Google’s Sexual Harassment Policies – Why We Don’t Let The Technocrats Run The World


There’s an old saying, that we’d be better ruled by the first 100 people in the Boston phone book than by the assembled professors of Harvard*. The point being made is that rule by the technocrats isn’t going to be good rule. Partly this is because what makes one a good expert isn’t quite the same thing as what enables one to see life in the round. The other as with Richard Fenyman’s comment that outside his own are of expertise a distinguished scientist is just as dumb as the rest of us. That people are expert in English Literature does not make them – not in itself – even competent at economics, or gender relations. A mastery of critical studies – that is, why doesn’t the world conform to Marxist tropes – does not confer engineering expertise. And rather famously, great skill and talent at linguistics can leave one entirely at sea when considering sociopolitical systems.

It’s worth keeping this in mind as we consider Google’s new sexual harassment regulations:

This time last week, Google employees held massive walkouts across the country to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment in the wake of a damning New York Times piece. This morning, CEO Sundar Pichai sent a note to employees about the events that was also shared via the company’s blog.

If we were to look for a source of, say, expertise in search engine operating code then Google would be a great place to go. It’s also an excellent source of advice on how to run an advertising market, the source of the company’s actual funds.

Google on Thursday announced it would end forced arbitration in cases of sexual assault and harassment.

That’s at least half reasonable. Sexual assault is a criminal matter and best handled by the police.

The company’s plan includes providing more transparency around sexual harassment investigations and outcomes as part of its annual “Investigations Report,” revamping its reporting channels for incidents of misconduct, updating and expanding its sexual harassment training, and making arbitration optional for sexual harassment claims.

Organizers of the protests had specifically demanded Google put an end to its policy of forced arbitration for sexual misconduct allegations — a practice that prevents employees from taking cases to court and is generally criticized for suppressing victims’ stories. Pichai’s memo says that while Google “never required confidentiality,” employees with harassment or assault claims can now choose whether or not to go through the arbitration process.

We can deal with this problem this way, or if you prefer, that way. Seems entirely reasonable. The full message is here:

We will update and expand our mandatory sexual harassment training. From now on if you don’t complete your training, you’ll receive a one-rating dock in Perf (editor’s note: Perf is our performance review system).
We will recommit to our company-wide OKR around diversity, equity and inclusion again in 2019, focused on improving representation—through hiring, progression and retention—and creating a more inclusive culture for everyone. Our Chief Diversity Officer will continue to provide monthly progress updates to me and my leadership team.

And, well, there’s the thing about technocracies. How men and women deal with being men and women among each other – and yes, if you like, expand the genders there – is something we’ve been managing these hundreds of thousands of years now. Without formal processes, it’s simply an ongoing negotiation. But here we’ve an organisation full of engineers. It’s pretty much the definition of what Google is, a bagful of the best engineers that can be tempted into working with computers.

That engineering mindset is one of order, of processes, of structures. Free form and flowing is not generally described as desirable among engineers.

To change examples, Major Douglas came up with the idea of Social Credit. Calculate the profits in an economy and then distribute them to the people. This makes sense to an engineer. The shoot down that we never can calculate such profits in anything like real time just does not compute.

To engineers, if we’ve a process, a structure, then we can handle these things. Yet human life and society is simply too complex to be handled in such a manner. Sure, Hayek never was talking about sexual harassment but the point does still stand.

No, this is not really specifically about Google nor sexual harassment. Rather, it’s about technocracy and the undesirability of it as a ruling method. Here we’ve got just great engineers stepping off their comfort zone and into social relationships. The nerds that is, the very ones we’ve been deriding for centuries as not quite getting it about those social relationships, trying to define and encode those things we’re suspicious they don’t quite understand in the first place.

That is, rule by experts doesn’t work simply because experts always do try to step out of their areas of expertise. Where they’re just as bad and dumb as the rest of us. Possibly, even worse, given the attributes that led them to their areas of expertise in the first place.

*An exercise for the reader, what is the actual quote and source?