What does it mean to be a tech worker?

At Labor Notes 2024, I had the chance to facilitate a panel on class consciousness and how one might raise it among tech workers. Prior to the panelists answering the questions, I highlighted Weber’s perspective of class and social power. I wanted to make sure this was on the table as to give audiences an additional layer of perspective that isn’t active in most conversations about class I'm in. However, this, by itself, was incomplete. Attending another session about the progress of tech workers forming union campaigns and their wins, I stood in a circle speaking about the importance (or lack thereof) of the label “tech worker”. I found myself immediately defending it, saying that it matters less about the technicality of the role one performs but more about the primary industry of which their company works in. A point was being made that kept being reinforced and gave me pause that was asking what else does detonating someone as “tech worker” provide outside the baggage of the split of labor itself? This point sunk in my head for a bit with the previous thought. “Is there any merit to brand oneself by their labor”, I kept thinking to myself as someone who loathes introductions that focus on what one does for money and not for their soul.

Later that night, I found myself in a session hosted by Action Network. Some folks from USSW were chanting and getting hyped - something that reminded me of high school after step practice or with my friends after throwing a good party. I managed to grab their information and kept looking back at how happy they were among each other. I found pockets of these moments with my local, but something felt different in how they engaged others versus how tech workers do. For some time, I did fear to a degree that remote work could weaken the ties that workers build by being in person. However, Collective Action in Tech and my own experiences have shown examples of that to not be the case.

What I’ve come to understand is the term “tech worker” can be examined to the same degree that companies using phrases like “Googler”, “Tweeps”, “Softies”. This is not just isolated to tech or even just companies, as Mike Pope has captured. This part of the culture of work, where, though not explicitly, a need to delineate "us from them" occurs and it forms a new social class. Speaking as a software developer, I’ve seen tropes of being fearful of Facebook Web developers coming to your team in lieu of a full React rewrite or those former Google engineers doing everything in Google Cloud Platform using Go and Dart - the list varies. It’s never a prophecy, but it’s imaginably happened to enough people and more powerfully, the association of the products one’s former company produces is now deemed to be their whole world view to how they work. After all, they’re an ex-Tweep. I focused on this mentality now because it’s what gnaws at me when I think of the term “tech worker”. In my initial perception of the term, it’s meant for folks who work on the technical aspects of a company. I figured that a more expansive definition would lift the weight of the term but the baggage of the word “tech” in itself and the image of blue-collar work in “worker” seem to clash so much - because of how much I spent in proxy to Silicon Valley - that it doesn’t work in the way I hoped.

This brings me back to the question I’ve been posed a few times indirectly: what does it mean to be a tech worker? Currently, it means that I’m potentially afforded a chance to work from home on hours I can choose - if you ask a recruiter or TechCrunch. Realistically, it means that the intellectual capital I have is being wasted on maintaining the interest and joys of shareholders that I could put towards a collective effort to modernize digital systems, work on open networking systems, make video games that teach people of the times of the past and allow people to imagine a better world, or even repairing older devices to help counter consumerist consumption corralled by corporations cornering us into an avoidable global catastrophe. It reminds me that branding myself by my labor without acknowledgment of the industry’s inherent role in maximizing this intellectual rift makes me implicitly complicit in its objective - but to the same degree that paying taxes in America contributes to violence in foreign countries - it’s something we could stop doing but couldn’t stop doing alone.

Nothing worth doing can be done alone. I’m coming to understand that the term itself isn’t constructive and is what contributes to the blockage of the understanding of class consciousness in a way that helps society. Less engineers writing software that forces drivers into ride-loops that degrade their car for less pay while increasing the chances of a company becoming profitable - with none of that payout to the unrecognized full-time worker. Fewer designers crafting Euro-centric and -focused systems and dictating it as the sole way from which humanity can interface with machines while reinforcing the colonial intellectual doctrine of manifest destiny (your ways are incorrect, we know the path). Less researchers basing their information from reductive A/B testing and condensing the non-consensual collected data and behaviors of people into personas to grasp the breadth of human lives.

More focus on what people have been asking for - directly from their lips. Engineers, designers and researchers can advocate for this in a place where the pillars of the industry won’t expect it - from the folks who are paid enough to shut up. I have to say that this work isn’t easy but necessary. Prior to the Haitian Revolution, class distinctions there were a bit similar to how it exists for Black Americans in Hollywood. The lighter you were, the more access and wealth was afforded to you. Sang-meles was a term used for wealthier people (either freed folk who became wealthy by participating in chattel slavery or those born into mixed heritage) in Santo Domingo (the colonial name of Haiti prior to its revolution). However, these folks ended up supporting the slave revolts (though some would say too late - some of them were killed in the uprisings and in later incarnations of the Haitian Empire). Without someone opening the doors to a castle that would have been locked for an enslaved African, some facets of the revolutions couldn’t have happened. I say this to say that we need to step outside ourselves long enough to remember what we’re doing, especially for us whose “professional careers” began with this kind of work, and remember that lofty goal that tech would make this better. It can’t if it’s allowed to continue as is - and there’s justification to say that we should stop building altogether and focus on maintaining what we have. In the same way that we don’t need a new car model every year with mid-year refreshers when oil production is a notorious contribution to climate change, we don’t need another app that tries to reshape commerce by keeping every transaction public (or not - debate your local cryptographer) or one that attempts to define the boundaries of human interactions. We need to build digital mutual aid networks. Build better systems for people to communicate with inmates that don't mimic costs of roaming calls from the 1990s. Design the systems for cities and towns that would be centered around accessible transit for all. Making systems of democracy accessible and transparent to enable a community of accountability for politicians and the electorate alike, so confusion on why Gen Z isn't voting isn't a shocker.

But now I'm rambling. It doesn't mean anything, to be a tech worker, outside of someone who works in the tech industry. How does one define one's inclusion in the "tech industry"? I leave that up to you to decide.

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