Over at Jacobin Magazine, there’s a really interesting interview with an anonymous Google employee on the successful campaign against Project Maven, a project contracted with the US Defense Department to use machine learning to improve drone strikes. Given their problems with accuracy, the project is no surprise. For reference, see this absolutely harrowing story in the New York Times Magazine.
A few things from the article stand out. First, the basic fact that the employees, through a largely spontaneous and autonomous process, successfully pressured the company leadership not to renew the contract. Given that it was a multi-year contract worth $10 billion that other tech firms are bidding on, this seems like a real victory.
Also interesting is the strategic importance of the Trump presidency. So much discussion about the Trump presidency is contained within a moralizing discourse (read: liberalism) that toggles between either the erosion of norms or personal injury (and not the bodily kind).
In contrast, it’s interesting to see how people are not only being politically activated by Trump but are being spurred into thinking about strategy and organizing, even beyond just whether or not the Democrats are going to win big in the mid-term elections. I wonder what other kinds of activity and organizing are going to spring up from this whole mess (ICE, healthcare, housing, etc. all seem on the offing; the wave of recent teachers strikes also comes to mind).
The interview also raises the interesting issue of overseas Google employees. This gets at something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, namely—the proper scale of anti-capitalist organizing. Should the left be organizing around a kind of soft economic nationalism that people like Josh Mason (among others) have suggested, or has the global economy become too entangled to disconnect some sectors, and instead, action should center on nodes in the global economy like supply chains, logistics, etc that people like Jamie Merchant have put forth.
I’m still not sure, though my personal inclinations are toward the latter approach. In that regard, the fact that the participation and experiences of international workers proved so crucial in the campaign opposing Project Maven seems noteworthy.
I was struck too by how the anonymous employee frames the ethical component of their work:
We stood up because we believe that companies should be accountable to their users, their workers, and their communities. And we stood up because we believe a strong ethical framework that values human life and safety is inseparable from positive technological progress.
I can’t say I disagree. The last point about “a strong ethical framework that values human life and safety” seems good to me. I wonder, though, how this squares with most of the work undertaken by firms like Google, and not just when they pursue an obviously ethically compromised project like helping the military kill people more efficiently. Some of what you hear from tech workers on how they see the ethical component of their work beggars belief.
In a somewhat related point, it’s striking though not necessarily shocking when the employee recounts this experience among some workers:
Before the campaign, a lot of Googlers had never considered the fact that their values might not be aligned with the values of leadership. Organizing around Project Maven helped people realize that no matter how good their job is—and generally speaking, Google jobs are good—they’re still workers, not owners.
It’s good that these employees came to this realization but also intriguing that it never came up before. I’m not sure if there is just too much of an incentive not to think about it, tech workers genuinely don’t care, or that they just generally buy into the mantra of “Don’t be evil” (though they apparently got rid of that slogan). Clearly, the increased organizing among tech workers and the recognition that their work might be used for bad ends is a fruitful kind of consciousness-raising.