NYTimes notices the landscape of tech is changing

Chris Dannen

By Chris Dannen

The NYTimes has published a second take on the recent Google walkout, which included 20,000 of the company's engineers and staff. There are two things to note about this coverage:

  1. The headline says the walkout is in protest of "Silicon Valley individualism," but the organizers say it's a reaction to Google's AI weaponry projects, and sexual harrassment by management. What is the connection to "individualism"?
  2. The walkout was last week, so why is the NYT covering it again this week?

On the first point, what is the connection between "individualism" and Google's bad behavior? The Times says it's a culture issue:

For decades, Silicon Valley has been ground zero for a vaguely utopian form of individualism — the idea that a single engineer with a laptop and an internet connection could change the world, or at least a long-established industry. Class consciousness was passé. Unions were the enemy of innovation, an anchor to the status quo.

This is an oblique reference to the California Ideology that emerged from the 1980s. Like all forms of utopianism, it has led "unexpectedly" to an environment where the people who are on the bottom of the hierarchy -- the people actually doing the work -- feel alienated from the Randian quests of the C-suite, despite having senior titles and other trappings of power:

The most remarkable aspect of the walkout at Google last week may not have been that an estimated 20,000 people participated or that it had global reach, or even that it came together in less than a week. It was the way the organizers identified their action with a broader worker struggle, using language almost unheard-of among affluent tech employees.

So this is a 40-year-old phenomenon, and a week-old protest. Why is the NYT circling back to write about this again? Because they anticipate a reversal to the trend. As we have written, technology companies have begun moving so quickly in the last few years that their existing organizational designs are reduced to benevolent dictatorships:

Many tech companies also promote themselves as inherently pro-worker because they are less hierarchical, and more democratically run, than old-economy businesses.... Underlying the back-and-forth is the belief that truth bubbles up from an unregulated exchange of ideas. But some employees complain that it rarely leads to lasting change.

What is the meaning of this trend reversing? For a damage assessment, NYT taps Bob Kocher, a VC at Venrock, asking him to comment on "this sense of individual powerlessness" which "has spread within Google... from software developers to hardware engineers and from employees to contractors." Kocher says the impact is around talent retention:

But Mr. Kocher added that Google did not have a limitless ability to straight-arm angry workers and postpone substantive changes. If there are more walkouts, “productivity is impacted, recruiting gets harder,” he said.

Where will they go? Perhaps to one of many software companies working on public blockchain infrastructure. While any one company can suffer a dictator, the overall infrastructure (ie., Bitcoin) does not, giving technologists back the leverage to leave bad employment situations and ply their skills at a competitor which uses the same infrastructure.

Google isn't competing against Facebook, Amazon, or Apple for talent; it's competing with self-directed, contingent employment.