Behind the Google Diversity Memo Furor

Let’s stipulate something: The debate over the Google diversity memo is not about the memo itself.

The memo — if the document is even official enough to be called a memo — is an attack on Google’s diversity programs posted on an internal message board by a then-midlevel engineer.It does not mount a persuasive argument for its thesis. It was not written by someone with significant power at Google. It is not part of a debate the company is trying to hold, nor is it being considered as part of an effort to revamp Google’s hiring policies. Its author was swiftly fired. If this same document had been written at McDonald’s, or Staples, or Safeway, with the same outcome for the author, few would care. So why has this story caught such fire?

Behind the furor over the memo is our unease with the unaccountable, opaque power Google in particular, and Silicon Valley in general, wields over our lives. If Google — and the tech world more generally — is sexist, or in the grips of a totalitarian cult of political correctness, or a secret hotbed of alt-right reactionaries, the consequences would be profound.

Other industries offer more choices and less necessary products. If you don’t like McDonald’s, go to Wendy’s. But Google wields a monopoly over search, one of the central technologies of our age, and, alongside Facebook, dominates the internet advertising market, making it a powerful driver of both consumer opinion and the media landscape. It owns the world’s most popular smartphone operating system and is muscling its way into everything from restaurant reviews to driverless cars to artificial intelligence. It shapes the world in which we live in ways both obvious and opaque.

Compounding the problem is that the tech industry’s point of view is embedded deep in the product, not announced on the packaging. Its biases are quietly built into algorithms, reflected in platform rules, expressed in code few of us can understand and fewer of us will ever read. And yet those hidden commands and unexamined choices can lead to discrimination in housing and jobs, to a public sphere that fosters continual harassment of women and people of color, to a world where conservative news is suppressed, to a digital commons that everyone must use but that only a certain kind of person gets to build.

This is why trust matters so much in tech. It’s why Google, to attain its current status in society, had to promise, again and again, that it wouldn’t be evil. But what if it actually is evil? Or what if it’s not evil but just immature, unreflective, and uncompassionate? And what if that’s the culture that designs the digital services the rest of us have to use?

Read more at Vox.