The corporate memo is painfully banal. Well, typically. The ‘memo’ tends towards a kind of insincerity. “Reminders” on Twitter, for example. Those rude notes in office kitchens over the fridge. Written by people otherwise only connected by their fluorescent-light exposure. A recent, controversial memo delivered to a small mailing list at Google reveals another kind: memo as manifesto, a kind of mass-broadcast, ready-made political platform. The memo is an opportunity to “critique” corporate culture from a podium. Or to launch political startups. What a strange time.

My own encounter with this now infamous memo began with a report from VICE’s Motherboard, Google Employee’s Anti-Diversity Manifesto Goes ‘Internally Viral. Already, the memo’s new form of “critique” is exposed. The word “memo” transforms into “manifesto”. A manifesto is a declaration of intent — distinct from the sarcastic ‘reminder’ intoned by the memo. Manifestos reveal new knowledge, memos recall what should already be known. What new knowledge might this “manifesto” contain, I wondered. Rumors on Twitter swirled and the name James Damore emerged as the likely culprit. Damore’s identity seemed unsurprising: a Harvard PhD systems biologist dropout turned programmer, now Google serf. We’ll get back to that latter point.

Initially, only descriptions of the memo circulated. “Motherboard has not viewed the full document,” VICE noted. No one seemed to have. Still, the phrase “anti-diversity screed” was used. This struck me as a kind of containment strategy: exaggerate and pillory so that substantive responses later are unnecessary. Hardly anyone bothers to read sources these days. Even if they did, initial impressions are rarely countered by later nuance.

At some point, perhaps as the result of a deliberate campaign (my own speculation), Damore’s manifesto crawled, or leaked, its way onto the net. The press described it in terms that were unmistakably and terminally misogynistic. After reading, I find this description to be uncharitable at best. Damore’s own repeated insistence of a belief in “gender and racial diversity” goes unmentioned in all but the longest reports and replies.

That Damore has been characterized in ways inverse to his actual words seems unsurprising. Sexual dimorphism is, as a subject, defined by uncomfortable facts: divergent reproductive ratios, variability of ‘extreme’ intelligence, and least of all obvious differences in physical strength. Some of the discomfort here proceeds from the culturally pervasive insistence of total sex-egalitarianism. Anyone espousing beliefs on the basis of these differences becomes a locus for our collective discomfort.

This review will avoid more than a cursory overview of the substantive, sex-differential psychometric argument in Damore’s memo — not unlike the initial media reports themselves. In part this is because other, credentialed authors have already written responses. But more generally, less consideration has been given to Damore’s own identity as psychic victim of Silicon Valley’s new-found intersectional oppression-correction complex. This new reality is worth investigating. What compels a man to throw away a prodigious income, moderate social standing, and submit his eternal reputation to, of all things, Google? What does a future of corporate feudalism mean for free expression? And how might more manifestos serve to undermine that future?

Enlightenment Impotency

Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document

Following its leak, I was able to read the memo for the first time. I found it to be less of a screed and more of an obsequious, almost pained defense of ideological diversity for diversity’s sake. Damore’s core argument is that Google is exposed to business risks (including engaging in potentially illegal hiring practices) created by ideological homogeneity on sex-differences. Some of these differences are uncontroversial facts in the psychological literature, such as higher rates of female neuroticism. Damore argues that “differences in distributions of traits between men and women” may be a source of inequality of sex distribution of labor in the technology industry. Not that this would be an exhaustive explanation — just part of a complete one. His response to the claim that inequality is exclusively the fault of socially constructed oppression begins by speculating as to the possible non-oppressive causes. He outlines sex-based personality differences and a higher drive for status among men as two possible sources.

Damore seems committed to what we might describe as the enlightenment project. Enlightenment is revelation, light-seeking. Damore believes that we can be enlightened through argument. That discourse is a revealing act. The fact that he initially shared his memo with a group of Googler’s labeling themselves “skeptics” comes as no surprise. Truth-seekers tend to think this way, typical of Bay Area rationalism. We just need to be committed to our arguments, and to be mindful of our biases, they say. But enlightenment as a historical project is not without failure. Peter Sloterdijk provides a helpful characterization of this failure in his Critique of Cynical Reason, suggesting that 'Those who sought to promote enlightenment in [pre-Weimar Republic Germany] fought a losing battle.'. The powers of enlightenment were too weak for a precise number of reasons. Enlightenment was never able to ally itself effectively with the mass media, and individual self-determination was never an ideal for industrial monopolies and their organizations. How could it have been?

The rationalist insists that we adopt the better argument and discard the weaker. Dialogue becomes a method for enlightenment when both parties submit to being convinced by a stronger case on the basis of fact. Dialogue is a kind of “laborious wrestling with opinions.” Seeking truth is the foundation of inquiry.

Yet in reality — itself a common stumbling ground for enlightenment — precisely everything but the truth seems at stake. The mass media makes sure of this. Whatever we may say about Damore’s scientific appeals and his limitless insistence on being interested in diversity, we know that his argument will be measured as a kind of “unenlightenable confusion of stubborn conservatism” by the forces of mass culture who have neither the time nor the sensitivity for nuance.

Tweet-length headlines and poorly compressed JPEGs seem to be more effective agents of persuasion than the careful and considered argument. Here I am reminded of McLuhan’s “the medium is the mass-age” quip. But Damore’s audience isn’t the media — or wasn’t initially, anyway. His audience is the Googleplex incarnate. That body of stereotyped enlightenment, powerhouse of technology, profiteer of knowledge. Shouldn’t Google be most sensitive to rationalism?

Well, why? The industrial monopoly — a label no doubt appropriate to Google — is unconcerned with enlightenment for enlightenment’s sake. Google takes the form of a zaibatsu today — that old Japanese term for a sprawling conglomerate of financial interests. That’s Google’s purpose, isn’t it? Moral narratives, “established doctrines, passions, and the defense of ‘identities’” are all far more politically relevant to Google-as-machine than something as unseemly as truth. Even the appeal to truth as such is cringe-worthy in a way. Note, for example, Danielle Brown’s reply to Damore (as VP Diversity Integrity & Governance):

Google has taken a strong stand on [sex diversity], by releasing its demographic data and creating a company wide OKR on diversity and inclusion

Damore’s own memo — to which she is supposedly responding — raises a specific objection to these OKRs, that “setting org level OKRs for increased representation… can incentivize illegal discrimination.” His criticism is that the policy, though well intentioned, has negative externalities (like potentially promoting illegal business practices). Her reply is to repeat the intention, sutra-like. A secret chant. A careful denial of any appeal to explain.

No, what mattered most was just knowing how disgusting the manifesto had to have been. And “standing up” for the values of a spiritless zaibatsu very conveniently interested in aligning itself with regime politics. As Damore himself discovered, opponents of enlightenment “do not submit themselves to a previously agreed upon peace treaty; rather they confront each other in a competition directed at banishment and annihilation.” The point isn’t really to “be right” as much as it is to be seen being right, to be recognized as right, and in a way to remind everyone else just who is right. A memo of sorts: “Reminder: I wield power.”

In this view, enlightenment is methodologically flawed. Impotent. The discourse is a game, “the national conversation” is anything but. “We need to talk about this” is a code phrase for “you must believe or else.” Dialogue is a phantom pretext at best, and at worst a clever trick into nakedly outing yourself as someone who believes untruths. Enlightenment doesn’t seem possible in a media where political argument “seems to take place in its own self-sealed universe, purely as an ever more hysterical kind of entertainment.”

Sloterdijk, again: In modern times, enlightenment shows itself to be a tactical complex. The demand to univeralize the rational draws into the vortex of politics, pedagogy, and propaganda.

I suspect Damore knows this. He certainly behaves as though he is playing a higher order game, feebly though admirably for a new entrant. In the days following his eventual dismissal from Google he provided a number of interviews to both accredited and independent media, and even one to the professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. A near-six-figure Twitter following emerged. Speculating about a book deal seems appropriate. Surely some sort of Patreon-funded project will happen eventually. Perhaps here, absent any better answer, we find an answer appropriate to the question of “why throw your life away to write this?”

Feudal Futurism

In the wake of Damore’s firing, and for reasons only indirectly connected, a narrative of corporate America as moral leader emerged. This is not a new idea, of course. Since at least the 1990s, business schools have intoned “corporate responsibility” as core curricula. The New York Times ran a story titled The Moral Voice of Corporate America, which does not itself mention Google’s case but invokes the hyper-relevant imagery of the America flag bespeckled with corporate logos instead of stars. As some on Twitter have pointed out, this image was itself first produced by the perennially oppositional Adbusters — who now find their critique of capitalism inverted as praise.

Minh Uong/The New York Times

“C.E.O.s wield economic influence,” the Times quotes Marc Benioff of Salesforce. Doubtlessly implying that by virtue of this fact they wield other forms of social and cultural influence. Benioff himself enjoys being positioned as a leader this way. “Our employees come here knowing that [social responsibility] is something that is extremely important to us,” says Benioff. It’s good for business in the Valley. To be seen as a voice of public morality. “Reminder: we are good.” This seems curiously self-unaware for an industry whose non-political concerns seem to be limited to transforming every last ounce of our finite supply of rare earth metals into $1000 sexual selection machines, to paraphrase @menaquinone4.

This sort of glossy, plastic appeal to be an arbiter of public morality speaks to the incremental corporate creep of Silicon Valley into all social relationships. Culture itself becomes mediated through the tendrils of the Valley. We can’t even see the future but through the lens of silicon feudalism. A future of serfdom for feudal fiber lords, whose “disruption”-obsession turned to the state. We don’t even possess the imagination to exceed it.

The Valley is a weird place. We should be suspicious of any talk of morality, of elevating programmers to priests. How curiously ascetic the mental life of the Bay programmer becomes. The Valley keeps workers cocooned inside company campuses. They accept an insular life, and are rewarded with middle class incomes and a tendency towards clinical depression. Damore surely suffered from that “long narcosis” that destroys the Valley worker’s “ability to comprehend the limits of the natural world, their creativity and psychic energy sucked out and emptied.” A model for the future. A prototype.

Such a place deserves its manifestos, doesn’t it? If not now, then when? If a single, guerrilla-writer can provoke national media coverage for a day, surely there will be more.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3149680/

[2] Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, 11

[3] Sloterdijk, 15

[4] Sloterdijk, 13

[5] Sloterdijk, 15

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/30/liberals-donald-trump-rightwing-populists

[7] Sloterdijk, 11

[8] Metropolis, 2012