The Modern Proletariat

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philosophy / tech

“In truth, [the proletariat] were not human beings; they were merely toiling machines in the service of the few aristocrats who had guided history down to that time. 

The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men.”

Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England

To the innocent and often untrained eye, the bay area is a living utopia. One thinks it’s a treasure trove of bright people that aspire to build a brave new world. Like a Randian novel,  they can frolic amongst the chosen coders and get untold riches from building great companies. On closer inspection this is a clever deception – designed to deceive the worker. If anything, the tech worker is susceptible to many of the concerns that Engels vehemently fought against. As Marx implies: any freedom we feel is merely an illusion – the wool is collectively draped over our eyes. Nowhere does this apply more than the software engineer in Silicon Valley. 

A six figure salary places someone as low income in San Francisco for a family of four. Where else is this true? As Veblen stated, the engineer is the lifeblood of the tech corporation: without them, a tech company ceases to exist. To take advantage of the upside, most of an engineer’s compensation lies in their stock options, making the effort of working at a startup worth the costs. Meanwhile, the city forgets this fact and is considering taxing stock compensation even further. For what end exactly? It’s like scooping out water from a sinking boat. The modern class struggle is alive and well in San Francisco.

The common myth is that working at a big technology company is a retirement job, but that’s far from the truth hours wise. Instead, people are fooled with the free daycare, juice bars, and laundry services. The starting software engineer salary at Facebook is around 150k; the company’s revenue per worker is startlingly over 10x that. Juice bars are the least they can do when one is constantly pulling 70-80 hours weeks to make news feed 100 microseconds faster on mobile.

For the engineer’s trouble (and a few corporate benefits), what do they earn at these massive “Evilcorps”? A startling realization that their work aids an autocratic government placing people in concentration camps; or they are unraveling the very fabric of our democracy; or that their work devastates mom and pop stores across America. What are they supposed to do? I think the engineer can strive for more; to do better.

Corollary: If the company has to convince you of the mission, it’s not a strong mission

Most companies aren’t solving any hard problems even in the Silicon Valley. Those that do are generally referred to as deep technology companies; “[developing] new products based “on scientific discovery or meaningful engineering innovation.” Looking at the landscape for deep technology companies in the bay area, one comes up surprisingly short and a glance at the most successful YC companies, one sees that only 2 in the top 10 fit this definition: Cruise and Ginko Bioworks; the latter is the only one that has actually shipped a product. And industry reports on deep tech investments show that the US and China, the leaders in the field, fund quantum computing more than anything else. It’s a sexy technology but not one with much consumer potential and still more than a decade away.

There are a range idiosyncratic and original technologies being discovered, but it’s nowhere as common as one would presume. One reason I think this is true is because of Say’s Law – supply can generate its own demand. Because another “airbnb for dogs” is acceptable, suddenly the barrier for ideas has dropped to the lowest common denominator and we’re saturated with these boring ideas. The “missions” we hear so much about are breaths that turn into air: the “changing the world” aphorisms that accompany another B2B SAAS presentation.

“Nothing that we do, is done in vain.

I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumph.”

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

We can accept that we might be distracted by our iPhones, but one of the ways to bring hard research into industry is connecting like-minded people. The Silicon Valley was created by the Traitorous Eight – researchers who embarked on the unknown by leaving Shockley’s oppressive lab in a desperate attempt to make an egalitarian environment. It’s really about bringing together dedicated groups of people: they then end up reconfiguring civilizations.

On this note, an idea I’ve been thinking about is connecting researchers in fields like computational biology or physics to computer scientists in school. The former need what is effectively mental grunt work and the latter can learn about a new field. It could be a marketplace problem – think of it as a lunchclub for science.

Tinkering in garages, but for hard science

The general theme is to make hubs where people can tinker. I’m relatively convinced that the cure for these “uncureable” diseases won’t be made by a team of pure biology and chemistry PhDs. Sometimes you need an outsider. A way to do this would be like Benchling where we can understand the bottlenecks in the life science R&D process while addressing them. Having something like this for physics could be useful. 

This sounds unduly pessimistic, but I see that America is on the cusp of something larger than it once was; the urge of settling for greatness. Although we might have been stagnating, I can see that excitement has picked up for many fields like computational biology that were nonexistent before. We need people to tinker with these once-hard fields to see any meaningful progress and accelerating that process will take our society to the next level.

The Author

Some musings about tech + philosophy + econ.

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