Tech is broken—can collective action fix it?

Tech is broken—can collective action fix it?

For Silicon Valley venture capitalists and founders, any inconvenience big or small is a problem to be solved—even death itself. And a new genre of products and services known as “death tech,” intended to help the bereaved and comfort the suffering, shows that the tech industry will try to address literally anything with an app

Xiaowei Wang, a technologist, author, and organizer based in Oakland, California, finds that disturbing. 

“It’s so gross to view people like that—to see situations and natural facts of life like dying as problems,” Wang said during lunch and beers on the back patio of an Oakland brewery in late March. To research a forthcoming book on the use of tech in end-of-life care, Wang has trained as a “death doula” and will soon start working at a hospice.

This approach to exploring technology, grounded in its personal and political implications, exemplifies a wider vision for fellow tech workers and the industry at large—a desire that it grant more power and agency to those with diverse backgrounds, become more equitable instead of extractive, and aim to reduce structural inequalities rather than seeking to enrich shareholders. 

To realize this vision, Wang has launched a collaborative learning project called Collective Action School in which tech workers can begin to confront their own impact on the world. The hope is to promote more labor organizing within the industry and empower workers who may feel intimidated to challenge gigantic corporations.  

Wang came to prominence as an editor at Logic magazine, an independent publication created in 2016 amid early Trump-era anxiety and concerns about the growing powers of technology. Dismissing utopian narratives of progress for prescient analysis of tech’s true role in widening inequity and concentrating political power, the founders—who also included Ben Tarnoff, Jim Fingal, Christa Hartsock, and Moira Weigel—vowed to stop having “stupid conversations about important things.” (In January, it was relaunched as “the first Black, Asian, and Queer tech magazine,” with Wang and J. Khadijah Abdurahman as co-editors.)

Collective Action School, initially known as Logic School, is an outgrowth of the magazine. It’s emerged at a time when scandals and layoffs in the tech industry, combined with crypto’s troubles and new concerns about bias in AI, have made Big Tech’s failings all the more visible. In courses offered via Zoom, Wang and other instructors guide roughly two dozen tech workers, coders, and project managers through texts on labor organizing, intersectional feminist theory, and the political and economic implications of Big Tech. Its second cohort has now completed the program 

At our lunch, Wang was joined by three former students who helped run that last session: Derrick Carr, a senior software engineer; Emily Chao, a former trust and safety engineer at Twitter; and Yindi Pei, a UX designer. All shared a desire to create something that could lead to more concrete change than existing corporate employee resource groups, which they say often seem constrained and limited. And while Big Tech may obsess over charismatic founders, Collective Action School runs in a collective fashion. “I enjoy operating under the radar,” Wang said.

Wang, who uses the pronoun “they,” moved from China to Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1990, at age four. Drawn to science and technology at a young age, they made friends in early online chat rooms and built rockets and studied oceanography at science camps. They also started questioning social norms early on; their mom tells of getting a call from the middle school principal, explaining that Wang had started a petition for a gender-inclusive class dress code. 

Years later, they enrolled at Harvard to study design and landscape architecture—at one point lofting a kite over the skies in Beijing to track pollution levels. A few years after graduating in 2008, Wang moved to the Bay Area. They worked at the nonprofit Meedan Labs, which develops open-source tools for journalists, and the mapping software company Mapbox, a rapidly scaling “rocket ship” where an employee—sometimes Wang—had to be on call, often overnight, to patch any broken code. Unsatisfied, Wang left in 2017 to focus on writing, speaking, and research, earning a PhD in geography at Berkeley. 

“The person who did my [Mapbox] exit interview told me, ‘You have this problem where you see injustice and you can’t stand it,’” Wang says. “She told me, ‘Sometimes you need to put that to bed if you want to stay in this industry.’ I can’t.” 

Many in tech, Wang says, have a fundamental belief in constant improvement through corporate innovation; for these people, technology means “you push a button and something in your life is solved.” But Wang, who practices Buddhism and reads tarot cards, sees things differently, believing that life is all about natural cycles humans can’t control and should accept with humility. For Wang, tech can be rural communities hacking open-source software, or simply something that brings pure joy.

At Logic, Wang penned a popular column, Letter from Shenzhen, which included scenes from their family’s hometown of ​​Guangzhou, China, and the explosion of innovation in the country. It led to a book titled Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, a striking exploration of technology’s impact on rural China. 

During the book editing process, Wang went on a Buddhist retreat, where a teacher remarked that we’re all “looking at the sky through a straw,” limited to our own small portholes of perception. This insight, says Wang, helped frame the final draft. But it also became a metaphor for an entire approach to research and writing on technology: focused, careful consideration of many viewpoints, and the capacity to imagine something better.

Collective Action School, funded in part by the Omidyar Network and a grant from the arts and coding nonprofit Processing Foundation, came together in 2020 as tech worker activism was on the rise. Kickstarter employees’ union drive in 2020 was followed by efforts at Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple, as well as industry-wide campaigns such as Collective Action in Tech (led in part by former Logic editor Tarnoff) and the Tech Workers Coalition. But because Wang avoids the spotlight and believes that only strong communities can remedy the tech industry’s ills, the school is organized in a more experimental way. 

Collective Action School offers an antithesis to the “golden ticket” mentality of tech work, with an approach that’s more focused on collective action and culture.

Each cohort begins with a “week zero” meeting to get acquainted as a group. Then, for 13 weeks, participants attend sessions covering labor movements, the political economy of innovation, and the impact of technology on marginalized groups. The funding covers all tuition costs for all students. As Pei, one of the co-organizers, puts it, the school offers an antithesis to the “golden ticket” mentality of tech work, with an approach that’s more focused on collective action and culture.

Each week, participants read from a lengthy syllabus and welcome a guest speaker. Past guests include Clarissa Redwine from the Kickstarter union’s oral history project, former Google employees Alex Hanna and Timnit Gebru of the Distributed AI Research Institute, and Erin McElroy, cofounder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Then they work on a final project; one of the first was Looking Glass, which used augmented reality to highlight the lost Black history of Pittsburgh. For developing it, creator Adrian Jones was named the school’s “community technologist,” a role that comes with a one-year grant to expand the idea. Chao, who formerly worked for Twitter, released a zine about trust and safety issues, and Pei has been working on an affordable housing website for San Francisco. 

The organizers see Collective Action School as a community-building project, and open-source syllabus, that can grow with each new cohort. Eventually, the aim is to expand the reach of the school with chapters based in other areas, adding in-person meetings and creating a larger network of workers sharing similar values and aims.

That strategy fills a need within larger tech and labor organizing, says Gershom Bazerman, who volunteers with the Tech Workers Coalition and Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee. Tech workers have long been told they’re unique, but recent political fights between workers and leadership—with employees pushing back against contributing to projects used by the US military or immigration enforcement—have set off a wave of ground-up organizing informed by social concerns. Groups like Collective Action School can be a “bridge” between workers seeking such change. 

While the readings and interactions aren’t creating a utopia, they are creating a space for students to learn, meet, and commit to more change. Wang hopes they find solidarity and, ideally, bring these ideas and experience back to their companies and coworkers (or find the resources and momentum to move to a job or field more aligned with their values). Some in this year’s cohort live and work in the Global South and have faced layoffs, so classmates created a cost-of-living support fund to help. 

Carr has called the experience an “antidote to a specific accumulated toxin” that comes from working in Big Tech. That may be true, but Collective Action School, along with other recent organizing efforts, also sets out to redefine the experience of working within the industry. “We’re not saying we’re making the perfect safe learning space,” says Wang. “We had a container in which we could have fun, learn from each other, and then grow. I think that’s really rare and special. It’s like committing to each other.” 

Patrick Sisson, a Chicago expat living in Los Angeles, covers technology and urbanism.

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