Big Tech is an unleashed beast and it’s been mawing us all. That includes in small, personal ways – as when Google was recently revealed to be tracking users’ locations even when specifically told not to – and larger, world-changing ones, such as Facebook becoming a channel for tampering with elections around the globe.
The technological disruption of social norms is made scarier when those in charge of the behemoth companies making it happen are indifferent, at best. Take Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey’s dithering about banning Alex Jones from his platform, even though the man’s cruel conspiracy theories are obviously hurting real people.
For those who don’t know who Mr. Jones is, I’m sorry to tell you: he’s a Texas-based hate-monger who uses his independent radio show to, among other things, pretend the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut never happened. Twenty first-graders were not shot dead that day, he claims, and the family members publicly grieving their lives are hired actors.
One Jewish family who lost their son in the massacre has moved seven times, far away from their child’s grave, because of harassment from Mr. Jones’ legion of fans. Twitter’s eventual response was a one-week suspension and Mr. Dorsey’s admission in a recent interview that his company might need some new values. You don’t say.
His employees might have some ideas what those could be. For while 2018 has been an awfully dark year, watching tech workers publicly declare their ethics has been a badly needed treasure glinting in the muck.
More than once, that’s meant openly pushing back against projects they consider morally suspect. In May, 4,000 Google employees wrote an open letter objecting to Project Maven, an artificial intelligence program the company was working on with the Pentagon. A dozen employees then resigned and Google decided not to renew work on the project.
That same month, Amazon employees sent an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos protesting the company’s marketing facial recognition technology to military and police forces. Then, 500 Microsoft workers sent their own CEO, Satya Nadella, a petition against the company’s accepting a US$19-million contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the U.S. department of homeland security.
Neither of those campaigns has yet been successful. Nor has Google employees’ most recent revolt, this time over Project Dragonfly, which would see the company comply with government censorship laws in order to restart selling products in China. But it’s still heartening to hear that people with such coveted skills care about more than stuffing their bank accounts.
This concern has also extended to Silicon Valley workers who aren’t as lucky. The Tech Workers Coalition, for example, emerged specifically to support the organization efforts of lower-paid, less secure workers, such as cafeteria and driving staff. In another successful campaign, 3,000 security guards at places such as Google and Facebook are now in a union and set to get their first raise.
The coalition now has a monthly meeting in San Francisco and Seattle and works on a number of campaigns, some around workers' rights and others focused on ethics, often using the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt to spread the word. The spectre of IBM collaborating with the Third Reich is a regular talking point.
Meanwhile, some talent is declining to apply for certain jobs at all, even those at the start of their careers. “There are some companies that I could never see myself working for at this point, like Facebook or Google, that in my mind are companies I barely want to use as a consumer any more,” a 19-year-old Stanford University computer science freshman told The Globe and Mail this past spring.
Making a bold moral choice is easier when your idols lead by example: Prominent engineers have told head hunters their ethics won’t let them consider questionable job offers, then shared those sentiments on social media.
Remember, these brainiacs aren’t just the creators of the gadgets, devices, apps and programs we all rely on, but worried users, too. Although the bigwigs might be shirking their responsibilities, a growing chorus of tech workers is letting a collective conscience be their guide.