Power, Justice, and Professionalism in the Tech Workplace

This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees. Collectively, they describe a company whose attempt to tamp down on difficult conversations blew up in its face as employees rejected the notion that discussions of power and justice should remain off limits in the workplace. And they suggest that efforts to eliminate disruptions in the workplace by regulating internal speech may cause even more turmoil for a company in the long run.

Source: 🚨 How Basecamp blew up – Platformer

Right-wing narratives of woke capitalism are so off. Tech leaders aren’t remotely woke, as evidenced here, yet again. Over and over, tech leaders fail to rise to the 101 level of analyzing power and confronting injustice. The “disruptions” eliminated by suppressing internal speech are marginalized people. The silence is suffocating.

“Racism [and] white supremacy are not things that are so convenient that they only happen when full intention is present, or true malice is present,” the employee said. “Evil is not required. We’re not so lucky as for this to come down to good and evil. It’s as simple as creating a space where people do not feel welcome.”

The employee continued: “The silence in the background is what racism and white supremacy does. It creates that atmosphere that feels suffocating to people. It doesn’t require active malice. It’s not that convenient.”

Source: 🚨 How Basecamp blew up – Platformer

Marginalized groups are tired from the exhausting work of coaching white men to understand their world. The leadership at Basecamp, and pretty much every tech company, are so far behind at understanding worlds outside their own that their professionalism is in question.

For this reason, I would suggest a renewed focus on MESH education,which stands for Media Literacy, Ethics, Sociology, and History. Because if these are not given equal attention, we could end up with incredibly bright and technically proficient people who lack all capacity for democratic citizenship.

Source: Forget STEM, We Need MESH. The importance of media literacy… | by Tim Wise | Our Human Family | Medium

The price of relevance is fluency,” and these leaders are not fluent.

Worse, that visibility of critique means that powerful people now have to do work that they didn’t want to do. They can’t stand it.

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

Similarly, CEOs keep fussing about how it’s hard to not offend people these days. (Being a CEO myself, this one ends up on my radar a lot.) Now, every person in marketing knows they have to try to stay culturally relevant, and certainly every ordinary worker knows they constantly have to be learning new skills and developing professionally. But if a CEO has been in his seat long enough, he’ll often get deeply resentful of being told that he has to learn new ways of being respectful to the people who were systematically obstructed from reaching his awareness in the past.

Source: The price of relevance is fluency

Previously,

A Polarizing Diet of Engagement and Behaviorism

Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.

Source: He got Facebook hooked on AI. Now he can’t fix its misinformation addiction | MIT Technology Review

The pigeon. The object of technological experimentation, manipulation, and control, weaponized.

Source: The Pigeons of Ed-Tech

The diet of engagement and behaviorism served by Facebook and big tech make for primitive moral development in both server and served.

Nolan’s inability to think about others, combined with his obvious self-interest certainly exemplify a primitive level of moral development… but, if the adults in his life subscribe to an equally primitive kind of character development, how can we come to expect anything more? How can we expect kids like Nolan to progress to a higher level of ethical behavior when our dependence on rewards and punishment is precisely what condemns kids to such primitive self-interest.

Source: for the love of learning: Primitive Moral Development: PBIS

Where were we radicalized? In a Skinner Box. (Skinner preferred the term “Operant Conditioning Chamber”.)

The beauty of the Internet is that by combining big data, behavioral targeting, wearable and mobile devices, and GPS, application developers can design more effective operant conditioning environments and keep us in virtual Skinner boxes as long as we have a smart phone in our pockets.

Source: Skinner Marketing: We’re the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward – The Atlantic

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

We’ve constructed vast engines of confirmation bias that bubble many of us in bespoke Skinner box universes of misinformation, though we dress it all in cognitive science and AI.

These are “technologies of behavior” that we can trace back to Skinner – perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly due to Skinner’s continual engagement with the popular press. His fame and his notoriety. Behavioral management – and specifically through operant conditioning – remains a staple of child rearing and pet training. It is at the core of one of the most popular ed-tech apps currently on the market, ClassDojo. Behaviorism also underscores the idea that how we behaveand data about how we behave when we click can give programmers insight into how to alter their software and into what we’re thinking.

If we look more broadly – and Skinner surely did – these sorts of technologies of behavior don’t simply work to train and condition individuals; many technologies of behavior are part of a broader attempt to reshape society. “For your own good,” the engineers try to reassure us. “For the good of the world.”

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

So frustrating, especially when the Internet can be used to the opposite effect.

Chance favors the connected mind. Opportunities for serendipity increase with bigger, more diverse networks. Build personal learning networks. Expose yourself to new perspectives. Listen in solidarity. Be in the space. When we seek perspectives different than our own, share hunches, and connect ideas, we participate in created serendipity.

Source: Created Serendipity: Chance Favors the Connected Mind – Ryan Boren

We can’t make ethical tech if we’re in the behaviorism business.

(It’s worth teasing out a little – but probably not in this talk, since I’ve rambled on so long already – the difference, if any, between “persuasion” and “operant conditioning” and how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity. Rhetorically and practically.)

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

It’s a hyper-evolutionary process that rewards the most extractive, most addictive, most viral strain from the cohort. The key measurement is ENGAGEMENT.

More engagement. More rage, more fake news, all resulting in more hours spent, more eyeballs fixated, more clicks and taps made.

Source: Exponential growth devours and corrupts – Signal v. Noise

See also:

Post-truth, Open Society, and the Business of Behaviorism

Never before in human history have objective facts been so readily available, and so ignored.

Diluting accurate information can be accomplished by polluting public consciousness with disinformation. By decreasing the signal to noise ratio in this manner, the ordinary public is unable to effectively differentiate what is objectively true and then the mind retreats to where it is most at ease: the seeking of information which confirms preconceived ideas.

Source: Combating Confirmation Bias: Defeating Disinformation Campaigns In The Future By Extending Information Security — The Future of Text

As vast engines of confirmation bias pollute the public consciousness with disinformation, I am reminded of George Soros’ caveat to Karl Popper’s Open Society.

Investor and philanthropist George Soros, a self-described follower of Karl Popper, argued that sophisticated use of powerful techniques of subtle deception borrowed from modern advertising and cognitive science by conservative political operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove casts doubt on Popper’s view of open society. Because the electorate’s perception of reality can easily be manipulated, democratic political discourse does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality. Soros argues that in addition to the need for separation of powers, free speech, and free elections, an explicit commitment to the pursuit of truth is imperative. “Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception.”

Source: Open society – Wikipedia

There is no respect for reality from Donald Trump and the GOP. Post-truth is pre-fascism and perhaps the greatest enemy of an open society.

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.

Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.

The claim that Trump was denied a win by fraud is a big lie not just because it mauls logic, misdescribes the present and demands belief in a conspiracy. It is a big lie, fundamentally, because it reverses the moral field of American politics and the basic structure of American history.

Source: The American Abyss – The New York Times

What to do? In 2007, Soros said:

What is needed is a concerted effort to identify the techniques of manipulation – and to name and shame those who use them.

Source: From Popper to Rove – and back | US news | The Guardian

Facebook has endured some, but not nearly enough, naming and shaming for merchandizing the tools of mass manipulation. Beyond shaming individual companies, let’s name and shame one of the techniques: behaviorism. For the sake of open society, we should all get out of the behaviorism business.

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century