Patrick and John Collison are very sorry. It pains them to be making 14 per cent of their employees redundant. Mark Zuckerberg is even more sorry than that; he is especially sorry to be laying off 13 per cent of his workforce. “I got this wrong,” he said.
The founders of Meta and Stripe unanimously agreed that “there is no good way to do a lay-off” in eerily parallel statements. Jack Dorsey, the Twitter founder, chimed in to let people know that he feels bad too.
You can expect the apology Olympiad – the outpourings of humility that eventually start to sound like they all rattled off the same PR company production line – to wear a little thin over the coming months as more tech industry cuts bite.
Elon Musk, in a novel twist, is not at all sorry. He’s so deeply and profoundly unapologetic that he finished up the week by axing the company’s permanent work-from-home policy for all remaining staff. There was “no way to sugarcoat the message”, he said. So he didn’t even try. He rolled it in dung, slapped it in a burger bun and charged people €8 for it. There’s plenty you could say about Elon Musk, but at least he doesn’t pretend to care about anyone’s feelings. Musk likes his workforce bewildered, perplexed and shutting the door on their way out.
Zuckerberg gives an occasional insight into what he actually thinks of those who work for him. One such rare instance came last summer on a video call to employees, when he was in a visibly irritable mood and referred to “a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here”. Like a publican who blasts the air con at closing time to clear the place out, he said he planned to “turn up the heat a little so that some of you might decide this place isn’t for you.” As one of those employees asked on Meta’s internal version of Facebook, “who hired them?”
The apologies came thick and fast last week, but they were invariably for the wrong things. The problem wasn’t that tech bosses were “too optimistic”, or that too many people were recruited during the pandemic. The problem was that too much power is centralised in the hands of too few individuals who became convinced of their own exceptionalism.
The idea of “responsible innovation” is a recent one that should have been baked in from the start
An optimistic reading of the situation is not that there won’t be more job cuts – there probably will be – but that this blip will force the industry to pursue more ethical and sustainable strategies. As growth slows, big tech might finally have time to tackle big issues: privacy, misinformation, its responsibility to society and its role in undermining democracy.
The idea of “responsible innovation” is a recent one that should have been baked in from the start. It means anticipating the impact of what you’re creating. It suggests that just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should.
Humans can live on Mars but not work from home. The Metaverse is for everyone, but some of you probably aren’t smart enough to be here
Shortly after I returned from living in Silicon Valley in 2016, I wrote that I saw nothing there to convince me it was a place spent more than a nanosecond agonising about its impact on society. It is not somewhere awed by its power to shape the way the rest of us live; it is a world awed by the prospect of wealth creation.
Since then, we’ve had Cambridge Analytica. The rise of incel culture. The live streaming of mass shootings. The storming of the Capitol in Washington. More polarisation of debate. More online trolling and harassment. Elon Musk. Lots of talk about regulation, but little action beyond fines, often just pocket change to the industry. It’s all about to get much worse as artificial intelligence (AI) enables technology to become much more aggressively addictive.
The optimistic scenario for what happens next says that there is no good way to lay off people, but there are better ways to approach what comes after. Big tech might choose to see this moment as a fork in the road, a chance to make smarter, more responsible decisions for the future. Stripe, arguably, is already doing this: it is frequently cited as proof that wealth creation and responsible innovation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Its founders follow rigorous decision-making frameworks when they’re dealing with complex ethical questions. Yes, laying people off by email isn’t exactly an exemplar of good management, but what followed set a high standard for severance packages and support.
Might this be the moment the industry decides to put impact before profit? Frankly, there’s not a snowball’s chance on Mars. Meta dissolved its responsible innovation team in September. One of Elon Musk’s very first acts was to fire Twitter’s ethical artificial intelligence team.
Because in the end all guys like Zuckerberg and Musk flatter themselves that they are mavericks and innovators, but when the pressure bites they revert to regressive, hierarchical ways of doing business. Humans can live on Mars but not work from home. The Metaverse is for everyone, but some of you probably aren’t smart enough to be here. This is happening because I said so. We’re sorry to have to let you go, but not so sorry we’ll tell you in person. Our people are our most valuable resource until they’re not.