Posts about technopanic

Hacking through Amazon’s jungle of coverage

The New York Times exposé of working conditions at Amazon lacks two key attributes: context and — I can’t quite believe I’m saying this — balance.

Like everyone in my feeds, I read the story with something verging on horror. Since then, I’ve seen many tweets presenting another perspective and just read a point-by-point rebuttal by an Amazonian.

Where’s the truth? in the mix. Except as a reader, I had to go search for that mix.

First, context: Last night on Twitter, I half-joked that Amazon sounded like many newspaper newsrooms:

Jay Rosen later responded:

You get the point: Where is the context about work as a whole? Is every office as wonderful as Google and Facebook are supposed to be? No, of course not. We all know that. So to what standard is Amazon being held? Is it better or worse than comparable and realistic (read: unGoogle) workplaces? That’s not in the piece. It needs to be.

Now to balance. Nick Ciubotariu, an engineer and executive at Amazon, wrote a very long rebuttal on LinkedIn, which I found only thanks to a Dan Gillmor link. Amid some amusing techcospeak (an issue “gets actioned”) are clear and sincere explanations for much of what The Times thinks it has exposed. For example, the orientation at any company, taken out of context, might sound like brainwashing; that’s normal. He says that the cases of how employees with pregnancies and health and family issues were allegedly mistreated are appalling and the company must address them. He acknowledges that Amazon might have changed between its founding and his hiring 18 months ago. But he likes working there. He, like many colleagues, is attracted to tackling huge problems — and that is obviously not easy work.

The Times talked with some Amazon employees but makes a point of saying that they were offered up by the company and so they are presumed to be like North Korean media handlers; they are to be discounted. Most of what The Times garnered from unofficial sources was negative. Most of what Ciubotariu says is positive.

We, the readers, are left to balance these accounts ourselves. And that’s my problem. The Times should have presented enough of that conflicting evidence so that we could weigh evidence and decide for ourselves whether Amazon is hell in Seattle.

But The Times decided that for us. It wanted to expose Amazon’s working conditions. It devoted two reporters for six months to do just that (who would devote such resource to finding out that it’s an OK place to work, if you have to work?).

The Times had an agenda. Well, some of you might remind me: Haven’t you, Jarvis, argued that journalism is by definition advocacy? Yes, and it’s clear The Times wanted to tackle the issues that arise from such demanding work. But as a journalistic institution, The Times is still required to exhibit the intellectual honesty to credibly and fairly present evidence that counters its worldview. It is still required to give us in the public the respect and trust to make our own decisions about what it presents.

But that’s not what The Times did. I am not doubting the truth of what The Times presented, only the selection. I am also not saying that after balancing all this, I would want to work at Amazon. I can’t stand the idea of a culture that enables an anonymous feedback system, which The Times exposes and its employee defends; I sure as hell won’t want to see that trend spread to other workplaces. I worry about a culture that can allow the cases of cold-hearted lack of empathy for employees’ lives that The Times presents, even if they are just anecdotal. On the other hand, I admire greatly the commercial and logistical miracle that Amazon has built. I love the idea of working side-by-side with people as smart, accomplished, dedicated, and passionate as the people who have built Amazon. I also read the piece worried that all this publicity would lead — Gawkerlike — to unionization, and I think that could jeopardize its growth.

On that last point, you may think I sound like an owner. I am. I have long held a few shares in Amazon. So you should judge what I say here with that conflict of interest well in mind. You’re probably scolding me right now for not saying it at the top of this piece. You’d be right. And that is how I illustrate my last point: The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times.

The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be: against Amazon and its owner, Bezos, who is a competitor; against technology, a direction too much of media is taking (you should see the latest from Der Spiegel; its technopanic should be printed in purple ink); in favor of big labor? I wouldn’t be wondering that if The Times had given me greater context and balance and sufficient information to let me decide about Amazon for myself rather than having it decided for me. And that’s too bad. There is much good reporting here. There are important issues and modern-day phenomenon that deserve discussion. Instead, we’re starting to discuss The Times.

LATER: I think I’m clear about this but let me be extra clear: I am not saying The Times has a competitive agenda against the Post and thus Bezos. I am saying that it will open itself up to such questioning by not being sufficiently transparent and not exhibiting intellectual honesty by providing sufficient balance to make clear that in the end the judgment is the reader’s.

BEZOS RESPONSE: The letter Bezos sent to Amazon staff:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,


Oh, those Germans


German publishers warring with Google — and the link and the internet — have now completed their humiliation at their own hands, capitulating to Google and allowing it to continue quoting and linking to them. How big of them.

The pathetic sequence of their fight:

1. German publishers under the banner of a so-called trade group called VG Media and led by conservative publisher Axel Springer called in who knows what political chits to get legislators to create a new, ancillary copyright law — the Leistungsschutzrecht — to forbid Google et al from quoting even snippets to link to them.

2. In negotiations in the legislature, snippets were then allowed.

3. The publishers went after Google anyway, contending that Google should pay them 11 percent of revenue over the use of snippets.

4. Google, being sued over the use of the snippets, said it would take down the snippets from those publishers this week.

5. The publishers said that for Google to take down the snippets they were using to blackmail Google amounted to Google blackmailing the publishers. And you thought Germans were logical.

6. The publishers went to the government cartel office to complain that Google was using its market power against them.

7. Officials laughed the publishers out of the cartel office.

8. Now the publishers have said that Google can use its snippets for free while this legal matter is being ironed out.

Of course, the publishers never wanted the snippets taken down because they depend on those snippets and links for the audience Google sends to them … for free. It is all their cynical game to try to disadvantage their new and smarter competitor. Those who can, compete. Those who can’t, use their political clout.

Enough. Genug.

I have written a much longer essay about the damage these German publishers are doing to Germany’s standing that I am trying to place in a print publication — so I can speak to the print people. I’ll link to it when that happens. Here’s the lede:

I worry about Germany and technology. I fear that protectionism from institutions that have been threatened by the internet — mainly media giants and government — and the perception of a rising tide of technopanic in the culture will lead to bad law, unnecessary regulation, dangerous precedents, and a hostile environment that will make technologists, investors, and partners wary of investing and working in Germany.

LATER: Ah, there’s another chapter already.

9. Like Japanese soldiers stuck on an island thinking the war continues, Axel Springer has declared that Google must take down snippets from four of its brands: Die Welt, and the auto, sport, and computer subbrands of Bild. Note well that they didn’t do that with superbrand Bild, their largest newspaper and the largest in Germany. They need the eggs. So as it loses its argument that Google is a cartel, the German publishers’ cartel crumbles.


Europe is at it again. Or still. I’m told that a consortium of European publishers will run an ad in European papers this weekend attacking Google and the EU’s antitrust deal with the company. It’s the same old stuff: publishers whining and stomping their feet that it’s just not fair that Google is doing better than they are and government should step in to do something about this, this damned, uh … competitor.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.17.21 PMIn the ad, the publishers’ argument is that Google’s search is not “impartial.” First, who said it has to be? Second, Google does point to its competitors; see this search for “maps” to the left. Third, who requires the publishers to promote their competitors? Here, the so-called Open Internet Project — a front started by German publisher Axel Springer — demands “equal search” (what the hell would that be?) for, say, shoe listings, complaining that Google makes money pointing to its shoe advertisers. Hmmm. And here is Bild, Springer’s gigantic newspaper, selling shoes itself. I don’t see them linking to Google’s shoe ads. Shouldn’t a news publication be — what’s the word? — impartial?

But, of course, this isn’t the point. It’s a game. I’ve seen German publishers chuckling about it that way. They think they can use government and political pressure to cut some flesh out of Google. But they should beware the unintended consequences. They are helping Europe — and particularly Germany — get a reputation for being hostile or at least inhospitable to technology. Here is the Economist writing about “Germany’s Googlephobia.”

It so happens that I’m going to Berlin next week to speak at the IFA technology show about just this topic: Europe (specifically Germany) and technology specifically American technology companies). I worry about Europe.

Germany just banned Uber (despite the advice of EC VP Neelie Kroes). A European court instituted the ludicrous and dangerous Right to be Forgotten (what about the right to remember?). German government officials harassed Google over Street View so much that Google gave up photographing its streets (so much for Blurmany). German publishers got government to pass an ancillary copyright to go after Google quoting and linking to their content (but then lost a round in court). The German book industry gave technosceptic Jaron Lanier its big-deal peace prize and Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel is roaring up the charts. A German pol is threatening to break up Google (how?). Spain is looking to tax the link. The head of powerful German publisher Axel Springer raises the spectre of Google starting its own nation without laws. A German government agency is talking about declaring Google a utility and regulating it as such; I’d call that quasi-nationalization. “It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild,” declared Social Democratic Chairman Sigmar Gabriel in a German paper. “Either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotised subjects of a digital rulership.” I could go on….

Would you invest in technology in Europe and specifically in Germany? I sure wouldn’t.

Some of this is about disrupted companies and institutions rallying to try to hobble their disruptor. Some of this is cultural technopanic. In either case, the damage to Europe and particularly Germany could be great.

At IFA, I plan to tell the technology executives there that they need to step up and defend progress or they might find themselves left behind.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.05.22 PM

First, the good news

First, listen to this superb and profoundly disturbing segment by On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman about how she and her husband and other guests at a Canadian wedding were detained and mistreated at the U.S. border crossings in spite of their citizenship — American — and because of their religion — Islam.

Welcome back. I told you it well done, didn’t I? I’d be screaming bloody murder at such treatment but Abdurrahman kept her journalistic cool and curiosity, trying to get the facts and understand our rights, asking questions, in spite of never getting answers. People have been saying lately that Verizon picked on the wrong person in me. Well, U.S. Customs and Border Protection could not have picked a worse person to detain: a smart, accomplished journalist with an audience.

I would hope that CBP is humiliated by this and will change, but our government isn’t humiliated by spying on the entire damned world and won’t change that, so I’ll give up my hope. Nonetheless, this story is the perfect bookend to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA, showing a government that is out of control — because its citizens can no longer control it. Well done, OtM. Thank you, Sarah.

Now the bad news. Next came a story that did have me shouting at the radio as geographer Jim Thatcher condemned major tech companies with broad brush — without specifics, without evidence or proof, only with innuendo — for the possibility they could be redlining the world and diverting users away from certain areas. “It’s hidden what they’re doing,” he said. If it’s hidden, then how does he know they’re doing it? Not said. Microsoft had a patent that could do things like this but Thatcher acknowledged that “Microsoft may or may not” every use it. They could.

Brooke Gladstone laments Google’s purchase of Waze for $1.3 million because “we are being sold for our data, it’s an old story.” No, I was using Waze at the very moment I heard that because (1) I get data of great value back, helping me avoid not opium dens but traffic jams and (2) I generously want to share my data with others who have generously shared theirs with me. This is an example of a platform that does precisely what news organizations should do: help the public share its information with each other, without gatekeepers.

Next, Thatcher says with emphasis that “theoretically” Google could charge coffee shops for directing us to one over another. Then Thatcher acknowledges that it’s not happening. It could. And he dollops on a cherry of fear about technology and “for-profit” corporations.

Don’t you smell the irony in the oven, OtM? You properly and brilliantly condemn the CBP for detaining Americans because they are Muslims and because Muslims could do terrorism even when they don’t. Then, in the very next segment, you turn around and needlessly condemn technology companies because they could do things some guy imagines even though he admits they don’t.

Those are two sides of the same phenomenon: moral panic, the unsubstantiated suspicion that some apparently alien entity — Muslims or (OMG!) for-profit technology companies — could upset the social order, a fear often fanned by media.

Put down the fan, OtM, and learn the lesson from Abdurrahman’s superb story that your role — you of all media outlets — is to throw cold water on such unwarranted fright-mongering.

Mind you, these two segments were surrounded by two more very good reports: one that gives us a guide for what to ignore in breaking news (so as not to fan flames) and another about how — surprise, surprise, surprise — technology can lead to good ends. I remain a fan and loyal listener of OtM. And that is why I humbly offer you a map to guide you away from a dodgy neighborhood called technopanic.

Technopanic: The Movie

Disconnect thinks it is a film about technology’s impact on our lives. But it is really just a mawkish melodrama about a random bunch of creeps, jerks, assholes, and loners. It is not a warning about our future. In the future, it will be seen as the cyber Reefer Madness: in short, a laughingstock.

Disconnect begins by throwing us every uh-oh signal it can: online porn; people listening to their headphones instead of the world around them; people paying attention to their phones (and the people on the other end) instead of the boring world in front of them; skateboards; people ruining office productivity watching silly videos; kids wearing Hooters T-shirts; sad people chatting with strangers online; people gambling online; people getting phished into bankruptcy; and worst of all, kids using Facebook. Oh, no!

A series of parallel stories unfold: the loner kid who’ll be drawn to humiliate himself and attempt suicide by asshole teens, one of them the son of a cybercop (!); the young couple — let’s kill their kid to up the sympathy — who chat with strangers and gamble with machines and find their identities thieved (where’s the product placement for Identity Guard and!); the vulture reporter who exploits — and rather hankers for the loins of (and smokes reefers with) — the teen online hustler exploited by the cyberFagin.

Along the way, the movie delivers quite retrograde messages not only about technology but also about sexuality: It’s the men who are found to be at fault for not protecting their nests. Thus: technology castrates!

I hate to deliver any spoilers but it pretty much ends with everybody fucked up and miserable because they got anywhere near the internet.

Disconnect is merely an extension of a trend (we call it a meme these days) in challenging the value of technology against those of us — and I include myself in the “us” — who try to identify the opportunities technology provides. Instead, why don’t we look for everything that could go wrong and crawl back into our caves?