I spent three months living in San Francisco in 2014 for a work assignment.
As a New Yorker, I had the feeling I was jumping into a living cartoon, a culture more like HBO’s “Silicon Valley” than anything steeped in reality.
I was right. My main takeaway after my stint out west: The citizens of Silicon Valley are not like the rest of us. They’re totally happy living in a bubble believing they’re changing the world with their genius while ignoring the realities on the outside.
Lately, that theme also applies to politics. The tech industry skews to the left more than any other industry. Even as some members of the tech elite have cozied up to the Trump administration, getting photo ops in Trump Tower and the White House, Silicon Valley as a whole has doubled down on its status as a bastion of liberalism. The industry presents itself as not only making the world a better place through tech products, but also through its stances on social issues.
Tech CEOs regularly jump to put out statements responding to the latest things outraging liberal sentiments. They have admonished Trump’s policies like his ban on transgender people serving in the military and his decision to back out of the Paris climate accord. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings even blasted fellow Facebook board member Peter Thiel simply for supporting Trump.
And the displays of liberalism aren’t limited to CEOs, by any means. Google employees literally left work in the middle of the day to march against Trump’s immigration ban.
But that bubble burst this week when Google engineer James Damore’s memo on diversity went viral and made him a hero of the far right almost overnight.
The multi-layered bait was too sweet for the online #MAGA hordes not to bite. Here was a white male claiming disenfranchisement in an organisation that he viewed as obsessed with political correctness and liberalism. He’d written a manifesto with claims about the biological inferiority of women for some tech jobs that were sure to hit home with the right. And the title of his essay alone — “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” — was sure to stir up passions.
The fact that he also had a scientific background that helped lend credibility to his claims was just icing on the cake.
People on the right headed online to make their opinions heard. They tweeted Damore’s musings with delight and charged that that his firing was proof that Google wanted to silence conservative viewpoints. A Reddit user posted an image likening Damore’s manifesto to Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
YouTube, which is ironically owned by Google and has become a hot spot for right-wing vloggers, was the outlet of choice for Damore himself. His first public interviews were to Stefan Molyneux and Jordan B. Peterson, far-right figures who have built up large followings on the video site. (It’s worth noting that Damore, who railed against ideological echo chambers in his memo, jumped right into one that matched his own views after he gained notoriety.)
Damore’s memo and subsequent firing was the exploding powder keg that brought Silicon Valley into the culture war the rest of the country has been fighting for years.
I have a feeling things are only going to accelerate from here. I’ve had Googlers this week describe to me a kind of hysteria within the company. There’s talk about conservative employees organising and rebelling by following the practice of “malicious compliance,” where workers bent on sabotaging their superiors follow the letter of the orders they’re given but not their intent.
One employee told me that some of her coworkers who support Damore are outing Googlers who oppose his stance by sharing their internal Google+ profiles. That’s caused some of those who have been outed to fear for their safety. CEO Sundar Pichai canceled a town hall meeting where he was scheduled to take questions about the Damore memo because of just those fears.
But the bursting of the bubble is affecting more of Silicon Valley than just Google. Others in the tech industry are using the Damore memo as an excuse to speak out and express similar views, something you probably wouldn’t have seen even six months ago.
Here’s what two members of the VC class — Eric Weinstein, a managing director at Thiel Capital, and Paul Graham of Y Combinator — had to say:
Stop teaching my girl that her path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR.
Thx in advance,
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) August 8, 2017
But more importantly, Google is drawing fire from the right from outside Silicon Valley.
The Google employees who were outed for opposing Damore have seen their names published on fringe-right sites. Meanwhile, more mainstream national figures on the right have weighed in. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who seems to have misread and misunderstood the memo, said Pichai should resign as CEO for firing Damore. Former Arkansas governor and conservative Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee called Damore’s firing a “PC witch hunt.”
We haven’t seen a culture clash like this in the tech industry since the Gamergate fiasco back in 2014.
But this time it’s bigger. This time we have a very public company that makes things that affect our lives every day in a fight with someone who’s the new messiah of the right. This time, the Google memo controversy has escaped the confines of the internet and has bled into the real world. It’s the perfect cultural moment for 2017: a wave of populist anger is hitting an industry whose influence on our lives is increasing exponentially.
We’re wrapping up just the first week of what is sure to be a months-long battle with victims, martyrs, morons, and heroes on both sides. The culture war may be familiar to everyone, but now Silicon Valley’s bubble has burst, and it’s just like the rest of us.
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