In A Trump Era World, Silicon Valley Has Shifted Its Goal Posts

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
“Had a moment of nostalgia today about when we were just fighting to keep racists from giving talks at programming [conferences] and then got real sad,” Leigh Honeywell tweeted on November 29.

A few weeks after that, Honeywell — a security response manager at Slack — Ka-Ping Yee, Valerie Aurora and others organized the Never Again Pledge, a public oath from workers in the technology industry to refuse to participate in the use of tech for racial and religious targeting.

“We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out,” the pledge reads. “We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others. We recall the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.”

In the wake of of Trump's ascendency to the White House, activists within the technology industry are reassessing their priorities. Movements that once focused on proportional representation of marginalized demographic groups in the industry are shifting energies away from diversity work in favor of staving off future complicity in genocide.

Danilo Campos, Technical Director for Social Impact at Github, almost wistfully recalls how, prior to the election, he had been planning on making a fun video about workplace inclusivity and Star Trek, based on a wildly popular talk he had given at a javascript meet-up.

“The year got busy and I didn’t get around to it, and now it just feels so back-burnered, because the stuff we’ve got to worry about runs so much deeper than inclusion now," said Campos. "We have a president-elect who campaigned on mass deportations and a Muslim registry. And these are all things you could apply technology to.”

In recent years, the movement to diversify tech seemed to make huge strides forward, as tech workers and venture capitalists alike began to speak more openly about discrimination in the industry. Perhaps no clearer sign of the changing cultural tide was the sudden explosion in interest in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), a major tech conference by and for women. GHC had been held annually since 1994, but in 2011 it moved to a convention center due to a spike in attendance.

Around the time, people began to reexamine inclusivity in all aspects of the industry: Black Girls Code (founded 2011) seeks to teach programming skills to black girls aged 7 to 17. Code2040 (founded 2012) runs programs to help black and Latinx software engineering students land internships and jobs in the tech industry. The Ada Initiative (founded 2011 by Mary Gardiner and Valeria Aurora, one of the co-organizers of the Never Again Pledge), as part of its mission to support women in open technology, developed anti-harassment codes of conduct for conferences, and lobbied conferences to adopt them.

Today, codes of conduct with anti-harassment provisions are common in the tech industry. Workshops and unconferences organized by the Ada Initiative led to a flowering of other projects, including the San Francisco women’s hackerspace Double Union.

Under Double Union’s auspices, Leigh Honeywell created OpenDiversityData.org, a site that tracks which tech companies have published their internal diversity statistics and which ones have not, as a mode of pressuring the latter to release that information.

Thanks to activism like hers, the release of diversity data rapidly became a widespread practice across Silicon Valley, with giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more regularly publishing their EEO-1 reports (forms with gender and racial/ethnic data about employees legally required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from certain companies) for the public to view. The regular publication of EEO-1s became a way for companies set goalposts for themselves, and to vow to do better.

But the push for diversity has seen incremental progress. After Jack Dorsey returned as Twitter’s CEO, the company lost Leslie Miley, its only black engineering manager. By the end of the year, Janet Van Huysee, the company’s VP of diversity, was replaced by a white man.

Meanwhile, Apple, Facebook, and Google all claimed to be moving in the “right direction,” touting improvements such as women making up 21% of new hires, compared to a current population of 19%. Pinterest started out reaching for “ambitious” goals in 2015, then beat a swift retreat, having found that a 30% hiring rate for women engineers was “too aggressive.”

Diversity activism prior to the 2016 election focused heavily on the spread of information — data sets, programming skills, codes of conduct, workplace diversity training — and trusted that the arc of history was long but would bend towards equity.

It’s important for marginalized people to be represented in tech in this moment because of the danger that technology is about to be used to hurt their communities.

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But the stakes are suddenly much higher. It’s perhaps no surprise that some of the key figures behind the post-2011 explosion of activism for diversity in tech are now leading the Never Again Pledge: The same problems that existed before November 9 still exist, only now they are magnified.

Perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than in the fight to “keep racists from giving talks at programming conference” that Honeywell mentioned in her post-election tweet. In 2016, even as the election was playing out on a national stage, the programming community was convulsed with a debate over whether the functional programming conference LambdaConf should rescind its speaking invitation to neo-reactionary ideologue and computer scientist Curtis Yarvin, also known as Mencius Moldbug.

Citing his racist views (for example, he claims that white people have inherently higher IQs, and that some people are better suited for slavery), several speakers and sponsors withdrew from LambdaConf in protest. His supporters saw the attempt to no-platform him as an illegitimate attack on speech, where protesters viewed his talk as contributing to a hostile environment for already-marginalized groups in tech.
But under the new administration, the question of giving platforms to people like Yarvin becomes even thornier. “If the alt-right does have an intellectual forbear, it is … Curtis Yarvin,” James Kirchick wrote in May, in an article about “Trump’s terrifying online brigades.”

The problem of Yarvin is no longer just that he contributes to a hostile professional environment for women or people of color: It's that his fringe beliefs have fueled a national political movement that is hostile to them in more tangible ways. Prior to November 9, activists merely sought to prevent Yarvin from speaking at conferences. After November 9, they now seek to stop the creation and use of technology in service of his beliefs.

In this way, the work being done in tech circles before November 9 is still relevant — maybe even more so. Campos sees continuing investment in diversity as essential. “What gets complicated is that in addition to all the education stuff, and making space for people, we now need to get active in a political sense that I don’t know was true in the past.” It’s important, he says, for marginalized people to be represented in tech in this moment, because of the danger that technology is about to be used to hurt their communities.

But the mood in Silicon Valley is sour. “I sense apprehension,” says Karla Monterroso, Vice President of Programs at Code2040. “Things feel very uncertain right now. And I don’t know that that is going to be any different than the way we’re going to experience things in the near term.”

For Monterroso, despite living in the deep blue bubble of Silicon Valley, the results of the election were hardly surprising. “There isn’t a woman or woman of color who hasn’t tweeted and has any kind of network presence who is really surprised about what has happened,” she said. “We felt it coming. There was hope, because that’s how you sustain change — hope in the face of the impossible. But the volume of toxicity that existed has existed.”

The Never Again Pledge closed to new signatures on December 21, citing the enormous effort in vetting signatories on an ongoing basis. But before that happened, 2,843 tech workers had signed on. One line, both chilling and powerful, reads: "Today we stand together to say: not on our watch, and never again."

Sarah Jeong is a journalist specializing in technology and legal issues.
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