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Google's internal activism is spreading across tech companies

I'm sending out today's edition early to accommodate my attendance at an event this afternoon. Hope y
August 13 · Issue #366 · View online
The Interface
I’m sending out today’s edition early to accommodate my attendance at an event this afternoon. Hope you don’t find it too disruptive!
At the Code Conference in June, I sat down with former executives at Facebook, Google, and Twitter to ask why their internal cultures of activism are so different. The answer I got, from former Google communications chief Jessica Powell, is that at Google activism had been part of the culture from the beginning. What changed over the past few years, she said, is that what had once been an internal discussion about company policies and procedures had lately spilled into public view.
In a comprehensive piece at Wired today, Nitasha Tiku explains how that came about. Over the course of more than 11,000 words, she details how the company nurtured a culture of dissent right up until the point that it boiled over into public view — at which point the company began assiduously buttoning up.
In their best-selling 2014 book, How Google Works, Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, two of the main architects of Google’s culture, stressed the importance of open debate in the care and feeding of innovative people. “In our experience, most smart creatives have strong opinions and are itching to spout off; for them, the cultural obligation to dissent gives them the freedom to do just that,” they wrote. They stressed the importance of rooting out “knaves” (liars, cheaters, loafers) but supporting and protecting “divas,” difficult but brilliant employees who can grate on other employees’ nerves. “You need these aberrant geniuses because they’re the ones that drive, in most cases, the product excellence,” Schmidt said in an interview with WIRED earlier this year. “They are better than other technical people.”
Since 2016, those aberrant geniuses led protests of Trump’s travel ban, Google’s hiring practices, its defense contracts, its planned return to China, the makeup of its artificial intelligence ethics advisory council, and its habit of making multimillion-dollar payouts to executives credibly accused of sexual harassment. And with leaks flowing to news outlets across the political spectrum, Tiku reports, Google changed:
That month, Google also tightened the reins on TGIF. Brin and Page stopped showing up. Employees could access video recordings for only a week after the meeting, rather than for years. The company nixed live questions, which Google claimed was more fair to employees in different time zones. (“We’re a global company and want to make sure we’re answering questions from employees around the world,” a spokesperson says.) TGIF’s transformation from candid conversation to press conference was pretty much complete.
Two quick thoughts occur. One is that Googlers’ activism can have some curious blind spots. It seems strange, for example, that the anti-authoritarian impulses that lead the company to oppose defense contracts and work with China have been muted when it comes to YouTube. In yesterday’s edition I included Max Fisher and Amanda Taub’s investigation into YouTube’s impact on Brazil, which has mirrored its impact elsewhere: promoting far-right extremism, which contributes to the election of far-right politicians, who then work to limit civil liberties. The reporters write:
Though corruption scandals and a deep recession had already devastated Brazil’s political establishment and left many Brazilians ready for a break with the status quo, Ms. Boyd called YouTube’s impact a worrying indication of the platform’s growing impact on democracies worldwide.
“This is happening everywhere,” she said.
I imagine that it’s simply easier for employees to protest a new and relatively small initiative like Project Dragonfly than it is to unwind the various product features and incentives that have made YouTube so effective at promoting fear and outrage. And surely YouTube employees I speak with are aware of the issue here.
On a happier note, however disruptive the past few years’ events have been for Google, they seem to me to have had a positive effect on the corporate world generally. In the wake of Googlers’ actions, a new surge of employee activism could be spotted around the tech industry.
Over the past year, we’ve seen Amazon employees protest warehouse working conditions, the company’s impact on the climate, and partnerships with companies that work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Microsoft employees protested the company’s defense contracts and relationship with ICE. Salesforce employees protested the company’s ties to Customs and Border Protection. Riot Games employees walked out to protest forced arbitration provisions in their contracts.
All of these, to my mind, are part of the legacy of the Google walkout, and everything that came before and after at the company. It turns out that you don’t need a strong culture of dissent to generate employee protests. A dawning cultural awareness of employees’ collective power, and employers’ fear of losing them, can be just as effective. And nothing Google has done to date has suggested that dynamic can be reversed.

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The Fish Tube meme, and the science behind giant fish waterslides, explained
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