It would be an injustice to try to generalize or sum up all the nuances and tributaries of Graeber’s work in these two volumes with a few bon mots, but a handful of points particularly relevant to software engineering are gone into at some length(convincingly):
- From The Utopia of Rules
“As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than systems of arbitrary extraction, everyone duly scurries about trying to curry favor by pretending they actually believe this is to be true.”
And none scurry harder and faster than the engineers of software . Most are fully aware of the implications of our work-the construction brick by brick of a dystopian oligarchical police state. As Graeber explicates, a place where loyalty and obsequiousness-requirements to receive your rice bowl in a pseudo-feudal state-takes the form of pretending that the system runs as advertised. Software engineering adds its own decolletage to this by requiring unilateral affirmation that technology only moves in a positive direction despite all available evidence to the contrary. This also infers that fervent technological reductionism in corporate engineering environments is a required obeisance gesture;like a monkey showing its hiney to a higher status male. Good work may or not be rewarded , being that for at least 20 years the engineering landscape of Silicon Valley has been whimsical. But unequivocally stating that software engineering only moves things forward and not back is a loyalty oath always to be rewarded with a treat-only a pitiful reprieve , since in the world of Agile/Scrum, every day is a new day.
- From The Utopia of Rules
Just as what came to be called “globalization” was really a creation of new political alignments, policy decisions, and new bureaucracies—which were only later followed by physical technologies like containerized shipping, or the Internet—so the pervasive bureaucratization of everyday life made possible by the computers is not, itself, the result of technological development. Rather it’s the other way around. Technological change is simply not an independent variable. Technology will advance, and often in surprising and unexpected ways. But the overall direction it takes depends on social factors.
This is easy to forget because our immediate experience of everyday bureaucratization is entirely caught up in new information technologies: Facebook, smartphone banking, Amazon, PayPal, endless handheld devices that reduce the world around us to maps, forms, codes, and graphs. Still, the key alignments that made all this possible are precisely those that I have been describing in this essay, that first took place in the seventies and eighties, with the alliance of finance and corporate bureaucrats, the new corporate culture that emerged from it, and its ability to invade educational, scientific, and government circles in such a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth…….
I have been saying this for some time to many young people without the perspective of actually being there in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s-technology is actually the egg , not the chicken. I have usually been stonewalled. I have come to cynically attribute this to disingenuity and avoidance related to the comments of the previous bullet.
- From Bullshit Jobs
…in the 1970s, banks were still the only companies that were enthusiastic about the use of computers. There seems to be an intrinsic connection between the financialization of the economy, the blossoming of information industries, and the proliferation of bullshit jobs. The results were not just some sort of re calibration or readjustment of existing forms of capitalism. In many ways, it marked a profound break with what had come before. If the existence of bullshit jobs seems to defy the logic of capitalism, one possible reason for their proliferation might be that the existing system isn’t capitalism—or at least, isn’t any sort of capitalism that would be recognizable from the works of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or, for that matter, Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman. It is increasingly a system of rent extraction where the internal logic—the system’s “laws of motion,” as the Marxists like to say—are profoundly different from capitalism, since economic and political imperatives have come to largely merge. In many ways, it resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers. In other ways—notably in its managerialist ethos—it is profoundly different. And the whole apparatus, rather than replacing old-fashioned industrial capitalism, is instead superimposed on top of it, blending together in a thousand points in a thousand different ways. Hardly surprising, then, that the situation seems so confusing that even those directly in the middle don’t really know quite what to make of it.
The Stalin quorum of software engineers have no idea as to what’s really going on(this does not contradict my previous assertion that most know what they’re doing. They know they’re building a global penitentiary but they’re oblivious as to why or the criteria for becoming an inmate and not a trustee-the only choices available to those not in the control echelon. Those who may have enlightened them have been selected out,scattered to the four winds and forgotten. The above citation is especially revealing when trying to understand something like the H1B visa program. Supporters of this program have their own selfish reasons and greedy ambitions for supporting it;but surprisingly, critics have been unable to mount a coherent counterattack mainly because they don’t actually understand what the program is really for. Supporters(perpetrators?) of H1B say it is to ameliorate a shortage of skilled engineers. But the real wages of software engineers have been stagnant for years and neither the rise or fall of any metrics understood to track success or failure in Silicon Valley seem to track these wage trends in any understandable fashion. And there is significant evidence that a large number of American candidates float aimlessly in the ether of redundancy. This has also been the case for years and seems completely unaffected by anything resembling capitalist supply and demand/rational choice orthodoxy. An additional anomaly for software engineers is experience is precipitously less valued as you accumulate it , not more-a dead giveaway that engineering in general is not actually a profession-which makes problematic the skilled shortage position. If experience/skill loses value the more you have of it(well documented among software engineers) , just what constitutes a shortage? How can you expect to find a commodity with negative equity in plentiful supply being that no one has any incentive to produce it beyond a basic replacement rate since it does not accrue value? In this scenario, the result should be a plentiful supply of the almost new commodity at a low quality(the replacement cost is so low there is no incentive to make good ones,i.e.,the paper napkin effect)-which seems to be the exact result of the H1B visa program. So why the disingenuous mystification at the situation coyly offered by its supporters since this constitutes the expected outcome exactly?
Paradoxically, the critics(I oppose the program but am taking a devil’s advocate position) logic also falls apart when you actually looks at what has happened over say,the last 25 years. They take the position that cheap foreigners are imported to lower the bottom line: the foreign engineers cost less for the work output. Two things have to be true for this criticism to be viable: 1) The net cost of the foreigners has to be a smaller component of the malleable operating costs. 2) the value of the end “product” , that is the software or software service must at least hold constant in value after the replacement. From my own experience and research, neither of these items are true for the most part.There is no evidence that remote management of foreign teams or imported H1B “cost” any less than a dedicated team of domestic peons(what is extremely suspicious is the virtually complete lack data anywhere on this-if the H1B program or remote teams actually cheapened the bottom line wouldn’t the perpetrators be more than happy to show the detailed results?) . The second condition also seems dubious. The “value” of the software product appears to be entirely political(that is, determined by some extra economic arbitration opaque to mere mortals;mickey-shakes;masonic knuckle-rubs;DOD manus manum lavat,etc. Software that was developed 30 years go , still sells for the same real price it did 30 years ago(see Microsoft and Oracle government contracting). Conversely, software that cost millions last Christmas, is worthless today-because again, politically, the companies that produce it have suffered some byzantine setback behind the curtains.
One side of the H1B debate describe a cause and effect that does not hold up to scrutiny out of self-interest and possibly malice-the other out of fairness and national solidarity. Both are unconvincing because the value/reward system they describe does not actually exist. There doesn’t seem to be any coherent relation between what software engineers(regardless of ethnicity) are paid and how much the “bottom line” reaps. There also seems to be no relationship that makes itself obvious between the value(what the owner can sell it for) and the quality or amount of labor that went into it. Astonishingly, none of the classic “controls”-labor cost,market value,capital/labor ratio,quality-seem to have any predictable influence in the end on just how much treasure any Sand Hill investment cannibal actually stuffs in his pocket and how much of this lucre trickles into the pitiful cyber coffers of the engineering slaves. The entire debate seems configured to have everybody chasing their own tails while the status quo is maintained with a minimum of effort. Graeber’s writing and my own experience offer an interpretation.
What if the H1B visa program has nothing to do with “capitalism” as we understand it? It has been my personal experience that the only domestic beneficiaries of the visa program outside of its progenitors have been middle managers-who receive bonuses for “cutting costs”;costs which are gerrymandered within a local or constrained context to make H1B labor seem cheaper, when if viewed from a cradle to the grave perspective the savings are at best ambiguous. This is a form of what Graeber calls “sub-infeudalisation”. The process is that a vassal becomes a lord by farming out a part of his fiefdom to a supplicant who becomes his vassal. The large East Asian “consulting” combines are actually controlled by the American companies that engage them. The software or big tech companies are directly extracting fortunes form both the U.S ,India and others by financialization: direct extortion of fees from consumers by extra financial coercion, i.e., corporate banking versions of speed cameras and the such like , military transfer payments and foreign aid-transfer payments that never actually leave the bank’s balance sheets and can be “spent” only on designated domestically produced exports-like software and services,privileged borrowing at close to zero interest rates.etc. Corey Pien outlines a recent domestic spin on this -the Small Business Innovation Research grant(now played out like an over-trapped beaver territory by incontinent stealing): “private” research paid for directly out of government cash hoards whose benefits accrue only to the grantees, not the citizens who provided the vig. Vassals who enable the whole shell game are rewarded with petty fiefdoms that is domestic middle managers(earls , counts and lords) subordinated to Indian or Han pashas and panjandrums who are rewarded indirectly by exploiting hordes of their own countrymen with low wages and plantation tithes-by turn themselves vassals to the tech titans.
The H1B program can be seen thusly as a node in quasi-feudal system that rewards under a not oily enough smokescreen those corporate foreign(mostly Indian and Far Eastern) entities that in effect market their own people by allowing the Sand Hill juggernauts unfettered access to the data of billions in the target countries-a particularly nasty and sinister form of human trafficking by proxy. The visa program is a form of payoff in a vertically structured spoils system: Microsoft and Google , et al , cyber enslave Indians and others with micro payments and debit cards and verification feedback rope a dopes;the home grown consiglieres get a fat “contract” to supply engineers who they manage/shakedown/traffic in the guest country(with many lucrative ancillary scams available-visa lawyers,travel packages,Parker Brothers diplomas, housing-all at exorbitant prices); the domestic native middle management quislings get their baksheesh by bonuses enabled by crooked bookkeeping;the bookkeeping is farmed out to….the same East Asian/far eastern consiglieres who supplied the visa candidates in a self-sustaining rake-off which needs only the raw intake of captured data and information by the protean information combines without compensating the sources(see Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism) to keep rolling. Data is only the latest commodity that this system has despoiled East Asians of with the visa programs as baksheesh. It is also probably the rewards system for food and medical penetrations by large American corporations-in the case of medicine, specifically public health,i.e.,vaccines. It’s no coincidence that everybody’s friend,Bill Gates, is working both sides of the street here(and seems to have gotten him into a spot of trouble for getting too greedy).
Even in these evil times , such a transparently wicked scheme cannot be run without some obfuscation and indirection from the villains, and “software development” is as good a magician’s sleeve as any. None of this should come as a surprise in an industry that in its “start-up” investment model has something that seems to be almost a caricature of the Mafia system of buying and asset stripping say, a restaurant by loading it with debt , pocketing the borrowed cash and then burning it down for the insurance money(or in a variation on a theme, maybe Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce from Dickens’s Bleak House, where scavengers, moochers and parasites slowly nibble away a fortune by fees, chicanery and private stock manipulation). Isn’t this a virtual verbatim description of your average software start-up? So why would a “visa program” that needs only Bugs Moran and Al Capone shooting it out in a Chicago garage to complete the picture be a surprise? And what were Bugs and Al fighting over? A commodity whose price was inflated by government regulation/prohibition and controlled by a ruthless,lawless band of gangsters who controlled “territories” and allowed no interlopers-sound familiar? And if after amassing vast fortunes, these gangsters “went legit” as philanthropists and good works saints,still running a racket but selling different merchandise?-you know the drill.
The commodity that generates the case of the H1B as an epiphenomenal scam is information, not alcohol and we’re living under “information prohibition”. Just like alcohol prohibition you can’t make your own and sell it or the big boys will send some muscle to educate you(internet banning and censure and advertising monopoly). Even if you have some interdictum you thought was yours(a personal still ,an apple wine press during Prohibition, now some old Civil War pictures your grandfather had or your extended family’s non-digitized medical records) which you could make into information-hand ’em over here , PDQ. Only the big boys can traffic in it , sell it and amass mountains of treasure. The rest of us just get caught in the crossfire.[It may be hard to see that “information” is under a state of prohibition because we’re conditioned to believe that data and information are the same and are universally accessible. Both of these statements are untrue. The orders of magnitude asymmetry between those who consume information and those who create it from data, establishes a de facto prohibition environment. Competition between information providers is thus limited to the few who have the resources and range to operate(legally or illegally) on the massive scale dictated by the framework of operations established by the government/statutory authority(the Volstead Act in the case of alcohol;the Communications Act of 1996 in the case of information). This means with few players, the potential rewards will be colossal-incentivizing risk taking and criminal excess(prohibition era gangsters were supplied by the same people who supplied alcohol during legitimate times-prohibition simply jacked up the price for consumers and the profits for providers while driving marginal producers to ruin). After some period of chaotic shakeout,the few remaining “playas” will reach some sort of modus vivendi at the expense of their customers with the statutory authorities and things will return to “normal”, i.e.,legitimizing and ossifying the new arrangements. We’re at this point now with information prohibition. The ruse of “regulating the internet” will establish the current hierarchy of tech giants and asymmetric data streaming as the status quo instead of the criminal cartel it was previously. Only the swarthy faced foot soldiers of the Prohibition wars(which included Al Capone) ended up dressed in rags or prison stripes. The upper echelons of the “gangsters” simply exchanged their snap brims for straw hats. Some,like Joseph Kennedy,never bothered to change costumes at all. It’s magic].
But isn’t there a flaw here? If this is a racket why can’t your average American robber get in on it? We’re as crooked and dishonest as the next guy. It’s like the oil business, grasshopper. The big profits go to those who get there early and grab all the low hanging fruit. The Rockefellers got rich when all you had too do was punch a hole in the ground and fill up the barrels and grease palms. Those days are long gone. The Rockefellers have divested from oil and are now into “climate credits”. The Silicon Valley tech giants have asset stripped Americans of all the easily acquired data which has value and can be sold.. Getting at the rest will require expenditure. Better the hapless and ashy faced in India and Africa. Easy money. Candy from a baby. Here in America , the shakedowns are taking increasingly sinister overtones as squeezed lemons are running dry-direct asset forfeiture,small businesses gypped out of everything by “emergency mandates” issued by state governors wearing epaulets and tri-cornered hats, old folks bum-rushed to the grave with an ersatz pandemic for the insurance money,etc.Those kinds of things takes muscle , resources and personnel.
The really sweet rackets like the H1B are monopolized by the top echelon just because they’re so sweet. In India all they had to due was abolish certain currency denominations overnight to force the hapless onto their privately owned credit/debit/fee/micro-surveillance hamster wheel-probably costing the titans just the nuisance of organizing the landing of a couple of more Mayflowers full of poorly trained visa candidates on the West Coast and the EU as payoff to Modi and the Hindu supremacists. As these large scale operations have moved on to easier and more lucrative prey elsewhere,there is only motivation to maintain Silicon Valley as little more than a storefront for money laundering(unicorns) and this sort of labor arbitrage chicanery. Et voila. In exchange for this astonishing windfall of making Indian debt holders transparent and defenseless against international financial rapacity , all it cost was the stunted futures and broken dreams of native born tech workers(in addition to the relative crumbs to keep the H1B/baksheesh going as just previously noted) , a demographic with the political clout of a small opossum.
Americans are in on the this particular genus of information shell game , but only at the top invisible component level and as middle management enablers/vassals in the engineering/info/surveillance tracking sweatshops . The local foreign controlled vassal body shop sub-system does not require or want domestics who are too orthogonal and culturally unfit to perform their part in the charade by being small pay extras on a Silicon Valley kabuki set(this is the part that most people consider the H1B visa system , but as we have discussed, its only one section of the overall operation) and who may not be comfortable in operating in what is obviously a racket by anyone’s definition. There is also the question of domestic arbitrage-the stonewalling of local candidates may actually be dictated by the “bosses” , that is the tech giants, to avoid domestic liability(and enable deniability) for operating and benefiting from an immensely lucrative ball of confusion they adamantly maintain does not exist. We thus come to the only real way that other Americans could compete in this structure: if somebody makes the Sand Hill mob an offer they can’t refuse.
- From No More Work
Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, economic growth was driven by net additions to the capital stock and to the labor force. In other words, growth was built on more machines—“physical plant and equipment,” they call it—and more workers operating those machines. In the parlance of economists, net private investment rose, capital stock per worker increased, and both employment and labor force participation rates did, too. Much of that investment took the material form of labor-saving machinery—plant and equipment that displaced workers—but somebody had to build the machinery, so overall demand for labor kept rising. Since 1919, growth has worked differently. Thereafter, net private investment declined, and employment in goods production did, too, but growth didn’t stop, not even in the 1930s. These trends have persisted for almost a hundred years. What follows? If growth no longer requires new additions to the capital stock, or net private investment—which simply means using profits to purchase new plant and equipment, also to pay the labor force to operate it—corporate profits become pointless, superfluous, even dangerous, because they can’t be reinvested in productive ways. They’re surplus capital, nothing more, nothing less. Consequently, speculative bubbles and financial crises become the normal, predictable pattern of economic development, not surprising deviations from market equilibrium. If growth no longer requires net additions to the labor force, work itself can’t be justified by the invocation of economic necessity,
I read this brief monograph a few years ago and thought it too clever by a half. Much too liberal doses of Hegelian dialectic and Freudian metaphysics didn’t help things. But when writing some of the above comments I remembered some items which caused me too go back and read it again. As I mentioned above, the operations of the Silicon Valley titans more closely resemble the operations of a gang or cartel-not a business or even a corporation as these things are conventionally defined. Also mentioned previously was the labor market for software engineers,which does not follow any logic of supply or demand or price discovery as is commonly understood. The tech giants are engaged in something that mimics the territorial gangsterism of drugs or slaves-with data(a commodity appropriated directly without compensation exactly like slaves or opium) as the raw product-later refined into more lucrative downstream products(behavioral information used to coerce the choices of a captive consumer population).
Viewed in this light, the labors of software engineering are(and have been for some time) largely egregious from the standpoint of any conventional production cycle. I stress again I am talking about the second tier public facing software engineering arena-distinct from and subordinate to its firewalled doppelganger. The development of software no longer requires greenfield capital inputs or significant labor inputs, which explains two phenomena: 1) the repeated speculative bubbles in Silicon Valley-as Livingston notes-are derived from there being a declining demand for “new” software investment, since the creation of “new” software does not actually require large amounts of capital investment, those seeking large returns must gamble on the few opportunities that do exist(or generate fraudulent ones), which becomes the standard operating procedure instead of an anomaly. 2) The software labor required in such a scenario is thus devalued to a point where “work” viewed from the labor side itself becomes,counter-intuitively, counterproductive. No amount of “work” you put in is going to advance you past your replacement cost because whatever value you add adds to a surplus which cannot be reinvested endogenously in a market that does not require capital inputs in the same amounts or kinds as it did before,if at all. Thus “profit” is a dead letter since there is nothing to invest the profit in to generate some sort of return-thus the great transition to feudal extraction methods. This can be clearly seen in an industry such as fast food(whose major playas are actually real estate speculators using burger franchises as the “Florida sunshine estate ” come-on), but is obscured in software engineering or white collar arenas.
Since labor inputs are needed only as long as is required to produce a raw show product and maintain it long enough to schlepp it off to another for a higher price(speculation) while the fun lasts, the value of the engineer’s labor is ephemeral and vanishes with the speculative product(in most cases it is the speculative product). This somewhat explains the aforementioned peculiarity of the declining value of software experience:since the software market itself is almost pure speculation and essentially whimsical,the engineer’s hoard of knowledge and skill is diminished not absolutely by irrelevance[a carefully crafted bogus narrative(“false consciousness” as it would be said back in the day) usually referred to as a shortage of “up to date” skills, while exactly what these skills are is never enumerated], but indirectly by repeated dilution in a stew of half-baked “unicorns” , artificial intelligence scams and visa supplied Potemkin villages. In a process where the product is essentially a facade, it doesn’t actually matter whether the house is made of granite or sawdust and Elmer’s glue-except to the people who made skillfully the granite houses,now indistinguishable by their potential employers from the dilettantes;and paid accordingly. This process is thus not so much commodification of engineering labor(which could be countervailed by some sort of labor solidarity) as it is desiccation: the value of labor actually dries up and adding water(more skills at a lower price) doesn’t do any good since usually once an arable region has passed the point of no return into a desert, their lost fertility is never reclaimed.
Two final thoughts. Firstly , the software labor value purgatory described above seems to apply to a large percentile, but not all software engineers. I have been teasing out over these posts here and elsewhere a general theory of how the software engineering ecosystem works and more presciently, what it really is. That is the purpose of these breadcrumbs- like anything that is not intuitively obvious , a great deal of exposition is required. At this point and extending from the immediate comments just let me state I believe there exists(and hope to make a convincing argument for its veracity) a two tier software and hardware engineering system-an upper echelon largely funded directly by transfer funds(DOD),intelligence agency black budgets and soft assets(cutouts,NGOs,false fronts,etc.) which being directly funded operates in a cartel/Chinese tong like manner with very little resemblance to “business” or “corporatism”. A not so small army of scientists and engineers lives in this completely opaque environment and are not subject to the vicissitudes I have discussed above(the technical staff is firewalled behind the government secret clearance caste system and the “civilian” incestuous networks of non-disclosure agreements). This tier maintains and manages a second tier(opaquely through such organizations as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and IETF for example) which operates as both a storefront and a source of both financial and technological indirection. It is this subordinate facade that is publicly mistaken for the “software industry”.
This facade is tasked not only with subterfuge in financing and resource allocation but directly enforces a technological grade system:the products and artifacts of the subordinate level are compelled to always be of an inferior nature in quality and design to the first tier products(largely surveillance and control). This is why you have never received 40 dollars from an ATM when you asked for 20 and never will but can’t remove the emergency alert feature from your cell phone-money transactions are a software feature from the first tier and are fail safe; the emergency alert system on your phone is a product of the second,poorly integrated and largely inscrutable to the end user but will be made to work magically if the first tier so wills it. Most user facing software is actually terrible by design or intent(it was either designed to be lousy or made to be lousy by hiring lousy engineers to write it, which amounts to the same thing). One of the most convincing arguments that the above is true are the Windows and Android operating systems themselves both perform,if viewed with cool detachment, as pseudo operating systems whose actual purpose appears to be to cripple a subset of features on any hardware device they run on;seemingly to ensure that the first tier enjoys a constant, uniform and verifiable technological edge. We’ll get into this more seriously down the road.
Finally, I would like to emphasize what I’ve been implying: direct extraction/cartel operations are largely indistinguishable from criminal operations or mobs. This is not a question of contumely but of deconstruction. Both the capital and labor markets encompassing software engineering combines are conceptually ambiguous if considered to be businesses or corporations. They make a great deal of sense if we take them for what hey actually seem to be-criminal cartels.
And it must also be taken to heart that Occam’s razor cuts on both edges. The simplest solution may indeed be the correct one in most situations. But if you are conditioned to believe this mechanically, a cunning foe could contrive a vastly complex and premeditated scheme which resolves to a simple outcome-gaslighting. And gaslighting is exactly what I believe the public facing software engineering “industry” to essentially be. As part of this systemic pretense the second subservient tier outlined above must operate as if it is compelled by conventional ideas of profit and loss and the requisite notions of labor productivity. But if the laws of profit and loss are actually in play why does the software industry even exist since the profits can’t be instantiated as capital investment within the industry(there’s no internal capital demand) and labor’s fate is sealed since its contribution only makes this heap of congealed value larger-the greater its contribution the less it will be needed? This would lead to what I believe to be the correct conclusion: the putative system of capital investment,profit and loss is not in play here. What we have is something completely different,which, because we are always inside the system,we can’t clearly see.
in the cave, dim light.
I accept my ration as just
can shadows be traded?