Silicon Valley has plenty of “empathy.” The problem is acting on it
I’ve written before about the Valley’s troubling lack of “empathy.”
This is clear when it comes to the on demand revolution that has essentially turned half of the population into lower-paid contractor workers doing the bidding of everyone else. And when their rates are cut so that they can’t pay their bills? They’re just told to work more!
It’s certainly clear with the battle over diversity in Silicon Valley. 95% of white men surveyed by LinkedIn said that they didn’t consider diversity a “top problem.” 40% were sick of hearing about it.
Sometimes the lack of empathy is so great that people who have benefitting from certain policies are happy to shut them down when it comes to others. Consider someone like [Pando investor] Peter Thiel-- an immigrant, who made the bulk of his early fortune by co-founding PayPal with two other immigrants, and sold that company to eBay which was founded by an immigrant, and then co-founded his next company with yet another immigrant-- supporting the Trump administration.
And now, the anonymous voice of the wounded white, male bro is explicitly calling for less empathy.
You’ve likely already read the Google manifest-bro that’s been dominating the news cycle. I don’t have much to say about it: No one is surprised this point of view dominates the engineering ranks. There’s a reason women get driven out of this field. Surveys have shown white men in tech continuing to blame things like “the pipeline,” long after data is debunked that.
It’s also not surprising because Pando has -- for more than a year now-- pointed out the parallels between the tactics of the Trump administration and their supporters and companies like Uber, Y-Combinator, and others that dominate Silicon Valley culture right now. This kind of increasing white male “lack of agency” filled with true-sounding “facts” and “data” is the same kind of thing we saw littered all over Facebook to get Trump elected. The argument that Google’s “groupthink” around diversity is stymying is nearly identical to that Trump-esque gang that rails against “political correctness” and “snowflakes.”
Not a shock, anonymous Twitter eggs defending the post are saying it’s the leakers at Google are the problem.
I don’t have much interest in wasting my time rebutting all the stuff that’s demonstrably false in that manifest-bro anymore than I want to get in a conversation with someone who thinks immigrants make this country worse; or someone who thinks a man who is accused of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women is the moral, God-ly choice for President; or someone who believes that women’s bodies don’t actually belong to them once they become pregnant; or someone who believes that Hillary Clinton’s email server represents a bigger national security risk than, yunno, Russian collusion.
There’s a reason we have a “block” button on social media.
Indeed, pseudo-biological arguments about women and people of color’s inferiority are nothing new. Visit genocide museums around the world, or defenses of slavery and segregation if you don’t believe me. Or, again, listen to the current rhetoric of the “alt right.”
If you are shocked by any of this-- shocked that it would be so prevalent at the highest ranks of Silicon Valley-- you haven’t been reading Pando since the rise of Trump’s America and the concurrent cult of “disruption.”
Now, reportedly, the manifest-bro has been fired, and his name was briefly trending on Twitter yesterday. In a way, it was better when he was just another anonymous tech bro: He wasn’t anyone senior, not a household name that we thought we knew. The anonymity allowed the conversation to be more about this kind of guy who lurks in every organization, rather than turning into an Internet pile-on against just one of countless bros, at Google and elsewhere, who think the same way.
But back to that point on empathy. That bears some parsing.
On Twitter, Chris Espinosa made this point, about how “empathy” was considered by the greats in Silicon Valley to be essential in winning markets:
My friend Mike Markkula wrote this 40 years ago. Empathy is an essential quality in product development. “De-emphasize empathy” is nuts. pic.twitter.com/1apgqFD3ck— Chris Espinosa (@cdespinosa) August 6, 2017
And indeed, it’s an important point. The Facebooks, Apples, Amazons, and Googles of the world have only gotten to such a gargantuan size by being able to crawl inside the minds of users and know what they want. Know what they want better than they do in some cases. And of course, that’s even easier when you are armed with a scary trove of data on your users. Remember when Facebook tested different news feeds on their users to determine which ones made them happy or sad?
Empathy is essential for major tech success. Arguing against it is as asinine as all the other stuff this guy says.
But the better point is that empathy alone isn’t sufficient and this is where we see Silicon Valley breaking down right now. This was first pointed out to me in a recent conversation I had with PivotNorth’s Tim Connors, about the state of empathy in the Valley and in colleges spinning out the next founders and tech workers. He said something that I hadn’t heard anyone in the Valley say before: Travis Kalanick, Uber’s ousted CEO, has high “empathy.”
“Huh?” I thought at the time.
He explained that Kalanick would have to have high empathy in order to raise funding at such dramatic levels, sign up so many drivers, and build a service that so many millions of people around the world would want to use. That is someone with an uncanny ability to see the perspective of others-- many very different than him-- and sell to it.
What Kalanick lacked-- and what so many of us conflate-- is morality, Connors argued. Empathy is defined as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Morality is defined as “conformity to ideals of right human conduct.”
All empathy does is give you “the data.” Morality determines what you do with it. A clear example from Uber’s history: Empathy may tell you that a rape victim would be horrified if you accessed her medical records to use against her. Maybe it would even scare her off. Morality is not accessing those medical records to begin with, because that’s disgusting.
Steve Jobs’ empathy allowed him to know users would love iPads even though they were asking for them. His lack of morality was in how he treated his eldest daughter and her mother.
Facebook’s empathy was seen in how its tools created a perfect way to spread false information that would inflame and motivate users to spread that false news even more widely. Morality is another matter.
Secret knew people would want to spread anonymous information about other people, and came up with clever product tweaks to make that even more tempting. What it didn’t think about was the morality.
This distinction is especially pronounced when it comes with some of the problems that social media causes in the lives of young girls. We’ve created a world where girls’ self-worth is tied to the number of likes. Empathy created that gamification mechanic. Morality didn’t think it through.
Even Steve Bannon is a master at “empathy”-- orchestrating an army of disaffected young, white men skilled in digital harassment by stoking their fears and insecurities. Now that that army has turned its sights on Google, we’ll see how Google’s “morality” holds up.
Because let’s be clear: This manifest-bro wasn’t merely “controversial,” as Bloomberg’s headline on the ouster originally read. A document that argues white men deserve more opportunities because they are biologically superior is hate speech.
Yes, we need to retain empathy here. And what’s been laid bare by a summer full of reports of Silicon Valley’s toxicity is that we also need morality.