By Veena Dubal
The Guardian (5/3/19)
The most pressing moral, political and social issues of our time converge in and at Google. As the largest and most successful “big data” company, Google has the unfettered power not just to shape – but to declare (in the words of Shoshana Zuboff) – our futures. The data that the company harvests, sells and uses to create automation systems literally determine our life chances: how we are interpreted and understood by police and military technologies, our credit scores, our access to healthcare, our professional reputations, how much we pay for goods and services, and our ability to obtain work.
Unlike in the 20th century, when competitive capitalism both spawned and responded to the power of labor unions, social movements and business regulation, in today’s political world, Google – and its ilk, Amazon and Facebook –operate in a seemingly impenetrable vortex of power. Government regulators, despite clarion calls by scientists and social scientists, have repeatedly failed to even properly investigate what the company’s immense and fast-growing power may mean – much less to rein it in. The inscrutable “black box” within which Google operates shows little sign of cracking in the face of new and old privacy and anti-trust laws.
Without the tremendous pushback of these organizers – and others in the tech world – we would have very little leverage to make sense of emerging data practices and their impacts on our everyday lives.
Who, then, will represent the public interest as new technologies are developed and deployed? In this brave new digital world, the most effective friction and oversight have come from an unlikely and surprising source: white-collar tech workers within Google. In the past few months, researchers, engineers, scientists and policy and communication specialists (among others) at the tech firm have protested and objected (at great personal cost) to protect us from the dystopian effects of unregulated AI. Undermining the stereotype of self-absorbed, Silicon Valley computer scientists, Google workers have acted both individually as conscientious objectors and collectively, banding together in concerted activity and mutual aid.
Broader public interest
These organized tech workers, through courageous acts of protest, have made a revolutionary leap: they have explicitly connected Google’s workplace practices to the broader public interest. They have argued that practices like forced arbitration and the use of temporary workers (more than 50% of the company’s workforce) make Google a difficult and sometimes harrowing place for women and people of color. And they have insisted that if the people most likely to be hurt by new technologies are not present and empowered to shape them, then biased and harmful outcomes are likely for us all. …