Issue 14: Telling The Truth About 'Tech For Good'

13 Nov 2020

Hello, world. This week, organizer and engineer Raksha Muthukumar reflects on the myth of so-called Tech For Good initiatives. She challenges herself and all of us to be honest with ourselves and each other, so that the truth can strengthen the liberatory, anti-capitalist work we’ve committed to.

Raksha at the Take Back Tech conference

Raksha at the Take Back Tech conference.

The Worker’s Perspective

When I was 15, I learned how to speak up for what I believe in. I joined my school’s gay-straight alliance, I started teaching sex-positive sex education, and I even protested the board of education for gender-neutral bathrooms. I was a proud thorn in the side of many administrators at my North Carolina public school.

When I was 18, I learned how to code. As I learned about databases and algorithms, I dreamt that I would one day reconfigure our foster care system so that young people would no longer get lost in the gaps. I wrote web apps to help young people select contraception methods and I wrote phone apps to help disabled and transgender people find bathrooms on campus. The potential for innovation felt unbounded.

Like many of my peers, I was wooed by the idea of Tech For Good. The much-touted slogan encompassed just about anything I could imagine – apps to find missing pets, websites to support terminally ill patients, academic support for low-income students, you name it. With so many Tech For Good efforts underway, it seemed like advocacy and technology would become my perfect pair.

Fast forward a few years out of college and I’m not exactly where I thought I’d be. I’ve been at Google for two years now and most of my tech-meets-advocacy work is through mentorship, bringing other underrepresented minorities into the tech field. Earlier this year, I started mentoring a young woman through Out in Tech and was surprised by the unexpected emotion it brought out in me – guilt.

Join our company, says the mega-corporation. We’re doing good that reaches millions of users.

Join us, says the startup. We’re disrupting the stock market so that the rich can’t stay so rich.

No, join us, says the nonprofit. We’re making websites and databases to ensure democratic elections.

Academic careers make similar promises to eager computer science graduates. And in a way, they’re all telling the truth.

Sure, you can work on tools to help users struggling with mental health, whispers the mega-corporation. As long as you get our clients 12% more clicks before the holidays.

Of course you can get more women into investing, concedes the startup. As long as everyone else continues investing even more than before.

Don’t worry about what we’re doing with the data after the elections, says the nonprofit with a wink.

As I spent more time in tech, I became disillusioned not just with the industry, but also, myself. I found myself fearful when I didn’t squirrel away as much of my income as possible, a fear compounded by my background as a child of immigrants and a queer woman of color. The material realities of capitalism in 21st century America weighed on my shoulders in the form of educational and medical bills. For others I knew, that fear was exacerbated by having transgender healthcare needs, aging parents to support, or a disability to manage. These realities are so real to so many of us and we’re left with a choice between bad and worse. To harm others, or to sacrifice myself?

My Out in Tech mentee, whom I’ll call Olivia, was my perfect match; as a computer science Master’s student with a sociology background, she cared about doing Tech For Good as much as I did. I helped her through a thesis project to create an app to help non-English speakers apply for disability benefits and coached her in job hunting skills.

I learned that Olivia had left her sociology career because she believed that she could have a greater impact on her communities by building technology. As I heard her story, I began to feel a faint sense of unease. From what I’d seen from my years working in tech, I couldn’t be sure if Olivia’s reasons for making a change reflected the reality I had seen. I didn’t know how to tell her that she might end up doing more harm than good.

I was torn. On one hand, I really do believe that Olivia benefited from my feedback and guidance on her thesis project, and that in turn hopefully increased her likelihood of joining and staying in the tech industry. I believe that would be a good thing — more women and POC and people who care about each other should be technologists. But on the other hand, I was luring someone into the tech industry under the same pretense that drew me in. I was presenting myself as someone who had successfully combined my values with my tech work and encouraging her to do the same, when the truth is that my values often clash with my day-to-day work.

I was contributing to the myth of Tech For Good.

It was an uncomfortable realization. How could I portray myself as a good example in the world of technology for social good when I worked at Google? Was I just leading my mentee down the same path, to some megacorporation or startup that would leave her feeling even more disempowered than her sociology work had?

For better or for worse, I decided not to lie through my discomfort, and instead had an honest conversation with Olivia. I confessed that I considered making an opposite career pivot to hers; she went from sociology to tech, and I was considering switching from tech to public policy. I told her frankly that I was tired of many of the questionable ethics and workplace cultures I experienced and envied an environment that centered humanity. For her part, Olivia took it in stride, though I suspect it was not exactly the message she was looking for when she sought out a mentor.

Realistically, Olivia will do some good as a technologist, just like I have. She’ll also do some harm, just like I have. While I worry that I may have driven away a genuine changemaker from a career in tech, I can live with my decision knowing that whatever choice Olivia makes next will be with her eyes open.

A year ago, after my first year at Google, I was fortunate to attend Mijente’s Take Back Tech conference. I heard from Black women about the fight against policing technology, Latina women about fighting Palantir’s ICE contracts, and from Meredith Whittaker about organizing an employee walkout after being retaliated against by Google for reporting workplace sexual harassment. These women all spoke about real, radical change that I was uniquely positioned to be a part of, and I was fired up. What struck me was that the change they were talking about wasn’t merely a matter of building Tech For Good. It was about fighting against the system that our technology lives in.

Since then, I’ve found mentors and peers in and around tech who are open to having the conversations of why, how, and why not? I’ve also found DSA Tech Action, Tech Workers Coalition, Equality Labs, and more such groups in New York City who organize around technology’s role in anti-capitalist social reform. These individuals and communities challenge me and they provide solidarity. I’ve organized panels on tech labor organizing, protested against Amazon’s surveillance machine, and I’ve signed my name on lists to tell Google that I’m one of their employees who won’t tolerate police contracts. I’m currently working on The Node Project, a mutual aid fund to provide technology and digital security education to marginalized people.

I don’t know for sure that my approach with Olivia was the right one. All I know is that I tried to give her the choice that I wish that I had been given, instead of leading with a lie. My hope is that my honesty will lead to a shorter phase of disillusionment and an earlier opportunity to find the good fight, the way I did when I eventually found my community of tech organizers.

Technologists, take a good hard look at the true impact of your work. Have the difficult conversations and admit that we’re sometimes unable to do what we set out to do. Through honesty and reflection, not “Tech For Good,” we can begin healing and start building the tech future we deserve.

In The News

Gigging for Broke

Last week, voters in California approved Proposition 22, which powered through thanks to over $200 million from Uber and other companies — effectively buying policy to take employment rights away from drivers and couriers. It’s a big deal. Writer and gig worker Wilfred Chan asks, Can American labor survive Prop 22? Prop 22 and other policies like it “will create a growing precariat of people who work very hard and are not able to survive off of their earnings. And it will have an impact on American politics for decades, if not the next century.” And as Veena Dubal and Meredith Whittaker explain in their essay about what comes next, Prop 22 ensures that “these workers, who lack the independence of true independent contractors, have no access to a time-based wage floor, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave, or state-mandated health insurance.” Uber and Lyft already have plans to fight similar battles in other states. Among their tactics: a variety of in-app notifications to indundate users with one-sided and misleading messaging, giving many voters the impression that it measure was actually about helping drivers make a living wage.

The Technocrats Won

Responding to a comment on whether India or Jamaica can claim Kamala Harris, Matthew Stoller suggested she belongs to Silicon Valley. The Biden-Harris transition team is stacked with tech players, many of whom contributed significantly to the campaign. Progressive appointments to the transition team seem undercut by Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb personnel. One appointee to the labor transition team - formerly labor secretary under Obama - has argued that gig workers are not employees, portending conflicts between promises and policy.

Cherri Murphy, a gig worker and organizer, wrote an op-ed about the fight ahead, with hope:

despite threats by each gig company to take the Prop 22 model nationwide, the new administration may not be so receptive. Both Joe Biden, the president-elect, and Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, opposed Prop 22, speaking of an “epidemic of misclassification”, and their campaign plan specifically states they would model federal gig worker legislation on the California law, AB5, that Prop 22 is allowing app-based companies to avoid.

Meanwhile, gig workers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico have organized strikes and protests over the dangerous conditions they face.

In History

Prop 22 may be a major blow to the labor movement in California, but it doesn’t mean that the war is over. History shows us that workers in dire circumstances will find ways to organize, even when the law isn’t on their side. No amount of corporate propaganda can quell the resistance that these companies are inspiring with their cruel, unjust labor practices, no matter how slick their marketing campaigns.

In the book Riding for Deliveroo, published in 2019 by Polity Press, Callum Cant shares scenes from the early days of gig worker organizing in London. Deliveroo is a massive UK-based food delivery platform similar to Postmates, with a valuation of over 2 billion dollars at its last raise in 2017 and a similar business model to the California-based gig companies. In the following excerpt about a strike in 2016, Cant shows how workers were able to self-organize to demand better conditions, even without the backing of the law, or the more established trade unions.

Hundreds of workers across the city began a strike. They organized huge roving demonstrations of mopeds and cyclists that converged upon Deliveroo’s central London office. The service was in chaos, with orders going undelivered all over the city. The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), a London-based grassroots union, launched a crowd-funder to help support workers during the strike. Within days it had raised over £20,000. As a result, workers could now pay themselves a basic wage for the duration. The decision was made to stay out for another day, and then another. On the third day of the strike, Dan Warne, managing director of Deliveroo UK, decided to talk to the strikers.

[…] The company, he says, is willing to listen to every worker’s concerns, individually. The response is not positive. The workers want collective bargaining, and they tell him as much, at full volume. One worker steps forward: ‘Everyone wants the same thing: £8 per hour, plus £1 per drop. That’s it.’ Dan responds, ‘Listen guys, there needs to be an explanation around what the changes are, it’s a change in payment method, not lower wages …’ The workers cut him off. They tell him that’s not what they want. He tries again, ‘That is a dialogue we will have individually. So, where we have done this, first of all, this is a trial …’ Another roar. The workers show him their signs, on which their demands are clearly written down. ‘Look at it!’ Everyone wants the same thing: £8 per hour, plus £1 per drop. That’s it

For the first time, Dan Warne, the managing director of Deliveroo UK, is face to face with organized couriers, who actually do the work for Deliveroo UK. The thousands of dots on the map, spread all over London, are showing that they are real people with real power. From the back of the crowd, a chant starts: ‘Out, out, out, out!’ Soon everyone is shouting together. Dan looks left and right. He steps back, turns, and walks away, back into the office. The crowd cheers as he goes.

The strike ended four days later. It wasn’t a total victory - the company only agreed to some of the workers’ demands - but it was a clear demonstration of the power of organized labor. As Cant writes, “Deliveroo workers had shown they could take on their bosses – and, from London, the fight would spread, across the UK, Europe, and, finally, the world.”

In Song

Hum Dekhenge by Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Hum Mehkumon Ke Paon Tale,
(Underneath our feet – we the governed)
Ye Dharti Dhar Dhar Dharkegi,
(The ground will echo like a thumping heartbeat)
Aur Ahl-E-Hakam Ke Sar Oopar,
(And the sky over the heads of the rulers.)
Jab Bijli Kar Kar Karkegi,
(Will echo with the sound of thunder.)

Earlier this week, volunteers in Tech Workers Coalition published a resource guide for How to Be Anti-Caste in Tech. Give it a read. None are free until all are free.