… you should, James Damore warns in today’s Wall Street Journal. The author of the most famous internal memo of the year writes about his firing from Google, which in this case appears more like an excommunication from a cult. Rather than pick up the thread of his objections to the gender diversity policies within Google, Damore focuses on the second main argument of his thesis, which dealt with Google’s inflexibility on intellectual diversity. And why not? It’s the argument Google proved by treating him as a heretic, and expelling him from the monastery.
That is actually an apt description of the environment Damore relates — a cult more than a workplace. And it might also raise questions about companies that grow “too big to fail” not just in size, but it scope as it relates to their internal environments:
Google is a particularly intense echo chamber because it is in the middle of Silicon Valley and is so life-encompassing as a place to work. With free food, internal meme boards and weekly companywide meetings, Google becomes a huge part of its employees’ lives. Some even live on campus. For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”
Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
But echo chambers also have to guard against dissent and opposition. Whether it’s in our homes, online or in our workplaces, a consensus is maintained by shaming people into conformity or excommunicating them if they persist in violating taboos. Public shaming serves not only to display the virtue of those doing the shaming but also warns others that the same punishment awaits them if they don’t conform.
Echo chambers in homes and offices are really nothing new. Most people have worked for a boss who refuses to tolerate dissent, or had a parent or grandparent around whom certain topics are never mentioned. One either learns that in these cases selective discretion is the better part of valor, or they look for another job. Even in the online world and on social media especially, one can find like-minded people on any heretical or heterodoxical position contrary to public consensus, even if it creates some ostracization among others.
The difference in this case is power. At most businesses, these problems tend to be localized, with upper management more concerned about profit and shareholder relations; employees can shift to other units or more easily ignore and work around the problem. On social media, most of the power is distributed among its users, although Twitter has a bad reputation for interfering in that process. Google, however, has an enormous amount of power, both economic and political, because of its sheer size and lack of competition.
That prompts a larger question of the limits of Google’s power, and not just within the cult compound from which Damore got exiled this week. Hundreds of millions of people rely on Google and its products, if not a billion or more, all of which have to do with communications and social interaction. Can we trust a company that expels Damore for offering a challenge to internal orthodoxy to handle external user heterodoxy fairly and equitably? How long will it be before Google begins to impose its ideological dictates on its users as well as its employees, and what precisely would stop them from doing so? We have allowed Google to build a near-monopoly on its services though acquisitions as well as innovation, and transformed a pioneering and plucky start-up into an organization that could easily partner up with Big Brother if the opportunity arose.
Two weeks ago, I warned that Republicans need rethink their laissez-faire approach to anti-trust enforcement in order to protect against consolidation of economic and political power:
It’s that economic, cultural, and political disconnect that fueled populism on the Right, on which Donald Trump capitalized by acknowledging and legitimizing it. Republicans took this as a culture-war opportunity, but they’re missing a large part of the problem by overlooking Main Street economics.
Republicans may feel uncomfortable taking a more aggressive policy on antitrust enforcement, but it does fit with a dedication to small government and federalism. Increasing consolidation in the marketplace concentrates economic power into fewer hands, and economic power eventually will get expressed in political terms. Our massively complicated tax codes and regulations serve as traditional vehicles for rent-seeking behaviors by corporations less interested in free markets than in squelching competition.
If the GOP truly wants to bring conservatives and populists together on economics and governance, they need a measured and assertive approach to antitrust enforcement. Populism is all about returning power to the people, while modern conservatism has limited government and subsidiarity in power at its core.
Google’s expulsion of Damore is a warning signal of what comes next, and it won’t be a comfy chair. Putting our communications into the hands of a few ideologues without any other options is a recipe for disaster on its own, but the consolidation of economic power in general will become an increasing obstacle to personal liberty and equitable government. Google will just be the canary in the coal mine, and may already be,