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The struggle is real

Is there a meaningful praxis for socialist-leaning tech workers?

Published onJul 20, 2021
The struggle is real

A friend sent along Jason Barrett Prado’s thoughtful newsletter on how tech workers can meaningfully engage with the political movements of our time. The summary:

If you are a technologist or otherwise a person possessing skill and talent (which you almost certainly are), and if you have the means to do so while sustaining yourself (which if you worked in tech for long you likely are), and if you have come to understand that the problems facing our planet are primarily political, not technological, then what you need to do is find a group of people who are struggling collectively to shift power from entrenched tyrannies towards the masses, and then you need to use your skill and talent to make that group successful.

There’s a lot of useful thinking in the post, particularly when it comes to resisting design thinking and technological determinism and what Prado calls “folk technologism,” which is, to paraphrase, the leftist tendency to be so distrustful of power that you fail to build anything that can actually solve problems at scale. I whole heartedly agree with the argument about power. In particular, I think too many left-leaning techies treat decentralization as an ethos in and of itself rather than an architectural decision.

I'm not sold, however, on the core idea Prado advances, which is that technologists need to pursue technologies of "revolutionary scale" to do any good. I suspect the assumption that that achieving large-scale societal change requires large-scale technological change may itself be a form of tech determinism. It’s very possible that large-scale technological change is necessary, but it could be just as valuable to do things entirely outside of tech.

Put another way, I'm not quite convinced that building tools with workers that could scale is meaningful praxis for socialist-leaning tech workers. Frankly, I’m not sure there is a meaningful praxis for tech workers that differs from any other kind of workers.

So, I think we should start the discussion with the question of whether we can do good in tech at scale, rather than assuming the answer is yes. Prado’s piece is a great first step. It provides most of the scaffolding to ask this very question, and almost gets there when he questions Facebook’s work on its blockchain-based remittances product1 in the context of the global labor market. But he doesn’t quite succeed at focusing the lens back on himself.

In a future post, I’d like to give it a shot myself and see where we land.

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