2021v17, Monday: It’s not just about you.

Why an apolitical workplace is a luxury only the comfortable can afford. And a cut-out-and-keep caustic guide to AI ethics.

Short thought: One of the more interesting “little firms that could” in the online services space has long been the outfit currently known as Basecamp. Its founder, Jason Fried, has been voluble – and thoughtful and interesting – about how to do good work remotely, long before the past year made that a necessity.

But now he and David Henmeier Hanson, known as “DHH” (together the senior management of Basecamp), have solidly put their feet in it. I won’t rehearse the background in detail, because others have done it far better. The tl;dr version (and this is a really thin summary of a big story):

  • Basecamp employees – a sizeable chunk of the 60-odd staff base – started to work on diversity and inclusion issues. Management blessed this.
  • In the process, the fact that for many years the firm’s internal systems had hosted a list of “funny customer names” – many of which, inevitably, were those of people of colour – came in for understandable criticism.
  • Initially, management were onside with this criticism; indeed, they owned their part in the list’s maintenance over the years.
  • But then it got ugly. A number of staff saw the list in the context of ongoing institutional discrimination – not just or even not mainly at Basecamp, to be clear, but societally. Management (Jason and DHH) pushed back against what they seemed to see as an over-reaction.
  • Jason and DHH announced that political discussion was now to be off-limits. (They later amended this – albeit apparently without making it clear that there was an amendment – to it being off-limits only on Basecamp’s own chat and comms systems.) They also said they would withdraw benefits, instead simply paying the cash value thereof, so as not to be “paternalist”.
  • This caused uproar. An all-staff meeting saw one senior and long-time executive play the “if you call this racism, you’re the racist”, “no such thing as white supremacy” card; he resigned shortly afterwards. As many as a third of the staff have now also taken redundancy.
  • This might seem like a tempest in a teacup. Small tech firm has row; news at 11.

But it’s not. Tech is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, particularly at its senior levels. (It may not escape your notice that the Bar isn’t much better.) Which means its leadership often misses the key point, which is this: when you’re not rich and comfortable, when your life has incorporated a lot of moments where you don’t get to expect everything will go smoothly, when you don’t have that much of a safety net, when large numbers of people at all levels of power get to mess you about just because they can, without you having much recourse, just about everything is political.

Healthcare is political, if its availability and quality vary depending on where you live and what you look like. (Don’t doubt this: I’ve seen healthcare professionals, who I’m certain would be genuinely horrified by conscious prejudice, treat Black women with breathtaking disdain compared with how they talk to people like me.) Pay is political. Work is political, because expectations and yardsticks vary unless we pay honest attention to how they’re generated and applied.

Put simply: cutting political and social issues out of the workplace is a luxury only comfortable people can afford. A luxury which exacerbates, rather than diminishes, the power imbalance built into to workplaces by the sheer fact of people’s dependence on a paycheque. (This, by the way, is why in the UK and Europe we say people can’t consent to the use of their data in the workplace. If the alternative to consent is “find another job”, that isn’t free consent for anyone without a private income.)

For Jason and DHH to take this approach is to forget that the only people for whom politics doesn’t relate to business are those who get to dictate the terms of what goes and what doesn’t. The blindness appears to dismal effect in a post by DHH on “Basecamp’s new etiquette at work”:

Just don’t bring it into the internal communication platforms we use for work, unless it directly relates to our business. I’m applying that same standard to myself, and Jason is too.

Well, that’s nice. Reminds of that line about the right of the rich to sleep under bridges. I wonder why.


Someone is right on the internet: On a somewhat related topic, issues of ethics in AI are big news, at least among geeks. Which is as it should be: the more AI or quasi-AI comes to control, dictate or direct our lives, the more concern we should have about whether the black boxes in question are exacerbating structural or other unfairness or inequality. It’s not good enough to just blame – for instance – algorithms that can’t recognise Black people on “computer says no”. People make decisions, and they must be accountable.

(This, of course, is why Article 22 of the GDPR prohibits “solely automated processing, including profiling” – although it’s by no means impossible to get round this by inserting a human into the final stage of the process, or by making statutory arrangements to allow for it.)

Big Tech isn’t that comfortable about this, so it seems – as shown by Google’s removal (whether it’s officially sacking or not isn’t wholly clear, but it’s effectively an ejection anyway) of two senior women working on AI issues.

So MIT Technology Review’s caustic A-Z of how to talk about AI ethics is horrifically on the nose. A couple of examples will suffice, I hope, to encourage you to go and read it:

ethics principles – A set of truisms used to signal your good intentions. Keep it high-level. The vaguer the language, the better. See responsible AI.

human in the loop – Any person that is part of an AI system. Responsibilities range from faking the system’s capabilities to warding off accusations of automation.

privacy trade-off – The noble sacrifice of individual control over personal information for group benefits like AI-driven health-care advancements, which also happen to be highly profitable.

And the best one comes first:

accountability – The act of holding someone else responsible for the consequences when your AI system fails.

Ouch. But yes.


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2021iv14, Wednesday: Equality, of a sort.

Equality in principle is very different from equality in practice. As we’re seeing in the Greensill affair – and as a French writer cynically and beautifully put it many years ago. And US officialdom catches up, at last, on surface transmission of the Bug.

Short thought: Back when I was a reporter covering business, I spent a lot of time talking to C-suite executives. To help mitigate the risk of getting overawed, a colleague gave me advice I’ve always recalled.

The only difference between you and the rich and powerful, she said, was that they’ve got more money and power than you do.

There are countless layers to unpack in that advice, and the more you peel away the better it is.

But although it’s useful, it isn’t entirely true. French writer Anatole France captured it pithily more than a century ago:

La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.

Which translates roughly as:

The law, in its majestic equality, prohibits rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing loaves of bread.

In other words: money and power do, sadly, have a quality all their own. And law, and rules, inevitably affect people with them differently.

I was reminded of these when reading something by David Allen Green, someone whose stuff I follow religiously. Writing about the Greensill lobbying affair, he starts with the proposition that it’s right that everyone should be able to make their case to public power. Banning people from seeking to exercise influence causes serious problems. In principle.

His analogy is, I think, not an ideal one. He notes that in theory everyone “has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz”, but not everyone can afford it. Whereas in fact, so long as the Ritz doesn’t discriminate on the basis of a protected characteristic, it doesn’t have to sell its services to anyone it doesn’t want to.

Government is different. It has to serve everyone. Which is one reason why CEOs don’t necessarily make good political leaders: there’s always the risk that they’ll write off a chunk of the citizenry in the same way as firing a slice of the workforce, or moving upmarket and leaving former customers behind.

But David’s underlying point is a sound one. Even if his initial proposition is right, the fact is that money and power make a massive difference. They make some voices much louder, and act – deliberately or carelessly – to silence many others. So the very least we should expect is to know exactly who is saying what to whom, and with how much money behind them. Absolutely. No exceptions.

Openness isn’t the only or final answer, of course. It’s not sufficient. It doesn’t solve for the problem identified in another of France’s observations (and uncomfortably evident today): Si 50 millions de personnes disent une bêtise, c’est quand même une bêtise. (Rough translation: Idiocy voiced by 50 million people is still idiocy.)

But it is necessary.

As David puts it:

And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).

They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.

Quite.


Update: On Monday, I shared a superb piece of writing by Zeynep Tufecki, dealing with Covid theatre. She was particularly scathing about the cult of the wipedown: the opportunity cost we pay for the amount of time, money and energy spent on cleaning and disinfecting, when these have long been known to be a very minor element in the overall risk.

As John Naughton points out, US officialdom has now caught up. The CDC, now creeping back to its role as a central and strong player in the fight against the pandemic after its near-crippling by Trump, confirms formally what Zeynep was saying (and she, as she freely notes, is only reporting what others have proved long ago): that while transmission via surface contact is possible, the risk is low. Aerosol spread is far more dangerous and far more common.

To which some might answer: well, there’s still a risk. So we shouldn’t relax our guard vis-a-vis cleaning stuff.

Well, up to a point. But the real point is the one I discussed on Monday. If everything’s a priority, nothing is. So we need to prioritise wisely. When you focus on the wrong risk, you fail to protect against the right one. Sure, clean stuff. But if keeping up with that in any way eats into resources you need to spend in proofing against bigger risks, then think carefully about rebalancing.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)