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The Google Manifesto, and why the guy was fired (an ex-Googler’s perspective)

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the late-stage capitalism

Credit: Sebastian Bergmann, “Google Campus”. Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This article is part 1 of a series about the Google Manifesto. [Part 2] [Part 3]

Sigh.

By now, you probably know of the saga of the anti-diversity manifesto written by a (now former) employee of Google, and hopefully you’ve read Yonatan Zunger’s response as well.

As a former Google employee myself (2008 ~ 2015), the manifesto was not a surprise to me.

The West Coast is famous for its Leftist leanings, but people who don’t live here often fail to realize that, even here, Leftism is far from universal. In Silicon Valley in particular, the tech industry has a habit of employing mostly-white mostly-straight mostly-men who skew away from the Left and toward the various flavors of liberalism / libertarianism.

(Seriously. I never met as many honest-to-god Ayn Rand fans when I was living in deep-red Kansas as I have since joining the tech industry out here in deep-blue California.)

Given the popularity of libertarian ideas in general and Ayn Rand in particular, it’s not that surprising that the very Randian idea of “if you ask for help, you’re a moocher who’s destroying society” is pervasive here. And make no mistake: even a brief examination of the section titled “The Harm of Google’s biases” reveals that that’s the manifesto’s thesis… to the extent that the manifesto has a coherent thesis at all, that is.

Irrespective of the manifesto’s words, the manifesto’s ideas are far from coherent. The author explicitly calls out diversity efforts as unfair because they treat women and PoC differently than they treat white men — explicitly calling out “programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race”. And yet, the author himself argues that there are undeniable biological differences between the brains of women and men — differences that, if true, would inherently imply that what works best for men is not what works best for women.

When these two points are combined, the result is that the manifesto author is arguing that, instead of treating men the way men want to be treated and women the way women want to be treated, “fairness” requires that we ignore all differences between individuals and hold “do whatever’s best for straight white men” as the one singular policy for everybody.

(Strangely, the author ignores the fact that, if we have truly rid ourselves of all emotions and attachments and biases as he calls for us to do, then “do whatever’s best for black lesbians” is an equally rational conclusion. After all, the very idea that we should cater to the majority is itself a bias — as all “should” statements are. If you unwind past all assumptions, all biases, you are not left with a perfectly rational philosopher; you are left with a rock. And the rock cares not what you do to it.)

And now, Scott Aaronson has decided to step into this mess and vagueblog about it, implicitly defending the manifesto author by comparing him to the Soviet scientists and mathematicians who were persecuted for speaking truth to power.

Sigh.

Aaronson makes the claim that “most authorities simply internalize the ruling ideology so deeply that they equate dissent with sin” [emphasis in the original]. That may have been true of the Soviet regime, and perhaps it’s even true of authoritarian regimes in general.

But that’s not at all what’s happening here.

Corporations like Google are best understood as Lovecraftian horrors — incomprehensibly more vast than you, with thoughts and values utterly alien to you, caring naught for your very existence except, perhaps, as a food source. Or if you prefer, corporations are paperclip maximizers: you care about food, and friendship, and achievement, and purpose, and a thousand other desires; the paperclip maximizer (the corporation) cares about paperclips (profits).

This is basically true of any social entity composed of more than a few hundred people; exceed Dunbar’s Number, and the system (despite being made of people) starts to take on a life of its own (separate from the people that it comprises). But where other social entities are generally created with more socially positive purposes in mind — governments that provide for the safety and welfare of the citizenry, activist organizations that fight for legal reforms and rights — corporations are formed for a purpose that is by design not aligned with the common welfare.

This is not to say they are evil. That would require intent. But they are utterly amoral.

But all large social entities share another common trait: they perpetuate their own existence. It’s easy to see why: just as Darwinian natural selection promotes the genes that propagate themselves (at the expense of those that don’t), there is a selective pressure on the behaviors of social entities, and thus the behaviors that propagate themselves become dominant (usually by promoting the continued existence of the social entities that express the behavior), and this is necessarily at the expense of behaviors that don’t have this trait.

And that, in a nutshell, is why HR departments exist.

As many who experience harassment, discrimination, or just plain ol’ antisocial behavior from their co-workers can attest, the purpose of HR is not to do what is best for the victim. No, the most common response by an HR department is typically to take the accused aside and ask them to stop. Nevermind what is moral; the goal of HR is to defuse the situation and restore the status quo. If someone were eating babies at work, and eating babies were legal, then HR would only care about baby-eating to the extent that it distressed anti-baby-eating employees into quitting. Because an employee that quits is an employee that is no longer adding profit to the corporation.

When Google fired the manifesto author, it did not do so because of Leftist ideology. Corporations with 70,000 employees do not have ideologies. It fired the author because firing the author was the best way to preserve profits. As with the baby-eating scenario, the manifesto created distress among employees — particularly women, but others as well — and if the manifesto author continued to work at Google, those employees may well have become distressed enough to quit. Hiring and training a replacement for one employee is expensive… but hiring and training replacements for tens, perhaps even hundreds of employees would be even more expensive.

What makes me so sure that this is how it works? I’ve seen people who were pressured into quitting because they tried to push for equality — real equality, not this watered-down corporate diversity stuff — and discovered the hard way that the company did not actually support them. And I’ve been on HR’s bad side myself.

I’m most familiar with my own experience, so I’ll share that. I’m white and I’m male, so naïvely you might think that I’d be more aligned with the diversity skeptics… but I’m also gay, autistic, and mentally ill. In my early days at Google, I felt lucky to be there and my mental illnesses were in remission, so I did everything I could to fit in as “one of the guys”. That mostly meant drinking. A lot. It also meant late nights at the office playing Rock Band or Street Fighter IV (with booze), and team dinners (with booze), and team outings (with booze). The schmoozing was critical to my career: lots of company gossip was traded at these outings, and without that gossip it was impossible to know who respected you and who didn’t — and thus, who you should or shouldn’t assign as a peer reviewer during the performance review cycle.

But the good days didn’t last. I took on a stressful project, my own brainchild, that I hoped would lead to a much-needed promotion. (Not for the money or for the status. I was already getting paid well enough that all my needs were taken care of, and I couldn’t give two shits about titles. No, the promotion was required because there was “an expectation of advancement at my position on the career ladder”. That is, if I went with no promotions for a sufficiently long time, then I would be fired instead.) I powered my way through this project — a project that would save my team a fair bit of time (i.e. money) — and saw it through to success.

The performance review cycle came around and… I didn’t get the promotion. The TL;DR was that I hadn’t sufficiently documented what I’d done to demonstrate how much of it was on me.

Like, that sucked, but I get it — sometimes, them’s the breaks. It was my manager’s job to make sure I knew what was expected of me to get that promotion, and he failed at that, but people fail sometimes and that’s life.

But between the stress of the project and the distress at not getting the promotion, my mental illnesses broke out of remission. I became withdrawn and irritable, no longer communicating with co-workers. I lost my train of thought and couldn’t concentrate. The world didn’t make sense — it all seemed pointless and fake. Eventually, I started having suicidal thoughts.

My employer… did not take kindly to that.

Nevermind that their behavior was probably in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was the squeaky wheel in this scenario, so they decided that it was time to activate that “earn a promotion or we fire you” grease. They gave me a choice: survive what would have been the most stressful work environment that I had ever experienced in my life, doing so while in the depths of my mental illness (my psychiatrist and I were still trying to find a medication combo that worked for me)… or quit and take a severance package.

It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was an obvious one. I took the severance.

Honestly, working at Google in 2015 was not a pleasurable experience, and hadn’t been for several years before I left. The ever-yearning maw known as “social” killed it.

The first sign of trouble, in retrospect, was Google Buzz. It was basically not-Twitter embedded into your GMail UI. Internally, the general consensus was that it was a solid product: a lot of lively internal company discussion happened on “Taco Town”, and it was fun and popular. But, worryingly, the internal Buzz defaulted to auto-following all of your GMail contacts… and your Buzz profile exposed your followers list, so people now knew who was in your GMail contacts. Not a big deal for one’s work account, but it immediately raised privacy hackles, and there was an internal campaign begging the Buzz team to disable that before the public launch.

That internal campaign was ignored, and the resulting privacy fiasco resulted in an $8.5 million class action settlement and an FTC consent decree over the blatant privacy issues.

By this point, Google+ was well under development, and internal users were getting viral invites to “Emerald Sea”. The UI changes were pretty thoroughly hated — Google+ was the first project to use Google’s then-upcoming design sensibilities, which reduced the information density on the page layout by adding lots of empty space. But despite this near-universal criticism, the internally siloed instance of G+ took off as employees flocked to it, and people eventually grew to like it.

At first it looked like the Buzz privacy concerns had been taken to heart: each post had its own privacy settings, which were clearly visible as you were typing the post, and although G+ still exposed the fact that you were following someone, following wasn’t automatic and the actual groups (“circles”) that you used to organize your contacts were your secret. Even so, privacy concerns started to mount once again as the launch date approached, particularly over the fact that parts of your profile were immutably public — your name, your gender, and your profile photo — and that you could search G+ by e-mail and thus reverse-lookup any random GMail address to get that person’s G+ profile. Concern turned to outrage just before the launch, when Googlers found out that G+ would demand that people use their legal names.

A manifesto, “Real Names Considered Harmful”, was circulated internally at the company, and thousands of employees signed it. There are, of course, hundreds of good reasons for a person to choose not to use their legal name on the Internet: stalkers, trolls, and angry exes; snooping future employers; a legal name that doesn’t match the name one goes by in real life.

The letter was, of course, ignored. G+ launched with the “real names” policy firmly in place, and in the beginning “real name” very much meant “legal name”. People were getting their accounts banned for using the names they used in real life, then being asked to submit photos of their driver’s license to “prove” it was their name. Musicians, drag artists, and other performers were getting their accounts taken down. People with legal names that didn’t fit the Western European concept of “what does a name look like?” were getting flagged, including a large number of Native Americans. Trans people… well, use your imagination.

In short, the whole thing was a disaster.

In the wake of that disaster, the company tried to save face by pretending that “real names” had always been intended as a temporary policy, that the goal wasn’t “real names” or “legal names”, but “name-like identifiers”. (In which case, why were the customer service reps trained to ask for photo ID?) The reality is that, if that had been the plan all along, then it had been a secret kept from the employees for no good reason.

And then there was the Blogger porn ban.

The gossip mill within the company said that Google was trying to rehabilitate its image with the American Right, and the Blogger porn ban was quid pro quo to satisfy the religious wing of the Republican party. No one in authority ever actually said this, but the fact that Google wanted to turn around its reputation with the Fox News crowd wasn’t a secret, and the quid-pro-quo rumor seemed plausible.

The problem is… what is porn?

If you let the Religious Right define porn, then you’re not just going to lose “blogs with pictures of naked people having sex”. You’re going to lose sex education blogs. Blogs where people talk about reproductive health issues like contraception and abortion. Blogs where people talk about gay rights. (The American Right has consistently — consistently — argued that gay people, especially gay people expressing affection for each other in public, are inherently pornographic and thus not appropriate for children.)

The line between sex education and pornography is very thin — much thinner than people routinely give credit for. And for a lot of LGBT people, pornography is their sex education; the Religious Right has already done their damnedest to keep schools from educating their students about LGBT sex and sexual health issues, so a lot of pubescent queer kids learn about this stuff by searching the Internet. And what they find is porn.

For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back: the moment I lost all respect for Google as an employer.

So I made a rambling, three hour unlisted YouTube video about how the pro-censorship crowd within Google (which was substantial) was making me feel unsafe and unrespected, which was amplifying my mental illnesses, and why censorship of porn was such a big deal to the queer community. I posted it to internal Google+.

And was promptly told by HR to take it down.

I had a meeting with an HR representative and my manager. She was kind and polite, and basically said “there are some objectionable parts, could you edit those out?”. In retrospect I should have had her give me a list of what was objectionable, right then and there. In writing. Instead, I agreed, and when I got home I popped the video open in the (rather minimalistic and crappy) YouTube editor… and I couldn’t for the life of me find anything like what she’d talked about. The next day she sent me an aggravated e-mail asking me why the video was still up, there was some back and forth where I asked her what parts she was referring to when she’d said they were objectionable, and she basically demanded that I censor myself by deleting the entire video.

I rocked the boat. I was the wheel who squeaked. I disrupted the status quo.

And thus, nine months later I was being shown the door.

So yeah. In summary, corporations don’t have ideologies, they have profit margins, and if you ever threaten the shiny money pipe that is the status quo, then you’re gonna get shown the door too.

The next article in this series discusses the sloppy science in the memo itself.