Dear Google Employees
An open letter to the tech giant’s awakened workers
Dear Google Employees,
Congratulations on your letter questioning the morality and impact of the censored search engine you were building for China. You are courageously leveraging your power as developers to insist on participating in decisions about how that power is deployed. You are the human beings who have intervened in the machine.
Your opposition to certain practices, such as building AI to improve Pentagon weaponry, represents a larger questioning of the relationship of the technology business and its investors to human welfare. On all of our behalf, you demanded the information you need to adequately know what you are building and judge whether it aligns with your ethics. You also requested employee participation in ethical reviews of company decisions, and a group of representatives to make ethical assessments of controversial projects.
I believe at least some of those representatives should come from outside the company, and I humbly offer to serve. I have dedicated my career to understanding the embedded biases in new technologies, predicting their effects, and, later, explaining the results. I’ve long argued Program or Be Programmed — which doesn’t just mean learn how to code. It means if you don’t understand the operating system you are using — or don’t even see it — chances are it is using you.
You have recognized the global political and economic operating system on which your programs have been running, and to which they contribute. But, as you have said, you need evaluators with expertise in crucial sectors of human activity impacted by your work.
In addition to myself, I’d suggest Dan Gillmor for his knowledge of the relationship of technology to journalism and free speech; Tim Wu, for his understanding of the attention economy; Astra Taylor, for the relationship of platforms to art production and debt; Larry Lessig for questions of IP and the law; Alicia Garza for her expertise in social justice and activism; Tristan Harris, for the impact of software on behavior and cognition; Marina Gorbis to look at economic inequality; Palak Shah and Trebor Scholz to represent digital labor; Richard Maxwell for effects of technology on the environment, and so on.
Such a committee of people who have been studying the impact of digital technology on essential human rights can use their understanding of larger systems to help you apply your work in ways consistent with your values.
You likely know where to find us. ;)