Timothy M. Denton

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The significance of the Damore firing

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It is a sobering sight to see a company destroy its moral authority in an instant. Google's firing of James Damore for his polite and well reasoned argument about the company's mindset will have greater negative effect in the long run than any other action the company has taken. You are not being asked to agree with Damore. You do not have to. You are being asked to imagine the significance of turning over the custodianship of all human on-line knowledge to an intolerant cult. Exclusionary intolerance in academia is one thing; seeing it spread into American corporate culture is quite another. Seeing it in action at a company which owns the indexing system of the central library of the Internet is deeply alarming.

 Damore engaged in the sin of "stereotypes", it was said. His argument was that the sexes differed in their choices and in their life outcomes, hence it should not be expected that Google's employment targets could be reached because the proportion of women who want to be work-obsessed engineers is always going to be less than the proportion of males so motivated. You can call this argument "stereotypical", which is a word for arguments you cannot bear to hear, it seems. His real sin was to disagree that all social outcomes are entirely ideological or social constructions. Some believe they are, and those views are generally held to be "left-wing". Some believe that biology plays a significant and under-emphasized role in the choices that the sexes make in life. These views are now held to be conservative, although usually such views are met with cries of "fascist" ,"racist", "misogynist" in the Gramscian culture of academia.

If Google were a maker of things, the issue would never have arisen to prominence. However, Google's seeks to organize the totality of human knowledge on line. What you can find, and how easily, is now determined by algorithms. Algorithms are the instanciation in formulae of choices, prejudices, judgments, attitudes: policy expressed as mathematics.

Cathy O'Neil writes in Weapons of Math Destruction

The math-powered applications powering the data economy were based on choices made by fallible human beings. Some of these choices were no doubt made with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, many of these models encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, bias into the software systems that increasingly run our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. (p.3)

That, dear reader, is the generous interpretation. It imputes a lack of consistent ideological direction to the choices or weightings  that the algorithms conduce to. What would be one's reaction if, on some vast subject upon which humans have always shown marked disagreement, Google were taking a consistently left-wing stance? What if Google were pressing one of two pans in the scales of justice down with a thumb?

Some will applaud. Most who consider the issue will be concerned with one company's market power.

The Guardian reports as follows:

Luther Lowe, vice president for public policy at Yelp and a vocal critic of Google, told the Guardian, “This is not standard monopoly abuse.” Lowe added, “When a dominant information firm abuses its monopoly, you get the same negative effects of reduced choice and higher prices as in other monopolies, but democracy and free speech are also undermined because these firms now control how information is accessed and how it flows.”

I dare not predict what the outcome will be of these discussions. I am prepared to state that my impression of Google as a generally benign force in society was abruptly terminated by the Damore firing. As Glen Reynolds wrote:

The Damore firing, and Pichai’s disgraceful handling of it, represents colossal damage to Google’s brand. In essence, it’s an announcement — by a company that has access to everyone’s data — that it endorses the notion of thought-crime.

The great debate in all social policy lies between those who think everything is a social construct, which can be manipulated by power, and those who believe 'not so', that biology and other unalterable factors have a role to play. One side has the religious and ideological conviction; the other increasingly appears to have the science on its side.

It does not augur well for freedom of expression and thought that the indexing system of human knowledge has been engrossed by a company where presenting one side of these arguments is a firing offence.

 

 

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Friday, 15 December 2017
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