The Baffler
Julianne Tveten,  January 23

The Peasants of Code

Big tech's bid to shaft Appalachia

The Baffler
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Editor’s note: It has come to our attention that, while not borrowing exact language, this essay appears to take much of its core argument and many of its citations from Ben Tarnoff’s earlier Guardian article, “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success—it’s about cutting wages” (September 21, 2017), and as such does not meet The Baffler’s editorial standards. We apologize to Mr. Tarnoff and The Guardian.

 

Last December, Mined Minds, a Pennsylvania software engineering nonprofit that vows to shift rural Appalachia’s economic scaffold “from coal to code,” incurred a class-action lawsuit. Its former students, the suit alleged, hadn’t been hired for the programming positions Mined Minds had promised would supplant their obsolescent mining work. Following a spate of sunny media coverage, much of which stressed the foundation’s putative virtues—free job training, the potential to catapult low-wage physical laborers into flush, modern desk jobs—the case cast a gray pall.
 

It’s a familiar twenty-first-century neoliberal panacea: meet the erosion of blue-collar jobs with computer programming training.

At its zenith, Mined Minds garnered a series of government subsidies, reportedly receiving $71,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and $750,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). A platform designed to inculcate miners with new, marketable skills, the nonprofit, among such equivalent startups as Kentucky-based Bit Source and TechHire Eastern Kentucky, would ostensibly foster what the tech economy boosters have christened the “Silicon Holler.” Mined Minds, then, offered a familiar twenty-first-century neoliberal panacea: meet the erosion of blue-collar jobs—whether from automation, globalization, or antiquation—with computer programming training. Its recent failure, however, has only managed to expose that conceit for the sham it is.

Silicon Valley has sought extensively to shepherd policymaking in favor of filling the STEM labor pool. During the Obama administration, this gambit proved wildly successful. In 2016, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple spent a collective $49 million on lobbying (a far cry from such paltry sums as Microsoft’s $2 million in 1997 or Google’s $80,000 in 2003). In addition, since 2013, tech behemoths have contrived their own learn-to-code nonprofit, Code.org, which has funneled tens of millions of dollars into training computer science teachers while plaiting corresponding curricula into K-12 schools. Relatedly, toward the end of his presidential tenure, Barack Obama introduced Computer Science for All, a $4 billion initiative to implement computer science programs in K-12 education.
 
School systems have been thoroughly pliant. The cities of Los Angeles, New York, and Boston have pledged to fatten their computer science education programs. The state of Virginia now requires computer science instruction in K-12 education, while Chicago Public Schools’ class of 2020 will be required to complete one credit of computer science to so much as graduate. (Training and materials are furnished, aptly enough, by Code.org.) In implementing these programs, the rationale goes, these schools, like their Appalachian-bootcamp cousins, are not only grooming legions of future laborers for bountiful salaries and middle-class comforts, but also ensuring a hale supply of American engineers, ready to uphold the country’s preeminence in an increasingly digital world.
 
Capitalism, of course, doesn’t work that way. According to the Department of Labor, the median salary for “computer and information technology occupations” was $82,860; for software developers specifically, $102,280. Certainly, if every person who learned to code were guaranteed a salary more than doubling the national average, tech elites’ ability to, say, buy a national PR outlet or Frank Sinatra’s gangrenous casino would wither. Executives know as much; wages for computer- and math-related occupations have stagnated for nearly two decades. Therein lies the incentive for Silicon Valley to infest American policy and education: by saturating the market of computer science professionals, executives can deflate the cost of employing them.
 
This ploy is merely the latest in the broader Silicon Valley labor arbitrage scheme. Notoriously, tech firms have conspired not to poach each other’s employees, lest they become obliged to augment salaries. They’ve lobbied to ease restrictions on the H1-B visa, which allows them to temporarily employ guest workers as engineers, in order to bilk international hires out of an equitable paycheck. As Miriam Posner has argued, the software developer profession has become arbitrarily stratified by gender—front-end development has grown feminized, back-end masculinized—and thus by pay. Not by coincidence, Google now faces a class-action lawsuit accusing it of “under-leveling” and underpaying women.
 
The aforementioned groups aren’t the only members of Silicon Valley’s inchoate tier of code-peasants. Working in tandem with state prison departments, the nonprofit The Last Mile has developed a coding curriculum for inmates—a commonly impoverished group before and after prison—teaching them such programming fundamentals as HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Python independent of Internet connectivity. Conceived by Silicon Valley venture capitalist, The Last Mile conducts its flagship program at the opprobrious San Quentin State Prison, located just north of San Francisco in California’s Marin County; it’s expanded to four additional prisons in California, recently adding the Indiana Women’s Prison to its STEM-proselytizing repertoire.
 
In the narrative Silicon Valley has written, code is the key to economic salvation. Mined Minds and its Kentuckian brethren, apparently, are restoring the economic viability of the (ever-fetishized) American coal miner. Through Code.org, major tech firms vaunt “improv[ing] diversity in CS [computer science]”—training more students of color, with an emphasis on girls, and kids on “free/reduced meal plans”—thereby addressing what much of the media has deemed the tech industry’s most flagrant offense. By the same token, The Last Mile bestows purpose and opportunity upon currently and formerly incarcerated people, out of the goodness of a venture capitalist’s heart.
 
This lore depends on a number of canards—namely, the “skills gap.” Silicon Valley executives, and the politicians and media wrapped around their bloodless fingers, have long bemoaned a lack of domestic talent to fill computer science positions. In one example, Code.org suggests that currently, 500,000 computing positions remain unfilled; as writer Audrey Watters has speculated, that number is likely derived from a Department of Labor projection for the year 2024. More generally, years’ worth of reports have controverted this scare, suggesting that American STEM graduates, in fact, far outnumber available jobs.
 
In light of such asymmetries, it’s all too easy to wax bleak. The wage-slashing crusade depends on a surplus of labor, and Silicon Valley will do its damnedest to ensure that supply only grows. Despite the steady diet of meritocratic myths they’re fed, the many students required to learn programming won’t necessarily obtain the prestigious jobs they were told would save them; those subjected to the fraudulence of coding bootcamps won’t likely fare any better. Meanwhile, culpability won’t fall on the shoulders of the institutions that have failed them; Mined Minds, for instance, has already faulted its students for its own inefficacy, with one instructor stating, “The problem is [. . .] miners don’t want to come to the class because they think that coal mines are coming back. They don’t want retraining. That’s the problem.”
 

The technocratic terrors of cultish code-worship spark urgent questions about homogenizing a vulnerable workforce.

Still, for all of its fervor, Silicon Valley has a lot of convincing to do. In claiming its students weren’t interested, Mined Minds was right: the nonprofit has only succeeded in filling twenty of its ninety-five slots. The Last Mile, like other blindly technophilic ideas, lacks momentum; as of last July, its ninety-six-seat programming room was peopled by a mere group of seven. If these numbers are to be blamed on a desire for the resurgence of coal mines, as Mined Minds and Reuters posit, or a low level of literacy in prisons, as Wired hypothesizes, so be it. But perhaps the flimsy, abstract bromide that learning to code will rescue the unemployed and young alike, with its tacit aversion to any meaningful material change, is the true culprit.

The technocratic terrors of cultish code worship spark urgent questions about homogenizing a vulnerable workforce. Why should a billionaire-proxy government dictate the populace’s needs? Why should anyone, let alone the poor and disenfranchised, be told by strangers what they should do with their lives? Why should theoretical programmer underclasses be expected to engineer products and contribute to companies that have automated their jobs and spied on their communities? Why should investments center on “skill-building” for corporate gain, rather than basic necessities—healthcare, housing, infrastructure—and quality of life?
 
Corporate policymakers can’t be bothered with these questions, though; there are curricula to hawk, after all. This month, Google and ed-tech firm Coursera announced their collaboration on an online course in IT support. The public-facing impetus: Google’s philanthropic urge to replace jobs lost to software and “create more pathways for people to jump into the new, high-paying careers of the future.” In a sick cycle of irony, Google and its Code.org cohorts will brandish IT training as a job-creating solution, then eventually automate their way out of pretending they were serious. In the meantime, they’ll settle for coding schools, stealing wealth the best way they know how.

Julianne Tveten writes about the technology industry's relationship with socioeconomics and culture. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, Hazlitt, In These Times, The Outline, and elsewhere.

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