deeds and words
The employees who are resigning in protest, several of whom discussed their decision to leave with Gizmodo, say that executives have become less transparent with their workforce about controversial business decisions and seem less interested in listening to workers' objections than they once did. In the case of Maven, Google is helping the Defense Department implement machine learning to classify images gathered by drones. But some employees believe humans, not algorithms, should be responsible for this sensitive and potentially lethal work-and that Google shouldn't be involved in military work at all.

Historically, Google has promoted an open culture that encourages employees to challenge and debate product decisions. But some employees feel that their leadership no longer as attentive to their concerns, leaving them to face the fallout. "Over the last couple of months, I've been less and less impressed with the response and the way people's concerns are being treated and listened to," one employee who resigned said.

- Gizmodo: Google Employees Resign in Protest Against Pentagon Contract
Today's post will revisit a theme I spent considerable time and energy on last year. Namely, the tendency of human beings to focus on words versus deeds.

In case you haven't noticed, very few people on social media are out there talking about how much they love exploitation, or admit that they'd unflinchingly put aside all ethical considerations in the pursuit of money and power. In contrast, everyone's ranting and raving about how great they are, how right about everything their political tribe is, and how morally superior they are to the evil and corrupt "other side." The problem is someone has to be wrong in a world where everyone's convinced they're right.

Much of the political conversation out there, if we can call it that, revolves around demonizing the other side. Diehard Trump supporters show very little inclination for introspection, nor does the rabid anti-Trump crowd. In such an environment, people spend very little time actually discussing the big, existential issues of the day in a rational manner. Instead, we're reduced to incessant tribal bickering which more closely resembles sports team fanaticism than productive debate.

While I can accept some degree of this behavior as unavoidable during an actual campaign, it never really ends. We basically exist in a twisted political world that functions like a never-ending campaign. Democrats will harshly admonish anyone who dares criticize and challenge awful Democratic incumbents because it might "help Trump." Meanwhile, many Trump supporters claiming to be against pointless imperial wars explain away his hiring of interventionist creeps like Pompeo or Bolton as intricate moves in some imaginary game of "5D-chess." It's all just counterproductive noise that incessantly emanates from all corners of our infantile political environment.

Ironically, most of the people who succumb to such behavior genuinely think they're working to make the world a better place, when in reality they're making things far worse. For example, imagine if even a small fraction of the energy people spend trying to make the opposition look bad was spent on thinking about their own lives and their own behaviors. It's very easy to criticize and complain, it's much harder to become a better person. Yet, improving yourself individually and trying to live more ethically and kindly in day to day life has more substantial long-term positive impact on those around you and the world at large than which political hack you vote for, or how many self-righteous tweets you send out.

This isn't to discount the importance of being aware of how upside-down our world is, but it's to point out that corruption isn't a Democratic or Republican thing. It's a human thing. We're all susceptible to the temptation of unethical behavior in the pursuit of our goals or to feed our egos, and if you think otherwise, you're just lying to yourself. This is why getting your own house in order is more important than constantly pointing fingers.

The other thing to be aware of is the human tendency to buy into your own bullshit, especially if that bullshit helps make you rich and powerful. Google is a perfect example. Though the company's been demoting its longtime public motto of "don't be evil," its executives continue to pretend to live by such a creed. Meanwhile, a series of emails released recently regarding the company's attempts to secure an AI drone contract with the U.S. military clearly demonstrate how Google executives say one thing behind closed doors while claiming another in public.

Here's some of what we learned, first from Gizmodo:
Despite the excitement over Google's performance on Project Maven, executives worried about keeping the project under wraps. "It's so exciting that we're close to getting MAVEN! That would be a great win," Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist for AI at Google Cloud, wrote in a September 24, 2017 email. "I think we should do a good PR on the story of DoD collaborating with GCP from a vanilla cloud technology angle (storage, network, security, etc.), but avoid at ALL COSTS any mention or implication of AI."

"Google is already battling with privacy issues when it comes to AI and data; I don't know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the Defense industry," she added.
Notice how excited this executive is about the military contract, but then immediately schemes about how best to mislead the public.

Of course, this isn't just one rogue executive, this sort of attitude seems to be deeply ingrained within the culture at Google. Here's another Googler, Aileen Black, in additional emails reported on by The Intercept:
The Google team noted that it has no press plan for the rollout of the contract and agreed that the company should work to set the "narrative" as quickly as possible. The "buzz" generated by the contract could be a positive, Black suggested.

The government sales team noted that Project Maven had been concealed through a contract awarded to ECS Federal, an arrangement first reported by The Intercept.

"The contract is not direct with Google but through a partner (ECS) and we have terms that prevent press releases from happening without our mutual consent," wrote Black. The Defense Department "will not say anything about Google without our approval."

Despite the secrecy, Black cautioned that news will eventually leak and that information about the contracting process could be obtained by the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Google's involvement with Project Maven "will eventually get out," Black warned. "Wouldn't it be best to have it released on our terms?"
That's the bad news. Here's the good news.

Shortly after Google's work on Project Maven became disclosed, many Google employees publicly resisted. Thousands signed a public petition, while around 12 employees resigned in protest. Giving up a cushy job at Google because executive actions go against your values is a real and impactful gesture which in this case helped deliver the dreaded public relations nightmare the company was so eager to avoid. Ultimately, Google walked away from the project.

That's what I mean about living life in tune with your values. Talk is cheap, but action, courage and sacrifice is what changes the world. Although I assume Google will resume its shady ways once the dust settles, we should nevertheless thank the rebellious employees for doing what they did. We should also encourage people from all walks of life who have sincere values to contemplate deeply whether or not they practice what they preach.