can’t be simply stopped without the risk of being irreparably damaged. At least this is what was claimed by the management of Petrolchimico and, over the years, there was discussion with the unions around the number of workers who had to stay at their posts and therefore could not join in with strikes.

On 6 June 1974, a pressure valve on a pump exploded in workshop AC1 at Petrolchimico. The solvent, at 120 degrees and 6 atmospheres pressure, hit three workers — one died the next day. The workers spontaneously went on strike. The next day the union called a strike for the shift workers and the ones working normal hours. During the general assembly, comrades from the Autonomous Assembly who worked in AC1 put forward the improvement of the workshop as a condition of a return to work. The cast-iron pressure valves must be replaced by steel ones, and wages must be paid for the workers put on leave of absence while the work is carried out. But the management insisted that the valves were safe and demanded an immediate return to work. The workers didn’t budge and showed such a strong belief in their knowledge about the plant that the union supported them. The company therefore replaced the valves in record time and, after an inspection by the workers, the workshop was started up again.

The assembly concluded this struggle with a leaflet:

“THE WORKSHOP MUST CLOSE and WILL NOT BE REOPENED UNTIL THE WORKERS’ DEMANDS HAVE BEEN SATISFIED. And WAGES must be GUARANTEED TO ALL the WORKERS AFFECTED BY THE CLOSURE… but as this programme finds no echo in the trade union organisations… It is necessary for the workers to construct their own organisation capable of putting it into practice: a kernel of comrades in each shop, a network which links every shop, which guarantees information and contacts in moments of struggle, which circulates counter-information.”

After Petrolchimico workers took matters into their own hands, they shut down several toxic and unsafe facilities — despite management telling them it wasn’t permissible, or possible. Even this excerpt doesn’t do justice to the decades of organized resistance and collective action during these years, hot on the heels of Italy’s “Hot Autumn” (Autunno Caldo) and a decade of strikes in industrial centers across the country, a story as inspiring as it is complex. The Porto Marghera story appears in many other pamphlets and books and at least two documentaries, including The Last Firebrands (2004).

Never let anyone ever tell you tech is too big to fail — or, too toxic to shut down.

In Song

Otis Taylor - Ten Million Slaves

Rain and fire crossed that ocean
Another mad man done struck again
Rain and fire crossed that ocean
Another mad man done struck again

Sitting down here fallout shelter
Paint my walls, twice a week
Sitting down here fallout shelter
Think about the slaves, long time ago

Ten million slaves crossed that Ocean
They had shackles on Their Legs
Ten million slaves crossed that Ocean
They had Shackles on Their Legs

Don’t know where, where they’re going
Don’t know where, where they’ve been
Don’t know where, where they’re going
Don’t know where, where they’ve been

Sun goes out, you’ll be standing
You’ll be standing by yourself
Sun goes out, you’ll be standing
You’ll be standing by yourself