Free speech, free enterprise and gender equality at Google

The whole purpose of building a technology product portfolio is to get it to as broad a market as possible. You can’t do that by reducing its appeal – its relevance & usability – to discrete groups, even large ones like politically conservative, white males. Effective diversity of customer base is a commercial imperative.

So Google – like many consumer facing technology companies – divides between those who have the capacity to write and apply code to solve technical problems, and those who can do that to create products. You get to a certain level of technical skill, and then you’re on a plateau. You start afresh in an open field of thousands of technologists with the same skills, and Google looks among this qualified group for people who can do more than write code for machines – that they can also engineer products for people.

This is where the formally unidentified, but widely named in-house critic of diversity policies at Google stepped in with his “manifesto”. It was his reaction to Google’s efforts to increase the proportion of women working at Google employees, whose numbers have just reached a point where their presence is noticeable. (He doesn’t have anything to say about Latino or African-American techs, presumably as their numbers are too small at Google to trigger his concern.)

“I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes,” the Googler writes, “and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Cue outrage from all sides, supportive and critical. In a way though, he touches on a different truth. Comments ex-senior Google tech Yonatan Zunger: “All of these traits which the manifesto described as ‘female’ are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique.

“The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.”

So unless you have some kind of empathy with the human race in all its forms, you are going to find it hard to create a product that appeals equally effectively – in different ways, sure – but equally effectively with a diverse audience of potential users. You are certainly not going to be promoted.

“Google (and so many other companies) make you prove yourself at the low-level field, in writing code, and then promote people to the engineering process level,” notes Charles Arthur. “Men, particularly intense narrow-vision men, might excel at that first process. Then in the next one they’re awful. And so you see screw-ups like Google Buzz.”

Hidden Figures poster image.
Go watch Hidden Figures: A better use of a certain Googler’s down  time. Photo by minhee.cho on Flickr. HT Charles Arthur.

So this fellow just wrote a ten page essay on why he’s not qualified for promotion – why he’s essentially going to be useless in terms of developing product, even if he’s a great down-table coder. It’s like a candidate for promotion at Marc Jacobs declaring the very idea of spending $38,000 for a crocodile skin handbag as morally wrong. Now it is to a very large part of the populace, and understandably so, but not in Marc Jacobs’ world or the world of its customer base.

Comments Ian Bogost: “Reactions to the screed are sound, but they risk missing a larger problem: The kind of computing systems that get made and used by people outside the industry, and with serious consequences, are a direct byproduct of the gross machismo of computing writ large. More women and minorities are needed in computing because the world would be better for their contributions—and because it might be much worse without them.”

Now the Google essayist’s argument focuses on his employers’ in-house ‘ideological echo chamber’. He argues that Google’s corporate hive mind is doing itself an injustice by excluding people with political views that are counter-intuitive to a politically contextualised Google business model. This is perhaps true: Marc Jacobs knows that outside its market there are people who don’t buy their product, who think what they are doing is unethical.

They may think that one day Marc Jacobs the corporate giant may need to publicly address their point of view. Is it worth Marc Jacobs’ time and money to hire one of them? Or promote one from bag manufacture to bag design? You’d think Marc Jacobs mad to do so, or at best, think it was a token hire to fob off fringe critics of its business model.

What struck me was how clearly the Google essayist understood the political context of Google’s corporate model – ‘leftist’ biases in contrast to ‘rightist’ ones. That to the leftist “disparities are due to injustices,” and that “ humans are inherently cooperative,” that instability through change is good, and the virtuous have an open, idealist perspective.

And how that contrasted – in his eyes – to the ‘rightist’ perspective, that “disparities are natural and just; Humans are inherently competitive,” and that change is dangerous in that it threatens stability. That the rightist’s idea of a good perspective is “Closed; Pragmatic”.

“So left-wing people are idealists, while right-wing ones are pragmatic? Google’s ‘open’ credo makes it left-wing?” mused Charles Arthur, “It’s a really bizarre collection of assertions which wouldn’t look out of place in a university junior common room. I wonder if Google is looking at its recruiting systems in light of this.”

The essayist himself concedes, not wholly convincingly, that he may be biased and only see evidence that supports his viewpoint. “In terms of political biases, I consider myself a classical liberal and strongly value individualism and reason,” he explains, adding: “Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.”

It’s interesting that the warrior-king of empathy-free, gender-insensitive technological advocacy, Julian Assange, has pitched in with broad support of the essayist and against ‘identity politics 2.0″  and Google’s “mass spying” as “equal opportunity predation”. Yet the counter case that’s being made is that Google might deliver a better, less threatening and more honest product portfolio if its makers were more representative of the human race – something that it is struggling to achieve, regardless of the essayist’s concerns.

Bogost, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and professor of interactive computing at Georgia Tech, offers up an interesting thought experiment: “If you rolled back the clock and computing were as black as hip-hop, if it had been built from the ground up by African American culture, what would it feel like to live in that alternate future—in today’s alternate present?

“Now run the same thought experiment for a computing forged by a group that represents the general population, brown of average colour, even of sex, and multitudinous of gender identity. Something tells me the outcome wouldn’t be Google and Twitter and Uber and Facebook…”

You can’t escape the reality that the competition between these two perspectives, between the left’s “compassion for the weak” and the right’s ‘respect for the strong” – as the essayist divides them – is reflected in the schizophrenic divide between integrity of technical purpose and functionality of product value that constantly roils the tech sector.

Should he be fired? No, if down in the coding department he’s working fine. But if he wants to progress career-wise he needs to develop the kind of mental mindscape that Google – the whole world, indeed – needs more than coding skills to engineer products for people. And this might be gently explained to him by Google’s HR department, perhaps.

Readers please note: I am currently (2017) a recipient of prototype research funding from the Google Digital News Initiative’s Innovation Fund.

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