Where Do Tech Workers Go From Here?
Timnit Gebru and the future of tech worker activism
Welcome back to New_ Public, where wanting fairness meets actually asking for it. This week, we’re looking at the past, present, and future of tech worker activism, showcasing the musings of our festival experience designer Melissa Painter of MAP Design Lab, and extending our sense of community with What’s Clicking around the world.
AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, one of Google’s most prominent Black ethicists, was fired from Google last week—ostensibly for an email she sent to an internal group after the company asked her to retract a research paper that highlighted how biases might be built into its artificial intelligence systems. Numerous studies have shown a prevalence of bias in AI. Gebru’s departure was announced immediately after news broke that the National Labor Relations Board had found that Google illegally spied on and retaliated against employees for organizing.
Since Gebru’s firing, there’s been a tremendous outcry from tech workers and researchers both inside and outside of Google. Roughly 2,000 Google employees have signed a petition demanding transparency and research integrity and Gebru’s own former team members have published an open letter speaking out against Google’s actions. Gebru’s highly public departure culminated in a public statement from CEO Sundar Pichai in which he promised to “begin a review of what happened to identify all the points where we can learn.”
It seems like change from within is a lot harder to achieve than some tech organizers initially hoped.
Want to speak up about potential dangers in your product? Facebook recently fired a whistleblower for doing that. Want to stand up for members of your company’s workforce who don’t have the same privileges you do? Multiple Amazon employees have been fired for criticizing Amazon’s failure to protect its warehouse workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Want to organize a massive, global protest movement? Most of the Google Walkout organizers were pushed out of the company within a year.
The email that triggered Gebru’s firing—which she sent to an internal employee resource group for women within Google’s AI division titled “Brain Women & Allies” and which described her struggles as a Black leader within the company—expresses despair at the idea that problems, like a company culture of systemic racism, can be changed from the inside.
What I want to say is stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference. The DEI OKRs that we don’t know where they come from (and are never met anyways), the random discussions, the “we need more mentorship” rather than “we need to stop the toxic environments that hinder us from progressing” the constant fighting and education at your cost, they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability. There is no incentive to hire 39% women: your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything. [...] So if you would like to change things, I suggest focusing on leadership accountability and thinking through what types of pressures can also be applied from the outside.
The tech industry has long struggled to hire and retain people of color, especially women. And when companies have diversified their hires, racial inequality and discriminatory treatment still plague their workforce. Google continues to face criticism for not doing enough to diversify its ranks with women and racial minorities. Black and Latino employees represented only 9.6% of the Google U.S. workforce and women represented 32% of Google’s global workforce in 2019. There has been no sustainable entry for women of color, like Gebru, into Silicon Valley tech spheres.
The editors of Collective Action in Tech, a website and newsletter devoted to tech activism, suggest that open letters like the ones circulated after Gebru’s firing have their limits: they don’t involve disruptive actions that threaten the company’s bottom line; they rely on spokespeople who are then at risk of retaliation from management, and—as the novelty wears off—they just don’t have as much impact as they used to.
So, What Can Ethical Tech Employees Do?
One approach that’s gaining popularity is to provide tech workers with tools and resources that make it easier to advocate for change from within. Collective Action in Tech’s “Solidarity onboarding” kit is a zine designed to inspire and support tech workers who want to organize; the group has also put together a template demand letter for anti-racist actions that tech companies can take. Omidyar Network’s Ethical Explorer deck gives tech employees a gentle, non-confrontational way to think and talk about the ethical implications of the products they build. Coworker.org established The Solidarity Fund to provide financial assistance and coaching support to tech workers engaged in workplace activism, especially those facing retaliation from their employers. And Logic School is a 12-week course from Logic Magazine that promises to teach tech workers how to “remake tech from below” with a focus on looking beyond walkouts to creative protests like everest pipkin’s Image Scrubber tool. Applications for Logic School are open until December 22.
We think there’s a lot of potential for these approaches (spoiler: we’re working on some 🔥🔥🔥 research that we hope tech workers can use as a tool for good). We know that a lot of people, in and out of tech, are working on these problems. Together, we know we can build power and explore better solutions!
So here’s our question to you: what form do you think tech worker activism should take in 2021? And how can ethical tech workers—the good people trying to improve platforms and companies from within—push for change?
A First-hand Look into Our Festival Neighborhood
We nudged our festival collaborator, Melissa Painter of MAP Design Lab, to lead us through the built out festival experience we look forward to sharing with you come January 12-14, 2021. Learn more about the experience and how you can register here.
Q. Tell us about the space that we're going to inhabit together over the three days of the festival, and your design process in making it feel like a digital public space.
Melissa Painter: In celebration of the New_ Public research, principles, and community, we have created two public spaces for ritual interstitial encounters and gathering.
Our highly analog park was built in Miro with photos so detailed you can zoom in from a bird’s eye view to a single rose. We then see hand drawn sketches from an observer who is seeing the diversity of life all around them. As a designer I believe digital space should honor the real world, not make inadvertent accidental impacts on it, that we should stop designing the illusion of ease into our lives and instead make room for the kinds of fiction that helps us grow. I believe in the power of public space. Urban design is a great tool to take the collective into account. I spend most of my time with my eye on what is the advent of spatial digital: dimension, real time, interactive.
Our second space is a collage of communally gathered creative commons assets from the real world, photogrammetry made in Berlin, a pint cloud of a daisy in Japan, cherry blossoms, and a corridor that exists on campus at the University of California, Berkeley. Around the world people are collecting and sharing the spaces that matter to them into an interactive shared digital realm as the digital world becomes more capable of allowing in native human UX UI.
Both spaces prompt participants to consider: Who am I when I show up? How are analog versions of communication, and early stage digital communication, nuanced and authentic in ways that are instructive to our goals today? How might I be digitally embodied, represented, and rewarded in a collective, as the web and social platforms go spatial? What is the next frontier?
Both spaces are digital renditions of a public park that is built collectively before, during, and after the event. The documentation that is gathered throughout the event, both crowd sourced and conducted by the “official” documentarians, will become the public art in this space. By putting the analog and the deeply digital, side by side, and placing richly interactive group imagining in the middle, we hope to create a moment where we lift the veil on the flawed nature of the 2D digital world we are so trapped in today. We invite people to question everything and imagine a new form into existence.
It’s here! It’s here! Antitrust Christmas is here!
The New Zealand Royal Commission has concluded that the Christchurch shooter was radicalized on YouTube; also, YouTube is giving right-wing propagandists advice on how to circumvent their new disinformation policies.
Worth a read: Medium’s new anti-clickbait policy.
Our co-director Talia Stroud talked to Andrew Keen about rebuilding and restimulating digital public spaces.
The twelfth annual New Media Caucus Showcase is accepting submissions from new media artists and scholars for 6-minute presentations until December 20,2020.
The Drivers Cooperative hopes to become a driver-owned alternative to Uber and Lyft—the first “platform co-operative” rideshare app in New York City.
Pharrell Williams invests in a Black non-profit initiative for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs who are launching tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products/services start-up.
It's true that toxic communities kicked off major platforms tend to regroup elsewhere, but that's not a reason not to moderate content: there's a big difference between bad actors gathering in a park vs gathering in a dark alley.
🏙 Offline: Design Ideas from Cities
The New York Times asked seven experts if cities were more dangerous during a pandemic. “It’s not necessarily the type of space where people live, but the type of behavior that people engage in their spaces that ultimately determines who gets infected.”
A three-year project (2017-2019) by think-tank Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow investigates the impact of planetary-scale computation on the future of cities in Russia and globally through a book titled “The New Normal” written by Benjamin Bratton.
One upside to a driverless future: all those parking spaces can become something else.
This week’s additions to the Digital Public Spaces list
Every week, we add to our Twitter list of people and organizations working to create a public-friendly internet. This week’s additions: Casey Fiesler, Cathy O’Neil, Virginia Eubanks, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Mary L. Gray, Collective Action in Tech. You can always check out the full list here. Who else should we add?
Putting out a plate of cookies for Antitrust Santa,
The New_ Public team
Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.