Silicon Stupid

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To my mind, this blog post from TechCrunch on Silicon Valley and unions is an instant-classic in the so-bad-it’s-good field of outstanding achievements in the field of excellence.

The post is built on a two-legged argument. Leg one relies heavily on one researcher who found that — surprise, surprise — if unionized workers are given the binary choice between technological progress and protecting their jobs, they go for the latter. Behold the luddite horror:

As far back as I can see, unions have been tech-averse. In one 1983 survey of labor unions [PDF], Researcher Stephen Peitchinis found that a mere 14 percent of unions had policies advocating for technology change, while 14 percent actively opposed innovation if it threatened members’ jobs. Most (42 percent) have policies that begrudgingly accept technology so long as employers do so in a way that minimizes its impact on the workforce.

Yes, indeed, I can think of no other group of workers that would choose their own personal well-being over the abstract value of technological progress. It’s truly a union thing. The rest of society is all but eager to sacrifice itself on the altar of dot-com. I know I am!

So the second leg of the argument has a lot to live up to. And, sadly, it, too, falters. In this case, the author takes issue with a Slate article that attacked Silicon Valley big shots for being the class warriors they are. That’s an unfair charge, apparently, because class warfare requires disingenuousness…for some reason?

I think Slate is wrong to characterize this as “class warfare.” Many technology workers hold a genuine philosophical belief that the benefits to innovation outweigh the short-term gains of protecting workers. I think many in the Valley have been honest about their philosophical assumptions, and it’s time for unions to be honest about theirs.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but many Bolsheviks held a genuine philosophical belief that the benefits to equality outweigh the short-term gains of not killing thousands of people. And lord knows the USSR was willing to engage in a little disruption. I dunno; come to think of it, these Silicon Valley guys might wanna give the pro-union far-left a closer look.

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35 thoughts on “Silicon Stupid

  1. I feel like I am in a bit of an interesting situation as a fairly recent transplant to the Bay Area (5 years in August) and also someone who was never involved in tech and probably never will be. I was a theatre major as an undergrad and came out West for law school. So my brain runs counter to tech.

    My prediction is that future generations and historians will view the tech industry as the early 2000s version of 1980s Wall Street. AKA the so-called “Masters of the Universe”. Silicon Valley types often skew very young (can you think of any other industry in history where the majority of employees and innovators were in their 20s and 30s? Even the older people in the industry tend to be in their 40s, maybe 50s). They are also making much more money than anyone in their 20s or 30s probably should make, more for reasons of wisdom and maturity than anything else.

    The rent hike in the Bay Area is real. I can afford to stay in my apartment because of rent control. If my apartment was not rent controlled, who knows where I would be living.

    I also think the Silicon Valley still needs to see itself as meritocracy for a variety of reasons and they don’t understand backlash against them.

    The alternative historian in me wonders what the politics of the Bay Area would be like if there was a more sane version of the Republican Party. Silicon Valley is very democratic but I think this is only for socio-cultural reasons. They don’t see the social conservatism and anti-science of the Republican Party as being good. Nor the xenophobia. But they are otherwise not that traditionally Democratic. In fact many of them express an indifference and hostility towards government and think they can take their same tech-utopianism to government and make it redundant. The Republican Party is still what is though. But in a different world, I could see Silicon Valley going for a center-right party or a more viable libertarian party.

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    • *nods* Republicans need the SV and New England Republicans back.

      Oh, and come off it about SV being the masters of the universe. Richest metro in America is DC, dude. Sad ain’t it?

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    • “They are also making much more money than anyone in their 20s or 30s probably should make, more for reasons of wisdom and maturity than anything else.”
      Thank goodness you have deigned to share your wisdom and maturity with us. I make about $15,000 per year. How much less should I be making, Oh Wise One?
      “If my apartment was not rent controlled, who knows where I would be living.” Perhaps in a place you could afford, or maybe in your car, one would guess, taking your daily showers under a spigot behind some smelly Chinese restaurant and doing your grocery shopping in dumpsters.
      “…Silicon Valley still needs to see itself as meritocracy for a variety of reasons and they don’t understand backlash against them.” We should be grateful to those outfits that hire people based upon their needs and not their skills. Otherwise the streets would be full of mental defectives demanding equality and their precious rights to full employment and a chicken in every pot.
      “In fact many of them express an indifference and hostility towards government and think they can take their same tech-utopianism to government and make it redundant.” I know just what you mean. I have been waiting, for years, in fact, for the opportunity to be able to press a button and watch farm subsidies evaporate into the ether so that I am not reminded that every time I open a can of tuna some overfed soybean farmer is sitting down for dinner to a New York Strip Steak and two slices of coconut cream pie.

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  2. I don’t follow the point of this post. Is it merely writer irritated liberal by criticizing sacred cow?

    Equating mass killings by former heroes of the union left to a perhaps facile enthusiasm for technology’s disruptive effects is weird on multiple levels.

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    • The point was “Stupid article is stupid”. Followed by “What a shocking insight that, when faced with a choice between “keeping their job and change” people generally elected to “keep their job”” with a side of “Why the idiot who wrote this thought it was a union thing, rather than “people prefer not to lose their jobs” is beyond me”.

      Or to put it more bluntly: Yes, unions are about protecting jobs. Because what worker’s REALLY want, when you boil it down, is to have a job and get paid for it. Contrasting that with nebulous “But technological change will rain better jobs down upon you, like fairy dust, if you only get laid off now” and wondering why people prefer the job they have rather than the maybe better maybe no job of the future is….dumb.

      REALLY dumb.

      Deciding that it’s a special conclusion only unions would come to is beyond dumb, and moves into the realm of the truly, staggeringly, idiotic.

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      • Did the article really say only unions would come to? Or is that what’s being read into it?

        And I’m still thinking the Bolshevik reference is a sweet combination of historical whitewashing and false equivalency. I mean “dumb article is dumb” is all well and good as a critique, but it falls flat when you don’t do any better.

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    • Sir James of the Asterisk,

      I don’t know about OP’s post but my issue with a lot of Silicon Valley is that they often seem a bit clueless that there are other people in the Bay Area besides tech types.

      They are young and in a cool industry that significantly changed the world. The Internet revolution might even be more of a game changer than the Industrial revolution. Time will tell on that one.

      However it is possible to have “sympathy for the luddites” as Paul Krugman once wrote. The Bay Area is more than techies and an economy needs more than social media companies to survive. But for a variety of reasons, I think that many tech types fail to show any compassion towards those on the other side of the tech economy. During the BART strike, there were a lot of techies who wrote about making BART automated and just getting rid of any need for employees/transit workers at all. This strikes me as a kind of “going Galt” fantasy, “How dare you fight for better wages!?”

      The real kicker is that a lot of tech workers don’t even use BART on a daily basis if at all. BART does not extend down to Silicon Valley. They take CalTrain or drive or the fancy buses.

      I was in NYC during the winter 2005 transit strike. It was especially cold and I had finals. I walked more than 60 blocks twice a day for a week and it was not fun but people have a right to strike for their livelihoods and as a bargaining technique.

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      • Automate it. Nobody’s going to win my sympathy by saying we should pay someone even more to do a job we don’t even need them to do in the first place. There’s a perverse idea that wasting money is the way to create a well-off society.

        Sympathy for Luddites? Sure. I’m one myself, and the pace of change can be disorienting in many ways. But nobody owes us a life that continues on the terms we knew it, any more than anybody owed you a well paying career in theater, even though I recognize how awesome that would have been, and can sympathize with it not working out for you.

        Sympathizing with people does not mean putting brakes on the evolution of our society and economy to protect them.

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      • You can’t currently automate them. There are too many possible exceptional and emergency situations that require human intervention. You could reduce the staffing to one per train, except that it’s already one per train.

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      • The point is not about automating per se. The point is that the automating argument
        only came up because of the strike. Before that Silicon Valley never cared about BART because they never used BART except maybe every now and then to get to SFO or on the weekends for concerts at the Greek Theatre or Fox Theatre in East Bay and bike trips.

        It seems to me that the call for automation only came because Silicon Valley had the audacity to strike and this strikes Silicon Valley as bad form.

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      • Mike–then don’t automate them yet. Although I am mot sure I agree with you. BART isn’t Muni.

        ND–I guess I can’t see that as anything but an anthropological observation. It’s how people are, so to me it’s about as interesting as saying someone never thought about synchronization of traffic signals until they started driving. The moral and political content and import seem about the same to me.

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      • James, the anti-luddites often point out that technology makes better paying jobs available in the future. They argue that the jobs that were displaced by the power loom were replaced by better paying working class jobs on railroads or in automobile factories. They keep forgetting that the Luddite weavers lost their jobs in the 1780s and the railroads didn’t really take off until the 1830s and 1840s. What were the people displaced by the power loom supposed to do for a generation or two or three or four? Work grueling jobs as day laborers for a quarter or tenth of the pay?

        People live in the present, not the future. They need jobs and wages to support themselves and their dependents now, not latter.

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      • BART doesn’t cross auto and foot traffic the ay MUNI does, but if there’s anyplace in the world that vehicles the size of a BART train travel over 60 MPH on publicly accessible tracks completely unattended, I’m unaware of it. Not to mention the possibility of someone becoming seriously ill (I’ve been on trains where someone had a heart attack) or there being an altercation between passengers, with no one present to take responsibility.

        “Ooh, I have some cool ideas for train control, and who cares about safety and liability?” sounds very junior techie to me.

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      • Mike–You don’t really believe driving the train and policing it are the same thing, do you?

        ND–Sorry, but that’s a really false example. The standard of living in England was rising during that time period when you’re suggesting there was a three generation lull. What did people do instead of weave? Hell if I know, but you’re confusing not knowing what they did with them not having anything to do. That doesn’t mean all the gains were evenly distributed, of course, or that everyone benefited immediately. But overall the benefits were both real and sustained. And for all the handwringing, what would have been a better alternative than the industrial revolution? And if you can’t come up with a better alternative for then, then what better alternative future can you possibly derive for our own times?

        You know, I can’t help contrasting this discussion with the one on Tim’s blog, about the surfing riot and cultural decline. Both left and right seem persuaded that things are going to hell in a handbasket, and are looking for some authority to make the proper decisions that will stem the collapse. My take is that both sides couldn’t possibly be more wrong. Times of significant change are socially and personally disturbing, no doubt, and the benefits and costs of the changes will be unevenly distributed, to the extent that some individuals will actually come out worse off because they don’t have the skills and/or time to adjust effectively. But overall, if you look back through history, collectively the gains have consistently outweighed the costs. There’s no more reason to think “this time is different” than there is for people involved in speculative bubbles to think that–I mean by that that both conservatives worried about social collapse and liberals worried about a future without a middle class are every bit as ridiculous as young internet entrepreneurs thinking that the new economy doesn’t require making a profit, or that this new hot rod economy can’t collapse like all the previous hot rod economies did.

        What I’m saying is look at the history and learn from it. Both the naively optimistic and the deeply pessimistic refuse to actually understand those lessons.

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      • The difference between a driver on the metro and a policeman on the metro is that you can reasonably expect the driver on the metro to drive the metro.

        (Google “Joseph Lozito”. If you don’t want to, he’s at the center of a case where police locked themselves in a subway car while a guy known to be a wanted fugitive stabbed a guy. Luckily, the guy pinned the fugitive but his argument is that the cops had a responsibility to try to stop the fugitive *BEFORE* he attacked people. The police say that they have no special responsibility to do that sort of thing. This is one of those things that drives libertarians nutso.)

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      • OK, remove the drivers. Just make sure there’s a policeman on every train and you’ll never have to worry about strikes. (Rolls eyes.)

        Funny, I don’t remember saying anything remotely like that. But that’s OK, Mike. I don’t mind you putting words in my mouth. It’s all legitimate when it’s done on the internet, right?

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      • People really have to stop believing the police have any duty to intervene or protect. They can if they want to, but the SCOTUS has clearly said they have no legal obligation to endanger themselves for the sake of another.

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    • Although that analogy—fractally echoing the post which contained it—was flawed in many ways, I don’t think that this is a fair criticism. It was an attempt at absurdum, a criticism of the logical structure of the argument through applying it in a way that yields an obviously invalid conclusion, rather than a claim that anti-unionism is as bad as Stalinism.

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  3. I wonder what the survey results would be of native-born Silicon Valley developers (not executives) and a massive exapansion of H1B visas. Judging by the majority of the comments here, the benefits to innovation don’t outweigh the short-term gains of protecting workers.

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  4. Oh boy. I’m gettin’ the urge to fully embrace the chaos. The reason software has never developed unions is the same reason it’s never developed professionalism. Silicon Valley likes standards, protocols, plugs and interconnections. It’s just never quite figured out how to organise software developers. My industry is so full of itself. Wasn’t always this way. Back in the mid-seventies, people did organise themselves effectively and hierarchically. They had to: resources were tight, especially high-speed memory and disk space. The operating systems of that era still live on, especially Unix and its clever child Linux, far better organised than the people who write the software.

    Why, for example, is application security still such a problem? All these bright kiddies out there in California, riding their scooters around in the hallways, oh so goddamn cool — rebels without a clue — where’s the common sense required to design the security first? Because such a mentality requires experience and cynicism, a fundamental awareness of the wickedness of the world. All these hapless, trusting customers, what about those poor saps and their critical data? Ah, well. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled. I could go on and on about these naifs, these clever cretins.

    Software needs to grow the hell up and impose some standards on itself.

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    • I would argue that Silicon Valley never formed unions because programming is akin to skilled labor still. The big companies (and start ups) pay programmers pretty to very well (as far as I can tell from anecdotal observation)

      Meaning they have the luxury of not being unionized. Maybe this will last forever, maybe not. But if it does not last, they might understand the value of unions one day….

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      • Software is a craft, not an art. There are a handful of really superb software craftsmen, maybe ten times that many seriously competent ones and the rest of them are just in various states of disarray. They don’t know how to interact with management, how to manage expectations, how to operate as teams — though they’ve come up will all sorts of cockamamie schemes to do so. Some of these schemes show promise, Agile can be made to work under certain circumstances — but really, until the software development community pulls up their socks and behave like professionals, there’s no hope for them. The industry is riddled to its core with incompetence.

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      • They still get paid well and many seem to get rich via stock options and the random luck of being at the right place and the right time.

        This lets them think differently.

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      • Few of them are paid what they deserve and many far more than they deserve. It’s not a regular kinda job. It’s more like the building trades. Software got much of its vocabulary from the building trades.

        You know you’re in trouble building your house when the contractor builds on a bedroom for himself. Think about that for two minutes and you’ll grasp why the software industry is so fucked up.

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      • Software becomes art and not craft when you get the computer to write your code for you. Perhaps this is because self-modifying code rarely makes sense, and is thus more “artistic” (and efficient. that’s what you’re optimizing for, after all).

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  5. An design engineer is the farthest thing from a luddite, to call them a luddite, well that’s just plain wrong.

    Having said that, what happens when change eliminates your Design Engineering job? Well since engineers are usually the one designing the tech, I would think the fellow engineers would just be interested in the new technology. So a good employer would give all the engineers a chance to learn and apply the new technology, those that are replaced by it given a chance to learn a new position (this happens all the time).

    See the old joke about the engineer and the guillotine.

    I don’t know where the entitlement myths about engineers comes from. Just because some idiot managers get gold-stars for the illusion of employee retention by creating some campuses (with unlimited financial resources) that appear quite disneyesque, doesn’t mean that most design engineers in Silicon Valley need this. And Design Engineering pay is all over the map, some people have steep mortgage payments and need 120k just to live.

    Some engineers with advanced knowledge make great salaries. But the majority of engineers making over 200k are actually have Master’s in business (with technical minors) or have demonstrated management talent. Basically if Trump pays 250k for an apprentice director, what’s wrong with Silicon Valley doing the same?

    But if you ask me, any job in the Bay with an employer paid pension is likely to also pay as well as most Design engineer positions (on average and in the long-run) as the work will be steady (engineers typically see layoff every few years), and you have a pension.

    People often confuse operator with engineer (for example in the BART system). While BART might be successful in requiring an advanced degree to qualify for such jobs, these guys are not Design Engineers.

    Nothing points out the stark political differences between the two groups. Bart employees belong to the Service Union, that union successfully got the Senate to limit work visas for their jobs to 10k per year, in the recent immigration bill. Design Engineers in Silicon Valley, got the shaft in the same Senate immigration bill 180,000 (Engineering) visas.

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