Dear Designer: Yes, I Will Shame the Workers

Mike Monteiro on 2020-01-13

Dear Designer

You have the right to make a living—but not on the backs of others

Illustration: Eugenia Mello

“That’s not a good look,” came the reply.

“What’s not a good look?” I asked.

“Shaming workers.”

This was in response to a tweet I sent out a few weeks ago, pointing out some new horrible Facebook behavior. (There are many of these tweets to choose from in my feed. Pick one.) The tweet was addressed to Facebook workers and went something like “Facebook employees, this is where you work” with a link to an article about Facebook’s newest horrible behavior. I’ve posted the same type of tweet to Twitter workers as well.

But still, I was taken aback by the accusation that I was shaming workers.

Was my intention to shame workers? My intention was to remind the workers at Facebook of the effect of their labor. What the effects of their labor cost society. As I’ve said many times, you are responsible for the work you put into the world. I firmly believe that, and I hope you do as well.

But also, it probably was my intention to shame those workers — if only a subconscious intention. So I will own it. Yes, I will shame workers. Because, Lord — some of these tech workers should be ashamed of what they are devoting their time to. And if they don’t have the sense to feel that shame internally, I am happy to provide it for them. Being Catholic alumni, I am more than qualified to do this.

Here’s the thing about shaming someone, though: It’s like watering a seed. The sun can shine all day long on dirt, you can water it all you want, but unless there’s a seed in the dirt, nothing’s gonna grow. If you tried to shame me about wearing my favorite baseball team’s cap, it wouldn’t work. I love my favorite baseball team. (It’s the Phillies, BTW.) If you tried to shame me about watching too much TV, you might get a little traction. Because I probably do watch a little too much TV, but ultimately it would pass because I love watching TV. However, if you caught me smoking a cigarette and shamed me about it, that would totally work because it’s a horrible habit and I shouldn’t be doing it. (For the record, I don’t. Not in a long time. But it’s a good example most of us can agree on, so I went with it.)

Something tells me the employees of Facebook already feel shame. Just not enough to do anything about it yet. Every single employee at Facebook knows where the money for their paycheck comes from and has for a long time. It’s fair to assume they’re okay with it.

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Let’s go back to our cigarette metaphor for a second. I smoked from college into my forties. At no point did I think it wasn’t an awful habit. At no point could I look at the evidence and decide that it was an okay thing to do. Luckily, I was alive during an era in which attitudes about smoking were shifting rapidly. It went from something most people did (I’ve smoked on planes!), to something that people tolerated others doing, to something we now ban from all places where people congregate. There was an undeniable realization that smoking harmed not just the smoker, but everyone around the smoker. Your actions harmed everyone around you. (This should feel familiar.)

The pressure to quit smoking came from society shaming me for smoking. And I am grateful for that. I am alive because of that. Would I have quit without the public shaming? Maybe. But I think we can all agree that society as a whole is healthier because of a coordinated campaign to publicly shame smokers and decrease the places they could smoke.

So what’s this got to do with being a tech worker? Easy. Addiction.

Everyone has a right to earn a living

When a highly paid tech worker tells you they have the right to earn a living, there’s a phrase missing: “…in the manner to which I’ve grown accustomed.” You do have a right to earn a living, but so do the refugees and immigrants cataloged in the database tech workers at Palantir built for ICE. You don’t have a right to earn a living by denying others their right to earn a living. And you don’t have a right to earn a living that’s a hundred times better than everyone else. The most important word in the phrase “Everyone has a right to earn a living” is everyone.

The upper echelon of tech workers earns a very good living. This isn’t to say that there aren’t tremendous problems with pay disparity along gender lines, and racial lines, and many other lines. There are, and those problems need to be fixed. But the minimum wage in San Francisco is $15.59 per hour. The minimum wage in greater California is $12 an hour. The minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour. By those standards, you earn a very good living.

And yes, I realize that many of you are saddled with student debt and medical costs. That shit is real. But the solution isn’t to do the corporation’s work, it’s to break the system in which a corporation can trade your debt for complicity.

And yes, those of you living in the Bay Area will say that your rents are high, and they are. They’re definitely too high for anyone making minimum wage to afford. Tech workers complaining about the high cost of housing is not unlike a cancer cell complaining about a host body deteriorating.

You are not Jean Valjean. You are not a loaf of bread away from your family dying of hunger. And your Peloton subscription and Cybertruck deposit don’t fit Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. You have a right to earn a living, but not in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed. Your point is moot.

The most important word in the phrase “Everyone has a right to earn a living” is everyone.

I don’t have to take this bullshit from a privileged white guy!

Yes, I am a privileged white guy. I will own that. Doors open for me. I’ve never had to prove I belong somewhere. I’ve never been followed by a security guard when I walk into a store. I’ve never feared for my life when getting into a ride-share vehicle. I’ve never been afraid to leave my drink unattended at a bar to go to the bathroom. And I’ve never been hassled for being in a bathroom someone decided I didn’t have a right to be in. I own all of that.

I get that many people reading this have climbed hurdles I never had to climb to get where they are today. I respect that. But clearing those hurdles doesn’t give anyone a pass to work on tools that abuse, harass, and spread lies.

Yes, I am a privileged white guy. And I use that privilege to yell at people. If you are going to check me on my privilege, check me for the many valid reasons available to you. Don’t do it to mask your own shame about how you earn your money. And make sure you’re not allowing Facebook to use you as a human shield. Corporations pit us against each other by design.

I’m not here for a seat at the table; I’m here to use the table for kindling.

Workers have real options

On December 31, 2019, Recode reported that 2,300 Google cafeteria workers had unionized. Tired of being underpaid and overworked, the cafeteria workers organized themselves and reached out to a local chapter of Unite Here, which represents cafeteria workers, hotel workers, and other hospitality workers all over North America. They will now be able to bargain collectively, demand better working conditions collectively, and get paid what they deserve. Any of those things are monumental tasks when you act individually. But collectively their chances at success will improve.

These options are available to all workers.

On January 7, 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Communications Workers of America (CWA), one of America’s biggest labor unions, has launched a major initiative to unionize tech and gaming workers. Organizing and working collectively is our best chance to do away with that seed of shame that’s growing inside workers who realize their paychecks aren’t earned in a manner they can feel good about.

Leadership will not change. They have no reason to. The current system is working great for them! WeWork founder Adam Neumann got a $1.7 billion payout for failing. That’s privilege at work! And yes, the people involved in that transaction should be ashamed of themselves.

But they’re not. And they never will be. They’re not capable of it.

But you are. Or you wouldn’t be getting mad at me right now.

That sense of dread that starts building on Sunday afternoon, knowing that tomorrow you’ll have to go to work and build tools that harass people and lie to people and help cage people — that’s shame. I’m not here to shame you. I don’t need to. You’re doing it to yourself. I’m here to tell you that you have more power and more strength than you believe you have.

This is a hard time to be a designer.

If you are afraid to fight, this might not be the right time for you to be a designer. If you are afraid to do the job ethically, this might not be the right time for you to be a designer. If you are afraid to speak truth to power, this might not be the right time for you to be a designer. If you are afraid to be judged by the impact of your work, this might not be the right time to be a designer. If you are afraid to stand up for the ones who need you the most, this might not be the right time to be a designer.

Find another way to earn your living. Tap out. Let there be no shame in that.

But if you are ready to do the right thing, look around you. There are others who feel the same way. Organize. You wanted to change the world? Here’s your chance. You wanted to disrupt? Disrupt the system that’s covering you in shame.

If you have a question, email me, and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know the answer anyway).