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Tech leaders must stop treating humanity like computer code

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture journalist based in Toronto.

It was the manifesto read around the world – or at least, across the Internet. Now known as the Google manifesto, the viral internal memo from an employee called into question not just the company's diversity efforts, but whether or not women were in fact biologically suited to engineering. After a storm of controversy and outrage, the post's author, James Damore, was fired.

That it generated so much reaction was predictable. The manifesto is a convenient lightning rod. Not only did it tap into the burgeoning reactionary push back against radical ideas like "sexism and racism are bad," it also evoked controversies over free speech, the line between public and private, whether or not people should lose their jobs for their beliefs, to make no mention of the ubiquitous topic of diversity itself.

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But while all of those issues are important, the manifesto itself and the fact that it received so much support revealed something deeper about the world of technology: In the ostensible rush to lead us forward into a better world, the tech world seems bent on replicating the ideologies of the past rather than leaping past them.

After all, the manifesto asserted ideas that are familiar: both that biology determines interest and that imbalances in demographic representation are the result of what is natural, not cultural.

The science in question, such as it is, is something better left to experts to debate. But there are nonetheless reasonable questions laypeople can ask. Among them: Even if one were to take the extreme position that genetics neatly determines behaviour, how might the ancient arrangement of nucleic acids so neatly line up with results in a field barely 50 years old – particularly since, early on when it was considered a menial task, computer programming was a field dominated by women?

More to the point, to argue that engineering or coding are simply mechanical or an abstract set of mathematics or logic misses the aim of the field. Software is made for people, to help them accomplish tasks, connect with one another, or filter through massive amounts of information in intelligent ways.

Those goals require a complex set of skills that cannot be reduced to mere coding, but require an understanding of sociology, psychology and no small amount of empathy. Putting aside the dubious assertion that we are hard-wired by gender to favour one of these skills over the other, to argue that engineering or coding should be left to those with the most abstract skill is akin to saying structural engineers should design buildings or that mechanical engineers should market cars. The creation of code and software is ultimately holistic, relying on a broad range of traits that cannot and should not be reduced to one dimension – particularly tired, gendered stereotypes.

But despite this obvious fact, the manifesto does ring true in one way: It represents the tech world's too-common, incredibly reductive view of humanity that tries to think of humans are just like computer code itself, a complex, but predetermined series of input and output.

This view itself leads to a blind faith in a hyper-rational world dictated by metrics, competitive bro culture and faux notions of meritocracy. It's reflected in so much in the tech world: in Facebook's belated concerns about privacy, or their impact on political polarization; in Twitter's arguably too-late focus on abuse and harassment, in part brought on by prioritizing resources for advertising over the standards team; or Uber's unending troubles with sexual harassment, driver exploitation or its constant flouting of the law. In each, it was unwillingness to think about the complexity of human reaction in favour of an algorithmic or mechanistic understanding that caused the problem.

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It's a deeply naive view, one that runs roughshod over humanity when a handful of companies on the U.S. West Coast are given enormous power. In trying to create something new, they have simply repeated the past, carrying along beliefs in neutral meritocracy, the capacity of humans to power through all problems with brawn and that we are predestined to be who we are.

That is not the truth of what it means to be alive and we cannot let the tech world insist that it is. If you want a manifesto to line up behind, let it be that.

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