Discover more from Margins by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk
Tech, Meet the Humans
Humans are good now.
Hi, Can here. Today, some gripes.
A common gripe a lot of people have with the technology industry is how dehumanizing its products are. There are some obvious culprits. All those delivery and not-really-ride-sharing apps treat the drivers and the delivery folks as primarily as the human adapter to a digital platform. There are black-box algorithms that help you decide (or just decide) who you are going to sleep with, who you are going to vote for, who you are going to vote for. There are some humans in the loop somewhere, and occasionally they step out of the shadows when things go haywire, but more often than not, they are often hidden, or at least inaccessible to us (you?) mere mortals.
I mean, there are many reasons for this. Some of it is really just a function of the scale these companies operate. At some level, I do understand that when you are Facebook, and you deal with 2.6B people a day, it’s not going to be feasible to give everyone the white-glove treatment (aside from, ehem, the white-gloved Like button), so you generally automate away as much of the pesky human interaction out of the loop as possible. In one sense, Facebook can exist as a social network by ridding the social out of the network. Nothing human, or human-related, exists at a scale of two god damn point six billion humans. Dehumanization at that scale is just human. Look, I am harping on Facebook somewhat habitually here, but you could really apply this to any company that deals with more than some hundred million users.
There are, however, other reasons too. Maybe the tech companies’ products are so dehumanizing because the companies themselves are. There’s a good amount of evidence that suggests that technology companies, especially those in the Bay Area, have had cultural problems somewhat rooted in the rather problematic, male, and generally white male-dominated culture of the technology circles. The nerds are the kings now, and it turns out they weren’t nice people either. If I am being vague here, it’s only because it’d take me the rest of this essay to list out just the list of the toxic incidents I’ve experienced or heard from those experienced it first hand.
But, you know, these things can go the other way. The main ingredient in any tech company is the human capital, a rather dehumanizing way to refer to people. We talked about this a bit before, but as any founder would tell you, the bottleneck for most tech companies, small and large, is how fast they can hire people to keep the blinkenlights blinking even quicker. Small companies are generally at a disadvantage here as most can’t keep up with hiring in a tiny region with rising living costs. But, if you are a monopoly at a time where the government is asleep at the wheel, you’ll be fine. You have the money, so you just hire, hire, and hire some more.
What happens, though, when you hire so many people, and then as predicted by the law of large numbers, you accumulate enough of those people that fervently disagree with your management decisions? Or maybe, what happens that you end up hiring from such a small pool of people in a tiny geographically concentrated region that those people’s politics tend to differ from those of management? I guess you can ask Google. Maybe there’s no such thing as free Google lunch after all?
It’s been utterly fascinating to watch, for the last few months, the workers at companies like Google, Facebook, and many other places to band together and make their voices heard against the management. For many years, the technology industry and its generally-liked poster boys (obviously, boys) carried themselves as utopian workplaces where you could simply continue all your Stanford dorm habits, including the rather unhygienic ones, and the chasm between the worker and the management was rather...small. I mean, if you actually made it inside the walls, you knew that whole techno-socialist vibe was rather…fake, but nonetheless, it did make good b-roll for 60 Minutes segments and HBS case studies, and the workers were happily compensated enough to not make too much noise.
Yet! Somewhere along the way, as the liberal world order has begun to crumble under its own weight in 2016, the lofty compensation packages of the techies have lost their compensating effect. The famously secretive Facebook is leaking like a sieve. Google is canceling its storied TGIF meetings, and hiring anti-union consulting firms.
Do things get direr from here, if you are on the management side, or is this the end? Or, is this even a thing that really matters when you are enjoying record profits per share quarter after quarter? As many protesters as there are outside Google’s offices, there are many thousands more who are happy to look the other way or maybe just agree with the management’s decisions.
The generally centrist, capitalist side of me suggests that these are really the growing pains of a young industry, which is now realizing that you can’t run a hundred-billion dollar company composed of tens of thousands of people like an anything-goes-madhouse. At some point, people’s gotta realize that there’s work to be done at work, and, you know, if you don’t like it, there are other jobs.
But another side of me thinks that these are also growing pains of an industry that has long neglected its impact on those people who have to deal with the externalities of its products. It is probably good that a company faces criticism when it walks out an executive with checkered sexual harassment past with a hero’s goodbye, or when it takes money from lying politicians under the disguise of some Fifth Estate bullshit. Those things are objectively bad things, and it is good that people whose personal and professional lives intertwined with the places they work at are upset at the management for letting them happen.
Sometimes people ask me if why I am so cynical about the technology industry, and I tell them I really am not. I have been fascinated by computers since I’ve touched one, and made this field my career, somewhat to chagrin of my parents (though they’ve come around). I’ve made a good living working in this field, and continue to do so. However, at the end of the day, I recognize this is all a means to an end, which to make my life as well as others lives better. The work I do is for humans, not computers, and I do it primarily through humans, with computers in the loop, not the other way around. Luckily, I do not need a PR-bot to tell me what I am doing is good for the world.