Issue #15: power is dumb

On the firing of Timnit Gebru and the clueless Google execs who can't help stepping in it

Some news: I’ve signed on to contribute to TECHWORKER, a new publication for and about the people trying to change Silicon Valley from the inside. it’s 100% independent and reader-supported, so please consider subscribing *blows a kiss into the ether*

I don’t come by the practice of questioning authority naturally. Up until the past few years, I was more or less a central casting ‘good girl,’ especially when it came to trust in what people in power say, faith in their good intentions, and acceptance that they are smarter than me. And when I saw leaders make unpopular or inexplicable decisions, my younger self figured there must be considerations beyond what we, the lowly and small of brain, can fathom.

My whole retaliation drama at Google swiftly disabused me of all these notions and more. As it played out–and recall that I was stuck for months in this incredibly painful/awkward ok-I’m-definitely-being-pushed-out-of-my-job-but-I’m-pregnant-and-can’t-quit purgatory, so I had a lot of time to observe how leaders handle or shall I say MISHANDLE messy, complicated things–I marveled not so much at the cruelty and inhumanity of the people in charge (though that was definitely there in flashes), but their sheer dumbness. They are not playing 4-D chess, folks. It’s not even a good game of checkers most of the time.

Take what happened this week with Google firing Dr. Timnit Gebru, a star ethical AI researcher. Consider the context: Google has spent years trying to build credibility as responsible stewards of AI/our future robot overlords. Google’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has also been a major theme and thing for which they want credit, internally, externally, the world over. Within all of this and in general, Timnit is a special leader. Widely described as a pioneer in the field, fiercely beloved by her team, her clear, credible, and principled voice on the biases inherent in AI, even when critical of Big Tech, was–in every respect–such a good look for Google.

So now try to explain the Brain Genius that thought is was a good idea to fire her in a sort of bait-and-switch quotidian dispute over email while she was on vacation. The outrage directed at Google and rallying around Timnit on social media has been swift, total, and sustained over days now. The press cycle has been intensely damaging to Google. Even the people who are like “let’s wait and see the other side of this!” have exited stage left (“The more I read about this, this worse it looks,” per this interesting YCombinator thread analyzing Google’s muddled and missing-the-point-by-a-mile statements). While we wait for a good explanation for why they did this, which will of course never come, I can’t help but ask: Google leadership, did you ever consider just, like, not?

Nitasha’s tweet yesterday took me back to this rich moment in my own retaliation story, though the the craziest bit of the ordeal came just after when a woman responded to this email from Lorraine to express her support for me by saying she’d weathered something similar. The woman recounted to me that when they got on the phone a few days later, Lorraine wasn’t at all interested in hearing her story, and instead launched into a rant about how unhinged I was, how hysterical I was being, how I was known to cry in meetings (great stuff coming from the head of a brand so committed to women!). Not to minimize the damage this all did to me psychologically, but in the immediate aftermath, I felt a sort of out-of-body pity for her and the other executives caught up in it. They were really willing to stake so much integrity, to lose so much of respect and faith from their team for….what exactly? To get rid of one pesky woman who dared to try to hold them to their stated values? To this day, I get a raft of snarky texts when Google execs tweet stuff like this (#suchimportantwork!). Yesterday, I spoke with a senior woman from my old department who said she’s never felt the same since YouTube’s CMO Danielle Tiedt sent a similar email to Lorraine’s to our org (refuting my claim without offering an explanation for what happened, then stuffing the rest with the rhetorical equivalent of “I can’t be racist, look at my black friend!”). “What it said to me,” she said, “is that anyone with a moral compass is not safe at Google.” Now that’s what I call brand marketing!

The irony is that for me, as I suspect with Timnit’s situation, it really never had to come to this. Sure, she was frustrated. And so was I. But it could’ve just been a respectful conversation. (Heck, I was pregnant and desperately wanting to cling to my health insurance. They could’ve tossed me a total b.s. figurehead “Head of Google Womxn for a Kinder Capitalism” position and I would’ve given my goddamn ALL to it! I would literally be on a Melinda Gates Zoom conference rn extolling the woke wonders of Google instead of….whatever this is.)

But of course it wasn’t going to happen that way. I’d threatened the power, even in the smallest of ways, and the power was always gonna power. It is what it is, and what it is is dumb.

Yesterday, I lapped up this email that Timnit sent to a Google-women-and-allies list (which may or may not have been the thing that got her fired). It’s fully, truly awesome–as Laura Olin noted recently, the older you get, the more you appreciate people who can just say the thing, and damn does Timnit “yass, kween!” deliver there. Being able to say hard truths, even when they are inconvenient or unpopular with the powers that be–that’s true leadership, worthy of the utmost respect.

These top Google execs may have power and with that some degree of control over livelihoods and billions of dollars and who knows what else. But that’s not the same thing as respect and as this Timnit story makes excruciatingly clear: they don’t deserve it.