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How Silicon Valley’s Workplace Culture Produced James Damore’s Google Memo

Last week, a software engineer at Google, James Damore, posted a
ten-page memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” to an internal company network. Citing a range of psychological studies,
Wikipedia entries, and media articles on “our culture of shaming and
misrepresentation,” Damore argued that women are underrepresented in the
tech industry largely because of their innate biological differences
from men—their “stronger interest in people rather than things,” their
propensity for “neuroticism,” their “higher levels of anxiety.” Damore
criticized the company’s diversity initiatives, which focus on
recruitment, hiring, and professional development, as discriminatory,
and advanced “concrete suggestions” for improving them: “de-moralize
diversity,” “de-emphasize empathy,” “stop alienating conservatives,” and
“be open about the science of human nature.” On Monday, Google’s C.E.O.,
Sundar Pichai, sent a note to his employees decrying the memo’s “harmful gender stereotypes” and noting that
portions of it violated the company’s code of conduct. Damore was fired,
and promptly filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

As soon as news of the memo broke, tech workers took to the Internet.
(Ours is a privileged moment: never before has it been so easy to gain
access to the errant musings, rapid-fire opinions, and random
proclivities of venture capitalists and others we enrich.) There were
calls for Damore to be blacklisted from the industry; nuanced analyses
of the memo’s underlying assumptions and ripple effects; facile analyses
of the same; message-board debates about sexual harassment, affirmative
action, evolutionary biology, eugenics, and “wrongthink”; and
disagreements about the appropriateness of Google’s response. (“Firing
people for their ideas should be opposed,” Jeet Heer, a self-described
“Twitter Essayist” and an editor at The New Republic, tweeted.) George
Orwell’s “1984” was trotted out, discursively, and quickly retired. More
than a handful of people pointed out that the field of programming was created, and once dominated, by women. Eric Weinstein, the managing director of Thiel Capital, an investment firm helmed by Peter Thiel, tweeted disapprovingly at Google’s corporate account, “Stop teaching my girl that her path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR.”

Though Damore’s memo draws on familiar political rhetoric, its style and
structure are unique products of Silicon Valley’s workplace culture. At software companies, in particular, people talk—and argue, and
dogpile, and offer unsolicited opinions—all the time, all over the
place, including in forums like the one where Damore posted “Google’s
Ideological Echo Chamber.” In my experience in the tech industry, such
forums serve as repositories for all sorts of discussions—feature
launches, bug fixes, birth announcements, introductions, farewells—and
are meant, in part, to promote the open-source ethos that everyone can,
and should, pitch in. But they also favor the kind of discourse that
people outside the industry may recognize from online platforms such as
Reddit and Hacker News; it is solution-oriented, purporting to value
objectivity and rationalism above all, and tends to see the engineer’s
dispassion as a tool for solving a whole range of technical and social
problems. (“Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the
facts,” Damore writes.) But the format is ill-suited to conversations
about politics and social justice.

One of the documents that resurfaced in the online discussion of the
Google memo was “What You Can’t Say,” by Paul Graham—the
co-founder, along with his wife, Jessica Livingston, of the startup
accelerator Y Combinator, which runs Hacker News. The five-thousand-word essay, which Graham published on his personal blog, in 2004, begins with
the premise that there exist “moral fashions” that are both arbitrary
and pernicious. “Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is
mistaken for good,” he writes. The essay makes a case for contrarian
thinking through a series of flattering analogies—Galileo was seen as a
heretic in his time; John Milton was advised to keep quiet about the
evils of the Roman Inquisition—and argues that opinions considered
unfashionable in their time are often retroactively respected, if not
taken as gospel. “The statements that make people mad are the ones they
worry might be believed,” Graham writes. “I suspect the statements that
make people maddest are those they worry might be true.” At several
points, he refers to “political correctness.”

“What You Can’t Say” is by no means a seminal text, but it is the sort
of text that has, historically, spoken to a tech audience. “Google’s
Ideological Echo Chamber,” with its veneer of cool rationalism, echoes
Graham’s essay in certain ways. But, where Graham’s argument is made
thoughtfully and in good faith—he is a proponent of intellectual
inquiry, even if the outcome is controversial—Damore’s is a sort of
performance. His memo shows a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes
power in Silicon Valley, and where that power lies. True, Google and its
peers have put money and other company resources toward diversity
efforts, and they very likely will continue to do so. But today, in
mid-2017, men—white men—are still very much in the majority. It is still
largely white men who make decisions, and largely white men who prosper.
By positioning diversity programs as discriminatory, Damore paints
exactly the opposite picture. He frames employees like himself as a
silenced minority, and his contrarian opinions as a kind of Galilean

It is conceivable, of course, that Damore distributed his memo to
thousands of his colleagues because he genuinely thought that it was the
best way to strike up a conversation. “Open and honest discussion with
those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow,” he
writes. Perhaps he expected that the ensuing dialogue would be akin to a
debate over a chunk of code. But, given the memo’s various denigrating
assertions about his co-workers, it is difficult to imagine that it was
offered in good faith. Damore wasn’t fired for his political views; he
was fired for how (and where) he applied them. The memo also hints at a
larger anxiety—a fear, possibly, of the future. But technological
advancement and social change move at different velocities; someone like
Damore might sooner be automated out of a job than replaced by a woman.

Minority groups in tech are no strangers to being second-guessed,
condescended to, overlooked, underpaid, and uncredited. But seeing
Damore’s arguments made public—and, in some cases, seeing them elicit
support—was a fresh smack in the face. It was a reminder that plenty of
tech workers and executives still consider hiring women and people of
color “lowering the bar,” and that proving one’s place
is a constant, Sisyphean task. After all, not so long ago, advocacy on
behalf of women—and black, Latino, nonbinary, and otherwise
underrepresented people—was the unfashionable, contrarian alternative in
the tech industry.

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