James Damore and David Gudeman’s remarkable discrimination lawsuit against their former employer, Google, raises an important issue, though perhaps not quite the one the plaintiffs intended. It has more to do with Google’s oversized role in delivering information to the world than with its work culture and internal rules.
Damore – the author of a famous memo against Google’s diversity policies that got him fired last year – and Gudeman, an engineer who says he was also dismissed for his conservative views, claim in the lawsuit that Google routinely discriminates against Caucasian males and conservatives. They cite internal e-mails and posts from the corporate social network to demonstrate what they say is widely tolerated and encouraged harassment of people like them.
They also describe Google’s hiring and firing practices that they believe are in violation of California law. As they lay out the examples, they often appear to conflate whiteness, maleness and conservative views, as if they’re equally undesirable parts of a package that Google treats as toxic.
Whatever the legal merits of the case, the conflation doesn’t quite work on a common sense level. Even if Google is actively trying to recruit more people of colour and more women, it seems absurd to allege that it discriminates against white guys. Google’s workforce is 69% male and 56% white; another 35% of Googlers are Asian, another race Damore and Gudeman allege is not favoured by the company’s diversity practices. Only 2% of Google employees are black.
Someone like Damore, a white guy with a Harvard degree (and mild autism, which people tend to see as social awkwardness), fits the Googler profile perfectly. To feel discriminated against on a race and gender basis while being surrounded by people of the same race and gender requires a peculiar sense of dislocation – one born of being politically marginalised.
The real complaint, of course, is about that. Google’s prevailing culture appears to be hostile to right-wing political views. As one manager wrote on an internal bulletin board (the screenshot is used in the lawsuit), “If you express a dunderheaded opinion about religion, about politics, or about ‘social justice’, it turns out I am allowed to think you’re a halfwit” and refuse to work with such a person on a project.
“As evidenced by the fact that the blacklisting posts remain live on Google’s internal corporate network, it is clear that Google took no action to prevent blacklisting,” Damore and Gudeman wrote in the lawsuit. “Google seems to ignore most cases, and occasionally ‘coach’ the worst offenders. However, Google will not openly come out against the practice; instead, it relies on crowdsourced harassment and “pecking” to enforce social norms (including politics) that it feels it cannot write directly into its policies.”
Gudeman, an open Trump supporter, claims that directly contributed to his being blacklisted and fired.
There’s a reason, however, that Damore and Gudeman need to bring the race and gender into their accusations. Companies are not legally obliged to maintain a diversity of views among their employees. Opinions, unlike race, gender or sexual orientation, can be treated as a lifestyle choice, and these work better with some corporate cultures than with others. For example, Nike might prefer a workout fanatic to a smoker, while a tobacco company would be comfortable making the opposite choice.
It can be argued that, because of the talent pool from which it draws – smart millennials who tend to value tolerance over the freedom of expression – Google builds a more cohesive working environment by hiring, to quote from the lawsuit, “an employee who sexually identifies as ‘a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin’ and ‘an expansive ornate building’” than a #MAGA cap wearer.
That, however, is exactly the problem. Google is not just a company, it’s the owner of the world’s biggest conduit to information, with a 69% global search market share. It leads people to it by using proprietary algorithms and artificial intelligence. And it’s acutely aware of the problem of algorithm bias. Here’s a Google-produced video about it:
The examples it uses include an algorithm identifying the term “physicist” with maleness based on a set of pictures of the famous physicists of the past or associating “shoe” with men’s footwear because the training set doesn’t contain enough high-heeled shoes. These are cases for which Google uses human correction on the algorithm level (and still occasionally misses a surprising result here and there). Even Google Translate algorithms can be seen as biased when they prefer male pronouns in situations where a modern human translator would make a more politically correct choice.
If the Damore lawsuit correctly describes an aggressively leftist culture at Google, the human input into the algorithms can be expected to favour the leftist worldview. That may lead to overcorrection – and to the burying of alternative views, noxiously right-wing or even mainstream conservative. When I type “women are” in the Google search window, the first suggestion I get is “women are always right.” How do I know this is not the result of the personal bias of someone who tweaked the suggestion algorithm?
When I type “the earth is,” the first suggestion is “flat”; while this is probably a manifestation of algorithmic bias, I don’t really want it to be overcorrected – it might be fun for a lot of people to be unexpectedly exposed to the lively flat-earther community, even if they may be disinclined to join it.
Google’s search algorithms are a black box to the public. People inside the company can mess with them without telling us, potentially imposing their internal culture on millions of searchers who have no reason and no desire to share it. This world includes Trump supporters and Antifa activists, creationist pastors and evolutionary biologists, climate change deniers and people who consider them evil.
It’s not up to an Internet search company to try to level these differences. But if that company fosters a work culture in which a certain worldview dominates, can its products be trusted to be neutral?
That question is what worries me about the Damore suit. Given its special place in the modern world, Google must strictly enforce political neutrality and punish partisanship and zealotry in any form. Its mission as a neutral conduit is more important even than workplace cohesion. Silencing any kind of views, no matter how offensive, undermines that mission. — Bloomberg