Conjure Utopia

The word “collapse” appears more and more often in recent political debate. Online, in the media, in the Academia, and in radical political circles, Collapse is gaining more and more visibility. Notably, the concept has yet to be claimed by a specific political party. Instead, Collapse has triggered a wide variety of voices from all over the political spectrum to participate in a discourse weaving politics, philosophy, different scientific disciplines, design, fiction, and technology.

This article is intended to be a simple introduction to orient oneself to understanding collapse: a topic that will necessarily become increasingly relevant in the years to come. It’s intended as a list of positions, factions, opinions, trends, coordinates of the debate, arguments on which the various oppositions hinge. There is no claim to exhaustiveness or historical depth: the roots of the current debate go back for centuries; even more difficult,new positions, new groups, new variations, new identities and definitions emerge on the daily. New agents proposing ideas on collapse come from every point of the political spectrum: they can be tracked to academic institutions,occult internet communities, to the most recent author who decides to address the issue and have their say. Mapping this disquiet by enumerating individual organizations, personalities, parties and communities is an exercise as challenging as it is fruitless.

Instead, I believe it is much more interesting to provide simple interpretative tools to navigate this complex and fragmented debate. To do so, I will make use of a series of categorizations –some formulated by the very promoters of the positions presented here; others my own supplementation– to group together elements and actors that share common traits, influences and relationships. I hope the result won't resemble too closely the rigid taxonomies of nineteenth century anthropologists.

Before I begin, however, it is perhaps useful to summarize what is meant here by the term “collapse.” A precise definition is difficult, not least because it would mean taking sides in a debate in which there are quite divergent voices about what collapse is and how it will unravel. However, I hope not to be too biased if in this context I define collapse as the historical process of transition away from the complex, globalized, highly-connected and materially-abundant human society(ies). The result of such process would be a state of greater precariousness, lesser abundance and stability, potentially reaching a stage of existential risk for our species. Often, the Collapse is attributed to the mutual reinforcement of ecological, social, economic, and political instabilities already underway or irreversible in the near future.

Optimists

Radical deniers: there are no downward trends, climatic or ecological threats. The present order is not subject to threats of historic magnitude or capable of experiences compromised material and social well-being. Examples: Koch Brothers, Exxon, Clintel

Partial deniers: there are some downward trends; in particular problems of social inequality, economic instability or pollution. However, they are not sufficient to substantially change the reality in which we live. The economic-political system, humanity or other forces will inevitably correct these trajectories. The symptoms we observe are only temporary and destined to disappear.

Technological Optimists: collapse is possible, but it is a technical problem that can be solved. In particular, new technologies in the ecological, energetic, and digital field will be able to reverse the phenomena we are observing. Examples: Carbon capture advocates, The Climate Optimist

Economic optimists: collapse is possible, but can be prevented by encoding the right economic inputs to compensate for ecological externalities, inequalities, and social divisions. Social restructuring is not needed but better economic policy is.

Reformists: collapse will be prevented by deep restructuring of the production system, welfare, and huge investments in ecological remediation. There will be a political tipping point due to the damage caused by the approaching collapse and the resistance of nation-states to act and protect the status quo. When that happens, sufficient forces will be released for radical interventions. Examples: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, Greta Thumberg, Green New Deal

Millenarists: the collapse will happen, but it is a good thing and necessary to free humanity from the present degradation. The difficulties it creates will help divide the righteous from the wicked. Millenarian positions exist in various communities: from religious fundamentalists who see the coming collapse as a kind of biblical doomsday to ethnic supremacists who await social collapse to remove the obstacles that currently prevent them from exterminating ethnic groups outside of their own. Examples: fringe radical Protestant groups in the USA.

Right-wing Accelerationists/Dark Enlightenment: the collapse of humanity will happen, but it is a necessary evolutionary step to free Capitalism from the need to support the human community. Rooted primarily in the accelerationist views of philosophers such as Nick Land and blogger Curtis Guy Yarvin, variations of this thinking promote an approach to collapse as something necessary and to be actively facilitated. Examples: NRx and other alt-right environments.

Pessimists

Defeatists: the collapse is inevitable because we should have acted earlier. Now any technical and political solution is superfluous. Examples: r/collapse, climate blackpillers

Hedonistic Defeatists: the collapse is inevitable and we must spend these last years enjoying what we have instead of working for a change that would not bring any result.

Post-collapsists: the collapse is inevitable and therefore we must act now to build conceptual, technical, and social tools that will serve us during and after the collapse in order to minimize long-term consequences. Examples: CollapseOS

Delayers: collapse is inevitable and the primary goal is to slow it down in order to extend current conditions as much as possible, making it easier to get through the collapse, and to minimize the cost in terms of human lives. Examples: Extinction Rebellion, Pablo Servigne

Types of collapse

So far we have talked about collapse without detailing it. However, there are radically different, often opposing, and irreconcilable visions of how collapse might develop. Going into the technical, logistical, ecological, and social detail of the changes daily reality will undergo during the collapse is necessary to understand the ideas and projects that develop from these visions.

Rapid collapse/Preppers: collapse will happen rapidly on a global scale within a narrow timeframe. Lots of small local infrastructure failures, political instabilities, or extreme weather events will prevent a gradual transition. So those who want to survive must prepare to endure conditions deeply hostile to the maintenance or formation of any form of organized society.

Linear collapse: collapse will occur slowly and globally. Global infrastructure and production chains will be increasingly harder to maintain. Many nation-states and local communities will see their material conditions deteriorate over the years, possibly without ever politically framing them as a consequence of global collapse but just as local problems with local causes. Although this will lead to a reduction in population and welfare, the gradual transition will allow for adaptation in every aspect of life in all those locations not affected by the worst effects of collapse.

Accelerated/non-linear collapse: due to ecological (e.g., methane release from permafrost) and infrastructural (e.g., fragility of the electronics production chain) cross-dependencies, there will be a breaking point where several different and converging forces will be triggered. These will accelerate collapse before a stable situation is reached. This rate of change may be too rapid for humans to adapt to effectively.

Ideologies

Just as different material visions of collapse produce different expectations, the ideologies are also intertwined with positioning oneself in the debate. Understanding new ideologies, existing ideologies, or their adaptations is a key lens for understanding the debate about the future. It is interesting to note how many ideologies, especially conservative and liberal, are incapable of considering regression as a possibility. They are therefore either absent from the discourse or present with denialist positions.

I have excluded all ecological political ideologies that do not conceptualize or express explicit positions on collapse as intended in this article, despite having some idea of ecological collapse or degradation as part of their thinking.

Eco-fascism: collapse is the fault of overpopulation, excess wealth, or the choices of particular nations or demographic groups. Restrictive measures, suppression of certain freedoms for a portion of the population or their physical elimination are necessary to avoid a global collapse.

Degrowth: an economic and social model that requires continuous growth, based on the predatory extraction of resources is unsustainable in the long run. New economic models are needed that are not constrained by the growth imperative. A more local production system with reduced cross-dependencies is needed to address the fragility of the current one, This local production system should anticipate the needs that will be imposed by the Collapse.

Eco-socialism: the State or an equivalent entity such as a confederation of communities must promote ecological balance and restructure society and productive systems to prevent or survive the collapse. Given the seriousness of the threat, the ecological issue must be fully integrated into political planning to maintain the material well-being achieved thus far.

Communalists/Eco-anarchism: the way to survive collapse is to build self-sufficient networks and communities capable of surviving and adapting to social and climate change, progressively eliminating dependencies on global and regional supply chains.

Aesthetics

When it comes to imagining the future, aesthetics are just as important as theory, if not more so. Given the impossibility of accurately predicting the complex evolution that will take place in the next decades and how it will affect every single aspect of everyday life, reasoning about possible worlds from an artistic, narrative, emotional point of view allows us to understand ourselves and mobilize people to action much more easily than a dry scientific report or an overly abstract theoretical treatise.

The theme has long been explored from different perspectives, often even before the possibility of a collapse became as concrete and close in time as it is now. Intentionally or not, literary, cinematic and artistic currents condition the discourse and determine what we imagine when we close our eyes and think about what our lives will be like in 50 years.

Post-apocalypse: the collapse will be rapid and violent, due to cataclysms on a global scale. What will follow will be a world of scarcity and deteriorating institutions. Factions will be in constant conflict with each other over the few resources available. Alternatively, the demographic collapse will be so profound as to reduce the density of human presence to the point where very small groups will be able to live on subsistence as nomads or in settlements. Examples: Mad Max, Fallout, The Survivalist.

Cyberpunk/Sci-fi: The social and ecological collapse is not accompanied by a reduction in material well-being or technological competence, but by a disproportionate growth of the gap between social classes. Often a collapse of the established order is not followed by a chaotic and violent conflict, but by corporations that replace the state and implement dystopian societies. Examples: Autonomous, The Peripheral, Elysium.

Solarpunk: the collapse of old social and productive structures is a positive mechanism capable of triggering a profound revolution in human societies. Under the threat of extinction, a social reconfiguration takes place that fully incorporates ecology, cooperation, and radically sustainable development. The result is a society capable of reproducing itself without destroying and without oppressing. Examples: The Dispossessed, Ecotopia, Sunvault.

Corporate Marketing: the collapse is characterized as a consequence of wrong consumer choices, focused on the use of “unclean” materials and products. The collapse is never represented directly, but hinted at and implied. The veiled hint towards collapse pushes the customer to purchase. Such approach does not prevent giving it specific traits, albeit weak and functional exclusively to the generation of profit. This aesthetic is mainly used in advertising, brochures, social media posts, and corporate communication in general.

Cottage-core: the fetishization of bucolic and isolated life is once again proposed by cottage-core as an escape from declining modernity. Collapse is seen as something distant that cannot reach the idyllic bubble. A strong dichotomy between humanity and nature poses the latter and contact with it as an escape route from present and future problems.


*If you have any suggestion to expand the list, corrections or comments on some of the positions presented that, I realize, risk not doing justice to the complexity of the thought and the communities behind it, you can reach me at my email address: simone.robutti@protonmail.com. I am very open to evolve this article in a collaborative way.

Some days ago, in my tech workers organization, somebody showed us his new profile picture sporting, among other things, the logo of our organization. The logo, being text-based, seemed a bit forced in the composition of the image. This juxtaposition sparked a conversation in the organization that revolved around the question: “did he have any better option to show others he's a supportive Tech Worker?”. We thought a bit about it and we agreed that probably he had no better option.

Inquired about his motivations, he told us that he wanted to bring together different parts of his past and present: his activism, his beliefs, his work as a developer.

This should come as no surprise to people interested in the Tech Workers Movement. We are building an identity without history despite decades of actions in the tech sectors; an identity that crosses many traditional and established conceptual and material divisions. One of the many consequences is an arid semiotic space, a lack of vocabulary and visual tools to articulate our goals, our methods, our feelings and ourselves. To structure our communication, we are forced to borrow such instruments from our neighbours and friends: from the labor movement, from the hacker culture or sometimes from the subversion of corporate aesthetics.

The process of really bringing together, composing, and recombining symbols is in a very early stage and there's no shared, defined visual identity emerging yet. We don't really know how to effectively represent a programmer speaking to a colleague, let alone a UI designer speaking to a rider or a cafeteria worker. Almost everything that ends up on signs at protests has often to be reinvented locally for a lack of shared slogans. We are years away from implementing impactful collective rituals to strenghten our bonds or public performances to make ourselves visible and recognizable to others.

The scarcity of spontaneous and novel visual artifacts is not necessarily the symptom of a problem and might just be a necessary phase to go through. The movement is still young and concerned with other, more pressing, topics. Nonetheless identity building, visual tools and in general appeal to the emotional sense of belonging that symbols and rituals produce should be regarded as a strategic tool to put in your toolbox.

The semiotic landscape we operate in, while being sparse, is not completelly barren. There are a few exceptions and they deserve credit, because they bear the seeds that will develop into what we need to move forward. The goal of this article is not to do an in-depth analysis of the existing visual identity of the Tech Workers Movement, therefore I will limit myself to one positive example.

The Raised Fist

A recurring visual element, appropriated by many organizations, is the raised fist. A low-hanging fruit, the raised fist hints at collective struggle, conflict, solidarity and resolute commitment to some form of justice. Born at the beginning of the previous century as a labor symbol, it is often associated with a blurry idea of leftism. Nowadays it's used throughout the political spectrum, in corporate communication and marketing. Therefore is not easy to position ideologically, it's less scary and loaded than it used to be. It can be adopted without too much fear of scaring away Tech Workers with a non-political background but retaining at the same time the ability to connect with more radical environments.

We have plenty of examples of organizations adopting the raised fist in their main logo.

While serving its purpose, it falls short when the goal is to signal identity and belonging. It's diluted and too widespread to do so. The raised first will never be a Tech Worker symbol but it's one of the best options we have to reflect on the circulation of symbols in the galaxy of the Tech Workers Movement.

Moving forward

My grandfather once told me: “Nature will make plants grow anyway, but we farm because we want the ones in our field to grow and bear fruits”.

Given that we persevere in our struggle, symbols will eventually emerge, either from spontaneous convergence or through the hegemonic role of specific organizations, whose visual communication and symbols will be copied throughout the ecosystem.

I now pose the question: shall we “farm” our symbols? And if so, how? Given the heavily decentralized and fragmented nature of the Tech Workers Movement, a coordinated effort to rationally design a symbol we can all identify with sounds like a sysyphean effort. It would be counter to the organizational strategy that the movement has employed so far and require an amount of coordination and effort that could be better spent for different goals.

Nonetheless we mean to accelerate this process and stimulate the production and adoption of new symbols to better serve our actions on a strategic level. To do so, I believe the key is to encourage and incentivize a culture of visual production throughout the movement. Workers should refrain from producing visual materials, copy from others, move the elaboration of the struggle from a textual level to a visual level. It doesn't have to be art and it doesn't have to be good design. That's not how successful symbols are usually born. Make memes, posters, flyers, stickers. Adopt specific clothing and color combinations. Try new logos, variations, combinations.

Be part of creative processes even if you don't believe that's your role. Take the risk of making ugly things. If something you make has value, a designer will eventually notice and make it better. The visual communication of the Left, on average, is terrible: you will hardly make it worse just by trying something new.

To set a good example, I will post and briefly explain a couple ideas I think are interesting. I hope they will spark inspiration in some of you.

This is a Greek Chi (χ) inscribed in a circle of solidarity. The χ is the third letter and hardest sound in the word τέχνη (techné) that for Greeks represented the “practical knowledge”, the ability to do and create. The χ is sometimes used to symbolize technology even though τ is way more common, being the first letter of the word.

The Circle is instead a more loaded element. For millennia it represented wholeness or completeness, even divinity and perfection, while in more recent times it came to be associated with organization, solidarity and mutual support. Sometimes it's referred to as the “Circle of Solidarity”, representing a group of people surrounding a weaker individual in need of support.

The symbol is simple, easy to draw and reproduce, works on different backgrounds and it's recognizable. It lacks in character what it gains in simplicity.

This is a red variant of the Solarpunk Sun, with the colors matching the red and black color scheme prevalent in many spaces of the labour movement. Originally green, the symbol represented the utopic goal of achieving a harmonious, sustainable, post-capitalist society through the meeting of technology, ecology and a deep restructuring of society.

The elements of the symbol are now easy to frame: the gear represents human technology that integrates with a sun, an endless and clean source of energy, to power our utopic aims. The variant with the red color also introduces a more explicit dimension of social change necessary to deal with the ongoing and ever-growing economic, political and environmental issues created by the abuse of technology.

In this short article I wanted to bring together a few reflections I've been making in the last months, reading about new organizational forms, social mimesis through art for political goals, visual communication and labour-organizing in the face of a fast-changing landscape. The writing is by no mean exhaustive and I hope to be able to come back to it eventually but I feel like this conversation inside the Tech Workers Movement had to start from somewhere. What better place than here? What better time than now?

Strike of the Tech Sector in Milan, Italy, 1977. Detail of workers from Fimi-Phonola

In the USA, tech workers organizing in the last few years revolved around, among other things, building a shared worker identity across different roles that contribute to the creation of digital technology. The project is to bring together technical white-collar jobs in IT (programmers, designers, ...), the blue-collar jobs that support the technological production (service workers, cleaners, ...) or that enable some specific scenarios (warehouse workers, riders, drivers, ...).

This is the strategy adopted for example by Tech Workers Coalition, an organization I'm part of. For TWC, the “Tech Worker” is an identity that must cross the boundary lines created by difference in material conditions. TWC strives to bring together people across these lines on the basis that they can impact together the same industry by mobilizing, leading to synergies that will benefit both.

This perspective is not exclusive to TWC: other organizations seem to align on the same premise, either explicitly or implicitly. Some do this simply by disregarding or overlooking the differences between privileged office workers and other categories.

The limits of this approach are masterfully analyzed by “Carmen Molinari” in this article that was published a few weeks ago: There is something missing from tech worker organizing. It triggered more than a few reactions and verbalized something that was already evident to many: most of these initiatives and organizations are still mostly white, mostly male, mostly meaningful to privileged workers. Molinari highlights how guilt-driven or issue-driven organizing are good to involve already politicized white-collar workers but fail to reach people outside certain bubbles. In the end of her piece, she calls for building worker power in the company among technical people, since they hold a lot of technical control over digital systems. Only then they can use their material power to help other workers. She assumes that there are enough grievances among technical workers that can find sameness in their experiences and roles and this shared sentiment is enough to build solidarity.

This article pushed me to share my own thoughts on the concept of “Tech Worker” as a cultural artifact and how it is used today in media and in organizing. I’m a member of TWC Berlin and TWC Italia and as such, my perspective is distant from what is happening in the USA, although I regularly exchange ideas with my peers on the other side of the ocean.

Let's start from some shared experiences: as an identity, the “Tech Worker”, is great for mobilizing technical workers. In the ideological and cultural void left by the withdrawal of the Californian Ideology, the idea that programmers and designers are workers and need to fight together to build better working conditions and better technology is taking root and growing very fast. This phenomenon is better explained by Ben Tarnoff in The Making of the Tech Worker Movement.

At the same time, this identity fails to capture, in most cases, the interest and desires of many people in the industry. Despite the intents of tech workers organizations, most people still see programmers as evil or simply too privileged to be engaged with. The immigrant service worker fails to find sameness in an enthusiastic white boy with a passion for slow drip coffee. Words about workers solidarity pronounced by an alien fall short even among those who have the tools to understand them.

The narrative of the programmer's exceptionalism that has been cultivated for decades creates enormous friction in the communication with people outside the techie bubble. The news, the movies, the business moguls say that programmers can wield magic; they are shaping our present and future; theirs is somehow a new form of labor. Therefore most people think: they are weird, sometimes childish, but special and gifted and they are granted a huge deal of privilege in exchange. If they suffer, it is from a position of economic and social privilege. They don't suffer like me; they don't have my earthly problems.

Fighting this narrative is imperative for many reasons but at the moment it's still dominant – we need to learn to work around it, either by concealing our position as software workers or by learning to cooperate with people that are in other positions. Missing a common ground and a shared vocabulary, dialogue is not possible across these differentiating narratives about our roles and positions as workers. The best option is then to use diplomacy, intended as the language for when all the other languages are not possible. Let's engage other organizations of workers treating them as Others until they can recognize us as Same. Forcing a shared identity, designed by us and alien to them, won't work for obvious reasons. Until such shared identity is possible or until it emerges by itself in new forms, solidarity will be more easily built on the mutual material benefits that can derive from it.

Is this then an argument against the broader conceptualization of the Tech Worker as such? Quite the contrary. Instead of ditching the whole framework or storing it in a closet waiting for better times, we should instead focus on what it seems to be doing well: reaching workers directly involved in the creation and maintenance of software.

For lack of a better word, I will call it the “Tech Worker” meme in order to distinguish it from the “Tech Worker” identity. The “Tech Worker” meme is the core tool of an asymmetrical communication strategy. In such a strategy unions and alt-labor organizations engage the software creators portraying them as part of a broader supply chain of cognitive and material work. At the same time they abstain from engaging other workers in the same way, instead mediating between the existing narratives and the construction of solidarity across boundaries.

The “Tech Worker” meme exists in a confined space for strategic purposes and has no meaning outside that space. The meme is used to rile up developers when you try to unionize or when designing a flyer for a protest in a tech campus, but it has no meaning when you engage the riders of Deliveroo or the drivers of Uber, that are entitled to their own identity. We believe in the “Tech Worker” meme until we don't believe in it anymore. This clearly requires a certain ability to handle contradictory beliefs that most organizations on the left struggle to achieve. It's a prerequisite necessary to employ such strategies but how to get there is out of scope for this brief article.

Again, let's go back to what we can observe on the ground to explain why the “Tech Worker” meme seems to be working. There are many distinct patterns that can be observed in workers being exposed to this proposed new identity. I will list a few that come from my organizing experiences, but I'm sure that people from other parts of the world could easily expand it further.

First, as we said before, it fills the void of meaning and identity that exists in the IT sector. The energy behind the Californian Ideology is running out. We are seeing the breakdown of the homogeneous cultural space in which every open space, from the big consultancies of Bangalore to the FinTech startups of London, are just appendages of the Silicon Valley. This tale is being torn apart by the inability of Californian tech to deliver the wealth and wellbeing that it promised, together with the increasing inequalities inside the IT sector that naturally came with the expansion of the sector and the accumulation of the Digital Capital. In this space, the betrayal of the Californian Ideology lays the ground for the growth of new identities and ideologies.

The “Tech Worker” meme works perfectly because it is able to explain the different material conditions across different roles, locations and backgrounds, something that overlooked or treated as a local anomaly in the past.

It also overcomes the strictly individualist and machista mindset of the past, in which every programmer is a super-human cooperating with other peers to create majestic artifacts with their intellect. This enables the tech workers that were “undignified” in the old world to come up and take their credit for building technology. In the past, those who didn't fit in the narrative of software creation as a hyper-competitive endeavour of extremely skilled and exceptional developers and designers had very few tools to narrate themselves or to challenge the egocentric perspective of self-absorbed, traumatized “top performers”. This shift has been happening for a long time under the pressure of companies that want to tone down individual competition in order to maximize productivity. New value is given to cooperation, empathy, horizontality and diversity by organizational theory and a changing industry culture: this value is being appropriated by the alt-labor galaxy and used as a gateway drug to more radical ideas that compose the motivations of the Tech Worker: workplace democracy, equality, ethical technology and so on and so forth.

These new motivations, ambitious and sometimes utopic social and technical goals to work towards, capture the enthusiasm of young tech workers in a deep and visceral way. The old superhomistic will to power is transformed into the will to give back from our privileged position of technology creators. While this can easily lead to toxic patterns of armchair redesign of society and techno-solutionism applied to social issues (in the way hacker culture does), it still mobilizes forms of energy that were always used to harm the collective. Funneling this newfound resources towards positive and impactful results will be key to fuel the Tech Worker identity and make it grow: we cannot afford the failure of the FOSS or the hacker movement and a withdrawal in niche forms of resistance are to be avoided. Those spaces are already overcrowded, both in the political and the technical space.

Another excellent element of the Tech Worker meme is its appeal to the exceptionalism of the IT sector: the Digital Capital is growing and eating the others, technology is reshaping the world, therefore the workers that participate in the process must be special too. A dangerous thinking that should be slowly deconstructed, but that forces most organizations to adopt a different aesthetic, different rituals and different vocabularies from existing workers movements. The inability, again, to hold conflict beliefs holds up many organizations throughout the world: rebranding labor to appeal to new workers and new generations is always constrained by the need to signal sameness to other leftist labor organizations. The result is the inability to overcome the prejudice and resistance against left-wing ideals, against activism and against unions. The disregard for traditions and established practices that characterizes the IT sector usually leads to a lot of harm, wheel reinvention and self-celebration, but in this case it also enables a kind of ambiguity that ultimately drags lot of non-politicized people without any experience in activism towards our organizations. In this regard, the role of alt-labor organizations becomes to bridge the communication gap between big organizations that cannot abandon their past and new workers that crave forms of belonging and mutual support but are hostile to the old rituals and forms of the Left.

This brief article was mostly a dump of the reflections I've done since I started participating in labor organizing and I hope they can help my peers to better navigate their daily experiences in this role and to develop better tactical tools to reach tech workers. The discourse is often too focused on strategic thinking and materialistic analysis and I wanted to integrate the abundant material on the tension between the interest of IT workers and other workers. I don't believe there can be a simple, elegant resolution of this tension in the short term, but we should still be able to conduct effective organizing even in a condition of contradiction.

In the bubble, a bunch of Tech Bros burn their brains to produce useless or dangerous data products designed on ridiculous premises, victims of what is usually called “dataism”. Dataism has many faces, being a complex ideology often devolving into superstition or religious fanaticism, but we can summarize it as the belief that data, its collection and circulation produce unbiased knowledge about an objective truth. The Human, the scientist, the analyst, the theorist become useless: machine can replace the production of knowledge and become the ultimate source of truth.

Researchers are stumbling again into old forms of pseudoscience , falling for the same mistakes made by scientists in the 18th and 19th century. Economic incentives towards novelty at all costs create monsters that appear grotesque to anybody living outside that specific bubble. The total absence of strategy and narrative about how to build a collective future that doesn't look like the present keeps the best mind of our generation busy trying to spot friendly patterns on their screens.

On the other side of the fence there are countless journalists, activists, politicians, researchers and in general the public sphere. These people are trying to stop this crazy suicidal machine that turns data into compelling stories and stories into profit.

Clearly, at the global level, the forces driving this phenomenon are quite clear: the immense political and economic power of the main offenders (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, ...) protect a system in which the proliferation of bullshit for profit is possible. Systemic feedback rewards the production of the useless. These big trees create the shade in which an ecosystem of services and products can grow undisturbed by regulators, protestors and cultural resistance. Rivers of ink have been spent on this topic and I don't have much to add right now.

But what about the daily experience of people involved in this system? What about your local tech hub, your meetups, the companies you find on StackOverflow Jobs and apply to? How does this surreal process looks like on the ground and from the inside? I think that as a Machine Learning Engineer I can give you some perspective.

The three types of Tech Workers in the Data World

The disciplines and roles in developing data products are always a complicated topic and there's no agreement on what these names mean: data scientists, data analyst, data engineer, machine learning engineer, MLOps and so on and so forth. For the sake of our argument though, this division is not that relevant. Your contribution to bullshit as a technical person is not necessarily determined by your skillset, but by how you’re positioned in the system or organization producing such bullshit.

That's why I believe it's fundamental to identify categories that translate the macro system described before into realities and individual experiences at the micro level. You might more easily relate to them, understand in which one you fit in and eventually decide to change something in your life or career.

I believe there are two relevant dimensions to this analysis: the soundness of the thinking behind the product and the awareness of how sound or unsound it is. Therefore we identify three categories: the product is Sound and you’re Aware (SA), the product is Bullshit and you’re Aware (BA), the product is Bullshit and you’re Unaware.

In this categorization I want to include mostly individual workers but, more often than not, they operate in companies, departments, teams and organizations that are similarly positioned and therefore it’s not unlikely that the behavior and problems of a type BA worker are shared by its own department or company. We could therefore speak about BA workers in BA companies, where the network of individuals expresses similar traits to the individual and vice versa.

Where do you stand?

Let's go more in detail:

Type SA

These workers know that their product is Sound and they are Aware of it. They know because they have strong, direct, unambiguous evidence (or if they are lucky, formal definitions) of the impact they have. This doesn't mean their product has a positive impact: a good part of these people produce software that is extremely harmful to society. Example: data-driven UI/UX designers at Facebook, that use data to maximize the engagement on the platform and to turn it into clicks. Their metric (engagement) can be tracked through experimental methodologies (like A/B testing) and it's mostly dependent by elements that are defined inside the system (i.e. the engagement doesn't need proxies, it's something that Facebook itself defines). Producing clicks is their mission and produced clicks is what they see.

Another example: the company I work for, Teraki. Luckily, they are not evil. They do data compression using Machine Learning on embedded devices (cars, drones, delivery robots and so on). Our metric is the size of the data that gets transferred : if what we put on the network is consistently smaller than traditional algorithms, it's working. Otherwise it's not working. There are no proxies, no ambiguities: the formal definition of the size of a binary sequence can be specified on paper in a few minutes and it's very easy to implement a reliable tracking system for this metric.

These workers, while not necessarily capable of framing their activities in a broader social and economic context, still find meaningful engagement in the problem they are trying to solve. They might narrow down the perspective in order to focus exclusively on the metrics that are a reliable testimony of their impact, but nonetheless be able to root their actions in a shared reality.

Type BA

Their product is Bullshit and they are Aware of it. This is the most common category in terms of sheer numbers, especially in middle or small sized companies. Though in some fields, they are the majority in corporate environments too. Type BA workers are the most interesting to observe because their work is extremely peculiar and fundamental to building the castle of delusions that we collectively buy into and call “big data” or “data science”. Small bricks made of tiny lies, half-truths and omitted details are built and placed everyday. These form thick walls and shiny towers made of investor cash flow, designed to impress the external observer and to hide from the gaze an uncomfortable evidence: knowledge is in another castle.

Type BAs know that what they are doing is pointless, because often they have enough background in Statistics, Epistemology or Scientific Methodology. These tools are often sufficient to trigger some reflection over the meaning of the button smashing; they know it's pointless but they also know it's profitable and therefore they keep doing it. The whole endeavour, though, is critically dependent on one thing alone: the person that pays for that work needs to hold a strong belief in what is being delivered, be it the manager, the customer or the investor. When unable to articulate to themselves how the economic and social incentives play into the epistemic inconsistencies, they dismiss their own work as an anomaly in an otherwise well-functioning system.

Their work resembles more the one of a graphic designer: it's not important if your logo effectively drives up sales, it's important that everybody is convinced that it's a good logo and therefore it will eventually drive up sales. A minute,yet critical, difference. The same is true for a model: it's not important if you can show rigorous, unambiguous metrics picked from established research in your domain, what’s important is that you can show metrics that can convince people. These people you are paid to convince might be your managers and you have to explain your work, lead them where you want, connect what you did with increased revenue and justify your role in the company. Or perhaps the managers are complicit: they know the product doesn’t deliver the promised impact. Then the people you need to convince are your customers. It doesn't make much of a difference: half of your day will be spent doing data science, the other half massaging the numbers, inventing stories and narratives, developing fancy presentations with plenty of graphs and tables.

It's easy to find in jobs descriptions for these positions lines like: “you need to be able to explain and narrate your work”. Sometimes they call it “data storytelling”. While explaining a complex data analysis is a fundamental skill for any serious scientist, most companies are actually looking for people capable and willing to participate in this bullshit-production process. This is equally built on effective production of insights and on systems of smoke and mirrors. Complacency is not enough to be qualified for such a job: the candidate needs a technical background as solid as any other and, on top, they should be able to use it in conjunction with interpersonal and communication skills to concoct the perfect narrative, capable of going through the defense mechanisms of the target receiver with a masterful use of statistics, metrics and other kinds of lies.

Clearly you cannot say the quiet part out loud before you start the job; it's whispered months later, in meeting rooms, when you are fully included in the company and have a stake in its success. Bullshit is your daily life already and only then it can be acknowledged. Some people decide to stay because they have to pay the bills, some others buy enthusiastically into it and embrace the mindset portraying the management or the customers as ignorant to deceive. They feel that most of the IT industry produces bullshit anyway and they tell themselves: “why should I move somewhere else?” Relevant and meaningful work is a privilege we cannot aspire to.

Type BU

They are the most dangerous ones. Their product is Bullshit and they are Unaware. These are the people that really believe they are saving the world despite everybody constantly yelling to stop what they're doing. They think:“They are clearly not talking about me, just Facebook and Google are greedy, I'm not like them”. Critical self-reflection is not an option: their world, their beliefs, their religion do not allow them to distance themselves from the product of their work and observe it from the perspective of the critics or the victims. They think Technology (with the capital T) is intrinsically liberating, good, beneficial and they are their loyal servants. Questioning this truth is beyond their possibilities because everything around them is reinforcing this self-deception: they are like flies flying repeatedly into a window. They repeat the same mistakes over and over, the same of the people that came before them, because they lack the means to understand and articulate what a glass window is and why their continuous movement is not bringing them anywhere. They believe their nonsense is an attitude of progress, an attitude of being on the bleeding edge, necessary to divine what the market really wants. The very rare success of one of their peers justifies in hindsight any waste of resources. The market becomes an optimization algorithm towards a global optimum and this requires exploring seemingly irrelevant paths. This magical thinking is rooted in the capitalist realism that dominates our times. It somehow connects the systemic sacrifice of mind and money to produce a few champions, capable of lifting themselves above the masses, and save us all through the achievement of the most important goal for humanity: profitability, the true judge that divides the worthy from the unworthy. Crazy is the new smart and we are still waiting for the supposed shared benefits.

This spirit, this social bubble capable of nurturing generations of worshippers of shallow criticism and enemies of radical criticism, of creators unable to understand their position in the world, attracts and unleashes an insane amount of energy. This comes in the form of skilled engineers, fervent entrepreneurs, huge investments from the Digital Capital and sometimes even big revenues, when the system becomes so huge that a vast majority of the public starts buying into the delusion. This world is also the source of the most ridiculous and surreal products that we often make fun of. Useless, toxic, dangerous machine learning or data-driven applications and research are no different; at best the issues are harder to spot for the layperson.

Where to go from here

Regardless of the type of worker you are, you're still involved in a very dysfunctional system. Tech has failed to meet its promises at large and while it produced some benefits for everybody and many profit for the elites, it did it at prohibitive costs in terms of human, social, economical and environmental resources.

The western Tech Industry is aggravating many structural challenges that, in face of an approaching economic and social collapse cannot go unsolved. Keeping the best minds of our generation busy with the creation of useless gimmicks or nefarious contraptions to maximize the number of impressions on ads is already a crime in such critical times.

To defuse the dangers brought by this bubble, we have to challenge the ideological and pseudo-religious premises of the whole endeavour:

  • Technology cannot solve everything:some problems are better solved through political and social effort.
  • Technology is not intrinsically good or useful. Even if the market seems to say so.
  • A system can be big, pervasive, naturalized and still be a superstition. Astrology and divination led the decisions of the most important people on Earth for millenia. The Enlightenment just skewed our preference towards superstitions that resemble science: our elites are not smarter than a Chinese Emperor or a Roman General. Most “Big Data” is just well-designed astrology, incapable of producing knowledge.
  • Slow, incremental change cannot tackle every challenge: sometimes change must be radical. A self-regulating system will always fail as soon as some new element is not registered as a feedback. Today we have plenty of feedback signals that go unregistered by the Tech Industry: ecological costs, social unrest, drainage of mental energy and so on.

On a personal level, the best thing you can do to avoid being part of the problem is to be critical about the problems you tackle and the solutions you propose. As a Tech Worker you're in a special position nowadays: you're among the people that have the tools to build a new world, but the old world deems you to valuable for its own reproduction and feeds you an idea of future that looks exactly like the present, but with flying cars and with some other useless gadget.

Being critical is not just about thinking very hard about what you're doing: it means creating a richer context for your decisions, reading about politics, philosophy, sociology, ecology and understanding where you sit in the world and what impact will your work make. Ask yourself questions: what is my working changing in the world? Can I measure it? Am I just measuring proxies of proxies? Who benefits from these changes? Why? Am I really convinced of what I'm doing? Am I just trying to find a problem for my solution? Is the problem I want to solve even relevant outside my bubble? How small is my bubble? Why is the market or the investors rewarding me even if I don't seem to do anything meaningful? In the end, should I just give up and go do something else? Be honest first with yourself, then with others.

Technology, including Machine Learning and data-driven approaches can be useful. It must be applied or designed in a useful way because there are great challenges in front of us. This is not something a single person can solve and it's not something you can solve inside the startup world. Be critical, be skeptical, reject everything around you if you believe it's tainted by this new religion of data and code. The next generations are asking you to. History is asking you to. In the face of a dying ecosystem, rising authoritarian governments and the disintegration of the social fabric, technologists cannot waste time. There is no alternative.

This article is part of a series which will hopefully lead to the creation of an open article about technological dissemination and the narrative that surrounds how it’s understood and performed in the western world. The articles can be read independently from one another or as a collective whole.


Prerequisite readings:

The Californian Ideology


The word “hacker” has been employed by so many people and movements that it is now devoid of meaning. While its origins as a term initially began as a way to define a small group of tech enthusiasts, it slowly evolved to identify a subculture which then grew into a constellation of political movements. Nowadays, the term “hacker” has trickled onwards into mainstream startup culture. It has become a term used by technical employees and business people to identify themselves with an image of success in line with the Californian Ideology. The entrepreneurial effort is then portrayed as a challenge against the status quo, the common sense and the boundaries that constrained their competitors (the “box” the hacker can think outside of). Hackerism became an element of marketing competition.

Nowadays the term is used in mainstream media mostly to identify security hackers or misused to identify professional or non-professional crackers. The term has been appropriated by many and diverse actors in the technological, social and political landscape to the point where the understanding of the word has to deal with apparently irreconcilable contradictions . What does a “growth hacker” (basically a business strategist without a suit) have to do with an hacktivist trying to bring neoliberal capitalism to its demise by attacking banks or by developing a messaging app? Are they kin to a Chinese security expert trying to disrupt the infrastructure of some American company?

“NO!” shouts the hacktivist: “I'm the only one entitled to this word, because being a hacker means to be against the system”. The developer at a startup would nonchalantly answer: “Brother, I'm also against the system. My company is trying to disrupt the market of shower filters. For too long this niche has been dominated by a cartel of old capitalists that never tried to improve their products”. The Chinese hacker wouldn't participate in the discussion at all because he doesn't marry in any of these ideologies and he just inherited a label from the Western discourse while trying to earn a salary.

There are many categories which self-identify as hackers but the goal of this article is to talk about a specific subset of them that we will now try to define. Some might call them “hacktivist”, but it's still too broad of a term. We are concerned with those hackers that perceive themselves as politically active, politically conscious and leaning towards progressive positions which are intended simply as promoting an expansion of natural or artificial rights to a broader spectrum of people. Among these, we consider only those that work actively to analyze and probe existing techno/social systems and artifacts or to develop new ones. We exclude from this discussion those whom are not politicized and those whom are leaning towards reactionary, pro-capitalist and racist positions. We also exclude all those political crackers (individuals and collectives) that in the last few decades attacked corporate and governmental systems to extract and publish sensitive information that they believed belonged to the public space, such as Phineas Fisher.

The hackerist perspective

The “Hacker Identity”, I argue, is a powerful source of motivation. It is a catalyst for the construction of technology outside the mainstream pipelines of technological development. I also want to argue that this identity comes attached with a heavy ideological and practical baggage that ultimately hinders the contribution given by “hacked technology” to the liberation of people and improvement of their material, psychological and spiritual conditions, an achievement that a specific subset of hackers would like to claim as a justification for their activities.

Let’s define the “hackerist perspective”:

The hackerist perspective is an attempt to alter technology for political reasons by repurposing technological artifacts without concerning oneself with altering the process that produced said technology.

Follows as a corollary: The process and the systems that produce technologies are questioned, attacked, controlled but never repurposed.

The hackerist perspective is by this definition anti-political, because redefining processes and systems requires political work towards consensus, regardless of the scale. A given way of using a technology is encoded by the social structure that employs it. Such coded usage cannot be then embedded into the technological artifact without first paving the path on a social level. The hackerist perspective cannot encompass such complexity: to retain meaning for the efforts made by the hackerist multitude, it resorts to flip the myths of the Californian Ideology upside down. Where the Silicon Valley imbues its technology with saving powers, the hacker sees a Dark God of Control. New, pure, moral techno-Gods created by the hacker will liberate the humans from the oppression of the old, tainted, evil techno-demons created by the corporation.

Narrowing down the action to the technical level and erasing the social and ideological implications of said operation is the only allowed option after embracing a worldview that prescribes the struggle for freedom as a clash of technical capabilities. A machista confrontation of individual or collective intellects rather than a fluid struggle of human communities and bodies against the capital.

The hackerist perspective in the real world

How does the hackerist perspective influence the world around us? How does it influence the Tech counter-cultural community? How does it influences the artifacts that are produced? Is it just an empty category or a category useful to escape ideological cages?

Being a liquid identity and lacking clear structure and organization, the “hacker community” is hard to narrow down to a specific set of people, goals and projects so we must proceed with nuanced categories.

Let's start from a fact: a huge number of activists around the world are concerned with resisting the negative impact of technology on our lives and to limit the ever-increasing power of the corporate world over societies, individuals, organic masses and spaces all over the world. A good part of them would identify themselves as hackers or hacktivists. To this multitude of perspectives, judged as a single entity, can be attributed successes or failures in the many goals that seems to drive them.

The overall balance of the hackerist struggle is deeply negative. Today, the hacker multitude is incapable of producing pervasive alternatives, producing viable and accessible solutions, and ultimately counter-attacking the continuous invasion of Big Tech of the public and private spaces. Like most of the post-'68 left, hackers are content with resisting the onslaught, slowing down the forces of capitalism operating at a level that is not reached by the forces of the Resistance. The result is the creation of small spaces of safety which get harder and harder to defend, requiring increasingly larger efforts to be maintained.

Let’s take private and secure communication over the Internet as an example. The multitude created many viable and usable solutions in the last few years to allow most tech-savvy people to exchange text and files in a relatively safe way without having to invest too much time in configuring their systems. While this result is highly effective in protecting members of the multitude and other actors like journalists, whistleblowers and political dissidents, it seems to be unable to be generalized to the masses. Probably most hackers would say that this was not even a goal to begin with. The pattern of prefigurative localism collapsing into self-referential systems of value is the same that can be easily found in many niches of the political left.

The inability to generalize and scale their solutions (with the exception of a few Free Software programs and some hardware designs like Arduino) seems to be a common pattern in all the “technological confrontations” that the multitude engages in. A change that is restricted to an élite chaste of tech-savvy people is neither lasting nor impactful change. Reproducing their individual independence from Big Tech over and over is not a fight for the liberation of humanity. In the same way, work on philosophical theory that fails to produce results in the real world is nothing more than a masturbatory act performed by an entitled middle class of academics, artists and cultural workers. The parallelism between these two worlds, the hacker multitude and the left-wing cultural and political multitude is uncanny, even though the two forms of functional immobility come from very different roots.

The hackerist perspective is enough to explain this limitation: there's just so much you can achieve by concerning yourself exclusively with operating on a technical level. On top of this, there seems to be a sequence of trending technical solutions to which hackers attribute liberating power: free software, decentralized solutions, federated solutions, encryption, client-side computation for data ownership and so on.

These days federated solutions seem to be trendy, with lot of hope put into Mastodon, a federated clone of Twitter that replicates the UI/UX of a software designed to extract data from users and make them engage in a rapid, toxic, and confrontational way to maximize engagement and attention. Most of these design choices seem to go unchallenged. But it's not much of an issue since most instances are populated either by LGBTQ+ communities, left-wing activists or hacker/tech-savvy people. And also fascists: neo-nazis, white supremacists, right-wing libertarians and so on. Since they are not allowed to organize on commercial platforms, they make use of every technology that can give them independence from the control systems of liberal societies. A scenario for which Mastodon seems to have no effective countermeasure, and a consequence which wasn't envisioned beforehand. As usual, the creator of the technology won't be held responsible for the outcomes of providing a tool to Nazis. On top of this, there are serious doubts that the federated nature of the social is actually delivering a distribution of power among many stakeholders: the relevant instances are just a few and the distribution is, so far, extremely skewed.

The hackerist perspective vs the holistic perspective: Mastodon vs FairBnB

Mastodon represents a good case study of the naiveté of the hackerist perspective. To understand why the hackerist perspective is problematic, I think it's useful to point at another case of software aimed at liberation that seem to approach the problem from a deeply different perspective: FairBnB.

FairBnB is an attempt at creating a non-exploitative alternative to AirBnB. It does so by employing a more fair business model, investing in local communities, respecting data ownership and trying to build a worker/user run platform as a cooperative effort. Being a new and still not open platform, a judgement on the outcome is not possible but that's not why this is interesting to us.

Mastodon and FairBnB lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of technological liberation. While Mastodon begins its endeavour with a technical question, FairBnB begins with a political and social question. “Can we make Twitter federated to liberate its users?” vs. “Can we liberate cities from the harm brought by mass tourism?”. Once we answer to the second question, giving it a technological embodiment is relatively easy. The converse though is not true: once we have a technological artifact like Mastodon thrown out into the world, it is impossible to shape its politics. A deep political reflection on the liberating power of Mastodon would probably invalidate all the efforts made so far: such an approach would never be employed by the lead developer and the community.

It is no accident that these two software artifacts differ so greatly in intent and implementation: they come from very different communities with contrasting ideologies. Mastodon, being an exemplification of the hackerist perspective, puts its trust in the liberating power of the technology itself as we have discussed before. In contrast, FairBnB comes from a more traditional analysis of power dynamics in local and global economics, a critique of platform capitalism and a desire for communal services, all of which are characteristic traits of a leftist environment that is still struggling with its relationship with digital technology. Nonetheless, the idea that technological repurposing can be employed as a weapon against the Capital is growing stronger and stronger among said leftists: FairBnB is one among examples of this renewed alliance betwen the Left and Technology.

End of part 1. Part 2 containing a pars construens will follow.

A friend of mine, one day, came to me and said: “Read this book, it's the Das Kapital of our century”. Since he reads a lot and I trust his judgement, I picked it up but with a lot of skepticism because its author, Peter Joseph, was associated with plenty of populists, conspirancy-oriented movements thanks to its previous works and its Zeitgeist Movement. I didn't really consumed much of its content back in those days so I decided to give him a chance.

Little spoiler: the book is not the new Das Kapital but it's still worth the read, especially if you are not really well-versed in sociology, political science and economics. While heavily sacrificing rigour and simplying a lot of topics for the sake of clarity and contrary to my expectation, the book is not a pile of pseudo-intellectual arguments to attack a non-well defined reptilian enemy somewhere in Washington.

The goal of the book is, in fact, to bridge the gap between the beliefs we hold in the western society and the last century of scientific results. In the first pages Peter Joseph states clearly how our culture, our values, our social structure and our institutions have failed to keep up with the progress achieved in many fields like sociology, economics, biology and psicology. The result is a stark inconsistency between what we hold as “scientifically valid” and how we structure our social and political action.

In each chapter he builds an argument to challenge the status quo and invite us to rethink our outdated institutions in order to address a central problem with multi-faceted materializations: systemic violence. For him, systemic violence is an emergent property of a system that brings damage and oppression upon individuals and social categories. A form of violence where there are no perpetrators to be punished, no bodies to put in jail but only rules to be changed and structures to be evolved. The effects of this kind of violence are all around us and have been analyzed in detail. Its complexity though makes it hard for academics and fringe politicians to include it in the mainstream political discourse, especially in an age of simple answers to complex problems.

Nonetheless, employing a systemic perspective is paramount to improving our society, limit the impact of the approaching ecologic and social collapse and ultimately claim to act morally. The book is, at its core, a series of well-elaborated exaplanations of systemic problems from ground evidences to moral and political conclusions, through the lenses of different fields. Examples includes an analysis of how poverty has causal effects on health, life expectancy and self-realization in life, an anthropological discussion on how we value work as a necessary punishment, how ideology and faith determines macro-economics decisions and so on.

The book is then wrapped up by the last chapter that summarizes the ethos of the de-growth and xenoaccelerationist left: building a new future, rethinking the necessity of work, rethinking monetary systems, restructure the system to be free from the necessity of growth, do politics for what will come after the collapse.

So far the book could have been a 10 out of 10: we said it's solid, it touches many interconnected arguments without fear of dealing with them in combination, it's rooted in daily experiences of suffering for many people and it's topped with a pars construens. Unfortunately the execution is not as good as it could have been. I still believe this is a book you should give to your liberal friend to radicalize him: it's a good tool, not necessarily a good piece of writing.

The main problem I have with the book is that it's continously quoting academics and this gives the book an aura of authority but these quotes are often out of context and seem instrumental to reinforcing the author's argument, more than investigating any sort of truth. The boundary between the two endeavours (questioning the status quo and asserting scientific truth) are often blurred and it's impossible for the reader to follow these strains of thought. This would be ok if he carefully selected the authors to quote, but among them we find many controversial figures such as Vandana Shiva and Jared Diamond. He also quotes David Graeber “Bullshit jobs” that while being a good read, is by no mean a solid piece of writing.

Any skeptical reader's trust in the author will be often challenged. I clearly don't believe this approach has been used in bad faith and it's clear how covering so many diverse and sensitive topics for a single person is a titanic work where you want to have your back guarded by as many experts as possible. This is particularly evident in the second chapter, in my opinion the only bad one in the book, where the anthropological arguments, behavioral and economic arguments are poorly stitched together. Nonetheless there's room for iterative improvements that I hope to see in future editions.

In conclusion, the book is a valid instrument to circulate many ideas that are too often presented in an inaccessible way. It's written for a target that is still entrapped in many ideological cages that the author assume are still in place for the reader, contrary to most of the material he references, that often assume a certain degree of ideological alignment in the reader. The accessibility is the most precious trait of the book but the price paid for it might have been too high.