Two Nazis stand beside each other in the dark of night. One turns to his fellow soldier, named Hans, and points out the morbid-looking skulls pinned to their caps.
“Hans?” the Nazi asks his companion. “Are we the baddies?” A laugh track erupts.
You probably recognize the sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look. It first became a meme 12 years ago, and is often used in the context of political debate to mock those who are unwitting foot soldiers on the wrong side of history.
This summer the sketch found a resurgence on an internal messaging board for Facebook employees who believed their company was supporting unconscionable behavior by the Trump administration. The discussion, named “Take Action,” began after Mark Zuckerberg refused to remove a post from the president’s account that threatened “shooting” for “looting.”
It’s not just Facebook. Even before the recent assault on the Capitol, an increasing number of tech workers, at a wide range of companies, were deeply worried at how their employers have exacerbated inequality, extremism, and polarization across the planet.
“There is that feeling of ‘oh no, wait, where is this all going?,’” says Jeremiah Warren, a 29-year-old digital media creative who has worked with a wide variety of California-based startups. Warren, too, recalled the Mitchell and Webb meme to describe the concern that tech workers are helping the bad guys. Lily Nguyen, a 24-year-old creative technologist who grew up in Gilroy, says that since she entered the tech workforce with an internship at Uber, the ethics of the industry’s biggest employers have been questionable. “There’s no escape from it, whatever company you work at,” she says.
Tech workers grappling with the ethical implications of their industry is not a new phenomenon — the term “technoethics” was coined in 1974 by Argentinian-Canadian philosopher Mario Bunge to describe the responsibility of technologists and engineers to pursue society’s best interests.
Today, tech ethics organizations like “All Tech Is Human” frequently argue that tech workers must be empowered to be responsible innovators. In their recent report, “The Business Case for AI Ethics,” the organization argues that a three-pronged approach is necessary for operationalizing Artificial Intelligence: Worker empowerment, followed by leadership buy-in, and everyone having access to the information (“knowledge base”) they need to make responsible, ethical decisions.
Nguyen was offered an internship at Uber around the same time Susan Fowler broke the silence about sexism and sexual harassment she experienced as a site reliability engineer at the company. “Within the tech community, there is some level of debate over whether our jobs specifically are political… Susan Fowler writing her blog post really changed those conversations.”
Though she signed her offer letter one week after Fowler’s blog post, Nguyen says the essay did give her pause. Not only was she wary of the company culture at Uber, but she also began having doubts about what role she would play in the future of the industry. “I was in the back of my mind like ‘okay, what’s happening at Uber is going to be a catalyst for every tech company,’” she says. “The only reason this is going on is because somebody was brave enough to talk about it.”
It’s worth noting that Fowler wrote her blog post about one month after Donald Trump assumed the presidency. The politicization of tech accelerated not only with Fowler’s blog post, but with the inauguration of the most divisive president in American history. Suddenly, tech workers were not the only people in America questioning whether they contributed to the rise of fascism.
As tech ethics became a more common topic of debate between Democrats and Republicans, so the communities around tech workers become similarly divided. Joseph Alessio, a 29-year-old typographic illustrator, for example, was raised in a “hyper conservative,” evangelical environment, and says his parents have always been “reticent to get into technology.” He says his parents were a little suspicious of his career choices when he entered tech, though not as worried as they were about his moving to San Francisco.
“They would consider a lot of these companies to be, if not anti-conservative, extremely liberal, or at least that people might be indoctrinated” says Alessio. “We generally avoid talking about things of that nature.”
Warren and Nguyen have similar experiences with their politically conservative families — Nguyen points out that, for example, though her parents might not be huge fans of tech CEOs’ politics, their desire for their child to have a stable career is far more important to them. Warren says his parents are more concerned about politics when he takes contracts working in the entertainment industry, where he spends half of his time, than when he takes jobs in tech. And yet, lingering tensions remain: all three sources say they avoid talking about tech, and thus their employers, when tech industry policies become talking points for political debate.
The three also share the experience of empathizing with — and thus, taking more seriously — critiques of tech coming from their progressive peers. “I get a lot of questions from people who are to the left of Uber politically, and they’ll say ‘you know, you don’t have to stay there forever,’” says Nguyen about working at Uber.
Tech workers are, thus, feeling pressure from all sides of the political aisle. For many tech workers, this is a space with little footing: “The ethos of tech has been built on order, structure, and scalability, whereas now it’s going head first into messy areas,” says David Ryan Polgar, Founder and Executive Director of All Tech is Human. That kind of discomfort gives rise to agency, and these difficult, existential questions about the future of tech are breeding a new generation of bolder, more critically thinking workers.
For Brown University junior Ivan Zhao, the ethical choices of companies he applies to for internships and jobs are top of mind. He refused an internship offer at Amazon, for example, to his parents’ dismay, because of his own ethical concerns. He says he’s not the only young person who views taking a job at big tech companies as a moral compromise: when he participated in a panel for LGBTQ high school students entering tech, for example, he found himself calculating the pros and cons in real time. “One of the repeat questions was ‘as someone early in your career, how do you balance getting a really strong name on your resume like Facebook, Amazon, or Google with your own moral values?’” he says. If Zhao is anything like the majority of college students, corporate accountability might become necessary for Big Tech to continue recruiting strong talent.
Of course, there are many more factors to taking a job than politics, like a location, salary, and responsibilities of the role itself. Tech workers are (as of now) still human. Nonetheless, a shift has occurred in the last four years. Across the country, workers are asking themselves whether they’ve sold their labor to the devil in a red Patagonia puffy.
Nguyen, for example, recently left Uber to help build a new collectively-managed digital artists hub called Zora. Though she says politics was far from the only factor in her decision, she admits that the ethical predicaments she believes can be found at every large tech company took a toll on her wellbeing. “The politics did affect my mental health and I think I needed to take a step back.”
On Twitter, however, she was a more candid: “day 2 of not working at Uber and it 🥺 feels 🥺 so 🥺 good.”