Google, Eich, Rice: The Evil That Tech Does

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Techies hate politics. Well, no: we hate the idea of politics. Whenever I talk to pretty much anyone in the industry about politics as a sphere of human endeavor, from individual coders to zillionaire VCs, pained expressions cross their faces and they rush to distance themselves from the whole toxic mess.

Which is a problem on two levels. One, now that technology is the dominant cultural and economic force of our time, it can no longer divorce itself from politics. Two, for the same reason, decisions made by the tech industry can and do have political reverberations elsewhere.

I’m talking about Brendan Eich and Condoleeza Rice, of course. Eich’s resignation has been met with consternation by people inside and outside the Valley, from Marc Andreessen to Michael Arrington to, notably, Andrew Sullivan, who rages:

There is only one permissible opinion at Mozilla, and all dissidents must be purged! [...] When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel?

Andrew Sullivan is a smart guy, but he’s also a political animal, so I don’t think he understands the techie point of view here. First, Eich was neither “purged” nor “fired”: he decided to resign. Political animals talk about people being “hounded” to resignation, but to techies, that’s nonsense; he resigned, and he didn’t have to. (And frankly I think that if he hadn’t, then the furor would have mostly blown over in a month or two.)

More importantly, he doesn’t get that for techies, this wasn’t about politics, this couldn’t be about politics, because we don’t do politics, or so we tell ourselves. Politics is that icky stuff over there which we transcend. Brendan Eich did an evil thing and, as Sullivan notes, refused to completely recant, which, to those unwilling to distinguish between an evil opinion and an evil person, makes him evil. (Whether it was for religious reasons is at best irrelevant; in the tech world, “evil for religious reasons” is arguably even worse than “evil.”) Those people really didn’t want Mozilla to be led by an evil person. As simple as that.

Another example: the Drop Dropbox campaign triggered by the appointment of Condoleeza Rice to their board. (See also the unusually thoughtful Hacker News discussion; over the last year or two HN has slouched and spiralled downwards into little more than the new Slashdot, but this is a brief return to form.) To be fair, the Drop Dropbox campaign does cite one argument that’s actually relevant to Dropbox in particular — Rice’s history of supporting warrantless wiretapping — but mostly it’s more of the same: “she’s evil! We can’t have evil people running our online services!”

Which sounds naive. Or maybe idealistic. Another thing non-techies don’t really get about the tech world is that it is quietly a haven of starry-eyed idealism. Even the most jaded coder or cynical sysadmin, if plied with alcohol in a dark dive bar, will probably crack and admit to a certain techno-utopian streak. Many of us secretly-or-not-so-secretly believe that as technology brings the world together, and educates people, everyone will come around to thinking like we do; that San Francisco today is Earth tomorrow. In the context of that narrative, a bigot becoming CEO of Mozilla, or a member of the worst American administration in a very long time becoming a board member of Dropbox, seems viscerally, fundamentally wrong.

And there is actually something to aspects of our techno-utopianism. I’m still in West Africa as I write this, and I can assure you, technology is steadily making the whole world better and its people happier — so far:

(I note in passing that I’ve recently encountered an interesting new approach to the same subject; not “don’t be evil” but “can’t be evil.” More on that next week.)

But “evil” is tricky to define — or at least, it’s tricky to determine who exactly gets to define it. If a person once contributed to an evil cause, doesn’t really recant, but does apologize and promise to never actually do anything evil, are they therefore so evil that they cannot be accepted as a tech CEO? Really? How about as President? Consider Sullivan’s comparison between Eich and, say, Hillary Clinton:

If it is unconscionable to support a company whose CEO once donated to the cause against marriage equality, why is it not unconscionable to support a candidate who opposed marriage equality as recently as 2008, and who was an integral part of an administration that embraced the Defense Of Marriage Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton?

I don’t want a bigot as CEO of Mozilla either. I too would like to live in a world where everyone takes as given that marriage is a fundamental right for anyone of any sexual orientation, and where those who instigated the war on Iraq and managed its disastrous aftermath are treated as contemptible pariahs. But we don’t live in that world, yet, and automatically demonizing everyone who disagrees with us, and everyone/everything associated with them, does not seem like the right way to bring it closer.

Maybe I’m biased, because a friend of mine worked with Eich personally for years and is outright appalled by what’s happened; or maybe I’m optimistic, because I think it makes sense to give people second or even third chances; but I can’t convince myself that either Mozilla or the world is a better place now that Eich is perceived as a man hounded out of leadership because he once donated $1000 to Proposition 8.

I think the case against Rice is actually stronger, but as Ramez Naam says:

I don’t know. I’m conflicted. And I wish other people were too. These issues are almost always more nuanced than a simple “evil! no! out!” knee-jerk reaction allows. I realize that might sound like a preamble to messy and clouded political compromises, rather than clean moral decisions. But politics, at least as it should be practiced, is in large part the art of dealing with the fact that not everyone agrees with our morality … and technology is politics now. Whether we like it or not.