The debate about “the Google Memo”

The Google Memo and the responses to it I’ve seen, from Left and Right, all seem to tacitly acknowledge the same four points:

  1. There are a lot of macho jerks in tech.
  2. Women, in general, would rather not be surrounded by macho jerks.
  3. Macho jerks, in general, like to pose as the enforcers of the prevailing orthodoxy, regardless of the content of that orthodoxy.
  4. Therefore, the fact that the prevailing orthodoxy within Google is nominally feminist does not in fact reduce the amount of Asshole that the women working there have to put up with.

The controversy all takes the form of commentary on these four points. The author of the memo argues that point #1 is a result of biological necessity. Whole regions of the Internet exist only to dwell on apparent exceptions to point #2, and some of the author’s defenders show the influence of this. In response to point #3, libertarians and other pro-capitalist types defend enforcement of orthodoxy by saying that a business isn’t a debating society, and an employee who takes it upon himself to publish a piece arguing that his company’s shares are overvalued can only expect to be fired. And as to point #4, there is controversy about whether a different kind of feminism or a different way of inculcating it would address the problem.

Something else that’s struck me about the whole affair is that it’s a failure of the center-right media. For years, rightists of all stripes have regarded Google as an adversary. Surely some right-wing publication could have sent a reporter to look into Google’s corporate ethos, and have found James Damore.  Mr (or is it Dr?) Damore could then have unburdened himself to that reporter without fear of being fired.

There are those who suspect that Mr Damore’s memo was an attempt to provoke precisely the reaction he has in fact received, complete with his public firing by Google’s CEO, so that he can make a new career as a right-wing political spokesman.  That seems unlikely to me; the longer he spent at Google, the more opportunities Mr Damore would likely have had to launch new ventures of whatever kind he might like, including right-wing political projects. After all, Steve Bannon didn’t attain his current position by getting himself fired after his first year at Goldman Sachs. And Year One of the Trump Era would hardly seem like a propitious moment to begin a career as a right-wing pundit. But who knows, maybe Mr Damore wasn’t working out at Google and saw a fiery exit at this time as his best option.

“The internet age, one where men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos.”

Earlier today, Amanda Marcotte posted an interesting tweet:

This reminded me of a couple of things.  One was this old xkcd:

Another was this even older post of mine about “Why I Post Under a Pseudonym,” in which I say, among other things: 

First, I teach at a college.  Many of my students look me up on Google.  If I blogged under my real name, they would immediately find this site.  I already catch them spouting opinions which they take to be mine in an attempt to make points.  If I were to make hundreds of posts in which I give my opinions about virtually every possible subject so easy for them to find, I could expect to encounter that sort of thing every day. 

Second, I often tell little stories about people I know.  Since I use a pseudonym and do not identify these people, the reader cannot be expected to know who they are.  Even readers who know me and recognize the characters may find something of the detachment of fiction in a story published under a pseudonym.  If I were to use my real name, however, I would have an obligation to give the others a right to rebut what I have written about them. 

Third, I am not the sole author of this site.  Others post here, still others comment here.  Some of these are people who are connected to me in some identifiable way (for example, my wife) and who may occasionally make remarks here that they would not want to share with everyone in the world.  If I obscure my identity by using a pseudonym, those others may be able to preserve some measure of privacy.

When I first read the xkcd comic above, I thought of that phrase “some measure of privacy,” and saw it as potentially misleading.  “Privacy” is a problematic word for anything that one puts online.  “Detachment” might be better. That I’ve published hundreds of items over a period of more than seven years, some of them quite lengthy, some expressed with fervor, under the name “Acilius” shows that Acilius and his creator are to some extent the same person.  But only to some extent; important as the opinions expressed in those items may be to Acilius’ creator, he is at the end of the day a human being, who would still exist even if he changed or abandoned every opinion he had ever held, while Acilius, as an online persona, is nothing more than the sum of those opinions and the sensibility that informs them.  That’s why I don’t take any steps to make it particularly difficult for tech-savvy readers to identify Acilius with his creator.

“Private sex photos” would for this reason be in a different category from online commenting personae.  Bodies and their sexual responses are usually closer to the core of what makes a human being into a coherent self than are any set of opinions.  I’m not saying that it’s always easy to draw bright lines between opinions and sexual responses; one opinion might translate into disgust where another might promote arousal, and vice versa.  But I would say that if someone confronted me, in real life, with an opinion that had appeared under the name of Acilius, I would have an entirely different set of options as to how to respond to that confrontation than I would have if someone were to confront me with a graphic image of me engaged in sexual activity.  

That also suggests the difference between data-hacking that results in the public exposure of “private sex photos” and data-hacking that results in the hijacking of financial information.  Banks, credit card companies, and other financial services companies usually offer at least partial refunds of moneys stolen by that sort of hijacking, and those refunds represent at least partial remedies for the injury caused.  But there is no refunding any part of that which is lost when “private sex photos” become public.  

While “privacy” is not the same thing today that it was before the digital revolution, it still isn’t some of the things it wasn’t then.  It isn’t now, and never has been, at all the same thing as secrecy.  A secret is something that cannot be made general knowledge unless those who know it choose to reveal it.  So the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes are not secret; anyone looking at you can probably form an estimate of these things to a rather high degree of accuracy.  

Privacy, though, is a concept from the economy of the gift.  We as a society have decided that definite knowledge of the precise shape and coloration of your body under your clothes is a gift which you have the right to share with or withhold from certain people under certain circumstances.  Granted, there are other people to whom we must give this knowledge because of some relation in which they stand to us; for example, medical professionals attending our cases, fellow members of military organizations in which we may find ourselves obligated to serve, etc.  But most of us are in these situations for a finite portion of our lives, and when all is well these situations are themselves governed by well-defined and rigorously enforced rules.  

If, as Ms Marcotte puts it, “men too cowardly to post under their real names claim to be entitled to your private sex photos,” and these claims carry the day, then privacy disappears altogether.  If people who do not stand in any specific relation to us can take as a matter of right what previously we had made available only as a gift, then such things cease to be possible as gifts.  Not only do photos and other graphic representations of nudity or sexual behavior under those circumstances, but also nudity and sexual behavior themselves lose some of the fragile qualities that make each revelation of nudity and each sexual act such an uncommonly precious gift.  The body responds to every stimulus in its environment, consciously or unconsciously; a sex act involves every aspect of the context in which its participants find themselves.  To make a gift of nudity, to make a gift of a sex act, is to make a gift of oneself as one is at that moment, to give everything and withhold nothing.  Even disguises and role-playing and the like only reveal oneself to one’s partner.  Surrender that, not as a gift to a partner, but as payment of a debt collected by a third party, and the economy of gift yields everything to the economy of the marketplace.       

Punchline search

I started using the web back in the mid-90s, when the top search engine was Yahoo.  I loved its “ontology,” the categories and subcategories into which it divided sites.  I would sometimes click on a heading for a topic I didn’t know much about, then on a subheading that I knew even less about, and end up with links to a dizzying array of sub-sub-sub-categories I would never have dreamed existed.  It was great fun.  Long before the success of Google’s radically simple format forced Yahoo to scrap its ontology, however, I had tired of that little game, and simply typed text into the search window.  So the switch to Google was seamless for me.

I’ve been wondering if people would use Google differently today, and if the web would therefore be structured differently, if the first generation of Google users had not included such a high percentage of people whose first experience of search engines had involved a lot of time monkeying around in the labyrinth of Yahoo’ old ontology.  For people like me, the search window was a straightforward place for relatively serious business; the ontology was for goofing off.  So when Google came along, we may have used it as a tool to find fun things, but we didn’t see it as a toy in itself, not at first.

The other day I passed a few idle minutes on Google typing in punchlines, looking for the jokes that went with them.  I was surprised at how little I found.  After a moment of thought, I was surprised that I didn’t run a series of searches like that the first day I used Google.  Without the experience of the old Yahoo, I suspect I probably would have done so, and that a great many other people would have done so as well.  That initial burst of inquiries might have led to the creation of any number of sites matching jokes with punchlines.  Such sites might have become one of the major components of the web, up there with blogs devoted to people telling stories about their cats and conspiracy theories that begin in the 1960s and experiments with Photoshop.

How people found us yesterday

WordPress bloggers often obsess over one particular feature the service offers, which is a list of the search terms that brought views to the site on each day.  Since Los Thunderlads is a general interest blog, our list of search terms sometimes resembles a cross-section of what people are looking for when they search the web.  Here are the search engine terms that brought people here yesterday:

periodic table  
georgia o’keeffe paintings  
andy warhol banana  
bacteriophage model  
stanley fish habermas  
yinka shonibare  
barney fife photos  
barney fife  
ugly hijabi  
gordon lightfoot  
andy warhol banane  
female sex comics guns  
lionel trilling  
zippers in art  
gay periodic table  
naughty muslim women  
google books frontispiece  
burqa pictures  
chadri naked  
white tie  
kids playing  
vietnam sheaf  
women who like rape  
rape of the sabine  
veiled face  
“barney fife”  
horse embryo  
hijab fashion  
royal albert hall  
period table  
muslim women street  
patricia piccinini  
banana andy warhol  
roman military soldier equipment  
giuseppe arcimboldo  
red transparent umbrella  
chemistry textbook periodic table  
robot thinking  
aden yemen map  

As was the case in my previous post along these lines, I can explain some of these, but not all.  Moreover, there are some which,  while I can explain how they led people here, I cannot explain how anyone came to search for them.  For example, “gay periodic table” seems to have led here; but why anyone searched for that particular phrase leaves me at a loss.  That two people came here yesterday as the result of searching for it seems really strange.  And why this site should rank third in a Google Images search for “horse embryo”, I have no idea.

Search terms that brought people to this site on 6 April

I can explain some of these:

indian tennis star sania mirza  
veiled woman  
panther aharoni  
john sloan  
a snake  
fetus week 6  
sania mirza  
“sania mirza” nude  
atlantic monthly  
victoria fontan  
catholic pedophiles  
the cove  
georgia o keeffe paintings  
gay batman naked  
sania mirza in burka  
song about tree sheep ukulele  
patterns conway  
ghosts of mars  
crowded store  
the economist obama cover  


But not all…

Veiled Muslim women

veiled ladyFor some reason this site has been ranking high in Google Images searches for “burqa” in recent weeks.  I don’t understand it; we feature a grand total of one picture with a burqa in it, and that went up in June.  If you are one of the dozens of people who lands here every day looking for pictures of burqas (or niqabs, or chadors,) below are some links you might like. 

  1.  two ladies on the street 
  2.  a customer in a dress shop chooses a blue burqa
  3. Muslim couple looks at the Eiffel Tower
  4. veiled lady pays her respects to America’s war dead 
  5. black and blue together
  6. veiled women texting
  7. Blackberry hijabi
  8. veiled lady sewing burqa  
  9. black-white-black
  10. jungle print burqa
  11. white and gold gown (face veil down)
  12. bejeweled veil on fashion catwalk
  13. American flag veil
  14. veiled lady snowtubing  

Familiar faces, veiled: Minnie Mouse; “Liberty Leading the People”; “Liberty Enlightening the World”;  Li’l Kim partly veiled (but almost nude); Mary, Mother of Jesus; Condoleezza Rice; Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, veiled


Is the internet sexist?

Here’s a simple experiment.  Go to Google Images.  Turn off safe search.  Type in the word “man.”  Look at the first screen of results.  Note how many are nsfw.  Then search for “woman,” and make the same note.  Repeat the process with “girl,” “boy,” “male,” “female,” “she,” “he,” and other gender words.  Include pairs of masculine and feminine names, such as “Julia” and “Julius,” in your search.