Why Good Tech Companies Keep Being Evil

You’d think we’d have learned by now. But somehow it still comes as a shock to us when tech companies are exposed as having no moral compass.

Slate recently released what it called the “Evil List”  of 30 tech companies compiled through a ballot sent out to journalists, scholars, analysts, advocates and others. Slate asked them which companies were doing business in the way that troubled them most. Spoiler alert: Amazon, Facebook and Google topped the list.  But they weren’t alone. Rounding out the top 10, the list of culprits included Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Uber.

Which begs the question: Are tech companies inherently evil — like, say a Monsanto or Phillip Morris — or is there something about tech that positively correlates with “evilness”?

I suspect it’s the second of these.  I don’t believe Silicon Valley is full of fundamentally evil geniuses, but doing business as usual at a successful tech firm means there will be a number of elemental aspects of the culture that take a company down the path to being evil.

Cultism, Loyalism and Self-Selection Bias

A successful tech company is a belief-driven meat grinder that sucks in raw, naïve talent on one end and spits out exhausted and disillusioned husks on the other. To survive in between, you’d better get with the program.

The HR dynamics of a tech startup have been called a meritocracy, where intellectual prowess is the only currency.

But that’s not quite right. Yes, you have to be smart, but it’s more important that you’re loyal. Despite their brilliance, heretics are weeded out and summarily turfed, optionless in more ways than one. A rigidly molded group-think mindset takes over the recruitment process, leading to an intellectually homogeneous monolith.

To be fair, high growth startups need this type of mental cohesion. As blogger Paras Chopra said in a post entitled “Why startups need to be cult-like, “The reason startups should aim to be like cults is because communication is impossible between people with different values.” You can’t go from zero to 100 without this sharing of values.

But necessary or not, this doesn’t change the fact that your average tech star up is a cult, with all the same ideological underpinnings. And the more cult-like a culture, the less likely it is that it will take the time for a little ethical navel-gazing.

A Different Definition of Problem Solving

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for the engineer, the hammer that fixes everything is technology. But, as academic researchers Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf discovered, this brand of technical solutionism can lead to a corporate environment where ethical problems are ignored because they are open-ended, intractable questions. In a previous column I referred to them as “wicked problems.”

As Moss and Metcalf found, “Organizational practices that facilitate technical success are often ported over to ethics challenges. This is manifested in the search for checklists, procedures, and evaluative metrics that could break down messy questions of ethics into digestible engineering work. This optimism is counterweighted by a concern that, even when posed as a technical question, ethics becomes ‘intractable, like it’s too big of a problem to tackle.’”

If you take this to the extreme, you get the Cambridge Analytica example, where programmer Christopher Wylie was so focused on the technical aspects of the platform he was building that he lost sight of the ethical monster he was unleashing.

A Question of Leadership

Of course, every cult needs a charismatic leader, and this is abundantly true for tech-based companies. Hubris is a commodity not in short supply among the C-level execs of tech.

It’s not that they’re assholes (well, ethical assholes anyway). It’s just that they’re, umm, highly focused and instantly dismissive of any viewpoint that’s not the same as their own. It’s the same issue I mentioned before about the pitfalls of expertise — but on steroids.

I suspect that if you did an ethical inventory of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Travis Kalanik, Reid Hoffman and the rest, you’d find that — on the whole — they’re not horrible people. It’s just that they have a very specific definition of ethics as it pertains to their company. Anything that falls outside those narrowly defined boundaries is either dismissed or “handled” so it doesn’t get in the way of the corporate mission.

Speaking of corporate missions, leaders and their acolytes often are unaware — often intentionally — of the nuances of unintended consequences. Most tech companies develop platforms that allow disruptive new market-based ecosystems to evolve on their technological foundations. Disruption always unleashes unintended social consequences. When these inevitably happen, tech companies generally handle them one of three ways:

  1. Ignore them, and if that fails…
  2. Deny responsibility, and if that fails…
  3. Briefly apologize, do nothing, and then return to Step 1.

There is a weird type of idol worship in tech. The person atop the org chart is more than an executive. They are corporate gods — and those that dare to be disagreeable are quickly weeded out as heretics. This helps explain why Facebook can be pilloried for attacks on personal privacy and questionable design ethics, yet Mark Zuckerberg still snags a 92% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor.com.These fundamental characteristics help explain why tech companies seem to consistently stumble over to the dark side. But there’s an elephant in the room we haven’t talked about. Almost without exception, tech business models encourage evil behavior. Let’s hold that thought for a future discussion.

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