Una Mullally: Sheen is well worn off tech sector as employers

Google worker walkout evidence of mass discontent with glossy tech world’s morality

November 1st, 2018: Google staff in Dublin joined thousands of colleagues across the world in staging a workplace walkout in protest at the company’s lenient treatment of executives accused of sexual misconduct. Video: Ciara O'Brien


The walkouts of Google workers last week involving approximately 20,000 workers across 40 offices around the world, including at Dublin’s massive Google campus, was a rare display of mass discontent in the glossy tech world. The protest came as a reaction to a New York Times report about how Google shielded and rewarded executives whose working life included sexual harassment claims against them, such as the co-founder of Android, Andy Rubin, who was paid $90 million on his way out the door following a sexual assault allegation.

Tech companies have been dealing with an infinite conveyor belt of terrible behaviour: sexual harassment, messing with democracy, screwing with employment laws, take your pick. But such disruption is embedded in an industry that has a serious issue with cause and effect. How can companies that are inherently irresponsible be held to account? 

Last week, the payment systems PayPal and Stripe – the latter run by Irish brothers John and Patrick Collison, whose company is now valued at $20 billion – cut ties with the social network Gab, used by neo-Nazis, racists and white supremacists (and the man who murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue last week). Yet Stripe was then chided for facilitating payments to other far-right groups using its service to process donations, such as Occidental Dissent and Oath Keepers. I’m sure the Collison brothers never set out to enable money to be channelled to “bad actors”, but there’s cause and then there’s effect.

Meanwhile, Sam Biddle from the Intercept showed how easy it was to tap into and exploit something that is not just a laissez-faire attitude towards “free speech” on Facebook, but how the site’s own tools and categories exist to actively spread hate. In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, Facebook was still allowing advertisers to target users interested in “white genocide” – Facebook’s own targeted ad category – something the Intercept tested by creating an ad that targeted 168,000 users “interested” in the racist conspiracy theory. “A Facebook spokesperson told me that the ‘white genocide conspiracy theory’ ad buy didn’t violate the company’s ad rules,” Biddle tweeted, “because it was a category the company itself had generated.” 

Unintended consequences

Unintended consequences are a blessing and a curse in the tech industry. Some companies start out as one thing, and when they realise their service or platform or idea is actually being used in a different way, or evolving into something else, they make the magic “pivot” in that direction. 

Facebook began as Facemash, a way for Mark Zuckerberg to emulate Hot or Not, judging Harvard students on their appearance, then it evolved into a student directory of sorts for Ivy League colleges, then a social network, and its tentacles kept growing and still do, a behemoth of addictive newsfeeds, propaganda, data-harvesting for targeted advertising and even “disrupting” the odd election. Cause and effect. Sometimes the effects, no matter how gruesome, are ignored – and even facilitated – because they make money. And remember, it’s all about money. 

Many tech companies have lobbied against regulations and oversight, preferring instead to place faith in their founders’ vision, an evangelical belief in their companies rightness and righteousness, and a view that existing or traditional structures are inherently flawed by virtue of existing for longer and therefore deserve to be “disrupted”. Tech companies also feel entitled to constant cycles of forgiveness; devastating incidents – countries interfering in other countries’ democracies and elections, bullying on platforms that leads to suicide, spreading hate, making an industry out of fake news and conspiracy theories, massive data breaches and hacks where users’ personal details and privacy is outrageously compromised – can be smoothed over by anodyne mea culpas of “we should be doing better, and we will (until next time)”. Is there any other industry that is given so much leeway to behave so badly? 

Massive privilege

There is a massive privilege involved in only being interested in cause and not effect. The arrogance that testing, foresight and caution is for oldies, and what progress is really about is risks, mistakes, adventure and caution-to-the-wind, is a reckless attitude. The lobbying against regulation, a desire for immediacy, a refusal to take responsibility for negative consequences and an aversion to oversight and rules are embedded in many company’s behaviour, especially given the Ponzi-scheme-like philosophy that expansion and growth are infinite, and that scale is what should be chased at any cost.

The refusal to take responsibility for the effects of actions has made tech something of a pariah 

 The sheen has gone off tech companies. Once seen as cool employers – in the same way that advertising, PR and media had their day as the employment choices of a generation – the refusal to take responsibility for the effects of their actions has made tech something of a pariah to those who think morality, ethics and decency should be central to our behaviour and existence. The late-stage capitalism swill that tech companies roll around in, creating feudal-like structures with billionaire founders playing war games with job security, democracy and identity is increasingly putrid.

Leaving aside the impact tech and screens are having on the neurological development of children, the impact of social media on identity, and the addictive nature of various apps and platforms, “disruptive” tech companies seeking to challenge, dismantle or overtake existing industries (hotels, food delivery, home DIY, taxis) are allergic to consequence. Again and again they evoke the fictitious blind idealism of Jurassic Park – innovation and novelty packaged as “progress”. “You bred raptors?” Sam Neill’s character, Dr Grant, says in the laboratory while a scientist nods silently. What could possibly go wrong? 

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