'Barbershop': – A Roundup Of This Week's Issues In technology And Culture
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Now it's time for the Barbershop, where we gather a group of interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today, we want to talk about some of the issues bubbling up around technology and culture that might tell us about something bigger going on in the country. And joining us are April Glaser. She covers tech for Slate. She joins us from San Francisco. And with her in the studio is Washington Post contributor Steven Petrow. Hi guys.
APRIL GLASER: Hi.
STEVEN PETROW: Hey.
SMITH: Also with us is Tonya Mosley senior Silicon Valley correspondent for member station KQED. She joins us from San Jose. Hi, Tanya.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: Hello.
SMITH: So the big topic in the tech world this week is this leaked 10-page Google memo from now-former employee James Damore. In the memo, more lays out why he thinks there are fewer women in tech. And he suggests that part of the reason is due to biological differences between men and women. Damore was fired because of the memo. Google said he was perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes, caused a huge uproar. Google was going to hold a town hall meeting about it, but they canceled it because employees who were agreeing with Damore were being harassed online. So, OK, Tonya, how is Silicon Valley reacting to this?
MOSLEY: It's really interesting because from the view of women in tech that I have known and talked to, they're feeling fatigued you can imagine. Over time, any woman who has worked in tech or in a tech field or around it has heard this argument before or has dealt with constantly feeling like they were having to prove themselves. And so from that vantage point, there's just this idea of we're still having this discussion. And now, we're elevating this discussion to the point of really taking a look at some of those diversity measures in places like Google to bring more women into the fold and minorities into the fold.
SMITH: I mean, Damore has said that he was just trying to have a conversation about an important issue and he was just shut down. I mean, what do you think about that?
MOSLEY: It's really interesting because I like to look at this from the vantage point of the civil rights era. Particularly when African-Americans were fighting for equal rights, there were actual discussions on the merit of whether or not black people deserved that. And so when you think about that, to be able to at this point talk about biologically whether or not women can have a place at the table or whether or not there should be programs aimed at bringing them into the fold, it really speaks to whether or not we're beyond this discussion. And so I think that that is where the contention point is.
SMITH: I mean, Steven, is it possible to talk about women in tech in a respectful way?
PETROW: You know, I'm really kind of persuaded by something that Tonya just said, which was the analogy to the civil rights movement. And if you'd substituted racial diversity in his memo, you know, there would have been no debate about the fact that it was right to fire him. And I do think that the company had legal right to fire him, just as I think he has the legal right to speak his mind. But as an employee, you know, you're subject to the terms and conditions of your employment. But what we've seen this week is that this is a tinderbox. It's real. These are issues that are really hard to talk about. And here I'm speaking as a white male, I don't think it's for the white guys to be leading this conversation.
SMITH: April, you had a very strong opinion about. This you applauded Google's firing of Damore. Tell us about that.
GLASER: So I would say that, you know, unfortunately, this memo is illustrative of an organization that would allow someone like him with such hardline prejudices to work at Google for four years. I think that there are different ways of addressing the fact that you think that the diversity efforts at a company aren't working. And there are ways to do that without pointing to the biological inferiority of the people that work alongside of you. So if I'm working on a team with someone who thinks that I'm actually not capable because of who I am biologically to do the work that he's capable of doing, it's going to be really hard for me to actually sit next to him because I know that I'm working with somebody that thinks I'm just actually less than that person is.
SMITH: But if there are these unspoken prejudices around, Is it the best decision by Google not to have their town hall and to basically shut this guy down and maybe scare people away from the subject entirely? Is it better to just bring these out in the open where they can actually be addressed?
GLASER: I think the kind of shutting down of the town hall meeting was I think a safety issue, not just about people who agreed with Damore who were being threatened but also people who are outspoken feminists at Google whose full names were being put onto alt-right websites. And so Google, from my understanding, wants to probably have a company-wide meeting but is probably trying to figure out the safest way to do that.
PETROW: You know, Stacey, this is also something we've seen over and over again with the right and the alt-right, that when there are conversations like this, they make it unsafe and then things have to be shut down. And it appears as though it's censorship, rather than than, you know, a legitimate safety issue, which has been provoked oftentimes. And we'll see that, you know, in the Charlottesville situation, too.
SMITH: Well, yeah. I mean, speaking of that, there was another really interesting free speech issue that came up in the tech world this week with Airbnb. That's of course the website where people can rent out their homes. And Airbnb made this decision to deny business to some people who had booked places in Charlottesville, Va. Airbnb looked into customers' online profiles and they canceled the bookings of people they thought were going to Charlottesville, Va., to take part in the white nationalist rally that we talked about earlier in the show. Tonya, what do you think of Airbnb's decision here?
MOSLEY: It's really interesting because just recently, they changed their terms and conditions, basically saying that they would not really support hosts who were discriminatory towards African-Americans or Asians, say. And then with that, taking a look at the types of folks that they allow to be a part of their network. The challenge, I think, will be in the long term because it was so easy. There were folks on message boards from the alt-right who were saying, we're going to look at this location and this location. It was easy for Airbnb to say, no, you can't. But in the long term, it will be very hard for them, I think, to take that stance because they're run by software. So really, it will be a person on the other end who will have to say after a person has booked a space to say, no, you can't.
PETROW: Can I jump in here, Stacey?
SMITH: Yeah, please.
PETROW: You know, I applaud Airbnb for the diversity efforts that they've taken in the last year because they've had some real issues and they've made some great strides, but I am deeply troubled by this decision. We have been saying that, you know, it's not right for Christian innkeepers or Christian bakers to refuse service to same-sex couples or to gay people.
SMITH: Right. This is the case going before the Supreme Court. There was the Colorado bakery who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding.
PETROW: Exactly. Those bakers, those innkeepers have said, you know, this is part of their beliefs and so on and so forth.
SMITH: Right. They're citing their First Amendment right.
PETROW: You know, it's kind of flipped. It's a different group. It's a group that I absolutely don't support, but I think that the principle is the same. And, you know, and for us to be fair, you know, you have to extend that even in the most odious cases and perhaps especially in the most odious cases.
GLASER: You know, and I would say though that Airbnb does have community terms here. And their community terms do say that they are not going to be a platform for discriminatory acts. And this seemed like a clear violation of their rules there.
PETROW: But it makes me really uncomfortable that Airbnb undertook these investigations. And, you know, it reminds me of the blacklisting in the 1950s, where it was flipped. You know, it was the leftists who were being investigated. And for a private company to be doing that sort of in secret, that troubles me.
GLASER: I don't think they did it in secret. They - as a journalist, when I asked them how they came to these conclusions, they said that the users pointed to message boards that - on the Daily Stormer, which is a neo-Nazi website, that had said they were booking Airbnb's for their alt-right parties. And Airbnb looked into it and said, this is a violation of our terms.
SMITH: All right. Well, we're going to move on to our final topic, which is much lighter. But it has been getting some buzz this week about a man here in D.C. who scheduled six dates back to back in the same bar. Like, he did not schedule enough time for the dates clearly because the women kept running into each other. They eventually figured out what was going on. And all six of them got together and confronted him. I wanted to get a woman's take on this first. April, what did - what do you think about this story?
GLASER: I think it illustrates how dating has become really an exercise in data. And even the idea that, like, a company's algorithm is an acceptable matchmaking tool or the idea that you can scroll through a library of potential candidates until you land on your Mr. or Mrs. Right, you know, kind of all lends to this behavior. And, you know, dating apps are totally legitimate. But when you reduce a person to a profile or a matchmaker to software, the, you know, the people involved may feel less humanized in a way. And what this demanded is rude and hurtful. And actions like this make women feel dispensable.
MOSLEY: What a jerk is all I can say.
PETROW: And I agree.
SMITH: So Lisette Pylant, who was date number one, was actually in our studio this morning. And this is what she had to say about her date.
LISETTE PYLANT: I don't think that there's anything wrong with trying to be efficient with your time, but I think there's also a baseline level of respect for other people you should have and respect for their time. And he clearly didn't have that for any of us.
SMITH: So, Steven, you write about manners and civilities for the Washington Post. What do you think about what this guy did?
PETROW: I think we really have to look at ourselves. He is a person, and he made these decisions. And that is not about technology. That is about someone who, you know, he's a project manager. He wants to be time efficient. And...
SMITH: Project manager being like dating is the project?
GLASER: He's in IT.
PETROW: You know, he's stacking - you know, he's stacking them up. You know, he didn't - he doesn't know the rules of speed-dating, which is the problem, you know. You need a greater window of time. You need an hour or two. You need to buddy up with that bartender so the bartender is going to protect you. In this particular case the bartender, was feeding information to those women, saying, you know, get out of here, he's a jerk. And I think these days, everything is so time-crunched. You know, we need to kind of sit back, take a breath, you know, and be in the moment, be with the person you're with.
SMITH: Would the situation have been different if the genders had been reversed, if it had been a woman scheduling six dates with men?
MOSLEY: I do think that the tables would have been turned if it was different. But really, even if it were a woman and she had like just 45 minutes between each date, I think a guy would feel miffed. They might have not all gotten together and rallied against her, but I don't think it would have worked out for her.
SMITH: That was Tonya Mosley, KQED Silicon Valley correspondent, Washington Post contributing columnist Steven Petrow and Slate tech writer April Glaser. Thanks, everyone.
MOSLEY: Thank you.
PETROW: Thank you.
GLASER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.