I’m rather late to the Game of Thrones craze: I’ve only just finished season five. An important plotline is the rise of the ‘Sparrows‘ – an ascetic, but militant, religious movement that takes control of a great city while its aristocratic rulers are fighting one another.
Indeed, one of those rulers, the villainous Queen Cersei, puts on a hypocritical show of piety – while empowering the Sparrows to move against her rivals at court. Too late, Cersei realises she has created a monster she can’t control and she too falls victim to its zealotry.
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It’s a marvellous study in power politics, in particular the cluelessness of the high-and-mighty in the face of a grassroots revolution they didn’t see coming.
First broadcast in the Spring of 2015, the storyline gained a special saliency in the UK – where the Corbynite takeover of the Labour Party was about to take place. It helped that the leader of the Sparrows, ‘the High Sparrow’, bore such a resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn. Jonathan Pryce was rightly praised for his portrayal of the role – a subtle but chilling combination of personal humility and swivel-eyed fanaticism.
The following year, it was America’s turn – with the Trumpian takeover of the Republican Party. On this occasion there was rather less in the way of personal humility, but once again a ruling establishment was overwhelmed by a radicalised rank-and-file.
The latest example of this phenomenon comes not from politics, but business – specifically the tech industry.
In an in-depth report for Fortune, Beth Kowitt documents the growing power of employee activism within Google and other big tech companies:
“As the so-called techlash has cast a pall over the entire sector, organized employee pushback is slowly becoming part of the landscape: Amazon workers are demanding more action from the company on battling climate change; at Microsoft, employees say they don’t want to build technology for warfare…
“But nowhere has the furor been as loud, as public, and as insistent as it has been at Google. That’s no surprise to Silicon Valley insiders, who say Google was purpose-built to amplify employee voices. With its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra, Google was a central player in creating the rosy optimism of the tech boom.”
We’re not talking about conventional industrial action here. This is a highly skilled, well-paid workforce. In Silicon Valley, company employees are the cosseted insiders – with a lot less to personally complain about than the outsourced workforce.
However, this is about a lot more than pay and conditions:
“…Silicon Valley [is] a place that has long worshipped at the altar of meritocracy and utopian techno-futurism. But in the past few years, the industry’s de facto mission statement—change the world (and make money doing it!)—has been called into question as examples of tech’s destructive power multiply, from election interference to toxicity on social media platforms to privacy breaches to tech addiction. No one is closer to tech’s growing might, as well as its ethical quandaries, than the employees who help create it. “
Rather like the characters in the Mitchell and Webb “Nazis” sketch, tech employees are taking a look at themselves and asking “are we the baddies?”.
For a long time, a rebellious, anti-establishment culture was not only tolerated but encouraged by the tech companies. If you’re in the business of disrupting entire industries by developing breakthrough products then what you need is an insurgent force of t-shirted mavericks, not an army of grey-suited corporate clones.
But the incentives are changing. The disruptors have become the new establishment – and thus want to keep a lid on their own tradition of dissent. However, this comes an awkward time. The fresh talent these companies need to recruit and retain is no longer drawn from the devil-may-care individualists of Generation X, but from the Millennial and Post-millennial generations. This lot seek meaning as well as money from their careers – and what they find meaningful is strongly influenced by the orthodoxies of the middle-class Left.
These may be the days of the ‘woke corporation’, when big companies seek to associate themselves with progressive causes, in the hope their own corporate sins go unnoticed. However, media-savvy Millennials aren’t so easily fooled. It doesn’t matter how many millions a big company spends on diversity training and other good works, its activist employees won’t be happy if it’s also chasing billions from defence contracts.
Unlike the more downtrodden kind of worker, it’s hard to threaten alpha-geeks with unemployment. The big tech companies are the kings of ‘clustering’ – i.e. the geographical concentration of an industry in a few high profile, urban centres. This gives employers access to the widest possible pool of talent, but it also maximises options for talented employees.
Big tech, therefore, is in a tight spot – dependent on a footloose workforce (or should that be a wokeforce?) that can afford to move on should their employers not meet their exacting ethical standards.
On the other hand, it is quite funny. The tech lords, having exploited their own unconventional image, and pandered to political correctness, now find themselves on the receiving end of the radicalism they once used as a weapon. Indeed, the Sparrows of the tech industry might just prove to be the most effective means of keeping its power in check:
Knowledge workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your troubled consciences!
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