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Steven Johnson
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Coding, Caving, Comics (not necessarily in that order).
Coding, Caving, Comics (not necessarily in that order).

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The "manifesto": as an ex-Googler, I despise it. For the damage it's already done.

If you haven't read the Medium piece from +Yonatan Zunger linked below, I urge you to do so now. Since he recently departed Google himself just before the manifesto leak, he's (somewhat) freer to discuss this than he would have been before.

As a Xoogler, what really pisses me off is the unfair damage of this manifesto (and its leaking) will do to Google's internal culture and external image—in a way that could affect diversity efforts across the entire industry. This is something Yonatan got at very well in part 3 of his essay.

A big part of the problem with this story has been the decontextualization of the "manifesto". Let me try to raise the veil a little bit, although, due to my NDA, I must write partly in generalizations and hypotheticals:

The thing that people who haven't been or closely known Googlers won't get is the company's long history of semi-sanctioning internal dissent and minority opinions—some of which have lead to some of Google's most popular and profitable services.

At most command-and-control large corporations, the simple existence of a document like this to leak in the first place would be a terrible indictment of the company's culture, because at most companies such a document would never be allowed to even promulgate. At most companies, any potential writer would have understood—even in terms that the writer of this thing would have gotten, with his cough "male engineer mind"—posting this to be literal career suicide. Not because of its bigotry, but simply because it's semi-publicly questioning the decisions of management. ("Terminable behavior" might be the sort of thing you'd read in an employee handbook.) So there's a built-in assumption much of the media is making that for this document to even exist probably indicates it was written or sanctioned by a top executive.

But Google has always tolerated (there's that word again) smart, thoughtful "minority reports" from individual employees not speaking for anyone but themselves—many in the "<something> considered harmful" strain.

"Dissent reports" might have been more accurate terminology, because such a paper (on a different topic) might represent a view that the majority of Googlers (even in management) hold, but some other course had been decided on by the controlling managers, or Google had just fallen into a practice and it had become de facto policy without conscious thought.

I have a story about this (again, whose details I must elide). I think I first met +Yonatan Zunger when +Liz Fong-Jones and I co-chaired an officially-sanctioned group working on such a "minority" opinion, at the behest of Larry, when the executives in charge of the project in question had already declared the matter closed to discussion. (The opinion itself was first promulgated widely by an individual employee writing on his or her own behest; the officially-sanctioned committee we co-chaired was followup to that opinion.)

That minority opinion eventually largely won out, after our team worked to flesh out the particulars of the consequences of the decision, gather data, and open lines of communication. We did this partly by going out and meeting with Googlers to find out how the decision affected the company's values, and what kind of company Googlers wanted to work for (for instance, I held several "town halls" in the NYC office, where we exceeded fire-code capacity of our largest multipurpose room).

We had to try to answer these questions of company values. Was the dissenting opinion actually held by just a "minority"—specifically, of those who had informed feelings or an actual personal investment one way or another? (Decisions by default or from ignorance, chance, or due to extrinsic cultural norms were not considered valid arguments.)

If the opinion was not, in fact, that of a small "minority"—and the opinion represented a majority, or at least, demonstrable plurality of those to whom it mattered—how alienated would those who agreed with the dissent feel if the company continued down the course? Was there a stake held by the informed members of the (non-dissenting) opposing side, and if the decision were overturned, how alienated would that make them feel? These were the sort of questions we were tasked to answer.

"Minority/majority" are really the wrong words here—it was just what we got stuck with given the "minority report" terminology. In our case, it was only "minority" because there's a presumption in any business that when executives make decisions, they do so in a way that reflects company values, and company values are held by the entirety of the company, ipso facto.

Yet—to make up two hypotheticals—there's an enormous difference between a cosmetic product redesign that was well and truly hated by 90% of Googlers, and a decision about benefits affecting LGBT employees that only 40% of Googlers overall disagreed with—but that 30% had no informed opinion on, and that almost all LGBT employees disagreed with.¹ In case it's not obvious: at Google, the latter "minority" argument will win, because it's a matter of company values. The former "majority but dissenting" opinion may or may not win, because it's not about values. (Actually, it probably won't win, because Googlers are not in the business of making products for Googlers, and their opinion of aesthetic design isn't necessarily an informed one.)

At other large companies I've worked for, this entire scenario would be unthinkable—once an executive makes a decision, the only thing that will change it is that executive changing his or her mind, being replaced, or getting overridden from the top—at most companies, general employee organizing and dissent is not a valid use of company time, and will get you fired.

All that's to put into context why I hate the damage this manifesto and its leak caused. Inside Google, it will add entirely unneeded and unwanted toxicity to the work environment, especially for women, because its content is so execrable. For that reason—dissent tolerance or no—this person deserved to be terminated immediately, as Yonatan described in his final paragraphs. "Public" (inside the company) dissent was acceptable, and even, when successful or when its tough questions improved the final product, was lauded; bigotry was not.

Outside Google, because most people will be unaware of the "tolerated dissent" culture, they won't recognize this missive for what it is—the uninformed and bigoted whining of a single engineer whose support among other employees is proportionally minuscule.

I said, "proportionally minuscule." Critiques of the sexism and other "casual bigotry" of the industry by looking at the FOSS community—where things that at companies would be internal issues are done out in public—strongly suggests that there's an embarrassingly large portion of straight white cis engineers who might be sympathetic, but I very firmly believe that at Google this was less prevalent. (Not less prevalent enough to even be held up as an example—and of course its prevalence should be zero—but substantially less than other large companies I'm familiar with.)

Outside readers won't understand that this engineer had undoubtedly seen other cases of minority opinions being promulgated, thoughtfully (and sometimes passionately) discussed, and management taking action in response, and—in his own, entirely misguided way—thought he was following this notorious yet proud tradition by doing the same. That process is so bizarre, so outside the experience of employees of most large companies, that outsiders will reasonably conclude that this had to have been a semi-official document of some kind—at the very least, a message from some important dissenting executive. (And, from much of the press coverage, they seem to have assumed exactly that.)

As a direct result of this leak combined with this misunderstanding of internal Google culture, Google is going to find it even harder to recruit good talent who find these views repugnant, and will lose talent who find the increased toxicity intolerable. And that's even just limiting consideration to disproportionately overrepresented men. Diversity hiring and retention has just become a newly even worse nightmare.

More pernicious and harder to detect: it's going to attract applicants with the entirely incorrect notion that Google is a place that respects their bigotry as "just another opinion". And unfortunately, Google's hiring process—as exhaustive, selective, and byzantine as it is—doesn't screen for quietly-held bigotry. (At least, it didn't when I was privy to how it worked.)

The leak of new chief diversity exec Danielle Brown's message in response won't help matters much.² It states for the record that Google finds the views of the manifesto to be against company values, but it also restates Google's support for its culture of dissent. I think the motivation of this came from a good place, that this was meant, internally, to reassure nervous Googlers that this manifesto's leak's horrible external optics aren't going to suddenly result in a crackdown on even the good dissent, like other companies have.

Unfortunately, people without understanding of the internal Google dissent culture will read this part of Brown's message as condoning bigotry as just another argument, as appropriate as any other.

I have no easy answers here. As Yonatan wrote about his having to do cleanup—even as an ex-Googler!—this manifesto, and its decontextualized leak, has done enormous damage to the company and its diversity efforts. The manifesto-writer's being fired or not is almost irrelevant at this point except as signal—and there are important legal and ethical reasons why Google can't easily use his firing for PR purposes.

If the writer wanted a less-tolerant and less-diverse Google, he may have succeeded simply through the publicity. Undermining years of progress, as glacial as that progress may have seemed. He's managed to make Google in particular, and tech workplaces in general, more hostile unilaterally, just by clicking "share". And he probably has put a chilling effect on the dissent culture that was part of what made Google such a special place to work—which could ultimately lead to Google adopting an official policy banning internal promulgation of dissent, like other companies have.

All of that absolutely infuriates me.

You wanted answers at the end of this post? Sorry, I'm fresh out. This was despicable asymmetric behavior on the part of the writer (and possibly leaker), whose fallout at this point is still unknown and probably can only be mitigated somewhat, at best.


¹ For the record, I'm making this up—again, NDA.

² And to be clear, it won't help matters much because of its decontextualization by being leaked; I'm not criticizing her for the message's content to current Googlers. (I could wish she were more explicit that bigotry is not tolerated in the same way that other dissent is—the "paradox of tolerance" Yonatan's written about so brilliantly—but I suspect that someone else, perhaps Sundar or Larry himself, did that in a message that hasn't (yet) leaked.)

Watchmen update for 2017:
- Ozymandias announces on live TV that he's killing half of NYC in 35 minutes.
- Bernard the newsstand guy shrugs in resignation at his imminent immolation
- New Frontiersman staff celebrates wildly
- Nite Owl and Silk Spectre decide to wait and see how the public opinion polls look before taking any rash action against Ozymandias
- Rorschach takes over as host of Infowars
Ozymandias successfully blames entire event on Dr. Manhattan, citing the 'crappy' extradimensional-alien defense he inherited

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This is an extremely thoughtful article about the underlying political dynamics which shape the debates over health care in the US, and it's helping me understand many things going on in our country today; as the author says, "When it seems like people are voting against their interests, I have probably failed to understand their interests."

His key point is this: "[T]he bulk of needy white voters are not interested in the public safety net. They want to restore their access to an older safety net, one much more generous, dignified, and stable than the public system – the one most well-employed voters still enjoy."

That is, the US has had a social safety net for a very long time, a very generous one, publicly funded through various tax subsidies, and giving people a sense of having earned those things as well, through individual work. But unlike most countries' safety nets, the American net was never intended to cover everybody – a fact which is ultimately tied to the fact that America never viewed itself as a single polity, but rather as a collection of racial polities whose natural relationship was hierarchical. That is, what we had in the US was "white socialism" – and this is what many people want back, although they don't realize exactly what it was.

Very worth reading and thinking about.

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Went for a walk in +Muir Woods National Monument yesterday to help clear my mind. (It helped a little). While there, I took the opportunity to buy a National Parks Annual Pass. Only $80 for a year's unlimited use of our glorious National Parks -- what a deal!. Why not buy yours today? (A surge in purchases might be a nice signal to the people who want to silence Park Service employees or sell off our federal lands...)

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This video has been making the rounds on social media, and at first I ignored it because I figured it would just be a piece of propaganda meant to preach to the choir. I was wrong: this is actually an extremely intelligent and informative short film about despotism. (And despite being an American film from 1946, made in the immediate aftermath of WWII, it doesn't give the US any sort of free ride at all – as you'll notice from some of the examples shown silently in the background)

The film begins by reminding you that the forms of democracy alone don't tell you anything; you need to look deeper. The two key indicators it points at are whether respect and power are equally shared across the community, or whether they are concentrated, with only certain people being thought worthy of those. Those two, in turn, are powered by two leading indicators: whether the distribution of economic power and information is shared or isolated. It points at things like farm foreclosures or towns entirely dependent on a single industry, for example, as factors which make a community more susceptible to despotism.

There are some things I would modernize here; for example, it's become clear that the model of centralized versus distributed control of information (which was key in the 20th century) doesn't fully account for some kinds of vulnerability that can show up even when communication is notionally even. (This is tied to the "fake news" problem which everyone is discussing right now, though I think that term misses a great deal of the mark; correctly understanding the nature of the broader problem we are seeing today, which also includes things like filter bubbles and "distributed censorship," is probably one of the most urgent tasks before us in the computing and communications world today)

There's a great deal more in here, and it's quite well-explained; I recommend watching it, and showing it to your kids as well.

The "Hamilton" thing is amusing and all, but don't get distracted:

Trump has appointed a white supremacist for "chief strategist" and nominated a man for AG who was deemed "too racist" for a judgeship by a Reagan-era Congress that included Jesse Helms.

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I don't have time to write much today, but I want to remind you all of this:

Right and wrong have not changed since yesterday. An "accommodation" which goes in the face of that is not an accommodation, it is collusion in a moral wrong which does not gain any innocence by the defense of "I had to" or "those were the orders."

We will all be sorely tried in the months and years which are to come; we will see our fellow citizens and neighbors harmed and harassed, fired and fired upon. To stand up for them will not be easy, nor will it come without a price. We will pay the price, because the price of refusing is measured in lives and in souls.

But I will also tell you this: we will survive. We will, now and always, use every tool at our disposal, to fight and to shelter, to speak and to listen, to think and to act. This country is not, and has never been, the Promised Land; there was never a promise, only what we chose to build out of it. That choice is undiminished today.

I want you to remember, today, the words of Tarfon: "it is not yours to finish the task, but neither are you free to set it aside." We do not stop, we shall not stop, and we shall never surrender our morals.

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I want to hug whoever wrote this.

Or sing along. Either works.
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