Tech Won’t Save Us – Organize!
Simone Robutti has been working as a programmer for the last ten years. One day he started to become interested both in the theory of techno politics and the practice of tech worker organization. In fact, his trajectory is kind of similar to mine – a repentant lawyer who writes about platforms and politics. I met him in person for the first time at the Crypto Commons meeting in Austria, a hybrid meeting where programmers, political scientists and activists spent several days discussing the politics of Large Language Models. With Simone, I share an intellectual infatuation for cybernetics, a ‘science of everything’ that – so it says – is supposed to guide our distinction to navigate the complexity of the modern world and to ‘design freedom’. The interview deals with the organization and action of the Tech Workers Coalition and with the history of tech workers’ resistance.
Simone, what are you working on at the moment?
In my full-time job, I’m currently working as a data engineer and organization designer for a research group called AI Forensics, where we do investigations on the social harm of social media and large language models. The latter is a new strand of research, as our expertise is mostly on social media and recommender systems. Before we were called tracking.exposed, and now we rebranded as AI Forensics. At the moment we are mostly focused on two platforms: TikTok and YouTube. But we are starting a new project on Bing Chat and electoral integrity where we try to understand how LLMs present information in a biased way or not regarding elections. We also develop our own infrastructure to extract data from these platforms running conversations with the chatbot. I take care of the technical part, mostly, but this is intertwined with the research. While I don’t work too much on the methodology side, I’m still involved in the research part.
How did you get involved in the Tech Workers Coalition?
It was four and a half years ago in Berlin. I went to a presentation by Ben Turnoff, and he was talking about the tech workers movement in the USA, presenting a new issue of his magazine called LogicMag. I already knew about TWC, but it was a faraway concept. At the end of the presentation, Yonatan Miller stood up and shouted: “Who wants to start a chapter in Berlin?”. I talked to him because I saw this mostly as an opportunity to have a study group to participate in. At the time I was reading a lot of techno politics and paradoxically I couldn’t find a space in Berlin to share these readings and discuss theory.
I started the study group, but since most of the organization was focused more on workers organizing, I was exposed to their ideas, their attitudes and their goals in a way that went way beyond my initial plan. I started getting interested in unionization processes as an organizer myself, and this lasted for a year until COVID-19 started. That’s when I basically detached from the Berlin chapter. I realized I wanted to start a chapter in Italy, and given COVID-19 restrictions, I could do it from Berlin: everybody was at home, and not being physically there wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I found the first core group of Italians, and we spent some months figuring out the early strategy, the goals, and bootstrapping the organization. I was involved in it for around two years and a half, until last November 2022, where I was like: you can go on your own, I’m tired of doing remote calls! Therefore, I detached from the Italian chapter that now keeps going on without me.
The news now is that, together with other people, we started the TWC Global chapter. It is a chapter that is entirely online, with no intention to be grounded in a specific territory. The idea is to bring together chapters, reuse resources across different chapters in the USA and Europe, and take care of the infrastructure, the website, and the digital spaces. It’s reminiscent of platform-oriented organizations that have a centralized support system that enables units at the periphery. This is now going on by itself, but I want to go public with a program to systematically support starting new chapters of TWC. I mean to generalize and scale our approach, and hopefully start new chapters throughout the world.
What’s the purpose of TWC?
That’s a very good question. There is a big conversation going on what could be the answer. Until a couple years ago the answer, at least in the USA, was clear: TWC must act as a bridge between the union world and tech workers because they cannot speak to each other. There is little history, and the specificities of tech workers need to be addressed. We needed to prove to unions that tech workers could be mobilized and that we could explain to tech workers why they should unionize and how they hold the power. In general, to bootstrap a process of mass unionization of the industry. This happened with great success in the USA, but because it took place at the same time as COVID-19, a lot of the chapters saw the focus and energy moving away and into unions exactly when it became harder to meet.
For instance, last week we had a retrospective on how chapters were started in TWC. We wanted to bring forward this conversation and hear from people who are not involved anymore, who were there maybe 6-7 seven years ago. Some of them went on to build very interesting stuff, like the Alphabet Workers Union. There, TWC fulfilled its purpose: it’s not like they left because stuff wasn’t working; they left because the activity in TWC led to something bigger. This is true also for London: the whole chapter of London became a union. There is this kind of suicidal role in TWC – you fulfil your role when you’re not needed anymore. You win when you die.
We are now trying to conceptualize a new phase for TWC, where the role will change, and it will basically be a different organization. Everybody feels that a lot of big tech companies in the US either have their own union or are fighting to unionize, so we need to start playing a bigger game. This opens up a lot of strategic possibilities, and we need to start building a narrative where tech workers can finally contend with technology not just inside the single company, but on a more systemic level. I think that is going to be the grand strategy for the next 10 years. In Germany and Italy, for instance, we have a very different role. In Italy, this process hasn’t happened yet. Unions still haven’t understood what the tech workers movement is, and we didn’t prove that tech workers can be largely mobilized for unionization. At the same time, in Italy, we have a longer history of unionization in the IT sector, but it keeps moving according to more established dynamics, missing out on the specificities of our category.
Normally we don’t enter institutions, but following the prescription of the philosopher Rodrigo Nunes – outlined for instance in his book Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal – building power must be done by playing with the full deck of cards. Institutions are one card in the deck. However, having a political representation of the tech worker movement is a missing piece, so I do believe this should be done, but it’s not the role of TWC.
Would you consider TWC a trade union?
Not really. We are a union in the sense of the meaning the word has in English, that is: not Gewerkschaft in German but also not a sindacato in Italian. We are a group of workers advocating for their own rights and building power. In that sense, we are a union because we are a bundle, a band of workers, but we are not a union in the legal sense. We don’t want to be, and we don’t take that role in the ecosystem. The term that is used is “alt-labor” which covers all these organizations that are complementary to unions. But we don’t see ourselves in opposition to unions. So, we are a labour organization that tends to take the role of an eco-systemic curator: we take a supportive role, allowing other organizations (or unions) to flourish.
Who can be part of TWC?
Whoever is a worker or interested in pursuing the empowerment of workers? Every chapter has slightly different rules to translate this into practice. Some chapters don’t allow managers – anybody with firing power – to join the meetings. Berlin recently changed their mind on this, but obviously, if you are a venture capitalist or a CEO, you’re not really welcome.
You mentioned the big wave of unionization that started in the USA. However, you also mentioned a longer history of tech workers defending their rights and interests. Can you summarize it?
It is a very spotty history, in the sense that a lot of tech companies, since the beginning of the digital era, have seen some degree of unionization. But they weren’t framed as a special case, there were no insights into the specificity of the industry or knowledge workers in general. The IT industry has started to become critical and prevalent in our economy, also in terms of the percentage of workers – platforms now mobilize a major part of the population – while in the ’70s they involved way fewer people in absolute numbers.
There are companies, like IBM, that witnessed unionization all over the world: in the USA in Texas, but also in Italy and Germany. Already at the time, they were big enough for unions to target them in the same way they would target any other big company. Telecommunication companies also presented similar patterns. But it’s hard to frame this as the same phenomenon as the tech workers movement because the narrative is very different. They were ‘workers’ who incidentally worked in tech. The workers themselves were more aware that they were something different. There are writings, fanzines, or other materials where you see them reflecting on their role as technology gatekeepers and as white-collar workers who are not like other white-collar workers.
I see these two phenomena – even now – as running in parallel. In Italy, the traditional unionization process enters some IT companies, while the tech worker movement – maybe because it’s too American and the material conditions are very different – doesn’t take the same hold that it does in the USA. TWC in Italy is playing a very different role because they are not aggregating all this energy coming from workers. In the USA and Germany, TWC was born as a collector of energy, while in Italy the role of TWC is to create this energy, to create a narrative, to create the soil on which we can grow a hypothetical future tech worker movement.
You said you have clear ideas on the reasons why you should unionize. What are those reasons? Apart from the material interests, is the moral uprising of the ‘designers of collapse’ a thing?
You touched on an important but complex point. In the category of tech workers, there is a wild difference in material conditions and in the involvement in the harm that is created by technology. Under the concept of tech worker, you have the tech aristocracy of California – programmers that are paid $250,000+ to work maybe a couple hours a day – and then everybody else working in the company: customer support, QA and testing. In a larger definition of the tech worker, riders and platform workers are also tech workers. You have content reviewers who must scan through child pornography or data labellers in Kenya for ChatGpt. Those can be all considered tech workers. Reducing these to a single reason to unionize, obviously, is not possible and it’s a pointless endeavour. In the same way, trying to push this identity too hard doesn’t resonate with people because they come from different experiences. So, the category of “tech worker” is more of a conceptual tool for us to understand how to aggregate workers’ power in the tech industry across salary ranges and types of skills. It doesn’t necessarily match a felt identity at the level of the individual.
In general, unionization for workers is always a good idea. If you have a privilege, you will have a tool to defend it. If you don’t have a privilege, you have a tool to fight for your rights, more protections, better working conditions and so on. There, we are not reinventing anything. The idea that privileged workers shouldn’t unionize is nonsense propaganda. Nobody stays a privileged worker if they don’t unionize. I believe that the developers and designers at the centre of the empire should unionize. They are a considerable portion of TWC in the USA, but their motivations will be very different from the Ugandan data labeller. Therefore, the moral question of “What can be our role as technologists?” is the main leverage TWC has in the USA because it touches sensitive spots for these privileged tech workers. There is a sense of betrayal, a big spark. It was a betrayal of the promise that technology would have saved us all. One of our slogans says: “Technology won’t save us. Organize!”. In the last few years, the rest of Western society has been going through the same disillusionment. But obviously, when you’re at the centre of this phenomenon, in Silicon Valley, you see it coming earlier. If you lived in Seattle, you always knew Amazon was problematic, trying to infiltrate local administrations and do lobbying. Now it’s out in the open.
IT worker’s privilege is lasting a bit longer than it did for other categories of knowledge workers, but it’s clear now from the recent wave of layoffs that they are not untouchable. A lot of people that used to have very high salaries cannot find good jobs anymore. We have many examples of such a sharp loss of privileges. In Italy, for example, Graphic designers in the 80s were rich people, and journalists in the 70s were rich people. Now they have miserable lives until they’re 40 and then maybe they get a contract and some stability. So, they were privileged, they didn’t unionize and therefore they lost their privilege. This is an argument that resonates with tech workers on why they should unionize.
Do you also think that democracy is at stake here?
Yes, because nation-states are being encroached on by tech companies and venture capital and they are becoming interdependent with them to a higher and higher degree in a way that gives political power to private corporations. It’s not new; obviously, the oil industry, military suppliers or media corporations have been having a huge degree of political power, but technology is trying to get to yet another level, and nation-states don’t seem able to react. Usually, as a tech worker, you are taught that you can wield technology to create new things, great things. And you realize big tech is unable to create the great things that they were promising. Therefore, they need to be created elsewhere or in other ways. You realize that big tech is an obstacle to the realization of the potential of technology. That’s why there are techno-optimists that start fighting big tech. This is a completely different dynamic from the techno-pessimist progressive spaces that often start seeing technology as a problem. One thing is to point the finger at big tech from outside the industry; another is to realize that the tech worker is inside, and he can play a different game.
Another element is that you want to organize and unionize to have more control over the work environment and over what you produce. More control over your working conditions. When it’s cognitive work, you want to negotiate the process and the goals of this work. At some point, the goals of the tech industry and of your company become an obstacle to certain ways of structuring work. The profit motive becomes an obstacle. You start challenging something that is a bit beyond the scope of traditional unionization: I need to control where the company is going to have more livable, sustainable working conditions.
Again, this is not completely new and unseen outside the tech industry, but it’s prevalent because the feedback loop between the market and your daily experience of work is very short. It is much more direct; you have iterations of a couple of weeks. If compared to, say, the metallurgic industry, where the buyer is on the other side of the planet and you need to deliver once every six months, the processes are slower. Here the best improvement you can have is on the working conditions, but it’s not like you’re going to make different metal sheets because you don’t like to make them too thin. There have been examples like the Lucas Plan, in which workers were asked to basically reinvent the portfolio of the company to keep it alive, and there are conflicts around supporting military efforts or selling to an autocratic government, in other industries these are exceptional thoughts that can be inoculated in times of crisis. Tech workers instead constantly have opinions on how technology should be made and the profit motive at some point has an impact on the quality of what you produce.
Therefore, there is this pride in the craft, if you want, that is in direct opposition to the market motive because quality, in the software industry, doesn’t sell well. Sometimes we frame the tech industry as a super-efficient machine that extracts, exploits and so on. But most software is bad. It’s an extremely inefficient industry where the wheel is reinvented everywhere all the time – for different structural reasons that I won’t analyze here. The average tech worker is frustrated with the state of technology, he knows it could be better. They work on open-source projects or on personal projects where the level of quality is much higher. Workers also want this to be their daily experience at work. This cannot happen because you have to deliver in a rush to make more money. We have opposing incentives here. This is not material; this is the emotional connection you have to the quality of what you craft. It is very strong in the culture, like the stereotype of designers, or programmers are perfectionists and anal about what they produce. This is a driver of conflict against capitalism in the end, even though oftentimes they cannot verbalize it in this way. But it’s a very easy hook to say: “You cannot work this way because somebody wants to make a profit”. If you connect the dots for them, they relate quite easily.
What would you highlight as the main strength and weakness of the tech workers movement?
The strength is that we have a very strong narrative and a lot of momentum. 15 years ago, tech workers weren’t a concept. We kind of invented it. They were talking about programmers, but the concept of tech workers wasn’t in the media. The main weakness is that the concept of tech worker – as we discussed earlier – tries to bring together people with very different conditions and very different experiences and interests and sometimes they are at odds. On specific problems, platform workers might have contrasting interests with platform developers. This umbrella term needs to be reconciled with reality and with material conditions the diversity of the workforce, and the geographical diversity because the tech industry was born as global. IBM in the ’40s was already all over the industrialized world. And nowadays, like, almost 80 years later, it’s everywhere. We still lack the tools, ideas and processes to bring together this diversity and really engage different kinds of tech workers synergistically.
Are you optimistic about the future of Tech Workers Coalition?
We are in this phase of change where maybe we will conclude that we are not needed anymore, and we need a new organization. We probably want to keep the branding because it’s cool. The branding will likely stay, and the local chapters obviously want to keep it. On the local level, it’s going well. On the possibility of scaling up the tech workers coalition to a truly coordinated global movement, I consider it a challenge. I’m ambivalent about its outcome. I don’t see the right energy already there, but it’s still a realistic goal. That said, I believe that the tech workers movement as a whole is going really well. Especially in the USA, Germany, the UK and to some degree also France. Maybe I am too much in the news flow about these topics, but in the USA, every week there is a famous tech company that is starting to unionize. This week was Grindr.
If I were a tech worker and want to join TWC, what should I do?
It depends on where you live. Some chapters are rooted in the territory so you should look up if there is a local chapter. In Italy, there are four: Bologna, Milan, Rome, and Turin. Berlin is very active. New York and San Diego are active. The Bay Area is a bit of a weird beast, but it’s active, and there’s Seattle. Then you have a bunch of semi-active chapters like DC and Boston. You should look up the website of Tech Workers Coalition and see what’s in your area. Otherwise, there is the TWC Global chapter, and if you’re living in the middle of nowhere you can join this online chapter that takes a role of support for the others. You will not be involved in direct campaigning on the ground, but you will do volunteer work that will enable local chapters to do their stuff better. Finally, you can start a new chapter. If you live in the middle of nowhere and you want to start a chapter, there is now a Chapter Development Program by TWC Global, supporting the formation of new chapters with training, coaching, and different forms of expertise.
How does this growing self-awareness inside the tech movement relate to other systems like academia or activism?
I like to differentiate between who’s trying to change the technology from the outside and who is trying to change the technology from the inside. They employ very different strategies, and I see to some degree a disconnection. The insiders are forced to read books, and theory and newspapers from an external system that exists outside of big tech, outside of those working environments, and informs a lot of the ideas that tech workers have when they contend technology, or in general when they oppose the interests of big tech. But there is no cohesive strategy: what is written is written without because inside tech companies there are people that might support you in the battle to reshape or eliminate big tech, and not many in the academia or civil society are reaching out to them.
That is the disconnection, which is first and foremost a lack of strategy and imagination. I see a lot of people who are very intelligent and informed writing about techno-politics, but when presented with the fact that many tech workers probably are supportive and willing to help and sabotage and do whatever is needed, they go blank. For them, tech workers are like faceless zombies or basic white 30-year-old tech bros with no self-awareness, completely submissive to big tech. Just because you work for a big tech company doesn’t mean you’re aligned; maybe you are infiltrated. There is this term called ‘salting’ which means getting hired by a company to unionize it or to sabotage it. I know people who do salting in tech companies in the USA. When confronted with this concept, a lot of people in hackerspaces, techno-politics, academia, or media theory, go blank. I would think that this alliance will be fundamental in the near future, it’s possible because the interests are aligned, it’s just a matter of getting to know each other, especially the people from the outside acknowledging what’s happening on the inside and the potential for it.