Forms of leftist work in San Jose can often go unnoticed. One goal for Archive408 is to shine a light on the projects happening here and the folks putting in the labor to make those projects happen. The following interview is with Jay Edgar of Blockchain Boys, a political comedy podcast skewering Silicon Valley culture from a leftist perspective, and advocating for a socialist reorientation of the technology sector. Jay and Grant released their first episode on August 18, 2018. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Spotify.
Maybe we can start with an introduction to Blockchain Boys for folks who might be unfamiliar.
Jay Edgar: Blockchain Boys is a leftist political comedy podcast, mainly covering Silicon Valley and the tech sector broadly. We were inspired by the rising popularity of other left-wing comedy podcasts that have risen in popularity over the past few years; Street Fight Radio, District Sentinel, and Struggle Session were probably my biggest influences. While all those shows are really funny and informative and kind of a great way to interact with left politics, I found myself kind of unsatisfied both with how the technology sector was discussed, and how the Bay Area (and in particular the South Bay) was discussed as a yuppie and venture capitalist tech bro homogeny. Grant and I have known each other for almost a decade now. We both have a background in improv and a comedic chemistry that I’ve always wanted to do something with, so it seemed like a natural fit.
Tell us about your relationship as collaborators.
Jay Edgar: Grant’s really busy with his day job, so I do a lot of the preparation for the show, editing, stuff like that. Grant and I know each other really well, and I think we have a real intimate comedic understanding. I can present him some bullshit quote by a venture capitalist and he knows exactly why I chose it. Grant’s much funnier than me. It would be immensely depressing for me to talk about this stuff on my own.
The podcast is described as, “…a leftist critique and vision for technology.” Can you expand on that?
Jay Edgar: I kinda use socialism and leftism interchangeably. I try to keep my definition of socialism as simple and principled as possible: ensuring democratic control of the economy and the expansion of human rights. We don’t just want to point out why capitalism is bad, or why the tech industry is bad; we aren’t luddites, Grant works in tech and I think technology has obvious liberatory qualities. To that end, I think we should always be thinking about how much better the tech sector would be if it was under worker control. We want tech workers to see how much smarter they are than their bosses, and that through organizing they can create the future they’ve always dreamed of.
Why do you feel like leftist critiques of tech are important?
Jay Edgar: Tech isn’t just a huge industry, the decisions made by tech companies have serious consequences for people all throughout the world; the only private industry that has more control over your day-to-day life is the financial sector, and the line is getting blurrier between the two. I think there’s a lot of things those on the left should get more comfortable talking about, but the tech sector is definitely one of them. The tech sector is a huge portion of today’s corporate debt market, which is in a speculation bubble similar to the real estate bubble that drove the 2008 recession. As kids are being indoctrinated into fitting their education to the labor needs of tech companies, it should really be a bigger story that a company like Tesla, deemed too big to fail by JP Morgan, seems unable to make a profit and is just getting deeper and deeper into debt. I think conventional liberal frameworks are totally unable to reckon with this situation, and leftists often feel too dumb about tech to comment. In San Jose, I think the way tech is presented as mystifying makes the working people outside of tech feel too stupid to live in their own city. The current media environment for the tech sector is really set up against industry outsiders or really anyone who desires critical coverage of an industry that governs so much of our lives. The two audiences catered to be tech media outlets are investors through outlets like TechCrunch, Recode, etc. or hobbyists like through Engadget or The Verge. Hobbyist media is always rooting for the founders of these companies in their quest to bring cool new stuff to people who like cool gadgets. Business media might be more critical, but only on behalf of investors. General welfare is too abstract a concept for most of this coverage. In addition, a lot of both types of coverage is filled with jargon designed to alienate people and make them insecure in even attaining knowledge about the mechanisms that rule their lives. Part of the goal of the podcast is to make it clear how fabricated these barriers to entry are. I don’t have pretty much any formal technical knowledge or knowledge about finance; I do have the time and ability to really dig into concepts and try to break them down in a way that hopefully instills confidence in the listener so they can better make their own critiques and prescriptions to the world around them. I’ve found that most people are much smarter about this stuff than they might believe about themselves.
Do ya’ll feel as though leftist work and critique are particularly challenging in San Jose?
Jay Edgar: The reason tech companies were initially attracted to the Santa Clara Valley was a lack of organized labor, so the story goes, and the high presence of companies and institutions related to the Military Industrial Complex. Those two factors have certainly made San Jose and the area much less of a leftist bastion than our Bay Area cousins, but there’s also a long history of dissidence and rebellion totally overlooked and erased by dominant groups in the city. In that way, I think it’s hard to have a sophisticated understanding of the political economy of where we live compared to a place like Chicago or Oakland or New York, where you’re standing on the shoulders of radical giants if that makes sense. But I do think that case might be a bit overstated, and is probably white anglo-centric. Santa Clara County was a major battleground for the United Farm Workers, and organizations like the new Brown Berets and projects like Archive408 do a good job demonstrating the radical history of folks in San Jose.
Has undertaking this project changed the way you experience being in San Jose?
Jay Edgar: I’m not sure how much my experience of San Jose has changed as much as this project was informed by me developing a love for San Jose after dreaming of leaving for my whole childhood. The working class of this city are worth fighting for, and it will always be my home, even if I’m eventually priced out of it.
I think the biggest thing for me is when I meet tech workers now I always ask them about their labor conditions. There’s definitely people who really drink the Kool Aid, but I’m surprised how jaded a lot of people are, especially as more tech workers find themselves working as contractors for giant companies with lower pay and worse benefits. As organizations like the Tech Workers Coalition and actions like the Google Walkout demonstrate, there’s a rising class consciousness amongst tech workers that could very well shift the future in favor of the left.
What advice would you give to local people who are interested in starting a podcast, keeping on top of tech, or engaging in forms of leftist organizing?
Jay Edgar: For starting a podcast, the most important things you need are someone you can comfortably talk to for hours and hours, and the ability to commit time to doing it. You should have a plan outlined for what you’ll talk about on the show and be comfortable straying from it as necessary. As far as keeping on top of tech, I don’t really know how to give a good answer. I have an unhealthily large news diet. I generally think traditional business publications (Bloomberg, FT, Forbes) give better, more critical coverage than outlets like TechCrunch or Recode, but it’s kind of a crapshoot all around. Talking about leftist organizing, I think it’s important to have clear goals. The union organizer Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts really influenced how I understand what it means to be politically active today. Basically, organizing is about growing a base of people to exert power on their behalf. In order to do this, you should have goals that either pass or fail. Whether it’s a ballot measure, an election, a union drive, or a pressure campaign over a key vote by a city council, the principles are the same: grow your people and bring them out when it matters. A protest or march is only useful when it is in service of those larger goals. And it’s important to remember that power comes from ordinary people, not extraordinary leaders.
Is there anything you’d like to plug or add?
Jay Edgar: The Tech Workers Coalition, Serve the People, Democratic Socialists of America, Brown Berets, Sacred Heart, the Affordable Housing Network, Jewish Voice for Peace, LUNA, Anakbayan, and the Green Party are all active in San Jose and worth getting involved with or supporting. The DIY music scene in San Jose is full of inspiring people making culture from the bottom up in a city that is often hostile to them. The Blockchain Boys wouldn’t exist without the influence of both.