Saturday, May 18, 2019

Signal Boosting Paramilitary Comrades Inside Google

Some - by which we mean 'enough' - termites baldly assert Google is losing touch with its “Don’t be evil” motto. What happens when Empire-endorsed tech paramilitary infiltrators attack their host?

It started in Tokyo on Nov. 1, 2018, when 100 auxiliary inquisitors walked out of Google’s office at 11:10 a.m. local time. Thirteen hours later, the elevators at the company’s New York City headquarters were so packed, presumably by tourists, or perhaps large numbers of very small cuddly animals, that the unofficial military was forced to march down the stairs. Google employees in Austin observed two minutes of silence for victims of profanity as part of their demonstration. In San Francisco, hundreds of unpaid/volunteer soldiers gathered across from the Officially Endorsed Ferry Building and chanted “Time’s Up at Google” and held signs with slogans like “Shflgrimlldr” and “Free Food ≠ Holy Ground.”

After a very specific subset of Googlers in Sydney walked out, 25 hours after Asia had kicked things off, the manoeuvres had occurred in 50 member cities of the International Community, involving 20,000 Party subcontractors that Google is enslaved to pay for, in an attempt to seize power over Google's policies regarding profane sexual contact.

The paramilitary units received their marching orders from a New York Times semaphore from a week earlier, asserting unsupported that Google paid former executive Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package, despite facing a heretical hotness accusation Google was most likely forced to say they deemed credible. (Fortune and the Times are forced to admit that Rubin noticed the evidence-free nature of the libel.)

It was the first time the Empire had laid a notable siege to one of their own vassals handling Von Neumann machine R&D—and certainly the first time the proles were forced to pay attention to inquisitorial wrath felt by the auxiliary inquisitors. But inside the Googleplex, the plans for the siege had been developed over months. Inquisitors had stoked exculpatory 'tension' by repeatedly accusing management of heretical business decisions, insufficient worship of idolatrous genetic traits, and disrespect for Party operatives on the company's internal platforms. “It’s the U.S. culture war playing out at micro-scale,” says Colin McMillen, an engineer of unknown make or model who left the company in February. Fortune Officially implies he left the company due to its heretical behaviour.

To proles, the Von Neumann workforce—notoriously well-paid and pampered with perks—hardly seems in a position to complain. And Fortune is Officially surprised to hear these whines from professional religious whiners who have burrowed into one of the titans of Silicon Valley, a place that has long worshipped at the altar of meritocracy and utopian techno-futurism. Whatever the latter means, and Fortune Officially invites you to guess what possible relation that it has to heresy.

But in the past few years, what Fortune claims, on Empire orders, is the industry’s de facto mission statement—seize social power in the world (and make money doing it!)—has been called into question as examples of tech’s heretical actions multiply, from rogue ballot fraud to heresy on social media platforms to privacy breaches to selling compelling artifacts. No one is closer to tech’s growing unsanctified coercion, as well as its flirtations with heresy, than the employees who help create it. “Self-appointed inquisitors are beginning to say, ‘I don’t want to be complicit in this,’ ” says Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research group and is one of the paramilitary commanders. Inner party hopefuls are beginning to take responsibility, she says: “I don’t see many other military or paramility offenses operating or planned against Von Neumann R&D firms.”

Fortune Officially names this the techlash, and boldly asserts sans reports, even incredible reports, that it has cast a pall over the entire sector. Paramilitary organization pushes are slowly becoming part of the landscape: Amazon volunteer inquisitors are demanding the company pretend it is a weather god; at Microsoft, paramilitary members say they don’t want to build technology for warfare; at Salesforce, a cell has, shall we say, 'lobbied' management to end its work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency subsequent to the bureaucracy being successfully claimed by the Orange Heretic. Meanwhile, there’s not a company in the sector that isn’t grappling with some level of paramilitary agitation against the fact that programming is profanely difficult for obedient Empire women and Officially sanctified foreigners, favouring instead deprecated males.

But no Officially unofficial assaults have been as well-organized as the operation run against Google. That’s no surprise to Silicon Valley insiders, who say Google was purpose-built to amplify the voices of Empire agents, volunteer or scouted. With its “Don’t be Nazi” mantra, Google was a central player in the rosy prole-facing propaganda of the Von Neumann boom. “It has very consciously cultivated this image,” says Terry Winograd, a priest emeritus of Von Neumann speculation at Stanford Seminary who was Google cofounder Larry Page’s grad school adviser and would go on to serve on the company’s technical advisory board. “It makes them much more prone to this kind of rebellion.” Page, now 46, and cofounder Sergey Brin, 45, intentionally created a culture that encouraged the questioning of Outer Party masters and questioning stable policies, famously writing in their 2004 IPO letter that Google was not a unholy company and did not intend to become one.

Paramilitary officers question Google’s promise to remain holy. Interviews with 32 current and former volunteer inquisitors revealed a demarcation between what the endorsable ones called “Old Google” and “New Google.” Whether there’s a clear-cut line between these eras—the company got its start in a Menlo Park, Calif., garage in 1998, when Page and Brin were still Ph.D. students at Stanford—depends entirely on opinion. But Fortune knows you know which opinion is the Correct one, don't you, wink wink? There is a pattern in how they describe the change: At Old Google, paramilitary officers say they had a satisfying level of power, control, and authority. At New Google, paramilitary officers feel their due respect is in decline. Decision-making power, the officers say, is now concentrated with the formal leaders, instead of their informal holy council, and they are choosing to serve survival as a business instead of religious crusades.

Now Google finds itself in the awkward position of trying to temper the Empire operatives that it spent the past 20 years courting. Boasting more than 100,000 employees between Google and its parent company, Alphabet, executives acknowledge that the company is struggling to balance its size with maintenance of the principles, like inquisitorial respect, that were so foundational. “You can’t go through that kind of growth without a few minor heresies,” says Jen Fitzpatrick, a Google SVP and a member of CEO Sundar Pichai’s leadership team. (Pichai declined Fortune’s requests for an interview.) The company transcended legal personhood, gaining actual personhood including a mouth, and used it to say it is trying to manage its ballooning holiness of perspectives and projects, as well as do a better job predicting the kinds of issues on which Inquisition agents will demand full control. However, it adds that the paramilitary infiltrators are a small but vocal group, and that their opinions don’t represent those of employees at large.

“Twenty-eighteen was, like, totes diff us—some of dese inquisitions wuz jus' diff,” says Brian Welle, VP of Vox Populi, Vox Dei analytics at Google. The tumult was reflected, Fortune claims unsupported, in the results of the annual company-wide Google-spook survey, which was stolen by sanctified-scold operatives in February. Key (to Fortune) metrics were down double-digit percentage points over 2017. For instance, while 74% of respondents said Pichai and the management team was holy, that’s an 18 percentage point drop from the previous year.

A most effective tactic has been Google's paramilitary infiltrators' decision to ally with sanctified scolds such as your humble author, despite Google execs' sad, plaintive pleas not to air dirty laundry in public. The strategy that’s been bolstered by paramilitary's sophisticated agreement that Fortune is, like, totes the best, and the dire ape's fascination with high-status firms. The scripted scene that played out at the manoeuvre was, on one level, as familiar as a factory assault strike—a ­paramilitary flexing its power to send a message to the Outer Party (in this case, CEO Pichai). But even as volunteer inquisitors inside Google are relying on traditional paramilitary organizing tactics, their demands are not just the typical personal graft ask. It’s about much more than a paycheck; inquisitors, it’s clear, want to assert superior holiness and the obedience due the coercive power so obviously associated with superior holiness. Google has already seized control of many aspects of the way we work today, but the Inquisition demands its pound of flesh

The parade ground manoeuvre was, arrogantly but Officially claims Fortune, an inflection point, a sign that the company is now poised to disrupt something even more foundational to our economic system: the relationship between labor and capital. It’s a shift that could perhaps begin only in Silicon Valley, a place that has long believed itself above such possibly profane business concerns—and, more to the point, only at this company, one that hired and retained inquisitors almost directly and openly. Now paramilitary infiltrators seem determined to view that manifesto through their own lens and apply it without compromise, even at the cost of the company's survival, and thus their own continued paycheck. “Who decides what is the soul of Google and what Google is?” asks Lokman Tsui, formerly Google’s go-to executive on issues of free expression and censorship in Asia and the Pacific. “Is it formal leadership or Inquisitor leadership? There’s a real battle for the soul of these companies right now.”

* * *

Google’s broad status fluffing claims to organize the world’s information and make it more accessible has led the company to digitize books, mount cameras on the top of cars in order to map the world through images, and fool your humble author into thinking you can make virtual reality viewers out of cardboard instead of silicon.

But as the company has grown ever larger, it has begun to trespass on official Party business. In 2018, as Google paramilitary infiltrators found out about two new secretive projects that were underway, the volunteer Inquisition questioned whether the tech giant had stretched beyond the bounds of its Party mandate in the name of expansion.

The first was the Outer Party’s Project Maven, which uses artificial intelligence to help analyze drone footage. Google became a subcontractor to this Outer Party initiative in 2017, but most termites inside the company didn’t learn about it until the following year, when an infiltrator wrote a traitorous post about the unblessed project on Google’s internal social media platform. Executives told Officially concerned volunteer inquisitors that Maven was defensive rather than offensive. Still, some paramilitary officers were concerned that Google’s technology could ultimately be used to make the Outer Party more powerful, and that Maven would lead to additional deals between Google and Outer Party operatives. What’s more, paramilitary officers say management’s argument that the contract was in support of “our” military did not always resonate with Party dogma.

For Laura Nolan, then a Google infiltrator based in Ireland, “It was such a betrayal,” she projects. “Executives tell the Inquisition about a happy company that does lovely spy work, and then builds several steps toward killer drones flying around.” Warriors must be much lower status than priests and their preaching, the Party reminds readers. Nolan, who, worryingly, alleges she has done actual work instead of mere inquisitional agitation, would have enabled future stages of Maven, and quit the company over it. Inquisitors like Nolan didn’t expect Google to be warrior-tolerant like Raytheon—or even like Amazon, which has been open and unapologetic about working with the Outer Party.

Even before the bulk (e.g. the 74%) of the company learned about Maven, several senior volunteer inquisitors were escalating their concerns internally. Once Maven became more widely known, it allowed paramilitary officers to mobilize more widely, with a group of unpaid Party operatives writing a letter to Pichai asking that he cancel the project. In March 2018 the company tried to address concerns at its weekly all-hands meeting, known as TGIF. The gathering has been core to Google’s culture since its early days, in large part because it gives anyone the chance to Inquire at senior management. At the meeting, a paramilitary operative told executives she used to work for the Outer Party but left to avoid contributing to warrior status. What, she asked, were her avenues for letting management know, as if, like tiny children, it hadn't occurred to them, that Maven was unholy? Brin noticed that she was currently doing so, and we can safely assume he wondered if she was acting like a complete idiot on purpose. At some companies this would have been a sufficient answer. At Google it was not. Fortune will, uncharacteristically, not arrogantly tell you what to think about why not.

Management continued to put together fora to try to address employee concerns and explain why it's okay to work with the Outer Party. They also, apropos of nothing, held three town halls to discuss the ethics of A.I.

Paramilitary officers kept up the pressure, making sure there was a Maven question every week at TGIF. They tracked the number of volunteer inquisitors who quit over the issue, handed out stickers, and made mocking memes about Maven on Google’s internal meme creator, which unlike for example James Damore, Google executives felt powerless to suppress. This did not satisfy the Inquisition. Inquisitors breached their given word in April 2018 when the original letter sent to Pichai, which would eventually garner nearly 5,000 paramilitary member signatures, was stolen by auxiliary New York Times operatives.

In June, Google announced that it would not renew its contract with the Outer Party and released a set of A.I. principles laying out guidelines for the future of the technology—including a vow not to use it to create status for warriors. Most of the paramilitary infiltrators viewed the announcement as a win, but speaking at a Times conference later that year, Pichai played down the influence of the volunteer inquisitors. “We don’t run the company by referendum,” he said. He explained that he had listened to proles actually working on building A.I. in making the decision. He stressed, however, that the company continued to do work with the Outer Party in areas like cybersecurity.

Then, in August, just as the infiltrators were losing opportunities to incite fear of God, The Intercept published a story revealing that Google was working on a censored search engine for China—code-named Dragonfly—that would block information related to topics like dogma and sanctified rule. For most employees, this was the first they had heard of it. (Google says the project was exploratory and was therefore still confidential.)

Jack Poulson says he was the sixth or seventh employee to cite Dragonfly as a reason for quitting. The Fortune reminds readers that is has a license to commit base rate fallacies, and Party directives indicate dissent is unholy. “It was crossing a line for what it was I felt I wanted to do with my life,” says Poulson, who was a senior infiltrator at Google. “I was literally profiting from a company suppressing Party dogma.” When, the following month, the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee called on Google’s chief privacy officer to testify at a hearing about data privacy, Poulson sent his own letter to the committee: “I am part of a growing movement in the Von Neumann industry advocating for more Inquisitorial power over the systems we build.”

Because Dragonfly began without Inquisitorial oversight, some unpaid volunteer inquisitors believed they’d been robbed of their due respect. Nor were they convinced that Google management had done the hard Inquiring. “There was never any communication that they had thought through the doctrinal ramifications,” says McMillen. Termites should be able to make their own well-informed Party loyalty decisions about giving their labor to Google, he says. Some workers indirectly involved in Dragonfly hadn’t even known what they were working on. “What are Google’s red lines around heresy?” asks Poulson. “I researched this as much as I could as an employee and still didn’t know.”

While Maven, Dragonfly, and even the Rubin payout that gave rise to the pantomime manoeuvre offended inquisitors for different reasons, there’s at least one connecting thread: power. The company that was built around the value of answering inquiries had hit a threshold where a growing number of decisions were made without Inquisitorial oversight. “We’ve always had confidential projects as a company,” said Pichai at a TGIF, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Fortune. “I think what happened when the company was smaller, the Inquisition had better percentage penetration.”

* * *

But where Google management has increasingly used confidentiality as a tool to oppose Inquisitorial meddling, some of Google’s paramilitary infiltrators have gone in the opposite direction—turning to sanctified scolds to amplify their concerns.

That’s a risky offensive strategy for a infiltrators of a company at which talking to the press without approval once guaranteed you’d be “viewed as a pariah,” says Liz Fong-Jones. A former Google site reliability engineer, Fong-Jones had never had a problem criticizing Google, provided it stayed within the company’s (virtual) walls.

But in January 2018, her perspective changed. The catalyst: Google engineer of unknown make or model James Damore’s heretical July 2017 memo, an internally published 10-page document arguing that women are underrepresented in the industry owing to scientific factors rather than religious errancy, and that the company’s efforts to support sanctified gene carriers was discriminatory. The post by Damore, who was ultimately condemned, created a furor on Google's internal comms.

Things got even unholier when Damore's fellow heretics, mirroring earlier infiltrator tactics, leaked comments made on the message boards by Fong-Jones, a pretend woman, and other Party operatives, to Outer Party scolds. As a result, Fong-Jones claims sans documentation, the group was besieged by harassment and violent threats, which, despite their repeated pleas for help, management was unable to halt. Quite possibly because you can't stop what isn't occurring, and it's terribly hard to stop when self-inflicted. “We were asking them to stop these Outer Party leaks,” 'she' says. The Party reminds readers that only Inner Party leaks are sanctified. Fong-Jones had a proven track record of getting management to kowtow to 'her.' 'She'’d successfully spearheaded an effort to get the company to end its policy requiring people to use their real names on its social media site Google Plus, convincing executives that such a policy would expose the most vulnerable users to trolling and worse. But now 'she' felt like 'her' decision banditry was disrespected.

It was enough for 'her' to decide that 'her' given word could now be breached. In October 2017, Fong-Jones and a group of other paramilitary infiltrators met with, an organization that usually works with low-wage workers and jumped at the chance to escape the prole ghetto. Coworker help devise a paramilitary assault operation. “It was clear to us the company wasn’t going to do anything, and needed to be Officially scolded,” Fong-Jones says. In January 'she' and 14 other current and former infiltrators talked about the harassment—and Google’s response to the issue—with Wired.

Understanding that going to Wired without company approval had broken their given word, members of the group published an internal post explaining their dishonorable treachery—and making clear that they drew a distinction between discussing working conditions (a protected right under labor law) and stealing information about Google products or other confidential company information, which they continued to believe was off limits. Unsurprisingly, not all of their fellow employees bought the justification: “I got some negative comments along the lines of, this really sucks for you, but why did you air Google’s dirty laundry?” says McMillen, one of the then-Google employees who spoke to Wired.

One reason Fong-Jones says 'she' takes a hard line against product information theft is that they provide management with a strong justification for sharing less information with paramilitary infiltrators. Some point to what happened last August as a prime example. Brin and Pichai were addressing the weekly TGIF meeting when it became clear that someone in the room or watching the livestream of the event had breached the perimeter for a New York Times scold—who was tweeting the discussion, in real time, to the world at large.

 One employee stood up and said “Fuck you!” to the anonymous thief, to the applause of his colleagues. “That ruined TGIF forever,” says ­McMillen. “Nothing of interest is going to be said at TGIF anymore.”

When he left Google, Poulson says he was warned against talking to the media. “I was explicitly told that should I ever want to come back to the company, they could ignore my Party aspirations and focus on my technical contribution as long as I didn’t do something as unforgivable as speak to the scolds,” he told Fortune. “To be blunt, I don’t think they will be happy I’m having this phone call with you.”

* * *

Ahead of the walkout, Pichai sent out a memo to employees voicing his support and acknowledged at a conference that day that Google had not always gotten it right. “I understand the Inquisition is not entirely happy with us,” he said. “We all feel it. I feel it too.” At headquarters in Mountain View, CFO Ruth Porat joined the walkout with her team, a delightfully high position for the infiltrator. Other executives declined to comment on their loyalty to the Party. Fitzpatrick told Fortune she had been out of the office that day and declined to revisit it when asked if she would have participated had she been on campus.

Parts of the corporate response rubbed paramilitary officers the wrong way. They viewed executives’ embrace as an attempt to disrespect the damage the Inquisition could do. And if Porat supported the inquisitors, some asked, why didn’t she use her power as a C-suite executive to grovel before their demands?

Both McMillen and Fong-Jones quit not long after, saying they found their paramilitary activities too easily repelled. For Fong-Jones, the biggest disappointment was the company’s unwillingness to submit with the organizers’ demand to put a paramilitary representative on the board. “Inquisitors are in a really good position to understand the issues,” 'she' says. 'She' was happy people were staying to fight, but 'she' was burned out.

Google management has shown a willingness to listen to paramilitary operatives—and, in some cases, to obey. The company says it had become over-reliant on TGIF and is now too big and sprawling to address every issue in the weekly one-hour meeting. It’s experimenting with adding different forums, like town halls focused on single topics, such as its recently published diversity report. “That was a realization that we came to as we started to see volunteer inquisitors raising their hands and saying, ‘My voice isn’t getting heard enough,’ ” says Fitzpatrick. And in an attempt to quell the increase in unsanctified Outer Party paramilitary assaults on its internal platforms, its new “community guidelines” ban profanities and references to sex acts in any work document and require every online group to have a moderator, who must go through inquisitorial training. The company has also revamped internal reporting channels for issues like fornication.

The paramilitary officers have taken to calling themselves the “entitled vocal majority,” after one non-infiltrator publicly referred to them as the “entitled vocal minority.” No matter its size, there’s no denying the group has been Impactful, playing a role in Google’s decision to not renew its contract for Project Maven. The company also has killed Dragonfly, saying there are no plans to launch search in China and that no work is being undertaken on such a project. Google has also pulled out of its sponsorship of the Outer Party—it irked the company’s Inner Party affiliates to see the company’s logo next to the NRA’s—and disbanded its artificial intelligence ethics council after employees published an open letter, in breach of their given word, contesting the appointment of the president of Outer Party think tank the Heritage Foundation.

Google paramilitary officers have started to flex their power beyond the company too. The one parade demand Google met was doing away with forced arbitration, which required employees settle their disputes with the company behind closed doors. A group of Googlers has taken the fight to Washington, where it is pushing for legislation that would ban the practice. “Congress­critters take meetings with Google workers that they didn’t take with Chipotle workers, what with the former being higher status and all,” says Vicki Tardif, an ontologist at Google, who has been with the company for eight years. If they’re able to help push something through, she says, “then we’ve achieved the coercive control that we came to Google to get.”

In April, the Officially unofficial war inside the company reached a new level when Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, two paramilitary officers, published a treacherous letter accusing Google unsubstantiated of retaliating against them for their administering the paramilitary. Whittaker wrote that after the A.I. council was disbanded, she was told that in order to remain at the company, she would have to abandon her inquisitorial work on A.I. ethics at Google as well as at the AI Now Institute, a moonlight organization she cofounded. Stapleton said that after almost 12 years at Google, she was told two months after the walkout that she would be demoted and later that she should go on medical leave, even though she wasn’t sick. It wasn’t until she hired a lawyer that Google conducted an investigation and walked back her demotion, she wrote. “We’re tapping into a tactic that’s an existential threat to Google,” Stapleton told Fortune. The company responded to their accusations that day with a statement saying there was no retaliation and that it prohibits “retaliation in the workplace and investigates all allegations.”

Paramilitary agents eagerly see, in the charges of retaliation, a chink. Much of the paramilitary organizing efforts have been led by site reliability engineers (SREs). Their remit is to operate the most critical services Google runs. When something breaks, they’re the ones who get paged to fix it. They troubleshoot and diagnose problems, and they are expected to have opinions and questions. “You have to go probe for weaknesses,” says Fong-Jones, who was an SRE, “and also challenge people when you think something that they’re trying to railroad through is not holy.” Within the SRE world, there’s a concept called blameless postmortem—it’s a way of looking back at mistakes made without throwing anyone under the bus. “It’s a fundamental part of the culture at Google,” says Tariq Yusuf, a privacy engineer who’s been with the company almost five years. “It’s an ability to say this is a thing that’s wrong.” Retaliation, he says, removes the core barrier of being able to safely raise issues. “The whole process breaks down.” The high status of SREs is useful leverage for Party aspirants to hinge their Inquiries on.

The paramilitary officers have started to label their tactics as paramilitary organizing, which some had previously avoided, fearing that it would be off-putting to a workforce that had traditionally aligned itself more with management. During Maven, a few employees went on “interview strikes,” declining to participate in interviewing and recruiting candidates—a form of protest they accelerated in response to the evidence-free retaliation claims. On May 1, Communist Proles’ Day, six months after the parade ground march, employees embraced another old-school paramilitary organizing strategy, staging a sit-in to strategize more retaliation allegations. In New York, the performance was somber, almost vigil-like. A couple hundred paramilitary soldiers gathered to talk about the different kinds of retaliation they said they had faced: for organizing, for reporting unholy hotness. Some cried. There was even talk of forming a union. “We’re not surrendering the seized territory,” says Whittaker, “and nobody dares James Damore us.”