“If I cannot dictate the terms of my labor, I will henceforth cease to work.” The storyteller Utah Phillips recalls this declaration from a man called Frying Pan Jack, who left his home in 1927 to ride the rails with other tramps. Jack explained, “I learned when I was young that the only true life I had was the life of my brain. But if it's true that the only real life I had was the life of my brain, what sense does it make to hand that brain to someone for eight hours a day, for their particular use, on the presumption that at the end of the day they will give it back in an unmutilated condition?”
I thought of Frying Pan Jack after meeting Ned Burnell and Sholei Croom at “Technology for Good”, a recent event we co-sponsored with the PKG Public Service Center. They came to invite their fellow MIT students to join the Movement for Anti-Oppressive Computing Practices, or MACPrac.
Many coders prefer to focus on the work right in front of them, enjoying the process of fixing a problem in the code or coming up with a clever or elegant design. In return for engaging work, high status, and good pay, they allow companies to direct their creativity. When it becomes clear that an end product causes harm -- contributing to addiction, anxiety, bias, polarization, or the expansion of corporate and government surveillance -- the tech workers who helped build it are put it an uncomfortable ethical position. This moral harm is exactly what I think Frying Pan Jack feared companies could do to mutilate his brain.
The members of MACPrac bring together students and tech workers to demand more: that their skills and ideas be directed at dismantling systems of oppression. They want to keep custody of their brains and their moral compasses.