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Is Google a Cult? Or Does It Just Act That Way?

Project Veritas announces that a new rebel Googler has sent nearly 1000 documents on algorithm bias to the DOJ

Independent investigative team Project Veritas has just released information about the latest insider, Zach Vorhies, who is breaking rank on the manipulation of algorithms:

A former Google insider claiming the company created algorithms to hide its political bias within artificial intelligence platforms – in effect targeting particular words, phrases and contexts to promote, alter, reference or manipulate perceptions of Internet content – delivered roughly 950 pages of documents to the Department of Justice’s Antitrust division Friday.

Sara Carter, “Exclusive: Google Insider Turns Over 950 Pages Of Docs And Laptop To DOJ” at Sara

Recently, then-Google engineer Gregory Coppola also told them about political bias in Google search algorithms.

While we prepare a news story on Zach Vorhies’ revelations, it may be worth asking why one of the world’s largest companies has developed what appears to be the atmosphere of a political cult. Coppola traces it back to the US 2016 election. That in itself suggests that some Googlers may know more than they candidly discuss as to why the outcome was such a shock to them.

An account in Wired takes us back to January 2017, when the incoming U.S> administration imposed a travel ban on residents of countries thought to have terror ties. The ban impacted some of Google’s employees, sparking strong employee political pushback:

According to The Wall Street Journal, members of one mailing list brainstormed whether there might be ways to “leverage” Google’s search results to surface ways of helping immigrants; some proposed that the company should intervene in searches for terms like “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “Iran” that were showing “Islamophobic, algorithmically biased results.” (Google says none of those ideas were taken up.)

Nitasha Tiku, “Three years of misery inside google, the happiest company in tech” at Wired

Tiku offers an account of the underlying intensity that went well beyond the needs of a sound strategy for helping stranded co-workers:

Finally, to a remarkable extent, Google’s workers really do take “Don’t Be Evil” to heart. C-suite meetings have been known to grind to a halt if someone asks, “Wait, is this evil?” To many employees, it’s axiomatic: Facebook is craven, Amazon is aggro, Apple is secretive, and Microsoft is staid, but Google genuinely wants to do good.

Nitasha Tiku, “Three years of misery inside google, the happiest company in tech” at Wired

Wait. All the other companies that these employees might have ended up working for have lost their way morally? In 2017, ex-Google engineer James Damore, who was fired for suggesting that men might be better suited to tech jobs than women, described the atmosphere as “like a cult”:

“For many, including myself,” he wrote, “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.’”

John Shinal, “Fired Google engineer James Damore says company is ‘like a cult’” at CNBC

Some think that a cult-like business atmosphere is a good thing:

Cults succeed or fail based on their ability to reprogram how people see the world. If they can’t reprogram you, you don’t get it. They just can’t risk exposing the members to someone who’s not aligned with the core mission.

Ben Lamm, “Why You Should Put the ‘Cult’ Back in Culture” at Entrepreneur

Others deny outright that Google is like a cult and say, for example, that it is “the healthiest overall internal corporate culture in my experience”:

During my time inside Google, I witnessed (and in fact participated in) discussions regarding various controversial internal issues, the ultimate results of which were very much positive for Google’s users. Were some of these discussions a bit heated at times? Sure, we’re dealing with human beings with human emotions, not robots.

Lauren Weinstein, “Is Google a Cult?” at Lauren Weinstein’s Blog (August 19, 2017)

Weinstein’s defense of Google might best be read in the context of his other assertions, which make clear that he did not think Damore had any right to question progressive beliefs.

That, in turn, brings us to a general observation: In a cult, an unwelcome opinion or political choice cannot merely be overruled or outvoted; it is an evil to be destroyed. After all, the stakes for the cult are timeless universals, not the countless win-some, lose-some episodes of business life.

At a more conventional firm, Damore might have been given to understand that the assumption of equal ability (thus equal opportunity) is part of the business plan. He is free to consider his options in that light. But Damore seems to have been guilty of something far worse than cluelessness or possible unsuitability; he had committed blasphemy. He was thus consigned to the outer darkness reserved for non-Googlers.

Tiku’s story, published yesterday, gives us the perspectives of 47 Google employees, offered mostly on condition of anonymity:

Together, they described a period of growing distrust and disillusionment inside Google that echoed the fury roaring outside the company’s walls. And in all that time, Google could never quite anticipate the right incoming collision. After the travel ban walkout, for example, the company’s leaders expected the worst—and that it would come from Washington. “I knew we were snowballing toward something,” a former executive says. “I thought it was going to be Trump calling us out in the press. I didn’t think it was gonna be some guy writing a memo.”

Nitasha Tiku, “Three years of misery inside google, the happiest company in tech” at Wired

Indeed. Why did Damore’s opinion, largely unsupported in the company, ignite a firestorm?

Google was hiring at a breakneck pace at the time. Between 2015 and 2017, it added some 20,000 full-time employees, about the same number as Facebook’s entire workforce. (And even after all that hiring, Google’s technical workforce was 80 percent male, 56 percent white, and 41 percent Asian.)

Nitasha Tiku, “Three years of misery inside google, the happiest company in tech” at Wired

In that context, Damore’s opinion that the sex demographic reflected biology went viral on Motherboard and then:

Pichai was on vacation when his deputies told him that Google had better deal with the Damore situation quickly. Pichai agreed and asked to corral his full management team for a meeting. By Saturday, a full copy of Damore’s document had leaked to Gizmodo. While Googlers waited for an official response from the top, managers who wanted to signal their support for women loudly condemned the memo’s ideas on internal Google+ posts.

Nitasha Tiku, “Three years of misery inside google, the happiest company in tech” at Wired

The chief executive “corrals” his full management team over this? In religious terms, that would be like the Pope calling the Cardinals to a special enclave to deal with a Topeka nun who claims that an apparition of the Virgin Mary told her to spread a message contrary to the teachings of the Church.

Not likely. The Catholic Church is more secure in its teachings than Google is and therefore need not operate as a cult. At some point, it might become necessary to convey to the public that the nun’s assertions are “not of interest to the faithful.” But most of the Church would hardly hear of her.

Tiku’s account suggests that the overheated atmosphere stems in part from a clash between the cult-like aspirations and the downside of having to quit playing games with authoritarian China. In tech insider Peter Thiel’s words, the company was facing credible accusations “seemingly treasonous” behavior in its relationship to China:

Within five years, however, the costs of that decision [to limit involvement in China]—and the limits of Google’s entire formula for success—were starting to become uncomfortably clear. Google was still minting money, but ad revenue growth was slowing, and the cost of hiring engineers and funding R&D was climbing fast. Investors wanted to know what was next, and Google didn’t have a convincing answer. The company was making incredible strides in artificial intelligence, but its growth online was increasingly boxed in by social networking sites. For users hanging out inside Facebook or talking to Alexa, Google’s apps were no longer a click away. And while the company’s founders tinkered with self-driving cars and helium balloons that beamed the internet down to earth, Amazon had built up a huge advantage in an area that should have been Google’s to lose: cloud computing.

Nitasha Tiku, “Three years of misery inside google, the happiest company in tech” at Wired

In short, at home, Google was facing increasing competition and its superior righteousness was not a winning ticket.

Tiku’s story at Wired is written from the—doubtless, widely shared—perspective of Googlers who are enraged that any employee would dare question their progressive views. The atmosphere puts one in mind of the dead, electric calm before a summer storm breaks.

Meanwhile in June, into the mix walks exposé specialist Project Veritas, with a simple proposition: “Do you work in Big Tech? Project Veritas would love to hear from you.” Greg Coppola, as we know, wanted to talk about some rather eye-opening revelations about how algorithms are gamed for political purposes.

If Project Veritas has more credible, eye-opening information stemming from that batch of documents headed for the Department of Justice, we will get a chance to see whether Googlers’ responses continue to remind one of a cult. One thing they won’t be is short of an audience.


Some background:

Google engineer reveals search engine bias. He found Google pretty neutral in 2014; the bias started with the US 2016 election (Gregory Coppola)

The US 2016 election: Why Big Data failed. Economics professor Gary Smith sheds light on the surprise result.

Google’s civil war is a first for the Big Tech industry. Not the sort of first to rejoice market analysts’ hearts.

Google does not believe in life after Google He offers chilling insights into the ultimate visions of technocrats

George Gilder talks tech at World News Daily In a three-part interview, he elaborates on why he thinks Google is doomed.

Imagining Life after Google A compendium of comments from reviews of Life after Google

and

Google boss quits, writes a satirical novel

Further reading: Algorithms can be unknowingly biased as well, See, for example,

Can computer algorithms be free of bias? Bias is inevitable but it should be recognized and admitted. (Robert J. Marks)

Did AI teach itself to “not like” women? No, the program did not teach itself anything. But the situation taught the company something important about what we can safely automate.

and

Can an algorithm be racist? No, the machine has no opinion. It processes vast tracts of data. And, as a result, the troubling hidden roots of some data are exposed


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Is Google a Cult? Or Does It Just Act That Way?