Penn YDSA | Big Tech is not the innovator you think it is


Mark Zuckerberg speaking at F8 2018 (Photo by Anthony Quintano | CC BY 2.0)

Engineer salaries in Philadelphia grew faster than any other city in the United States. In Penn’s annual Class of 2021 Graduate Careers Survey, 14% of graduates went into engineering, trailing only financial services and consulting. All of this, combined with Penn’s aggressive pre-professional culture, makes engineering careers incredibly attractive.

Prestige and profitability are not to be underestimated as incentives for a career in engineering. However, another reason many college students pursue careers in technology is that they fall for the notion that Silicon Valley and tech companies are where the most innovative innovations happen. This narrative is sustained by the futuristic campus and work environments of tech companies and the idealistic but vague mission statements with phrases like “passion for invention”, “community” and “sustainability”. This is being driven by the trend of CEOs of American tech giants like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and – Penn’s own alumnus – Elon Musk being hailed as both geniuses and philanthropists who are humanity’s greatest hope to save the world.

Optimistic college students are often the perfect prey for these subterfuges, and we’re here to warn Penn students that for-profit tech companies are masquerading as altruistic innovators.

The notion that by entering the for-profit tech industry you will work on great innovations is an utter myth. Every major technology in the iPhone, including GPS, touchscreen, and the Internet, was actually funded and developed by the government or by government-funded research organizations. Silicon Valley CEOs like to proclaim that their innovation was self-funded and entirely the product of their own wits, even though Tesla, Apple and Google have all received massive government grants. The truth is that real innovation requires risk-taking. The venture capital model that Silicon Valley companies use for funding requires a return on investment in a short period of time; Most research and development on truly new and not yet understood technologies takes much longer.

Therefore, software developers really spend their time doing what is profitable for their business; this rarely aligns with true innovation or positive change in the world. This includes maintaining shoddy, pointless code, or code bloat that inspired an entire category of “bullshit jobs” in anthropologist David Graeber’s famous book “Bullshit Jobs,” known as duct tapers that cover up servicing faulty systems or apologize for them.

Currently, one of the most lucrative business models for these tech companies is to figure out how to better extract data from consumers. It’s done by software developers working tirelessly to get consumers to spend more time with their devices. This obsession with consumer data culminated in the data breach scandal at Cambridge Analytica and the Metaverse, an all-encompassing virtual reality designed to make you spend all your waking hours making Facebook money.

The devastating effects of technology companies extend to their strengthening of the military-industrial complex, not to mention their impact on the environment. We rarely think of the tech industry as a big polluter, but tech companies are strategically undercutting their emissions, reinvesting profits in fossil fuels, and buying up renewable energy loans rather than replacing existing fossil fuel emissions with renewable energy.

Finally, there is the exploitation of workers. Silicon Valley jobs may seem stable and comfortable from the way they are presented, but the sole aim of these tech companies is to get as much work out of their employees as possible. This has led to toxic work environments, high levels of job dissatisfaction and mental health issues.

In view of the high cost of living in the big tech cities, the pay is often insufficient. Since the pandemic, many tech workers have sought remote work to improve work-life balance and save money. To counteract this, Google plans to build a city where workers can live, work and shop. Google’s proposed city is reminiscent of corporate cities from the Golden Age, where the convenience of an all-in-one deal was overshadowed by exorbitant prices through monopoly, isolation from the outside world, and an everyday lifestyle reminiscent of The Truman Show . Although Google is just a company, their corporate city is a perfect example of how tech companies use aggressive tactics disguised as benefits to control workers’ lives and get more work out of their employees.

Penn students pursuing innovative careers in technology have a variety of opportunities outside of Big Tech, from medical research to using AI and technology to study climate change, and these jobs contribute much more to the humanitarian, technologically advanced, promise profit-oriented technology of the future at companies.

Truly positive innovation is rarely made in Silicon Valley, be it through the startup route or in established big tech companies. This pervasive notion that real social and economic change can be achieved while prioritizing gains is a lie. Therefore, we urge Penn students to avoid the Big Tech ploy as you will be overworked, underpaid and exploited to make profits for a tech giant that is endangering society.

Penn Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) is the first student-run leftist organization on the Penn campus. You can be reached at [email protected].