A Googler's Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech's Rotten Core

Office culture is only part of the problem.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

An anonymous Google software engineer’s 10-page fulmination against workplace diversity was leaked from internal company communications systems, including an internal version of Google+, the company’s social network, and another service that Gizmodo, which published the full memo, called an “internal meme network.”

“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.”

The memo has drawn rage and dismay since its appearance Saturday, when it was first reported by Motherboard. It seemed to dash hopes that much progress has been made in unraveling the systemic conditions that produce and perpetuate inequity in the technology industry. That includes increasing the distribution of women and minorities in technical jobs, equalizing pay, breaking the glass ceiling, and improving the quality of life in workplaces that sometimes resemble frat houses more than businesses.

These 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.

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Workplace equity has become a more visible issue in general, but it has reached fever pitch in the technology sector, especially with respect to women. When the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published an explosive accusation of sexism at that company earlier this year, people took notice. When combined with a series of other scandals, not to mention with Uber’s longstanding, dubious behavior toward drivers and municipalities, the company was forced to act. CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted (although he remains on the board, where he retains substantial control).

Given the context, it’s reasonable to sneer at the anonymous Googler’s simple grievances against workplace diversity. Supposedly natural differences between men and women make them suited for different kinds of work, he argues. Failure to accept this condition casts the result as inequality, he contends, and then as oppression. Seeking to correct for it amounts to discrimination. Rejecting these premises constitutes bias, or stymies open discourse. The Googler does not reject the idea of increasing diversity in some way. However, he laments what he considers discriminatory practices instituted to accomplish those goals, among them hiring methods designed to increase the diversity of candidate pools and training or mentoring efforts meant to better support underrepresented groups.

Efforts like these are necessary in the first place because diversity is so bad in the technology industry to begin with. Google publishes a diversity report, which reveals that the company’s workforce is currently composed of 31 percent women, with 20 percent working in technical fields. Those numbers are roughly on par with the tech sector as a whole, where about a quarter of workers are women.

Racial and ethnic diversity are even worse—and so invisible that they barely register as a problem for the anonymous Googler. I was chatting about the memo with my Georgia Tech colleague Charles Isbell, who is the executive associate dean of the College of Computing and the only black tenure-track faculty member among more than 80 in this top 10–ranking program.

“Nothing about why black and Hispanic men aren’t software engineers?” he asked me after reading the letter, paraphrasing another black computer scientist, Duke’s Jeffrey R.N. Forbes. “Did I glaze over that bit?” Isbell knows that Google’s meager distribution of women far outshines its terrible racial diversity. Only 2 percent of all U.S. Googlers are black, and only 4 percent are Hispanic. In tech-oriented positions, the numbers fall to 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively. (Unlike the gender data, which is global, the ethnic diversity data is for the United States only.)

These figures track computing talent more broadly, even at the highest levels. According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, for example, less than 3 percent of the doctoral graduates from the top-10 ranked computer science programs came from African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander communities during the decade ending in 2015.

Given these abysmal figures, the idea that diversity at Google (or most other tech firms) is even modestly encroaching on computing’s incumbents is laughable. To object to Google’s diversity efforts is to ignore that they are already feeble to begin with.

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The Googler’s complaints assume that all is well in the world of computing technology, such that any efforts to introduce different voices into the field only risk undermining its incontrovertible success and effectiveness. But is the world that companies like Google have brought about really one worthy of blind praise, such that anyone should be tempted to believe that the status quo is worth maintaining, let alone celebrating?

Many things are easier and even better thanks to Google search (or maps, or docs)—or Facebook, or smartphones, or any of the other wares technology companies put on offer. But overall, the contemporary, technologized world is also in many ways a hellscape whose repetitive delights have blinded the public to its ills.

Products have been transformed into services given away “free” as an excuse to extract data from users. That data is woven into an invisible lattice of coercion and control—not to mention as a source of enormous profit when sold to advertisers or other interested parties. Apps and websites are designed for maximum compulsion, because more attention means more content, and more content means more data and thereby more value. All that data is kept forever on servers corporations control, and which are engineered—if that’s the right word for it—in a way that makes them susceptible to attack and theft.

Thanks to the global accessibility of the internet, these services strive for universal deployment. Google and Facebook have billions of “customers” who are also the source of their actual products: the data they resell or broker. The leverage of scale also demands that everyone use the same service, which dumps millions together in unholy community. Online abuse is one consequence, as are the campaigns of misdirection and “fake news” that have become the front for a new cold war.

Because of that universal leverage, work of all kinds has also been upset by or consolidated in computing services. Retail, travel, entertainment, and transportation, of course, but even professions like real estate, law, and education appear to be at risk of dismantlement via automation and global dissemination. This sea change is excused by platitudes about “innovation” and “disruption.”

All told, the business of computing is infiltrated with a fantasy of global power and wealth that naturally coheres to the entrenched power of men over generations. To mistake such good fortune for inborn ability is to ignore the existence of history.

Men—mostly white, but sometimes Asian—have so dominated technology that it’s difficult even to ponder turning the tables. 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 color, even of sex, and multitudinous of gender identity.

Something tells me the outcome wouldn’t be Google and Twitter and Uber and Facebook. It’s depressing that it takes a determined exercise in speculative fiction even to ponder how things might be different were its works made by different hands.

Not just the services or apps, either. Given that the fundamentals of computing arose from a long legacy of ideas mostly forged by white men, it’s hard to imagine how the fundamental operation of computers at the lowest level might have been different had ideas from alternative sources underwritten it.

The business of computing is also bound to incumbents. Failing to acknowledge this truth hamstrings earnest efforts to overcome that power through diversification. For example, advocating for more women entrepreneurs (about 17 percent of start-ups have a woman founder) or venture-capital partners (about 7 percent are women) seems like a terrific path toward diversity and equity. But the venture-backed start-up itself is still a slave to the marketplace design that its mostly male precursors had already created and entrenched. Change in established companies faces the same challenges. A search for a new Uber chief executive is underway, although it remains unclear whether Uber’s culture can be changed, even with a new leader.

Even the fateful Googler’s memo enjoys the spoils of a world already designed for male supremacy. What is this letter, after all, but a displaced Reddit post? Certain but non-evidential. Feigning structure, but meandering. Long and tedious, with inept prose and dead manner. This false confidence underwrites all the claims the memo contains, from its facile defense of jingoism as political conservatism to its easy dismissal of anyone not predetermined to be of use.

And Google built an “internal meme network” expressly for the purpose of sharing material like the memo in question! How to interpret such a thing except as Google’s own private Reddit, where the bravado of the white man’s internet comes home to roost at the office? Even worse, in her statement responding to the anti-diversity memo, Google’s vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance, Danielle Brown, appears to celebrate this offering as one among “so many platforms for employees to express themselves,” such that “this conversation doesn’t end with my email today.” The problem, it seems, is also its own solution.

As my colleague Mark Guzdial puts it, women used to avoid computer science because they didn’t know what it is. Now they avoid it because they know exactly what it is.

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Soon, the fall term will commence at Georgia Tech. I will take to the lectern in the introductory course to our bachelor of science degree in computational media. The program also hopes to make headway against the diversity struggle. Conceived after the dot-com crash and inaugurated in 2004, the degree draws half its courses, faculty, and management from computing and half from the liberal arts. The goal was to address the increased connection between computing, expression, and communication.

The results have been promising. Computational media has achieved consistently high gender equity, for example. As of spring 2017, computer science was composed of only 24 percent women, whereas women made up 52 percent of the computational media students. That might give it the greatest proportion of women among accredited computing undergraduate majors in the country. Ethnic diversity is also better: 11 percent of computational media students are black and 9 percent are Hispanic, compared with 6 and 5 percent, respectively, in CS.

But that apparent victory might be a Pyrrhic one. All the anxieties that plague the anonymous Googler also afflict programs like ours, which provide part of the funnel to tech companies like Google. As computing rose from the dot-com ashes in the mid-2000s, enrollments skyrocketed. But computational media remains small—a tenth the size of computer science, and shrinking in total number and percentage of overall computing students during the same years CS has been on the rise. As a part of that decline, it appears to be losing men to computer science in particular, and perhaps falsely inflating the program’s claims to gender equity in the process.

When it was designed, computational media hoped to attract students with an interest in areas that blend computing and creativity, among them film, the web, television, games, and so on. That move failed to anticipate the foundational grievance that courses through the Google memo: that of “dumbing down” computing with interlopers. Students, more anxious and more professionally oriented than ever, seek the surety of the computer science degree. Academic faculty and industrial managers, meanwhile, fear yielding to “CS Lite,” a derogatory name for compromising technical expertise.

We should have known that for some computational media inevitably would threaten to feminize computing, relegating technical creativity to service work at best, emotional labor at worst. And so, while Georgia Tech can lay claim to an impressively gender-equal accredited computing degree, it’s not clear that such an accomplishment does anything more than pay lip service to diversity, distracting attention from our ever-growing contribution to the perverted reality of a world run by the computer programmers we graduate into companies like Google.

Darkened under the shadow of this Google jeremiad, I’m not sure what to say to my students when I stand before them later this month. Computation ended up having a much more widespread and much more sinister impact on media writ large—not just traditional media forms like music and news, but also on media as a name for every interaction between people and the world, from socializing to health, education to transit. It’s not possible to rewind the clock on the past, nor to burn it all down and start anew. But training up more women and minorities to service technological power’s existing ends—founding start-ups, working at Google—only transfers the lip service from educational programs to tech companies. They process diversity into glossy reports that placate shareholders and the public, all the while putting on the same show with a slightly different cast of characters.

Reader, I want so desperately to leave you with an alternative. A better option, a new strategy. One that would anticipate and defang the inevitable maws crying, “Well, what’s your solution, then?” But facile answers spun off-the-cuff by white men in power—aren’t these the things that brought trouble in the first place?

Maybe there is an answer, then, after all: Just to shut up for a minute. To stop, and to listen, and even to step out of the way. Not entirely, and not forever. But long enough, at least, to imagine how some of the lost futures of pasts left unpursued might have made for different, actual presents—and that might yet fashion new futures. Only a coward would conclude that none of them are better than the one that’s become naturalized as inevitable.