Essay—November 2019

Cognitive Disso-Punk

On Tech, Complicity and the Same Old Story

The terace in front of Google’s Googleplex in Mountain View

Beyond Tellerrand is over. And, once again, it has been a fantastic event. Hearing Jeremy Keith talking about The Layers of the Web and Aaron Gustafson about the importance of semantics for UIs beyond the visual layer has been an incredibly powerful intro. Cassie Evans on Interactive Web Animations with SVG left me craving to animate a Neopet. Sharon Steed made a phantastically well argued point for empathy. Natalya Shepburn’s talk CSS at the Intersection made some great points about collaboration of designers and developers. And Jason Pamental explained variable fonts with pictures of his dogs, as well as showing some very useful tools typography can give to people living with disabilities. The event closed with a talk by filmmaker Anna Ginsburg. Her work centers around the experiences of women through media depictions. If you, fellow reader, are not familiar with her work yet. I encourage you to check it out.

But there was one talk I can’t come to terms with one. On day one Burton Rast spoke about his life, career and punk music. A talk that wasn’t … too well received. Before I dive into why let me quickly recap what Burton told on stage.

Being interested in stories of humans, he wanted to tell his own. Burton dropped out of school, listened to a whole lot of punk music, being an activist at the same time. Through faking IDs, he meandered into graphic design. During the dot-com bubble, he became disenfranchised from the music, landed a job at an e-learning platform and the bubble burst.

Looking for something to do, he ended up as an Art Director in advertisement agencies. The wonderful rat race of awards and lies. Lies, that, about average, targeted the immigrant friends he learned to love during his punk years. Deception in the name of the companies he loathed while listening to Crass.

He burned out, did a fair amount of travelling and soul-searching and realised that, and he needs to do something useful with his life.

After returning to San Fransisco he landed a job at IDEO, working for projects such as Planned Parenthood.

And then he ended up as UX Design Lead at a company called Google. Being a critic of Google himself, he met people working there and was swayed into believing that Google is the place «to work on data privacy on scale».

Especially this last part wasn’t well-received, and there has been an unusual amount of vocal criticism on Twitter after the talk. I joined in. And kept thinking about it. I still am. These are some of my thoughts.

The Same Old Story

I don’t know how often I’ve heard the story of the white male college drop-out that turned on, burnt off, found purpose and is now a well-respected figure. I would go so far and say that this is one of the foundational stories of our industry. These weird kids making weird things, and after a few years, the world has evolved, the kids got older, the society is not out of reach anymore. People who know me know that my story is similar – including punk and advertisement.

And I don’t want to say that Burton’s story isn’t one that shouldn’t be told. But, frankly, I am tired of hearing it on stage. I don’t want to hear success stories of oldish white men anymore.

It was heart-warming to see pictures of Bikini Kill and the first Riot Grrrl fanzine on screen. At the same time, their voices were missing. In an iconic recording of a Bikini Kill show, Kathleen Hanna demands: «All girls to the front! I’m not kidding. All boys be cool, for once in your life, go back, back, back.»

The whole talk was so full of privilege, the entire story only possible because Burton Rast has this particular combination of skin colour and gender. He is a white male.

And while there were certain parts of his story that were entertaining – faking IDs, who hasn’t; buying stolen MacBooks for fifty dollars, who wouldn’t – this underlying foundation was left untold.

And then … the story ended at Google.

There is no Punk in Google

At the beginning of this week, a whistleblower came forward, reporting that Google amasses health data of up to fifty million Americans. Roundabout the same time, Google announced that it wants to acquire Fitbit.

Google’s algorithms have been widely criticised for discriminating against all humans that do not fit into the very narrow norm of white, heterosexual males.

It took Google almost a year to publicly announce that they have abandoned their project to build a censored search machine for use in China, Project Dragonfly.

Google invented surveillance capitalism, the tracking of our every move, the collection of all our data points.

That Google has been more vocal about privacy in recent months than ever might be as much advertisement as the rest of Google’s business model.

And here we have Burton standing on a stage. Telling us what a great place Google is to work at in the name of privacy.

And, to some extent, I would even agree. Given the insane amount of data Google has collected on probably every one reading this piece (is anyone still reading, Google?) there have been not many breaches. So, I guess, hooray?

But, here’s the thing: If you are standing on stage and try to convince us of your privacy bona fide, you are an activist, and you are working at Google, you need to mention the myriad ways in which Google has been fucking around with user privacy and what you do to stop it; you need to acknowledge eroded trust, how we became points in statistics, training data for algorithms.

If you don’t do it, you are not telling your story. You are telling the story of your employer’s PR department. And that’s deception.

There Needs to be Punk in Tech

The problem described here goes well beyond Google or any single company. Over the last years, one of the dominant storylines around tech companies has been all the data breaches, violations of regulations and morally bankrupt contracts.

At the end of October, Microsoft won a ten billion dollar contract with the Department of Defense to modernise the US military’s digital infrastructure. A race which Google left some weeks prior due to pressure from employees and ethical concerns. Amazon is tightly working with police forces around the globe, among other projects by sharing recordings of their Ring cameras. Microsoft owned GitHub refuses to drop a contract with ICE. The gig economy at large is threatening to dissolve worker protections. All the while, Uber managed to get cars on streets that couldn’t detect pedestrians outside of cross-walks.

It’s a seriously fucked up world we live in.

It’s a world that needs to be, in technical terms, refactored and that requires the consciousness and solidarity of those who at the moment benefit the most from it. From us, from tech-workers, especially white males.

Not because we have something to win. But because everyone else has. Because everyone else needs to be in possession of the keys (I am quoting Tatiana Mac and her talk How Privilege Defines Performance here, which you watch). And if everyone wins, we win again because we don’t have to wake up with a twist in our stomach caused by our work destroying the world.

For an Open and Inspiring Community

That’s what is written on the ball pens Marc hands out year after year. During this year’s edition of Beyond Tellerrand in Berlin, we managed to collect enough money for Makuyuni to build a school in Tanzania. It is a powerful testament to the things we can achieve.

That took the work of some people, setting up the organisation, building friendships around the globe. And it is making an impact.

Now, imagine the communities we can build, the change we can make, if we organise, fight and inspire in ever larger groups.

There is power in a union.

Acknowledgments

Title Image taken by Isriya Paireepairit , licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

No mind is an island. While I have written all the words on my own, I certainly haven’t thought all the thoughts first or by myself. Without the continous work of people like Tatiana Mac or Kim Crayton this text wouldn’t be what it is.

There are people at the mentioned companies and beyond who fight daily to stop this shit. Heartfelt solidarity. ✊