Tag Archive for digital culture

Google Should Not Have Fired Their Engineer over Sexist Memo

A pig.

Anyone who knows me personally knows my politics are generally liberal sprinkled with a strong respect for tradition. I also am willing to label myself a feminist in the traditional sense of the word – an advocate for the equality of women in all aspects of society. The reason I mention this is to provide context for my contention that Google was wrong to fire an employee for his wrongheaded remarks about women in tech. And also, to head off arguments that I am some right-wing, women bashing, pig.

Like many in the tech community, I have been following the story of Google engineer James Damore’s internal memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”. I was taken aback by two aspects of the memo: how well written it is and how weak the data is. In most cases, Mr. Damore does rely on stereotypes and not real data. That makes his arguments less than defensible. Firing him for those arguments though, is draconian. Google action also helps to prove Mr. Damore’s point about the intolerance of views that don’t meet with, what he perceives, as a left leaning bias. Let me put this another way – you don’t fire someone because you find their views odious. That’s not liberal. Liberals revel in freedom of thought and respectful public discourse. Mr. Damore sought out a dialog and, in this case, is more “liberal” than Google management.

Unfortunately, Google also missed a rare opportunity to discuss gender stereotypes and the biases they drive. That would have been a great service to Google, the tech industry, and society at large. It may have been a teachable moment not just for Mr. Damore but for everyone in tech who believe we are untouched by the hidden biases of the greater society. Here’s where the scientific literature may have helped. Mr. Damore’s fellow Googlers (Googlites? Googles? Whatever…) could have used reason to dispel his notions about gender, citing real scientific fact and respected data. He does not come across as an unreasonable person, just lacking in appropriate facts. Politely pointing out where the research doesn’t support his ascertains may have swayed him and any other readers who hold the same views.

Change almost never happens by silencing critics who act in a respectful manner and ask for dialog. It only provides a bigger soapbox from which to pronounce distorted views. Change happens when we learn from each other, something that Mr. Damore says he is open to. Removing him doesn’t remove his point of view. Googlers who share his views won’t suddenly abandon them. Instead they will see evidence that he is right and Google is biased against dissenting viewpoints.

Ultimately, Mr. Damore asked for a discussion. Wouldn’t that have been better approach? Legalities aside, removing someone from their livelihood is harsh. It is especially so when he was encouraged to share his views openly. By firing Mr. Damore, Google seems to prove his point that the company may be authoritarian, biased, and intolerant. It’s just too bad that Google missed an opportunity to prove him wrong – wrong about Google and wrong about women in tech.

I certainly don’t agree with Mr. Damore. My 33 years in the tech industry (which are likely a few more than his) have taught me that women engineers are every bit as capable as men. That more women are not in tech has more to do with a company culture that is not family friendly and managers with views such as Mr. Damore’s, than the ability of women to do the job. That doesn’t mean that he should be fired for having these views, even if they are antediluvian. Instead, respectful discourse would have accomplished so much more.

An Open Letter to Prince or Whatever You Are Called These Days

Dear Prince, Prince’s Publisher, and Prince’s Management,

Are you daft? Not as in Daft Punk – who is quite popular– but meaning “have you lost your mind?”. All of your music has been removed from Spotify and a bunch of other streaming music and video sites. And not just all of the music you recorded but anything you wrote and someone else recorded. This includes the Cindy Lauper recording “When You Were Mine” from her classic “She’s so Unusual” and the iconic Sinead O’Conner song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Classic songs form a classic age. Great music just waiting for a new generation to discover it – and put money in your pocket.

Instead you and your publisher prefer to live in the musical equivalent of a cave. It’s dark, lonely, and you can’t see what’s happening in the real world. And in the real world services such as Spotify not only play the songs you want to hear but recommend songs that you may ever have heard of before. You know, like music written by someone in a dank cave. Let’s be honest, at this point in your career any connection you can make to young people, any time they can find your music and enjoy it, is a plus. You’re an old guy like me. If anyone in the 15 to 20 demographic runs across your music and thinks it’s pretty cool, you are way ahead. It’s certainly better than fading into obscurity or, worse, embarking on those nostalgia tours with Flock of Seagulls and Adam Ant. And if you doubt your obscurity, you pulled your music from streaming music services in July and I just realized it and I’m from your era. That’s not a good sign.

How do you think young people will find your music? From the music press? Almost no one under 40 reads music magazines, especially Rolling Stone. Even if young people are reading the music press (which will be online by the way), the music press isn’t writing about you. At least not since you changed your name back from an unpronounceable symbol that caused everyone to refer to you as “the artists formerly known as Prince.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the statement you were going for. How else? MTV? Ha! They haven’t been relevant from a music perspective in 25 years – at least! You won’t show up even on VH-1 since they ended the “Behind the Music” series. So, unless you plan to get drunk and plow your car into a crowd with a Kardashian in the passenger seat, I doubt any of these outlets will care enough to mention you.

So, let me help you out here. Young people get their music in one of two ways: through YouTube, and similar video services, and streaming music outlets such as Spotify and Pandora. In other words, the very outlets you eschew. They like to go to concerts which means we’re back to the nostalgia tour and the hope that someone in their 50s will drag their college age kids along, most likely against their will. Seriously, the technology of music delivery changed 15 years ago. No one under 45 buys CDs anymore and even digital downloads are on the way out. Just wake up and smell the bits and bytes.

And do you know why this is? Do you have a clue as to why people pay for streaming services? Three reasons. First off, many don’t. Music listeners who are not real serious about music or lack a real job don’t mind a couple of commercials if they can binge on Best Coast. Second, they can binge on Best Coast. Or R.E.M., Alabama Shakes, CHVRCHES, Stray Cats, Bryan Ferry, or even The Three O’Clock for cryin’ out loud. Except for Prince. That’s off limits.

Finally, it’s the recommendations. Whether recommendations come from friends or they come from predictive analytics, people like a good suggestion. And this is where you really miss out. Those social and automated recommendations help explain why we see teenagers and college students listening to music from the 80’s, 90’s, 70’s, or 60’s. Not the 50’s. They haven’t discovered that decade’s music yet but it’s coming.

Let me outline how this works. Someone hears a song by a band through a recommendation or a friends sends them a link to a video on Vimeo. They tell their friends about it who then go on a streaming music service to listen to it. The friends love the song too! Suddenly, they receive recommendations that basically say “if you like this band, then you might like these other bands”. On Spotify, you get a weekly playlist of recommended songs based on what you’ve been listening too. And in among those recommendations might just be one for Prince. Except that you and your publisher won’t allow these young people to discover your music that way.

See, streaming music and video services are all about reducing friction. Friction, in this context, is conceptually like friction in Physics. It’s an impediment – something that holds us back. A force against forward motion. In this case, streaming music makes it affordable to try out artists you never would have listened to, including those no longer on the radio (not that young people are listening to the radio). They make it easy to discover new artists that would have taken more effort to find than most people have patience for. In a nutshell, they reduce the impediments i.e. friction to finding and enjoying music, perhaps even your music. By removing yourself from streaming music services, you add to the friction, ensuring irrelevance to modern audiences. That is unless their parents are huge Prince fans and positively insist on playing old vinyl records for their children morning, noon, and night. Their kids will hear you but resent you so that doesn’t seem like a strategy you should hang your hat on.

Perhaps your music cave is full of money and you don’t care about royalties. Perhaps, but your cave is not full of relevance. As an artist, don’t you want to be heard? Doesn’t it bother you that there is entire generation of young people just waiting to discover your music, just waiting to hear you party like’s it’s 1999 (back in 1982), but who won’t because you and you’re publishing company are – what? Looking for more royalties? Please, get over yourself. Your heyday was 30 plus years ago. It’s one thing when a current megastar like Taylor Swift postures. It’s still not smart but she at least doesn’t need these services to remain relevant and, sadly, you do. It’s also why Bruce Springsteen continues to attract young audience members – he makes his music accessible to his fans and their friends.

So as someone who remembers your peak days somewhat fondly, I implore you, for your own sake stop the madness (but not Madness who is on Spotify and YouTube)! Allow 50-something women to send their college age daughters links to “Purple Rain”. Leverage all the predictive analytics, automated recommendation engines, and ‘bots to introduce your music to a whole new generation. Or, sit in your money filled music cave, fade further into obscurity, and let the Blake Babies become the avatar of music for the current generation.

And may God have mercy on our souls.