Talk of the “American dream” used to conjure mental images of individuals and families starting their own businesses and becoming prosperous while contributing to the community around them, a dream where everybody could have a slice of America. That America is dying, however. It’s neither romantic nor inspiring to imagine a country in which people aspire to a job that will provide them with a cubicle and a chance to become a cog in the larger machine that is a corporation. As businesses – particularly Silicon Valley tech giants – continue to get bigger and eat up everything in their paths like hungry hippos, employees realize they may be able to buy the picket fence and the two-car garage while working in jobs that don’t align with their values. Some are asking whether they are really contributing to the world in the way they had hoped. Microsoft employees now find themselves in that boat: After applying for work at what was ostensibly a personal computer company, they now are protesting a new Department of Defense contract on the basis that they “did not sign up to develop weapons.”
I Helped to Develop What?!
In the segmented and hierarchical nature of modern-day corporations, the left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing. Although the brains of the operation may be directing things with a clear direction in mind, that aim is not necessarily shared with workers on the ground. By the time the mass of easily replaceable, lower-level employees realizes what is going on, it’s usually too late.
Microsoft recently signed a $479 million contract to supply the U.S. Army with virtual reality headsets to be used during training and combat situations. The technology will build on an existing “HoloLens” system, but some staff members who created HoloLens are not thrilled with this new application of their work, which will be used for “increased lethality” in wartime scenarios, among other things. A group called Microsoft Workers 4 Good penned a letter to the company’s leaders, demanding that the contract be canceled and claiming that “intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology.”
While the employees could indeed leave the company, the letter points out a wider problem that today’s technology companies – and other corporations – pose to the employment market:
“[Microsoft chief legal officer] Brad Smith’s suggestion that employees concerned about working on unethical projects ‘would be allowed to move to other work within the company’ ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work. There are many engineers who contributed to HoloLens before this contract even existed, believing it would be used to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover (RIP). These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers.”
While this naivete on the part of Microsoft workers as to the potential applications of their work is hard to believe, the fact remains that in an increasingly centralized technological and corporate world, workers have less and less control over – and knowledge of – the contributions they make to society.
“Something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway across the world,” or, put another way, the Butterfly Effect theory suggests that even the smallest of our acts can begin a chain that ultimately leads to major and unforeseen consequences. If Microsoft workers had signed up to work at a defense or weapons company, they would have known exactly what they were getting into – but that wasn’t the case.
Concentrated Corporate Power
In late 2018, an anonymous Amazon employee wrote a letter in protest after realizing that the company is “in the business of facilitating authoritarian surveillance.” The letter was addressed to CEO Jeff Bezos, who, needless to say, continues to pursue the projects that had the employee up in arms, including partnerships with ICE and a facial recognition program.
While New York may be seething after radical socialist officials cost them a new Amazon headquarters in Long Island, perhaps the project wouldn’t have been as beneficial to the region’s long-term finances or morale as people assume. Although Long Island isn’t exactly a small town, Liberty Nation’s Joe Schaeffer has previously discussed wage depression and the concept of monopsony power, “which comes when there is only one buyer for many sellers in a market. This is usually thought of in terms of goods or services. But with huge companies like Amazon, as they become the overwhelmingly dominant purchaser of employee labor in town, worker wages suffer.” According to a National Bureau of Economic Research report, the U.S. labor market has a high degree of concentration, meaning that employees have little control over their choice to work for major corporations, and corporations therefore have an easier time exploiting employees – financially and morally.
The 20th century may have been a battle between communism and capitalism, and while that war may be raging still, corporatism is set to claim victory in the 21st century. When the business world is divided among only a few big-hitters that spread into as many fields as possible, that leaves fewer employers to apply to and it’s harder for workers to avoid compromising themselves. Silicon Valley is sold to us as an entrepreneurs’ playground, but only a handful rise to the top to become the kings and queens of our technological future, as worker bees buzz away at projects far more sinister than they have been allowed to understand.