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A woman stands in an apartment, wearing only a bra, face obscured by a camera.
kī anthony (Photo: Supplied)

BooksMay 26, 2021

The tech trap I’m living in

A woman stands in an apartment, wearing only a bra, face obscured by a camera.
kī anthony (Photo: Supplied)

This essay by kī anthony appears in the groundbreaking anthology A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong.

In the book, the essay’s title is “sync, line & hooker”, and it appears with this bio:

kī anthony was born in Singapore in 1995. Converting to Christianity and marrying across races alienated their parents from both Chinese and Indian sides of their family; kī speaks rudimentary Mandarin but none of the family dialects.

kī’s family moved to Auckland just before kī turned 10. Despite having read Dickens and Tolstoy, kī’s accent meant they were treated as semi-literate at their new primary school until a test revealed that their spelling was the best in the year group.

kī writes personal essays, poetry and slam. They say, “Writing is an outlet for articulating tensions within my lived experience, especially the many liminal spaces I occupy – gender, sexuality, race, disability, and my position on the borders of both tech and sex work, and how all those intersect. 

“When you’ve survived child sexual abuse which every adult you know has written off as entirely improbable, you write. When you’re not sure if you’re gay but you’re sure you’re going to hell, and your teachers at your Christian school think your hallucinations are a spiritual gift to see demons that you picked up in ‘devil-worshipping Asia’, you write. When you’ve been kicked out after being outed, and every queer space you seek help in thinks you’re crazy, dangerous and weird because you’re autistic, a sex worker, or just unwilling to tolerate racism, you write. As long as I can remember, documenting my life has been my way of reminding myself that all the impossible things I am and have survived are real. There may not be anyone exactly like me, but whether readers see themselves in my writing or gain a better understanding of others in their lives, I’m reminding them that they’re real, too.”

We're at a book launch, with dozens of contributing writers lined up for photos. Also, the cover of A Clear Dawn.
At the launch of A Clear Dawn, a couple of weeks ago (Photo: Auckland University Press)

Sync, line & hooker

Here is a shitty autobiography: I spent my entire teens in one long, fucked-up sugar baby relationship where I traded 24/7 sexual availability for the world’s worst tech mentoring. I then bounced from brothel to brothel for a couple of years, ghosted my madam and started hustling independently, had a lesbian wedding as soon as they were legal, and eventually wound up working in open-source tech support on the strength of the listening and digital skills I picked up as a hooker.

A lot has changed, and very little. I’ve more than doubled my hourly rate. I miss party after party because of my day job, not because of my parents or my ex. And the more I think tech has freed me, the more trapped I realise I am.

i. free as in speech, not as in sex

Courtesy of fundamentalist, tech-literate parents, the first online chat room I was able to access was Wikipedia’s IRC channels. The burgeoning culture around the project was a revelation, all too easy to embrace uncritically. Everything was open and traceable. Everyone was held accountable. Logic and individual rights ruled the roost. It’s better if everything’s known by everyone, always.

This year, fidgeting in my seat at an information security conference designed to be generally less misogynist, I heard a speaker talk about open source. People have good reasons to want to stay hidden, she said. People have good reasons not to trust the tools that promise security either. Open source is the solution, because you aren’t going in blind. You can audit the code, if you want to.

When I’ve gone from having a meltdown at my happy libre-not-gratis day job because I can’t comprehend the console error a customer’s encountering straight to realising I’ve lost a john because Protonmail’s glitched, that’s not very reassuring. The speaker’s compassion for the vulnerable is admirable. Her trust that any of us have the time, energy, education or confidence in open-source solutions is misplaced, to say the least.

When I think about open-source culture, I think about Jimmy Wales blocking someone on Twitter for using his own Wikipedia article to disprove his claim that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps. I think about Lawrence Lessig repeatedly defending MIT taking donations from Jeffrey Epstein. I think about Richard Stallman defending child pornography as “free speech” and saying it’s absurd to define sex with a consenting underage girl as rape. I think about the many, many rapists I’ve somehow ended up having to testify against, break up with, or intercept. I think about my employer graciously allowing me to continue escorting on the side but banning sex workers from paying money for the company’s services. I think about my ex’s ability to spin up an IRC server and a closed proxy to get me around my parents’ internet filter, and how absolutely, phenomenally inadequate my trust, education or confidence turned out to be.

I think about the pictures of me, barely 16, half-naked on a caravan bed, which that ex released with a Creative Commons licence into public use.

It’s no comfort to remember that the tools I gained after cutting my ex off at 19 helped me avoid many a predator when I first went indie. I paid my way through a tech-related degree as a brothel babe, traded laptop repair for couches to sleep on after my parents disowned me for being a lesbian, and was literate enough to grab a distinctive domain name years before most indie workers thought about free Tumblr sites, and that hasn’t granted me a modicum of safety. So where does that leave anyone else?

I can laugh at the man who asked for 10 sessions in exchange for a website because his copy-pasted blurb to my email address indicated he didn’t even realise I already had a site. I can PGP-encrypt communications with a john without too much effort, not that anyone’s ever asked. I still can’t tell for sure if I’ve ghosted a random would-be client or if he’s the man who’s been emailing me under too many personas to count because he’s been obsessed since I was 19. Screening feels like religion to me: you believe in the ritual of it because it’s reassuring, but it doesn’t prevent one choice sending you off the edge of some precipice. You do it anyway.

ii. de/human/ised resources

They said the same thing about my vanilla gig that they say about going indie: you pick your hours, you work from home, you have the freedom to interact with people how you want. None of these things is true about either.

In my entrance interview, I told HR point blank that everything I learned about customer service was something I picked up in a brothel. I think I was just tired of lying. I was testing a company that promised to be committed to equity in all its forms. It took HR a month to give me the green light, and it was only because sex work is decriminalised in New Zealand that they did. “Don’t break the law,” they warned. I work entirely from home, and don’t think someone in California is going to hear if I don’t use protection exactly how the Prostitution Reform Act specifies, but whatever.

I was hired because of product knowledge I had gained by unintentionally violating my company’s terms of service – it’s one of a million tech services where sex workers are forbidden. With a friend’s help, during that month of limbo waiting for my offer, I quietly transitioned to a DIY solution. In the two years since, I’ve watched colleagues express sympathy for the infinite cannabis sellers we have to ask to move, but not once for the escorts, sensual masseuses and dommes we often kick off with little notice. I’ve seen peers just assume that nobody can work in tech and still be poor, when I’m not the only person with sky-high medical bills and family to support. I’ve had colleagues, who know I hustle, ask to see my website, “just out of curiosity”.

When a friend was raped and I stepped into their small support circle while still recovering from major surgery, nothing stopped my lead from telling me I needed to pick up my performance immediately or risk getting sacked. “I can’t imagine dealing with any of the things you deal with,” he said, “but there is no other choice”.

It’s become increasingly clear that the standards aren’t equal, and that start-uppy, “horizontal”, “think positive” culture means nothing’s really supervised either. A peer who’s a white dude got three months’ bereavement; I had to work full hours while an immediate family member was on suicide watch. I got written up for using the word “blowjob” in a casual, private conversation, and you can bet the men around me have said worse.

My pay is difficult to turn away from, and a huge reason for that is the FBI shutdown of the ad platform Backpage. Working full time and hustling during my precious days off while disabled is fucking exhausting, but I know that even as a student with plenty of time to spend hooking I hardly made enough to cover the weekly fees that the dominant ad platform here charges. Keeping my head down and musing about the common threads between placating different clients in these devalued, feminised, jack-of-all-trades occupations is all I can do.

iii. you alone have root access to your own identity

Linus Torvalds is often quoted as saying “real open source allows you to control your own destiny”. Funnily enough, I can’t find any credible sources to confirm that he did. The title of this section is from another infosec con talk. In both cases, the speaker’s unflappable belief in the existence of digital sovereignty is something I wish I shared.

I started my work Twitter as a brothel babe. These days, I have something like seven Twitter accounts, most of which need to be entirely separate from each other, and my hooker account isn’t the only one I’ve been neglecting. I take fewer selfies these days. Now there’s a war between the need to craft perfect, anonymised images which exude spontaneity, and the opacity I need to project on any other public Twitters so johns don’t find me and put the pieces together. Even my brothel and agency-worker friends have been forced to curate these incessantly cute, horny digital presences which mean they’re never off the clock.

And yet my day job requires me to enter the US, which obliges me to have public, pristinely normative social media accounts that don’t look plastic or have anything that its administration might disapprove of, and are completely separate from any other online fragments of my life. I’d make a joke about having multiple personalities if I didn’t genuinely think my dissociative disorder makes keeping things straight even harder.

Let’s be real: I don’t need to say much here. My employer pays lip service to diversity and transparency, while internal memos and discussions lean toward more and more data collection, both from customers and employees. Google probably not only knows exactly who I fuck for pay, but collects enough data about both of us to predict how well we’ll get along. It’s inevitable that in an era when being a “companion” means bringing your Switch, connecting your phone via Bluetooth, and receiving USB-drive-mixtapes (which we’ll never plug in) from besotted premature ejaculators, it’s less and less safe to do the work we do. Hell, I once accidentally outed myself to a hostile conservative audience while doing some activist work because my laptop account uses my hooker name. The things we do to keep ourselves safe are so, so dismally far from enough when Facebook suggests people as friends based on geographic proximity. Even less so now my ex is a Facebook developer.

And yet, we keep working because we have to, and we navigate the massive cognitive and social load of deciding how much to separate out. Pessimistically, sometimes I think there’s no point pretending that half the queers in this country haven’t connected some of the pieces. Optimistically, I freak out every time I see another mutual come out as non-binary on their work Twitter. I market as a racial minority because I have to, and it makes me distinctive enough that I can’t imagine choosing something that’ll make you far easier to track and more of a target for increasingly fragile alt-right masculinity. As someone who doesn’t leave my house very much, social media is a lifeline and a death sentence at the same time. I can’t really take deposits because googling my bank account prefix brings up a desperate Tumblr post from when I was first homeless.

That’s before we even start dealing with the state. Nationalised health records mean that the endocrinologist I see for an urgent, life-threatening issue knows I’m a sex worker before he knows what’s wrong with me. Applying to get sexual assault counselling means getting quizzed about whether I paid tax on the income I got from a client who raped me. Digital solutions which promise efficiency seem to sacrifice privacy, across the board.

iv. a lawless wasteland

Okay, so maybe companies like my employer are starting to take workplace sexual assault seriously. Maybe we’re actually talking about how fucking predatory half the bigwigs in open source are. Maybe if we work tirelessly, for free, we’ll be able to make things better for the people who come after us. Maybe none of us have gotten enough yet to be able to give back.

I’m tired. Even the work involved in being able to do admin for both my jobs from my phone without accidentally cross-contaminating anything is exhausting. Despite everything, I lean far more libertarian on some things than most of my communist peers.

I guess I’ve seen the worst of it. The issue isn’t that everyone can say what they want in an unregulated, endless space, just as the issue isn’t that porn exists. The issue is power, context, algorithms, the way we’re exploited with outrage engines, data mining, the unequal access, the fact that everyone else takes for granted that they can get paid online while our money is seized all the goddamn time for no reason – the very real social and financial tax for being a sex worker on the internet.

Like remote tech work, the internet creates isolation in the same breath that it creates connections that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. It’s empowering while simultaneously engineering us getting stripped of our rights and tools. It will never, ever be our salvation, and SEO will never make up for an increase in police presence, but boy does it feel good when the person making the new app that promises to make our lives easier is actually a sex worker for once.

Sometimes I think about how many people have reported trans-exclusionary content on the platform I support, only to have that content reviewed as “free speech” because it’s not explicitly genocidal. I think about how my clumsy gallery of lingerie shots is more of a liability to my employer than websites which encourage violence against trans people. I think about the stratification of open source into something where some guy who had an idea in college 15 years ago is now a CEO who still thinks he’s part of an industry where anyone can achieve anything.

I think about how I’d happily pay much more tax if the people who wouldn’t miss it paid their share. Turns out that nature abhors a vacuum. Any new and exciting space made by those in power, or even by anyone who hasn’t made a conscious and educated effort to mitigate power, turns into a lawless wasteland pretty damn quickly. After all, any consequences are meaningless if you can spin up a VPN and some sock puppets or pay any fine without making a dent in your finances.

Ah well. Here is a shittier autobiography: I don’t think I’d be the same person if tech didn’t exist but, fucking hell, maybe I’d be better.

A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong (Auckland University Press, $49.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. 

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