When the People Say No Mo’: Waymo Vandalism as a Human Reaction to Techsploitation

Consider what would happen if we, as a society, decided that material property is more valuable than intellectual property. This would exacerbate inequity and inequality . . . those who already have material wealth would have even more entrenched power over those who do not.

When the People Say No Mo’: Waymo Vandalism as a Human Reaction to Techsploitation
Dllu, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsDllu, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

While many decried a crowd’s destruction, during a Lunar New Year celebration in San Francisco, of an automated vehicle owned by Waymo, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, those who have been documenting how Big Tech exploits “the masses” as both unpaid producers and paying consumers of the products it sells have been less than appalled. (I suspect, too, that many were as amused as I was to learn, mere days later, that two different Waymo vehicles in Phoenix, Arizona had struck the exact same pickup truck minutes apart, not only compelling Waymo to issue a recall of its software and 444 of its robotaxis but also bolstering arguments that automated vehicles are currently not safe enough to be on public roads in urban areas.) Social media threads are rife with comments that liken the San Francisco crowd’s destruction of the self-driving Waymo vehicle to scenes from Animatrix and The Terminator. Forgive me, however, for shedding no tears over this watershed moment that tech journalist Brian Merchant has noted “may well prove to be a turning point” in the escalating tensions between so-called and widely misunderstood “Luddites” and Big Tech corporations.

Consider, instead, the Center for Humane Technology’s Ledger of Harms, which chronicles the many ways in which widespread technologies like social media have “unleashed invisible harms to society . . . that aren’t showing up on [technology platforms’] balance sheets” (2021). Notably, this ledger cites a 2019 observation by Professor Hye-Young Kim that “the more that someone treats an AI (such as Siri) as if it has human qualities, the more they later dehumanize actual humans, and treat them poorly” (emphasis added).

So, however ill advised the act of destroying the Waymo vehicle was, let’s look beyond the vandalism of an empty automated car that drove up to a crowded space most human drivers would have avoided to what this vandalism may signal as a human response to emerging and exploitative technologies. Consider the harms Big Tech corporations have inflicted on actual human beings over just the past year and which include the following:

Add to this the harm that (1) engaging in data laundering to steal artists’ works in order to train generative AI; (2) using profits from this still-unpunished white collar crime to fund intense global lobbying and litigation efforts against these same artists; and, finally, (3) laying off thousands of creative workers and replacing them with ill-gotten generative AI technology—at Microsoft-owned Activision and Xbox, for example—has had on creative workers.

If Big Tech corporations like Microsoft and Alphabet/Google do not respect the property of artists and the public—if, without our consent and without crediting and compensating us, Alphabet/Google and its industry peers exploit us and our work to train generative AI—then why should the public respect Alphabet’s/Google’s property? Consider what would happen if we, as a society, decided that material property is more valuable than intellectual property. This would exacerbate inequity and inequality, drastically hindering social mobility, since those who already have material wealth would have even more entrenched power over those who do not.

It’s increasingly clear that rather than create truly useful technologies that solve actual problems like climate change and not manufactured ones like “democratizing art creation,” exploitation and/or elimination of workers = profit is the simple formula for success that now drives Big Tech and Wall Street investors. Those Activision and Xbox employee layoffs? They happened even as Microsoft’s Satya Nadella raked in over $1 billion in compensation. Google has yet to fire creative workers en masse this year, though it laid off over 1,000 other employees in January and promises it will lay off even more . . . despite Google doing so well that it paid CEO Sundar Pichai $226 million last year . . . while still laying off 12,000 employees. For its part, according to Business Insider, “Meta announced additional cuts in January after reducing its staff by 22% over the last year. The decision to do so sent their stocks up by 12% to $450 a share . . .” (2024).

The reality that exploiting and eliminating workers is trending in Big Tech as a way to net profits (even, as in the case of Meta, after throwing a lot of money at the to-date failed passion project that is the metaverse) is made even more plain on various social media platforms where investors boast about their exploits. For example, on February 14, 2024, in the wallstreetbets subreddit a would-be investor opined:

“I’m such an idiot. Saw how much Lyft drivers were getting screwed by Lyft. Meant to buy calls yesterday. Completely forgot to.”

And that’s just the title of this post, which reads oddly like a confession at the altar of the Gods of Fast Money. The beleaguered investor concludes, “EDIT: Lyft up 34%. Would have made about 400%. Fuck me.”

I found this thread notable not just for the callousness of this investor who sees only opportunity in exploitation but for what it reveals about this Wall Street investor community, which is not a random subreddit but is popular enough to have been featured in Business Insider numerous times, including recently. In almost any other group, this type of dehumanization would have been called out. In this case, however, fellow investors piled on by being even more dehumanizing to rideshare drivers—calling them “idiots” for doing such jobs and mocking the original poster for his failure to capitalize on the exploitation of these workers. “Today is the BIG DRIVER PROTEST and it won’t do shit,” wrote one poster. This poster continued, “Dara has drivers by the balls. As a driver, they ache from the grip.” “Their loss could have been your gain. Sad!” jabbed another.

Unvarnished as it is, this is just a glimpse into Wall Street investor culture. So how bad actually is greed on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley? As of today (February 19, 2024), CNN’s Fear & Greed Index meter, which monitors the extent to which fear vs. greed is driving stock prices, is clocking in at “extreme greed.”

More revealingly, according to Business Insider, although illicit drug use is not as rampant as in the 1980s when undercover agents reported that “roughly 90% of the people they encountered in Manhattan's Financial District during their investigation either ‘used or accepted’ cocaine,” Wall Street continues to have a drug-addiction problem. Finance professionals now struggle, at higher levels than seen in most other industries, from addictions to stimulants like Adderall, which is legal but can induce psychotic disorders when abused, and cocaine (drugs that enable them to work longer and harder than they otherwise could); nicotine pouches; psychedelics that are popular among Silicon Valley tech professionals and which are used to “enhance performance and creativity” or, by Wall Street traders, to “curb alcohol consumption”; and alcohol, which continues to cause the greatest levels of addiction but is perceived as a normal part of a work culture in which employees are required to entertain and woo clients “after work” (2024). In short, many Wall Street employees sacrifice their well being for the sake of corporate profits—or, rather, corporate greed—in order to, according to Anna Lembke, head of Stanford University's Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, “[get] more bonuses and more stock options and [be] successful” (Business Insider 2024).

The twist that surprised even me? It turns out tech and finance bros are also, more often than many of us might think, exploited workers. The question is whether they can recognize this, get past their self-interested adulation of exploitative tech—adulation that often presents as anthropomorphizing emerging technologies while dehumanizing the human beings who are exploited, endangered, or displaced in order to create or deploy it—and embrace the common interests (and shared humanity) they have with “the masses.” As researchers Adrienne Williams, Milagros Miceli, and Timnit Gebru note, “. . . solidarity between highly-paid tech workers and their lower-paid counterparts—who vastly outnumber them—is a tech CEO’s nightmare” (2022).

As they face their own waves of layoffs at the hands of CEOs who answer only to the investors CNN tells us are feeling extra greedy these days, it remains to be seen whether tech and finance workers will use their much greater privilege and power to show solidarity with all those who suffer from the techsploitation from which many of them have profited. These include rideshare drivers who are being displaced by automated vehicles that have yet to be fully vetted for safety, data moderators in developing nations who are being paid sweatshop wages to do traumatizing work, cyberbullied and sexually harassed teenage girls all over the world, innocent civilians caught in the crosshairs of profitable wars, and the unpaid/unemployed artists/creative workers whose labor fuels generative AI. Humanity desperately needs exploited workers and allies across all industries to unite and stand up to the Sam Altmans, Jeff Bezoses, Satya Nadellas, Sundar Pichais, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world: today’s Gods of Fast Money: the tech-drug lords.