Sunday February 27, 2022 — Taipei, Taiwan
I got into computing for the same reason a lot of quiet young boys do: computers seemed easier than people, safer. I was probably around 12 at the time. I didn’t have any story around what I was doing — it was purely play, the same way children everywhere take things apart and put them back together and run countless little experiments about the world without even thinking of them as experiments, just for the simple joy of discovery.
When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a engineer, because I didn’t have any conception of what work or jobs were, and that was the answer you were supposed to give if you were a young boy who liked tinkering and building things. When I got a little older and learned more about the world, I told people I wanted to be unemployed. I think most of them thought I was joking.
As the end of my last year of high school came slowly into view on the horizon, the question of what I wanted to do with my life came into sharper focus. I wasn’t going to go to college, and unemployment remained my dream job, but it was out of reach at the time — I needed money, and getting paid to touch computers was the most viable path I had towards that. I went to the Recurse Center, figuring that would help me find a job, and at the very least be a fun place to meet some nice people in the meantime.
That was in 2017, which was sort of a strange time for the “tech industry”. I’d grown up in an era of tech optimism, watching TED talks, reading Paul Graham and Eric Raymond, celebrating SpaceX landings. By 2017, though, that era was coming to a close, both culturally and for me personally.
In my last year of high school, I’d interned for a company trying to do the whole silicon valley startup thing — building a app to disrupt the world, with founders who read Hacker News every day and worshipped the legacy of Steve Jobs and had completely bought the narrative that they were changing the world. I think if I’d lived in San Francisco, I might have bought it, but in quiet little Davis, California, a few hours north of the bay, it was hard not to laugh. You think this is changing the world? You’re playing pretend that you’re the Big Boys down in San Francisco, who are also playing pretend but have somehow convinced the entire world that the they really do have the most beautiful robes in the land.
Shortly after that, I went to the Recurse Center, just as “techlash” started coming into vogue. Uber’s founder, and seemingly everyone else high up at the company had been credibly accused of sexual harassment by multiple people. Amazon drivers and warehouse workers were peeing in bottles while Jeff Bezos made billions. What was the “sharing economy” in 2013 had slowly transformed into the “gig economy”, and people saw with clear eyes how bleak it was, but too late to stop it. James Damore published his memo, and a lot of people in power seemed to think it was worth debating on its merits. The ICO scam was at its peak, draining the wallets of anyone who still bought the silicon valley hype, the money going directly to firms like Andreessen Horowitz, who, having figured out that blatantly ignoring labour laws was profitable, decided that blatantly ignoring securities law was the next great frontier. Software had eaten the world, and it was bad.
I had a quickly dwindling bank account, and started interviewing. The mythos of the young (white, male) prodigy was easy to play up, and I was lucky enough to have friends who knew the interviewing tricks and were happy to teach me. I got a handful of offers, and Google paid the most, so I went there. If everywhere was evil, I might as well make as much as I could, so I could get out as quick as possible.
Google had a surprisingly high number of True Believers, so I mostly stayed quiet about my thoughts on the tech industry while I was at work. I had some friends who shared my disillusionment, but techlash hadn’t made its way into the tech industry yet: people seemed to really believe that they were changing the world for the better. Sure, there are a lot of bad startups out there, but the startup I work for is good. Pay no attention to the VCs behind the curtain.
Over the past few years, the disillusionment of the public has slowly been seeping into the tech industry. Tech workers have started to notice the structural rot at the core of the industry, and are being forced to stare a big decision directly in the face: what do I do about it?
A lot of people are unable to look this beast directly in the eyes, and turn away instead. I’m sympathetic to the reasons for this — understanding the weight of the responsibility that we as tech workers bear for shaping the world the way we have is a tough pill to swallow — but I have little patience left for the people still looking away. If you work in the tech industry, you need to be able to see with sober eyes what your impact is. For many people, the answer is that they are making the world worse, and have been for quite a long time. That’s a tough realization, but coming to terms with it is the first step in working towards a better world.
Some people look the beast directly in the eyes, take in the scope and meaning of it, and become paralyzed. We are, in the end, all just doing our best under capitalism. We all have to work to survive, and sometimes that means you put your values aside, just to be allowed to exist in this world. This is true and comforting, but it largely falls flat in the tech industry. If you are making more money than 95% of the people in the US, you have a huge amount of freedom to choose where and how you work. Pretending that work being mandatory absolves you is just a way of beating down the discomfort of making hard decisions about the morality of your actions.
Others choose to divest, walking away from the industry entirely. I have respect for this — it’s a principled decision, and a brave one. For me, though, it’s insufficient.
I got into computing for the joy of play and discovery and understanding, but that’s not why I stayed. I stayed because I saw the power of it. As Penelope Scott wrote about the californian ideology: the real tragedy is half of it was true.
Software is eating the world, and it’s not going to stop. As technologists, it’s our responsibility to fix what we’ve unleashed. The problem was never the software, the problem is the system of capital and domination that it was built to serve and reinforce. We have a moral responsibility to build software and systems that serve and are responsive to those with the least power first, that are fundamentally and structurally anticapitalist, that are resistant to co-option by the powerful. You cannot do this by working for a large tech company. You cannot do this by taking VC funding. You cannot do this while hoping to get rich.
I fell in love with computing as a child, and I’m still in love today. I refuse to let the tech industry take that from me. It’s time to stay and fight.