Google and its terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week in full
Discriminatory highlights from hell
Comment Right off the bat, let's get this straight: on average, ignorant bigots and well-rounded human beings biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren't just socially constructed; they're universal across human cultures.
Bigots that should have been castrated at birth but raised by well-rounded human beings often still identify and act like bigots.
None of this is to say that we should not continue to allow bigots to express their views, or fire them when they do, but I think we can all agree a good kick in the nuts does everyone a great deal of good.
Well, this has been a hell of a week for Google.
Storm clouds were already brewing on Monday when, over the weekend, an internal memo from a young male coder on the issue of diversity went viral and led to a gnashing of teeth on social media that could be heard across the world.
It's hard to think of a time when talking about people's biological differences and noting things like "women are more anxious" and "men take more dangerous jobs" has had a positive reception. There's just something about using a long list of stereotypes to argue your pre-decided conclusion that doesn't engender much love in people.
Briefly, on a tangent, do you know why Asians are such bad drivers? Or why Blacks are such fast runners? No, seriously, it's statistically true. Just look at the stats from the department of transport/athletics federation. I'm just pointing to the facts. Freedom of speech, man!
Before Google even opened its doors on Monday, people were calling for the head of whoever had written the so-called "manifesto". It didn't take long for his name to come out – James Damore.
And then came the interwebs explosion, which followed the nasty pattern we have all unfortunately grown used to this past year: denunciation followed by demands for immediate action, followed by a counter-attack, followed by immediate taking of sides and as much unpleasantness as everyone can muster.
It seems that these days, we don't even wait on TV pundits to jam any issue into a left-right political lens. In this case it was there from the start: in Damore's text.
"We're told by senior leadership that what we're doing is both the morally and economically correct thing to do, but without evidence this is just veiled left ideology," he wrote before piling into all the bad things those "on the left" do.
- "Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people."
- "Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of humanities and social scientists lean left (about 95%), which creates enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap."
- "In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females."
- "Ironically, IQ tests were initially championed by the Left when meritocracy meant helping the victims of the aristocracy."
- "Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence."
- And on, and on.
In some respects, you can see why Google felt it had no choice but to fire him. The document was hurtful and offensive as well as openly dismissive and contemptuous of the ad giant's own culture.
It also created havoc as managers scrambled to schedule meetings to talk about it, and staff called in sick. When the issue becomes so big that the CEO felt he had to cut short his vacation, someone was going to have to pay for it.
But then, Google made the situation worse. Pretty much everyone who hadn't piled into the pitched online battle felt that Google erred by firing Damore.
Not only had it ruined an opportunity to show that it was mature enough to handle the situation and argue for its values but it appeared to confirm Damore's claim that any form of dissent was not tolerated at the tech goliath.
It should have been immediately obvious to Google executives that if it fired Damore straight away, without some kind of process, that his politically charged writing would become that week's focus of righteous indignation from the fringes. And so it was with the much-vaunted "alt-right" attack dogs let loose on their keyboards.
It also acted as a catalyst for awful behavior. We listed our top five dreadful people that used the row to espouse yet more offensive and hateful rhetoric. Somewhat inevitably, that story also came under attack.
It was a few days until more reasoned and informed voices joined – many of them ignored if there wasn't anything sufficiently salacious or outrageous to pick up and hurl at the other side.
David P. Schmitt, one of the authors of a study cited repeatedly by Damore to justify his arguments (Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures) wrote a blog post in which he noted "it is not clear to me how such sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace."
"Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe," he warned. "Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm."
Another organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, also added his expert view – which was there really isn't any noticeable difference between men and women in the context of a job developing software for Google (or, really, anywhere).
"I think it's a travesty when discussions about data devolve into name-calling and threats," he argued. "As a social scientist, I prefer to look at the evidence."
Those defending Damore pushed an article published on a website that specializes in promoting controversial views (example lead story: Should We "Stop Equating 'Science' With Truth"?)
In that article, three social psychologists and a "science writer who has a PhD in sexual neuroscience" were asked about the memo and said variations on the same theme: that Damore had accurately summarized the studies he had referenced. They disagreed as to whether it held any implications for Google but did note that people on the other side of the face had been throwing around inaccuracies just as joyfully and unpleasantly as those on Damore's side.
But none of these reasoned responses attracted a fraction of the attention as the pitched battles online.
By Wednesday, the row seemed all-consuming: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, tech news sites, and even broader media outlets were saturated. Any new details, however, were few and far between, so the stories became about the fight itself.
Google workers, including its new diversity veep Danielle Brown, locked their Twitter feeds out of sight to escape the angry mob. Googlers who protested against the infamous memo complained their names and contact details were being leaked to and posted on right-leaning blogs by fellow staffers, encouraging online trolls to harass them.
If it all felt too much for you, you weren't alone. At the same time as the abuse swirled around online, President Donald Trump appeared the join the madness, making incredibly aggressive – and false – statements about improvements to the US nuclear program.
When Stephen Schwartz was aggressively challenged on Twitter after explaining that "literally nothing has happened in the last 201 days to increase the overall power of the US nuclear arsenal" – directly repudiating Trump's claims – he felt obliged to point out who he was: "I'm a nuclear weapons and weapons policy expert specializing in US nuclear weapons. It is literally my job to know. What's your expertise?"
That exchange was immortalized by others who called it "peak Twitter". But, bizarrely and disturbingly, it only served to make him a target for others who simply continued questioning his knowledge.
Even though nuclear weapons and diversity hiring could not appear to be two issues further apart, in the revolving whirlwind that is uninformed opinion online, they felt one and the same. The constant online fighting became pushed as an Us vs Them showdown, even though plenty of us wanted it to just go away.
"The Alt-Right Finds a New Enemy in Silicon Valley," exclaimed the New York Times. "When James Damore, a Google engineer, was fired this week for writing a 10-page manifesto… it might have seemed like the end of a bizarre, short-lived morality tale. But for the alt-right, the battle was just beginning."
And then, just as things threatened to die down, Damore was persuaded to give an interview to a podcaster who has built a YouTube following by promoting the very same kind of views that the sparked Damore's document in the first place.
Stefan Molyneux is "one of the alt-right's biggest YouTube stars," according to the Washington Post. Damore's appearance only stirred things up all the more, egged on by his newfound, fair-weather friends.
Meanwhile, as Damore was being hailed as a martyr, others start digging into his life: noting that he didn't actually complete his PhD in systems biology as his LinkedIn page suggested – he dropped down to a master's, instead. His claims about being a chess champion, it turned out, were also greatly over-inflated.
A new temporary love-hate online celebrity has been born. Damore started being referred to as "the Google manifesto guy" – an unconscious but explicit recognition that no one expects to remember his name even next week. He penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. He was interviewed on Bloomberg TV.
He even showed up on Twitter wearing a "Goolag" t-shirt, as in gulag, because a six-figure salary, free meals, and a ton of benefits and bonuses while living in one of the nicer corners of California is exactly what springs to mind when one thinks of a Soviet forced-labor camp.
And then, just to round out the week, Google's effort to address the issue – an all-hands meeting on Thursday – was cancelled over concerns for people's safety. Staffers feared their questions and comments raised during the meeting would be leaked online, making them targets for harassment, abuse and threats. And so started another day of news focused on this issue.
But what exactly was the issue that we have all spent a week furiously railing about?
Has anything been learnt or resolved? Or was it just another punch-up where the subject is irrelevant compared to the fact it happened? Have our online lives become the equivalent of sports tribalism where we turn up to shout at our rivals, hurl abuse, and then wander off to slaps on the back?
Nice one, Dave, nice one. You met James? Yeah, he's the one he wrote the manifesto that kicked this all off. Nice one, James, let me follow you on Twitter. ®