Continued coverage of the unintended consequences of technology, paired with congressional testimonies from executives at big tech companies, are slowly peeling away the last bits of rose-colored protective film through which the public first viewed Silicon Valley.
At the same time, high-level former employees are publicly repenting or expressing remorse for their role in making these companies so powerful. These former founders and designers have taken to apologizing in the pages of Forbes, The Guardian, and the Washington Post (to name just a few venues) in what I like to call the Oopsie Circuit.
Ostensibly, this Oopsie Circuit serves as a check to powerful institutions, from a credible source. But this apology tour serves the rich and remorseful former tech executives first by allowing them to repent and be forgiven for breaking the world, and second by reaffirming Silicon Valley's all-powerful view of itself. It's important to note, of course, that each apology tour begins much after the person apologizing has already become rich from the actions they regret.
Chamath Palihaptiya, former head of the growth team at Facebook and current venture capitalist, said at a Stanford business school event in 2017 that Facebook is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” In The New York Times, co-founder of Facebook Chris Hughes said the company “seeps into every corner of our lives to capture as much of our attention and data as possible and, without any alternative, we make the trade.”
There's no more perfect example of this than this week’s guest on the Oopsie Circuit, Chris Wetherell, the ex-Twitter developer who helped build the retweet function. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Wetherell expressed regret over how the feature was built and implemented, without full regard for the possible repercussions of being able to instantly share a statement without thinking. As the story points out, an entire team worked to build the retweet, while the headline suggests it was the work of one man. This is not an immaterial difference; there’s an innate satisfaction in putting one person’s face to a problem, instead of an entire organization. Following the publishing of the story, Wetherell himself clarified he did not build the retweet button alone. (His clarification got seven retweets.)
Besides shoring up the professional myth of one man in tech, the focus of Wetherell’s apology obfuscates the real factors turning Twitter into a hellscape. Features that mimic the retweet button have existed on message boards for decades; to claim the retweet is the source of Twitter’s problems, some genius and powerful weapon, both overstates Wetherell’s importance and distracts from larger, systemic problem at tech companies. Of all the things one can fault Twitter for (its tip-toeing around white supremacy, its allowing spyware companies to advertise, etc.) the retweet button is not one of them.
Ex-big tech employees did not invent the Oopsie Circuit. Like the retweet button, and many other Silicon Valley “innovations,” it’s existed before. A very transparent example can be found on Wall Street. Greg Smith, a 12-year Goldman Sachs executive director, quit his job by penning a New York Times op-ed titled “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” Smith claims that Goldman Sachs lost its original teamwork-oriented culture and “doing right by the client” and instead focused on making itself money. But as is typical in Silicon Valley, where a company that makes a smart juicer can be valued at $270 million, big tech execs are running with the idea as if they invented it.
Obviously, not every criticism of an employer is an Oopsie Circuit nominee. An apology on the Oopsie Circuit is ultimately self-serving and deeply unhelpful. Otherwise, we already have a word for employees who shed light on the inner workings of companies and educate consumers on the unseen costs of their favorite products and features: Whistleblowers.
For example, former Amazon warehouse worker Jace Crouch, in describing a deeply disturbing working environment, called it an “...isolating colony of hell where people having breakdowns is a regular occurrence.” In a nausea-inducing story titled Bodies in Seats, The Verge interviewed people about the horrible working conditions for Facebook content moderators. One content moderator, Shawn Speagle, became unable to sleep as a result of his work, and was diagnosed with PTSD. “I couldn’t, for the life of me, get up from my desk, or I would be yelled at to stay in my desk. So I was trapped at my desk and in my body. I was so scared,” he told The Verge. Speagle said Facebook should be shut down.
What fuels the perpetual motion machine behind the Oopsie Circuit? Access, for one. A high level ex-employee is a great get; if an ex-tech employee farts in the woods during a mindfulness retreat, it will generate blogs. Like onlookers rubbernecking on the highway, readers probably won’t learn anything, but there’s a compulsion to look.
From the ex-employee’s perspective, it’s a great way to enter the civilian world. Yes, I worked there. Yes, we might’ve helped ruin the world. Yes, it made me rich. Yes, I made an oopsie, but I didn't realize the power of my own genius and deserve forgiveness.
It’s commendable to admit guilt. It’s the first step to recovery. But if helpful information doesn’t follow, you can also just shut up.
Instead, let’s listen to people like Speagle—workers actively attempting to affect change. They are everywhere, refusing to build censorship tools for Google, not letting Amazon declare victory when wage increases paired with removal of bonuses and stock grants, or walking out to demand Riot Games end the practice of forced arbitration for all its employees. The media may not always treat them like powerful geniuses, perhaps because of their lower organizational status, but real change won’t come from anywhere else.