Embrace empathy

Two unconnected events that splashed controversy over the tech industry this week share the same underlying theme: Empathy. Or rather a lack of it.

Here’s the first: An internal memo written by a Google staffer was leaked to the press. The 10-page note, authored by a white, male software engineer called James Damore, argued that Google’s left-leaning political bias has created an “ideological echo chamber” that shames “dissenters” into silence.

Specifically, the writer criticized the company’s diversity efforts and tried to ascribe tech’s gaping gender gap to innate biological differences between the sexes. Among his suggestions for reworking the company’s internal culture was that Google should “de-emphasize empathy”.

“I’ve heard several suggestions for increased empathy on diversity issues,” wrote Damore. “While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy — feeling another’s pain — causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.”

As others have noted, this amounts to a manifesto for the mass employment of robots instead of humans.

Shortly after the document was made public, Damore was fired by Google for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”.

In an email to staff explaining his decision to terminate Damore’s employment, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

And here’s the second event: A consumer app, called FaceApp, which uses neural networks to power photorealistic face-editing features, added a new set of filters that gave users the ability to apply a different ethnicity to a face.

Asked why he thought it was OK to create what he termed “ethnicity change filters”, and why he did not feel the filters were racially insensitive, FaceApp’s founder, a white male software engineer called Yaroslav Goncharov, told us the filters were “designed to be equal in all aspects”, asserting: “They don’t have any positive or negative connotations associated with them. They are even represented by the same icon. In addition to that, the list of those filters is shuffled for every photo, so each user sees them in a different order.”

A few hours later, after public criticism of the filters, and after we had pointed out the historical context that makes ‘blackface’ racist and offensive, FaceApp removed them from the app.

Apparently, Goncharov and his team’s perspective on racism did not extend to considering the history of racist stereotypes.

And this despite FaceApp chalking up a prior race-related controversy, after a ‘hotness’ filter was shown to be equating whiteness with attractiveness by bleaching the skin of people of color. In that instance, FaceApp later said the issue had been caused by bias in their AI training dataset.

Now if we assume no out-and-out malicious intent, we must conclude that FaceApp’s team suffers from a lack of diversity, and thus exhibits low empathy for ethnicities outside its caucasian baseline — all of which drastically limits its perspective, causing the team’s product choices to bounce them from one offensive controversy to another.

At the same time, software engineers having less empathy is literally being lauded as a desirable goal — by a privileged, white male software engineer, Damore, who, until very recently, held one of the most coveted jobs in tech, as a “Googler”.

At the time of writing, Damore is busy donning the garb of a victim, describing his firing from Google as a “betrayal“, and being embraced by the alt-right as a ‘free speech martyr’ — instead of considering how his own limited (i.e. white, male) perspective has derailed his own career.

This former college kid is also displaying an apparent lack of historical awareness vis-a-vis what living inside a Gulag would actually be like…

FaceApp’s snafu is exactly the kind of situation that would — it logically follows — be more likely to occur if you were to adopt Damore’s idea of de-emphasizing empathy in your software engineering team, most especially should that team be drastically lacking in diversity (NB: Google’s engineering staff skews 80 per cent male).

So, basically, [insert full spectrum facepalm emoji bar right here].

Don’t be stupid (or evil)

No consumer product exists in a societal vacuum. Which was a point we apparently had to make to FaceApp, as controversy flared over its latest racist filters — yet the team apparently remained clueless as to why they were once again offending masses of potential users.

You can’t ignore context. Or, well you demonstrably can, but you do so at your peril. Because it’s a spectacularly stupid thing to do.

The ability to see not only a bigger picture, but a fully rounded, full spectrum color picture is essential if you want your product to win friends and influence people everywhere, in all walks of life.

See, for example, how long it took Apple — a company whose executive ranks still skew overwhelmingly male — to add period tracking to its Health application. Um, ignoring the needs of ~50 per cent of the population isn’t good business sense, guys!

Being ignorant of gender issues or historical and cultural context might explain why you’ve failed to avoid the massive pitfall opening up in front of you. But it’s not a defense against failing massively.

You’re still going to trip up and fall right into that gaping hole.

Nor can your personal ‘sense of fairness’ and/or ‘facts/logic’ shield you from causing wider offense if you also lack the ability to see beyond your own monotone boundaries (also known as having a ‘limited perspective’ — a typical human state that can be ameliorated by empathizing with people other than and different to yourself).

If you have no idea about the history of racist stereotypes, and how they have been deployed to misrepresent and oppress, then I guess it’s possible to convince yourself that all you need to do to make sure your race-related product choices aren’t horribly offensive is to randomly shuffle the order you present your “ethnicity filters” and badge them all with an identical, globe-shaped icon.

However your product will remain horribly offense to people who do not share your (i.e. white, privileged) world view.

And you will quickly find yourself wearing the equivalent of an egg-on-your-face filter, as FaceApp has. At least they quickly pulled the filters when their obvious idiocy was pointed out to them.

Just as, if you have zero life experience outside of the privileged confines of elite engineering schools, where you probably mostly encountered other privileged white guys who shared the same world view as you, it’s apparently possible to convince yourself that the gaping gender disparity so massively evident all around you in the highly privileged space you and your male peers occupy and enjoy, is somehow, y’know, a naturally occurring phenomenon — like rainbows or cumulonimbus clouds — instead of stemming from the tectonic social forces that continually shape and bend individual choices and opportunities, i.e. long after a developing foetus has been exposed to prenatal testosterone.

It’s frankly amazing to watch a twentysomething Googler disinterre and rehash sexist myths that men are more ‘logical’ and women more prone to “neuroticism” — cherry picking some stuff he found on the Internet to use as citations to justify a prejudiced view — before confidently (and now publicly) calling for less empathy in the workplace.

And yet here we are.

The ugly connective tissue that’s being glimpsed behind the scenes across the tech industry, whether via outspoken anti-diversity sentiments or ill-judged digital product launches or indeed sexism that’s so baked in as to be systemic, does not look like a coincidence.

Nor indeed does the growing tsunami of dubious data readily available online — and trivially amplified with the help of additional powerful tech tools.

Data, remixed and selectively spewed, is the weapon of choice in the culture wars. And it can be made to construct any narrative you choose. Someone should really tell Damore that’s not “science”; it’s fiction.

Increasingly, we’re glimpsing a sort of warped reverse mirror view of the Silicon Valley utopianism that tech CEOs love to project as a halo to shine over their “world changing” products.

The reality is rather more destabilizingly narrow and damaging to those who lie outside the member’s club.

Or, to put it another way, world changing for the worse.

To really spell it out: Your lack of perspective, your lack of diversity and your lack of empathy are your blindspots. And your blindspots will sink you and/or your product if you let them.

In Damore’s case, they have sunk his immediate career prospects.

Although, given he hails from a position of privilege, and is already being raised up by those who identify with an anti-diversity viewpoint — and handed a platform to continue to expose and amplify such views — he’s unlikely to be forced to go unemployed for long. Just as he’s hardly being silenced.

A better choice of T-shirt for Damore would carry the slogan: ‘RIP Irony’.

Other slogans are also available.

Off the top of my head, here’s a couple of ideas —

  • Encourage diversity
  • Embrace empathy
  • Don’t be an asshat

We reached out to Damore with questions about his views on empathy. At the time of writing he had not responded to, nor apparently read, our email — although he had updated his LinkedIn profile to add his #NewProfilePic