Sareeta Amrute on her new book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class

Image result

Interview by Ilana Gershon

By focusing on Indian computer programmers, you are able to point out the ways in which computer programmers have racialized bodies, and how this affects their work lives.  If you happened to find yourself at a dinner party seated next to a Silicon Valley recruiter, what would you want them to know about your book?

My book takes sides. It’s not just descriptive, it’s provocative. It humanizes an incredibly cartoonified subset of laborers. Literally: I discuss cartoons satirizing Indian IT workers in European publications as part of my chapter on perceptions. I’d want her to know that coders from India don’t deserve the reputation they’ve been handed down as fast, cheap, and replaceable. These attributes are a result of the way the industry produces value, primarily by divvying coding projects up into creative and grunt parts, which are then given to different kinds of workers, often divided by race. And while engineers from India occupy director and management positions across the Silicon Plateaus, Alleys, Valleys, and Highways around the globe, this racial logic remains. Upper management coders from India elevate themselves above the uncreative grunt coders from India along the lines of urbanity, caste, and elite versus regional engineering college backgrounds. These divisions also reach service workers, packers, and cleaners who have access to few of the perks that accompany tech jobs.

The focus of your work – IT workers in companies – is different than earlier anthropological work on coders, such as Chris Kelty or Gabriella Coleman’s work.  What difference do you think it makes that the workers you focus on work for corporations?   How do the organizational structures under which people labor affect people’s philosophies of coding?

There is much to recommend anthropological focus on hacking and free software communities, since in those arenas, alternatives to the neoliberal organization of life often emerges in unexpected ways. But, I cannot teach about global IT without recognizing its corporate structure. Last year, the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) accounted for at least 50% of all Internet traffic. One out of very two dollars spent on the Internet was spent on Amazon. Most of my students look forward to landing a job at Amazon. Like it or not, the Internet is dominated by corporations.

Within corporations, migrant programmers readily identify the contradiction between the ways that code has to move around the world and restrictions on the global movement of people. This makes them skeptical of free software movements because they simply do not go far enough. By likening code to speech, such movements unwittingly support neoconservative political ideologies that sacrifice human well- being in the name of abstract principles. Migrant programmers diagnose this gap between free software and free people, leading them to violate many principles of what is otherwise considered ‘good’ coding, such as leaving comments that explain their work to others.

You argue that one strategy that Indian IT code writers resort to is writing “inalienable” code, and thus making themselves more essential to a company in a context of temporary contracts.  Could you explain a bit what it means to write inalienable code, and what effect this strategy has on the ways that these workplaces are organized?

Inalienable code is a form of resistance. Global corporations compartmentalize temporary coders from India. “Grunts” resist by writing their code in such a way that makes that code harder to hand off to another, making them harder to replace. This is “inalienable code”. My book includes specific examples, like leaving bad comments or no comments at all, so that the coder is the only one who understand this part of the project.

Interestingly, this is widely considered poor programming. When I began conceptualizing things like this that didn’t fit the “good programming” paradigm, I tried to think of these practices in very concrete terms. They were certainly a kind of foot dragging practice, which we know from studies of factory work is a daily opposition to the ownership of time by the employer. I get a kick out of labor practices developed in the 19th century being right at home in the 21st.

“Poor programming” practices were also a means of creating a kind of wealth. These practices take the idea of knowledge work, that knowledge is capital, at its word. Thinking of aberrant coding practices as creating property and stealing time allowed me to think about the kinds of wealth coding might generate. I revisited anthropologist of the Pacific Annette Weiner’s foundational argument about inalienable wealth, in which she examined kinds of wealth that are kept back from circulation. In her scholarship, she describes wealth that, in a social scene that demands gifts and return-gifts, can be held back from these types of exchange. One of her most famous examples is a greenstone (nephrite) axe, which remained powerfully tied to the history of its victories and could only be held in trust on behalf of a group.

Now apply this concept of “inalienable” wealth to coding. The way global technology companies structure employment agreements, coders do not properly own what they write. They cannot normally exert intellectual property rights over the innovations they may make. So, they instead try to create a special relationship to this wealth by taking it out of circulation—by making it the equivalent of a jade axe buried underground, valuable because it is there not because it is freely available for exchange. Of course, these practices of making code inalienable exist in the everyday alongside the exchange of coding labor for a wage, and the free exchange of solutions to programming problems that coders post to sharing sites like Stack Overflow.

You point out many complex ways in which these programmers represent India to the German public, and a particular model of technological development to government officials in the Indian government.  But one of your imaginative arguments is pointing out that these Indian IT workers have a relationship to India as a state that calls forth a third perspective of how workers are part and parcel of state projects.  Could you explain how currently Indian IT workers overseas understand their relationship to the Indian state?

This is a fascinating question right now, and it demonstrates how coding cultures can be open ended and change over time. By and large, most programmers share a soft libertarian attitude towards governments, including their own. The government should set in motion a limited number of laws, and then get out of the way. As IT workers were understood to represent the new face of Indian business, which was higher paying, innovative and relatively free from corruption, IT workers felt themselves to be the best representative of this new, economically muscular, India. But, the turmoil on the Indian political scene in the last few years has shifted the equation. India’s government, like the United States’ government, has become more nativist in recent years. Opinion about the current state of affairs in India varies widely among Indian IT workers overseas. Some support the ongoing efforts to redefine India a normatively Hindu and are not bothered by increasing inequality, pollution, and violence against minorities. Many are deeply troubled by these developments and have begun to feel displaced, neither comfortable at home, nor in the rightist, anti-immigrant regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere.

You argue that these IT programmers are deeply ambivalent about how neoliberal logics recommend people should organize their lives.  How do they use leisure moments as moments to reclaim control over the kinds of working selves they are expected to be and as moments of experimentation?

Migrant programmers from India can recognize the failures of subjecthood under neoliberalism because as migrants, their precarious job status belies their vaunted position as knowledge workers. The protagonists of my book did all the things white collar workers are supposed to do to become successful—say, for example, getting up at 5 am to go jogging. Yet, jogging was not sustainable. They were working too many late nights for that. What happened next fascinated me. Rather than give up entirely, they walked in the local park. I name walking and related practices fragments of a politics of eros, because they inaugurated a conversation on the content of a good life. Such a conversation is otherwise evacuated under the logics of neoliberal survival. I’m not saying that walking is a perfect utopian practice; but, it is a moment when people practice inhabiting a world they want. Anyone familiar with India knows that the caste and class implications of walking in parks are complex. These moments of eros can just as easily flip into moments of asserting upper caste and upper class rights to urban public space. But, if we paint all overseas Indian IT workers with the same brush, that is, as classist, casteist, Hindu nationalists, we run the extreme danger of missing the progressive potential in their resistance to neoliberal work and its companions, such as a certain ways of exercising. Even more egregiously, we may miss the widest applicability of the conversation about the good life. How many of us can say that we are entirely satisfied by the way neoliberal logics govern our selves and our attachments? I think one of the most important tasks for anthropology is to interrogate the degree to which we, and others, are attached to these logics of hard work and self-improvement. For me, it is an ethical imperative to ask about the texture of a good life across class, caste, race, gender, and color divides.