Friday, August 11, 2017

A Theory Of Google Memo Guy

In case you missed it there was a bit of a controversy over a Google programmer (or "googler" to use the company's terminology) named James Damore who wrote a 10 page memo about his thoughts on gender and Google's various diversity and human resources policies and fired it off to a bunch of folks in his company.

Suffice it to say many people inside Google weren't exactly pleased with this and so it became pretty controversial inside the company. It was then promptly leaked to the tech industry press, I think Wired had it first, which in turn resulted in it turning into a Big Internet Deal with all sorts of people talking/fighting about it on social media and ultimately writing lots and lots of pieces on basically every aspect of Google Memo Guy and his memo.

Feel free to Google (or Yahoo/Bing) it if you'd like to read the original memo, but here's a decent summation of what Google Memo Guy has wrought as of August 10th.

These pieces, or takes as well like to jokingly call them on Twitter, ran the gauntlet from "eh Google Memo Guy made some good points" to "I Have Very Serious Concerns" to  "As a philosopher here's what I think about corporate HR policies in tech" to "thank goodness someone in the tech industry stood up to this creep" and every other position you could think of.

Even David Brooks wrote a column about it, seriously when Brooks is writing about you, you know you've hit the big time.

Did Google do the right thing? I suppose so, but regardless of it Google Memo Guy should have gotten the hook, Google obviously was well within their rights to do so. After all this is a at will employee who decided to write some manifesto about why a bunch of policies corporate leadership and HR obviously spent a lot of time crafting are terrible and then blast it off to a bunch of people. This memo violated a number of company policies and thus probably exposed Google to lawsuits about hiring and discrimination from other employees. And while I'm no employment law professor this memo possibly created a "hostile work environment" as they say thus causing even more problems for Google.

Oh and it made the company look terrible in the industry and then mainstream presses.

So yeah, that'll get you fired.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. Instead I'd like to posit my own theory about what might be going on here, and the troublesome questions it raises for people like me.

Kevin Drum, who worked for years in tech in California before he became a full time blogger back in the early aughts (those were the days!), pointed this out back on August 8th that there was something a bit weird about how the memo is written. That is to say there were ways to make the same arguments making the same general points and not get fired if you thought about it, as he obviously did while writing a 10 page memo. As Drum puts it:
Maybe I’m over-reading things, but it seemed like Damore very calculatedly went further over the line than he needed to. For example, he didn’t need to argue that women are biologically unsuited for engineering jobs, something that he must have known would be both stupid and galactically incendiary. If he had simply said that women pursue software engineering careers in small numbers thanks to cultural and societal norms, it would have been less contentious and it wouldn’t have hurt his point. In fact, he really didn’t need to argue anything at all about the capabilities of women. He could have written a one-paragraph memo pointing out that, for whatever reason, female IT grads make up only x percent of the total, so it’s just not feasible for Google to employ very many women. He could bemoan this state of affairs, but point out that it has to be addressed starting in primary school, and by the time Google is involved there’s nothing they can do about the pool of applicants. So can we please knock off the sackcloth and ashes routine?
I thought the same thing, especially if you read the memo's beginning (not going to quote the lines because I've just seen it as a PDF) where he talks about "our shaming culture" and "fear of being fired." In other words, "Here's a memo I wrote about how afraid we all are about being shamed and fired for saying the things I will now say which I will be shocked if I get fired for." Or as Drum puts it:
There was something about the amateurishness of his analysis that seemed strained, as if he was playing a role. And that role was simple: not to write about why he thought Google’s diversity programs were misguided, but to write something as offensive as possible in a way that allowed him plausible deniability. In other words, he was trying to get fired so he could portray himself as a lonely martyr to Silicon Valley’s intolerance for conservative views. Maybe he could even go to court, funded by some nice right-wing think tank.
Now of course the big problem with this analysis is that me and Drum could easily be being too cleaver by half. Google Memo Guy might be a huge sexist, or an idiot, or any number of any other things. I have a vision of the social scientists who I pal around with online reading this post right now and responding with something like, "Longwalk! The human brain is hardwired to find patterns where no patterns necessarily exist! You and Drum are ascribing some brilliant plan to some weirdo who probably has none!"

That's a fair point.

But the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to Sarah Palin. She was after all a woman who decided to trade in her hard, boring, (comparatively) low paying job as Governor of Alaska for a lucrative media career. Maybe something similar is going on with Google Memo Guy. That is being a "googler" is probably a hard job that involves banging away on a computer all day. It's probably well paid compared to other computer programming jobs, but compared to a Fox News host?

In other words I think there's a good chance Google Memo Guy was tired of his hard and boring job, and like so many other conservative media figures (Milo! The "Gorilla Mind" guy! A whole lot of people who are on Fox!) decided it was time to cash in on the very lucrative markets that exist by producing "products" for conservatives to latch on to.

Why be a nobody when you can be someone who, while hated by lots of people, is on TV! Why be yet another white male computer programmer in a world filled with those when you can be The Next Big Thing for the "alt-right?" 

Maybe this was the plan all along, or maybe not, but either way our boy Google Memo Guy seems to be doing alright for himself. He's recently joined Twitter and as I write this is at over 52,000 followers. He's also booking himself on media outlets. An appearance on Hannity could be close at hand. A book deal could be not that far off. Whatever his motives or plans he originally had he seems to have found a more lucrative and easier career than writing the code that pulls up those bizarre Youtube videos I don't want to see in my suggested box.

While it's fun to point these things out, what's not very fun for us liberals (well in addition to regular reminders about how awful women are often treated in the American workplace, that's...uh...a not very fun thing too) is the hard questions it asks about how to respond. If someone only gains money and power by us liberal types pointing out on Twitter how wrong/terrible they are what's the right response? Should we point it out knowing it might help them out of principle? Follow Lisa Simpson's theory of the advertising industry and "if you just don't look the monsters will go away"? How should each individual respond? Is it possible even to formulate some organized strategy over the vast liberal/left/progressive online-verse? Or is that as silly as Google Memo Guy's theories about genetics? Is my referring to him by the silly nickname I made up part of the problem? Or a way to limit the times we say his name to keep him from rising in Google's own algorithmic search patterns?

I have no idea what the right answers are to these questions. But I think we should be asking them.