It may be time to take the big G out of Google. The company called Google has turned itself into a generic metaphor for our politicized times. In addition to being the name of a U.S. technology company, “google” should become a lowercase word for a psychological syndrome—such as attention-deficit disorder, paranoia or dissociative identity disorder. A person with google disorder would be diagnosed as being in the grip of an uncontrollable political mania.
During the company’s early years, in keeping with what it called its culture of “openness” and the notion that employees should “bring their whole selves to work,” Google allowed thousands of internal message boards to proliferate. This must have seemed like a good idea at the time since Google employees are supersmart and presumably full of interesting, innovative thoughts.
Over time, the conversations on these text-based message boards turned toxic—as they do on message boards everywhere—with participants carving each other up in paroxysms of resentment and retribution. As the Journal reported last year, Google basically turned into a political nut house.
Google employees quickly sorted themselves into subsets with names such as Googlers for Animals, Black Googler Network, Activists at Google, Militia at Google, and Sex Positive at Google.
A few weeks ago, in attempt to do something about this epidemic outbreak of google syndrome, Google released a statement called “Community Guidelines,” a set of directives that are supposed to explain to the company’s more than 100,000 employees—known as Googlers—how they should talk to each other.
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For example, the guidelines state: “Don’t troll, name call, or engage in ad hominem attacks—about anyone. This includes making statements that insult, demean, or humiliate.” Then, amazingly, there’s this: “While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not. Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”
Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do. No other company one can think of—not U.S. Steel or General Motors , IBM or anyone—has felt it necessary to tell its employees their job is to do their job. Until now.
Google’s originating motto was “Don’t be evil.” Now it is “Don’t troll.” Something went wrong.
What happened at Google, culminating with this extraordinary statement instructing its employees on the fundamentals of human interaction, makes Google sound like “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding ’s meditation on the fine line between civilized and savage behavior.
Rather than “innovative” discourse, Googlers instead used their extraordinary workplace freedom to launch personal assaults and group mobbings. Two self-identified conservative Googlers (in hindsight, a mistake), James Damore and Kevin Cernekee, charged that the in-house mobs and a cowering management cost them their jobs.
People—what we’ll call normal people—ask all the time how it happened that so much in our politics and culture went off the rails so quickly. Historians may conclude the answer was the google syndrome—a generalized descent into obsessional thinking.
One of the striking things about the Google memo is how much of it sounds like a second-grade teacher talking to 7-year-olds. “Be responsible,” it says. “Be helpful. Be thoughtful.”
But these aren’t 7-year-olds. The employees at tech companies such as Google or Facebook are high-IQ 20- and 30-somethings. They have somehow become so infantilized and dumbed down in their political and cultural obsessions, so unable to converse at anything above the level of a playground, that the adults at Google, or what’s left of them, felt obliged to issue this rudimentary guide. Well, it’s a start on the long road back.
It’s worth noting that this generation of “smart” employees would have been in school when colleges were creating “safe spaces” and visits to campus mental-health clinics were proliferating. Campus administrators began to indulge and even encourage any vaporous political idea that students thought up, such as “microaggression.” Why be surprised now when they think their boutique political obsessions are as important as “the work we’ve been hired to do”?
Google’s “community guidelines” might look like a phenomenon of recently rich young adults trapped inside the Silicon Valley bubble, but they have more political resonance than that.
As the memo makes clear, these people aren’t using work hours to talk about how to raise their children. It’s a “raging debate over politics.” The issues roaring across Google’s message board on gender, race, saving the planet, identity or inequality are a mirror image of the tensions inside the Democratic Party between the Biden-Klobuchar-Delaney moderates and the Sanders-Warren-Buttigieg progressives.
A constant question is whether the party’s progressives have “gone too far” to be electable in 2020. Put it this way: If Google’s pliable management had to step in to protect the company from being undermined by progressive compulsions, wait until Donald Trump gets a shot at a Democratic candidate who sounds like an escapee from Google’s message boards.
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