Column: The Google uproar shows that Silicon Valley isn’t a center of innovation, but behind the times
The talk of Silicon Valley just now is a document critical of Google’s workplace diversity programs, written by a now-fired software engineer named James Damore and virally circulated online.
Entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo accuses Google of political bias aimed at “shaming into silence” employees wishing to challenge “ideas … too sacred to be honestly discussed.” These “sacred” ideas include the notion that gender disparities in the Google workforce should be reduced, if not eradicated. Damore, 28, believes that these disparities may derive in part from innate differences between men and women, and ignoring that will be “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”
Damore, who was fired on Monday “for perpetuating gender stereotypes,” has since given YouTube interviews to a pair of men’s-rights advocates, Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Peterson, defending the essay and published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in the same vein.
But what’s most important may be the memo’s argument that a male-centric engineering culture is being victimized in the name of political correctness, and its implication that this feeling is widespread at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. That’s a hint that combating the notion could be a years-long, if not decades-long, process. The industry’s image as a place hostile to even the most talented women will persist, to its enduring disadvantage.
I don’t see a lot of white male privilege rising up around him like these magical shields to protect him.
— Men’s rights advocate Stefan Molyneux defending Google diversity critic James Damore
There are no indications that Damore is an outlier in his viewpoint. The memo doesn’t read like something he kept bottled up for a long time, and then let loose in a rush. It reads like the reflection of lengthy conversations with like-minded colleagues sharing similar gripes about those accursed diversity seminars, as though from adjacent urinals. Indeed, Damore told Molyneux that he shared the document “multiple times” and got “a ton of positive messages of support … at Google before all of this leaked.”
The centerpiece — and certainly the focus of many of the critiques — is Damore’s assertion that the “biological differences” between men and women may amount to “non-bias” — that is, innocent — “causes of the gender gap” in software engineering. He contends that these differences are “universal across human cultures” and create “highly heritable” traits that conform to what “evolutionary psychology” would expect to find. “On average,” he writes, women have greater affinity for “feelings and aesthetics than ideas,” more interest in “people rather than things,” are more gregarious than assertive compared to men, more “anxious” and less tolerant of stress.
Damore’s critics say this is tantamount to a defense of the “bro-culture” in Silicon Valley, but that’s too narrow. What it is, actually, is the invocation of “biology” to defend a dominant culture. That it’s a facile and faulty reduction of biology into a melange of psychological traits is almost beside the point.
Nearly four decades ago the late Stephen Jay Gould, in his brilliant book “The Mismeasure of Man,” demolished this sort of argument (one would have hoped for all time, but no). “Biological determinism,” he wrote, is typically invoked to give “latent prejudices” an intellectual veneer.
Over the years, biology and its supposed intellectual or psychological manifestations have been used by antebellum plantation owners to justify their enslavement of an ostensibly inferior race. By white South Africans to justify keeping political power out of the hands of a black majority that “just wasn’t ready” for rule. By American political leaders to deny the vote to women. By Nazis to rationalize the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and Romani, or Gypsies.
The Japanese have invoked biology to explain why Westerners have trouble understanding their language, digesting their food, and competing in Sumo. Biology was cited early in the last century to justify the sterilization of supposed “mental defectives” in America — and by the venerated Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, no less, in his 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell, upholding forced sterilization in Virginia with the infamous phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” And now Damore says it helps explain why women are underrepresented in software engineering.
None of these arguments bears close scrutiny, in part because the claims are ephemeral and political; biological determinism often experiences a resurgence, Gould explained, when a dominant culture fears it’s about to be thrown off its self-constructed pedestal.
Damore tries to skate over this truth by stating that biology may be just “part” of the reason for the gender gap in tech, and acknowledging that these gender “differences are small” and shouldn’t be applied to any “individual.” But he’s just exposing the bankruptcy of his argument, which is evident from the sheer size of the gender gap at Google. How much could biology possibly explain why Google’s overall workforce is 69% male, or its tech staff is 80% male, or its corporate leadership is 75% male. Do ya think some other factors might be relevant here?
What may be overlooked in the furor over Damore’s biological manifesto is how thoroughly it explodes Silicon Valley’s foundation myth and undermines its self-image as the last word in an innovative entrepreneurial culture. The region’s tech industry certainly lionizes innovation, but only in a very narrow sense. It’s decades behind American politics, general corporate culture, and even sports when it comes to integrating itself into the broader society.
The reasons may be that people in other fields haven’t seen themselves as world-changing geniuses, and some long ago came through the fire of shameful public scandal. Almost exactly 30 years ago, Dodger executive Al Campanis unburdened himself on national television of the view that black ballplayers “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager” and that black people weren’t good swimmers because “they don’t have the buoyancy.”
The aging Campanis promptly lost his job. And the episode demonstrated that casual locker-room racism can be acceptable in public right up to the point when suddenly it isn’t. That moment is a teaching moment. Sports began to learn its lesson just then.
Silicon Valley has experienced a series of such moments over the last few months. The sequence started in February with engineer Susan Fowler’s shocking memoir of sexual harassment at Uber, continued with a number of complaints by female entrepreneurs of being propositioned by venture capital investors on pain of being denied funding, and now comes Damore’s attempted rationalization of a manifestly discriminatory hiring environment. But it was scarcely a secret; as long ago as 2012 Ellen Pao sued Kleiner Perkins, the venture firm where she worked, for gender discrimination. Pao lost her lawsuit, but the conditions that emerged in testimony told a disturbing tale of gender imbalance.
Silicon Valley glided over this reality by claiming to be changing the world for the better — wasn’t that more important than the complaints of a few disappointed malcontents?
Yet the truth is that Silicon Valley hasn’t played that role in nearly a half-century. One has to go back to the development of what became the Internet and the invention of the personal computer to find innovations that really changed how we live our lives, and those happened in the 1970s. Today, the money is in incremental technological advances that are vastly oversold as innovative, pitched at the wealthy and touting “disruption” for its own sake.
Under Travis Kalanick, Uber reveled in upending the transportation industry, but the beneficiaries thus far have been the company’s insiders and passengers whose rides are being heavily subsidized with venture money — and at the expense of taxi drivers; they’re just collateral damage in the quest for disruption.
The degree to which this attitude that the little guy and society at large should get out of the innovators’ way has fed upon a positive feedback loop within tech company boardrooms. It underscores the rot eating away at the Silicon Valley model.
A community that once welcomed talent, whatever its source, now has become exclusionary and entitled. It’s hard to pinpoint what drove the change. Among the engineers who invented the personal computer at Xerox PARC were some outstanding humanists with a deep understanding of humankind’s variousness and a commitment to education — as well as some dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. But they seemed united in their determination to look outward with their inventions, toward serving society, not inward, toward preserving their positions in the social hierarchy.
Damore’s complaints that diversity programs at Google over-emphasize “empathy,” aim to discriminate “just to increase the representation of women in tech,” and “incentivize illegal discrimination” are characteristic of a privileged class panicking about losing its privilege. Molyneux, during his YouTube interview of Damore, mocked the idea that Damore was a member of such a class. After all, he got fired, didn’t he?
“I don’t see a lot of white male privilege rising up around him like these magical shields to protect him,” Molyneux said of Damore, as if this one example proved that the white male majority really is the victimized class in Silicon Valley. If that truly is the feeling among the male rank-and-file at Google and elsewhere in tech, the industry has a long, long way to go to join the 21st century.
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