What leaders are actually for (was: Silencing the voices of people silencing voices)

You might think this is yet another post following from the ongoing fallout of the construction and demolition of Google's Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC). But the reason I'm taking time to try to write it (it will probably get revised a few times) is because it's really meant to be a post about how the digital era – Information and communications technology (ICT) – both alters and illuminates democracy and organisational control more generally. 

This was written as I was putting together three slides I stuck on the beginning of my ICLR AI for Social Good talk about engaging in AI governance. You can see the recording of that talk there, but tl;dw I wound up quoting Fred Brooks on leadership quite a lot, cf. my supplementary blogpost to this one. Brooks points out that programmers particularly hate to be led. (Apparently we have since the 1970s when Brooks wrote. Maybe we've always been a bit autistic and lacked empathy and therefore trust for leaders.) But leadership is just a team role, like any other team role. Leaders are just there to make governance of organisations a bit more computationally tractable. 

I wrote this as I was about to speak at an event where Meredith Whittaker was also meant to speak, but she pulled out, apparently because of ongoing issues with Google who are now alleged to be attacking the leaders of the movement against them. And I have to say that the fact I got that article as the #1 response when I typed "google attacking leaders" on duck duck go (and bing) but couldn't get it on the first page with that or several other searches on Google itself makes me think it more likely those and other allegations may be true. If Google is burying search for articles critical of itself then that's an enormous problem. (Though I think in retrospect more likely so many people google "google [my search terms]" that probably the problem was just that they ignored the "google" term in my search – obviously not a problem other search engines would have.)

But anyway, nothing makes you paranoid about being attacked like actually being attacked, so I wondered whether Meredith was pulling out because I was going to be there. So I went back over her twitter stream for the last 40 days. She very clearly articulates why a mainstream conservative leader in the Trump era should not be permitted to be on a council of one of the most powerful political forces on the planet right now. Actually, Meredith personalises her attack; I am here making the political point that no one in power in the US Republican party is doing anything but quoting the party line right now, because that will be a particular component of my argument below.

Silencing leaders is generally (not always) stupid

I was originally thinking of just posting on twitter "I can't support silencing the voices of the people who silence voices, since I am openly opposed to silencing voices" and relinking back to my blogpost Bullying and shunning are problems, not solutions. But I realised first that I might want something both permanent than a tweet, and then that I might need something more nuanced. Because this is about leadership.

As some people have pointed out, supporting the creation of an advisory council may itself be seen as silencing voices. Some people have argued that there should be no closed-room meetings, that every policy should be crowdsourced. The problem with this is that it's computationally intractable, or put another way, totally impossible. We will never get everyone to weigh in on every decision because among other things everyone's life is too short to do that, even if they didn't do any research and spoke based only on their prior experience. (In fact, if deciding the policy of everyone that mattered was everyone's job no one would have time for any more lived experience...) But even if we could come up with some way to make this work–say like with juries, by 'randomly' choosing a few people as representative–we would wind up with the classic problems of democracy: the tyranny of the majority / silencing of minorities, mob rule, foreign psyops, etc. 

For similar reasons, people don't wind up in positions of power or influence because they are the very best person to be there. No one can determine an absolute ranking of humanity – no one knows who is best. There will always be randomness, and of course there will always be some measure of corruption.

But although being prominent doesn't mean you're the best, it probably does mean you're at least pretty good, at least at something. By and large most people an organisation promotes will be pretty good, or the organisation will be bogged down and destroyed by incompetent management. There are so many really awesome bands, that any band that does make it into the top 40 is almost certainly awesome at what they do. Not getting into the top 40 is next to no evidence that you aren't awesome, but getting in is a pretty good sign you are good. 

So when someone manages to get selected into something elite, of course you are probably going to be able to think of other people that would have been better at least along the vectors that are of particular interest to you. But not only will selection generally be good but imperfect, it may also be of course that the person selected may have strengths you don't know about. I've seen a lot of people complain about ATEAC not having enough qualified people on it, and I've seen a lot of people complain about Kay Coles James' membership. I haven't seen a single person or place other than the ATEAC announcement itself point out that James is the only person on that board that had direct experience writing technology policy for an American president (George W. Bush.) I also haven't seen anywhere in print (but heard about it from Pelosi aid Mutale Nkonde) that the Heritage Foundation is coalitioning with Democrats to address election hacking. At least some parts of the right doesn't want it to be easy for clandestine operators to overwhelm the will of the people (which they presumably think backs their own side) any more than the left does.

So when people are appointed leaders, whether "appointment" comes from the top down or from the bottom up, you should probably look to see how you can work with them. That's part of why Germany has a strong, resilient if slightly sluggish economy. Because in Germany, union leaders (chosen by the workers, not the company) are on company boards. It becomes part of their job to solve not only the problems that made them leaders, but also the problems the company had that probably created the problems that the union leaders came to prominence combatting. Then the union representatives communicate both problems and outcomes back to the workers that appointed them bottom up.

So what I'd like to see is Google bringing the leaders they seem to be targeting (like Whittaker) into the board room, saying "congratulations, now you need to help us solve not only the problem you care about but all the problems that make solving it hard." However, I don't know, maybe the Google executive has already tried that. At this point I unfortunately doubt that either side would tell us.

Leading is about problem solving – including working with other, opposing leaders.

In periods of high political polarisation, it may feel like the right thing to do is to draw a bunch of red lines and then fight to the death over them. The reason this feels right is because historically periods of high political polarisation tended to be periods of severe resource stress. Someone is going to die, so you choose the side that you think you have the best chance of surviving with, and you fight with them. 

Personally I think of protests as political communication
of better estimates of citizens' costs & values. I've recently
learned others think they are about shaming. I still don't.
But right now, we are generally as a whole phenomenally wealthy. The perception of crisis is probably being driven by inequality (a breakdown of social order) rather than actual economic threat. And if we are in a context where we can still improve the world, then the best way to come up with creative ways to do that is with diverse leaders coming from highly varied backgrounds – and representing as many affected people as possible.  The amount of diversity you need is of course dependent on the task you are trying to achieve. What Google needs to be doing (whatever they're trying to do) is to figure out how to integrate its vast wealth, power, and capacity to do great work into global governance in such a way that it doesn't do more damage than good. Since it's affecting the world, Google needs diversity representing the world But since it's an American company, it particularly needs to handle American problems, which is probably why ATEAC had three full-on (presumably single-passport, unlike me) Americans representing business, government, and lobbyists. It also has to understand Europe who is doing the best job of regulation right now, which is probably why it had three academics who (again, I'm guessing here) hold European passports, though two of those also had American connections. That left one representative each from the Far East (though I think he was born in the American Midwest like me) and one from the Global South.

Do I find the issues Whittaker documents on her Twitter stream persuasive? Yes – emotionally. I did serious reconsideration of my own decision to stay on ATEAC (not that I have any choice now anyway) given the information and perspective she articulated well. But excluding a really substantial proportion of the country by excluding a very carefully selected representative of its diversity is only going to break decision making.

And to be honest, when I finally found time to read the tweets by James that Googlers had emailed me (I assume they were the most extreme things she's tweeted) I was stunned by how not that extreme they were, within the present spectrum of GOP discourse. "Yeah, but those people all moderate their positions in public; she's probably way more extreme in reality," said a friend. I got angry. "How do you know? She might not believe this at all, she may be going with a party line so she can lead within the party."  Just from these tweets we have no idea; she could be more or less extreme than her recently stated positions. Again, without meeting and listening to people I have little sense of how we can know what they actually think. I refused to say what I was told to say, so obviously I don't respect those who bend to their party as much as I respect those who maintain their own ethics. But then, I accepted (at least until the first meeting, and contractually for a year) a lot of other things about the ATEAC position that I didn't really like just to get to the table and make up my mind about whether it was really worth doing – and hopefully, with luck, to serve. Maybe James makes more compromises than I do and that's why she has more power than me. For all I know, maybe she effects more good as well, if she in any way moderates Heritage.

Silencing leaders not always (just generally) stupid

Of course, as much as I am arguing that in general leaders need to be respected and worked with, in particular sometimes leaders really do need to be replaced. Sometimes so much damage is being done, that it is even worth violently replacing leaders, or even further infrastructure around them. When we're angry or polarised though, it's harder for us to objectively judge the costs and benefits of ripping out a structure. The same is true for when we're ignorant.  I presently doubt it makes sense to have shut down ATEAC without even having had a video conference with us as a team given the vast amount of time and effort that went into assembling the team. If Google feels their hand was forced by those inside their company, then they may think it makes sense to exclude those workers that wouldn't allow sensible internal conversations to be had. And if so it may be right. I don't know how we could tell.

But while people are still leading, I want to remind them that their jobs are not just to knock down other people's towers of blocks. The jobs of real leaders are to represent us, including by working with other opposing interests' leaders to build us all better towers.

Updated 16 July 2019 with better guess of why I couldn't google "google attacks leaders"
Update 19 July 2019: related blogpost by one or more googlers. I'm a little worried about it because expertise doesn't threshold quite like it implies. Anyone may stumble on a truth, degrees only aim to increase the probability of having such insight. But I agree that if whistle blowing and/or leading becomes too much of your identity you may lower your threshold for doing so so low that it's possible you'll wind up creating more damage than value. It's something I worry about myself.


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