Google Needs a new CEO


When a gigantic corporation that controls our data and knows us intimately takes a controversial political stance, it ought to make us worry.
David Brooks is right. In the wake of his atrocious mishandling of the James Damore matter, Google CEO Sundar Pichai must go. Damore authored a moderate proposal, stressing that he supported diversity and thought that people should be treated as individuals, while offering some suggestions as to why Google’s efforts to recruit more women techies had failed. Various people (most of whom, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf noted, seem not to have read Damore’s actual memo, but rather to have been responding to an imaginary document instead) demanded that Damore be fired. CEO Sundar Pichai complied and gave Damore the boot. For this egregious piece of mob-induced misjudgment, Pichai must go. But that’s the least of the problems for Google, and Silicon Valley.

The Damore firing, and Pichai’s disgraceful handling of it, represents colossal damage to Google’s brand. In essence, it’s an announcement — by a company that has access to everyone’s data — that it endorses the notion of thought-crime.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

As Brooks says: “(Pichai) could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, ‘To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.’ That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.”
Or, worst of all, Pichai didn’t stand up to the mob because he agreed with the mob. But whatever, it’s a big problem for Google, and by extension for Silicon Valley in general.

Since its 1990s heyday, Silicon Valley has transformed from an unruly collection of aggressive upstarts disrupting existing industries to a flabby collection of near-monopolies, now busy enforcing gentry-liberal norms on their employees and customers. Whether it’s censoring right-leaning political figures, or firing employees who dare say something truthful but politically incorrect, there’s not much of the old startup spirit there. These are flabby overstaffed Big Business corporations, run by their HR departments. You might find more dynamism at General Motors, these days.

But worse yet, they exercise tremendous power and require tremendous trust. When you use Facebook or Google (or Twitter, or Amazon, or Netflix) you’re sharing a lot of data with a company that you have to trust won’t abuse that. It’s much harder to trust a company that has decided to aggressively pursue thoughtcrime. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum – Damore describes himself as a centrist. But it only takes one politically incorrect utterance, as so many in academia have learned, to achieve Enemy Of The People status. And then, apparently, you’re fair game.
Can you trust a self-driving car from Google, if some new company policy might reprogram it to avoid events Google doesn’t approve? Can you trust Google to prevent its (apparently many) “social-justice warrior” employees from trawling through your personal data looking for dirt, and then leaking it?
As Robert Tracinski writes, this is the big danger for Google: “The most dangerous part is that they are now beginning to be seen by the public (or revealed, depending on how you look at it) as politicized entities. Politicized entities to whom we are giving enormous amounts of data on our lives, thoughts and interests.”

People were already agitating for stricter antitrust scrutiny of Google, Facebook and other Internet giants. One of the main protections those companies enjoyed against such scrutiny was their general image as benign and – aside from a vague sort of libertarianism – nonpolitical. Pichai’s handling of the Damore matter destroyed that image. Now Silicon Valley looks political, partisan and maybe even a bit sinister. It’s not a good look.