The Moral Principles of Tech Workers

To even engage with the Google Manifesto’s arguments is to submit ourselves to a lobotomy, in which we must follow the threads of Mobius-strip logic and argue against competing moral principles. Oh, by far the most egregious offence in that manifesto was the incoherence and ugliness of its morals, disguised in a sort of rationalism that purports to decry religion, but in fact worships itself, worships the minds of its followers. The only belief that can be reliably distinguished from this wretched manifesto is in its author’s intelligent and rational mind, which is ironic, because it doesn’t exist.

What deeply held values does James Damore, author of the worst Reddit post in history, actually have? He writes:

For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that.

Hard. Pass. When you cite the welfare of a corporation and “good for business” as your central imperatives for opposing diversity, you have just ceded all moral grounds to something that doesn’t give a fuck about you. To wit: Damore has reportedly been fired. Makes you wonder what all of this obsequious hand-wringing over the future of the company was for.

Also note that while many media outlets have interpreted Damore as someone on the (online) right, he actually argues that “Neither [left or right] is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society or, in this case, company.” This is due to a magnificent misunderstanding of what the left and the right disagree about. On the running of a company, Damore believes that overzealous left practices will lead a company to seek constant change (??), resulting in abandonment of core products (lol). This is the sort of literal minded interpretation of leftism that babies who haven’t yet developed object permanence as well as professional Internet Debaters might be wont to partake in. These people think that staking out a reasonable position in the middle will accrue to them the veneer of rationalism, substituting it for morality.

Note that I’m no longer talking specifically about the one Google engineer dumb enough to air out a laundry list of grievances on the company mailing list. I’m talking about the moral and ethical positions in tech in general. It is an industry whose most vocal spokespeople, including Peter Thiel and our friend Mr. Damore, are libertarians, and if not they are that heady breed of “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” businesspeople who profess to humanitarian values but are for some reason real reluctant to change the status quo. As a Twitter user once said, “the problems are bad but their causes…their causes are very good.”

That is not the politics of humans, that is the politics of corporations. Outwardly they present a diverse, intersectional, PR-ready face; internally they are motivated only by profits. What makes Damore’s posture striking was a combination of two factors: One, that he has so thoroughly internalized the politics of a corporation that he imagined he was fighting against the bias of that corporation, even while preaching its pro-business doctrines. Two, that he has abandoned even the “socially liberal” part of the equation, leaving the nakedly immoral part that necessarily puts the precedence on business concerns over human ones.

It is no surprise that in the tech world, response to the manifesto and Damore’s subsequent firing has been morally confused as well. Op-eds have gloated over workers’ lack of free speech in the workplace. Here is a list of Not Good Things that a Business Insider columnist has gleefully cited in support of Google’s firing decision:

  • “If he is an “at will” employee […] then Google has every right to demand that he leave.”
  • “The problem is that US labor law is well settled in this area: In the vast majority of US states, employees have almost no rights to free speech at work.”
  • “Damore’s problem is that he used an internal Google mailing list owned by Google to disseminate his manifesto. People do not have the right to use their employer’s resources to pay for their freedom of speech.”
  • “[Widening free speech laws] could give every communist, every member of the KKK, and every Hillary Clinton voter an equal right to fill up their internal workplace bulletin boards with propaganda of their pleasing.” (emphasis mine)

I couldn’t care less about what Damore has to say, but he would not be the people who will most suffer for lack of free speech. By far, by far the most political thing a worker can say is on unionization. By far the least free place in American society is at work. This is not a footnote in the free speech debate, it’s all of it, the most important parts. Speech rights re: unionization is currently protected under the NLRA, but it is still the single most politically dangerous conversation you can have in the workplace.

But maybe a Business Insider writer–even one who covers the tech beat–is not the most representative of the tech world. Let’s look at the most popular response to Damore, from a former Google employee:

I need to be very clear here: not only was nearly everything you said in that document wrong, the fact that you did that has caused significant harm to people across this company, and to the company’s entire ability to function. And being aware of that kind of consequence is also part of your job, as in fact it would be at pretty much any other job. I am no longer even at the company and I’ve had to spend half of the past day talking to people and cleaning up the mess you’ve made. I can’t even imagine how much time and emotional energy has been sunk into this, not to mention reputational harm more broadly. (bolding mine)

Oh my God, who cares about Google?? James Damore is an asshole, but he is an individual asshole. Google is a giant corporation that conceives of Damore more as a PR problem than as a sexist. One of my least favorite writers at Vox explains that “by firing Damore, the company has made it clear that such hostility won’t be tolerated,” but that fundamentally misunderstands the power balance and interests of the parties involved. The most fucking depressing thing about this whole affair is the identification and conflation of individual and companies: Damore thinks first of Google’s interests, and op-ed writers think of Google has having a personhood, in that corporations-are-people sense we all know and love. “Google has a right,” “Google has made clear,” etc., etc. The cults of company in Silicon Valley are tied intrinsically with the cults of personality, Steve Jobs with Apple, Bill Gates with Microsoft, Elon Musk with Tesla–Elon Musk who, by the way, had fired his personal assistant of 12 years after she asked for a raise. What a sick, sick world we live in.

It is a known phenomenon that if you can get your workers to identify with their company, they will worker harder for lower wages. Think of the military, in which cadets undergo a process of brainwashing so thorough that they eventually substitute the needs and interests of the group for their own. Oh yes, making you wear the company colors was deliberate. In Silicon Valley it is even worse. Tech workers are isolated from the community that surrounds them by building for themselves an oasis of staggering wealth amidst poverty and homelessness. Google employees have almost no choice but be Googlers. Don’t you feel lucky to be working for this company? Are you not grateful of the income and status we have provided you? Who else can you have a plausible social connection with other than your boss and the other employees? Who is paying for your health insurance anyway? It is the most perverse aspect of American life that your welfare is almost entirely dependent on the welfare of your employer.

I would encourage tech workers to develop our moral principles independent from our employers. For an industry whose motto is “break everything,” we sure are slow to question what it is that we actually do for them. Would you be willing to work for the US Department of Defense? For the loan industry? In my field, which is User Experience, our moral and ethical responsibilities do not begin or end at the user’s satisfaction, which, again, is a corporate value, not a human one. We have to consider our impact on the larger world as well. Before we are employees, we are workers, and we are human.



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