After overcoming the temptation to publish under a pseudonym, former Google PR executive Jessica Powell has finally dropped her long-awaited satirical novel/memoir “The Big Disruption” last week. In the highly anticipated book – and in an accompanying personal essay published on Medium – Powell offers what may be one of the most scathing critiques of Silicon Valley from a former executive at one of its biggest and most influential companies.
Some of her claims are nothing short of shocking – like when she admitted in her essay that she quit Google last August (she was the company’s top PR executive, reporting directly to CEO Sundar Pichai) not to go back to school to study creative writing, as was reported at the time, but because she “got tired” defending the company’s unscupulous actions. In particular, she cited YouTube’s argument to UK lawmakers that it couldn’t censor all of the far-right and jihadist recruitment content posted on its platform because of the sheer volume of content – a claim that Powell said was an outright lie, per the Daily Mail.
Memorably, there were some instances where Google even paid some of the accounts that posted terrorist content.
Google has been widely criticised for allowing jihadists, far-Right extremists and other hate preachers to post content on its YouTube video platform. In some cases, it funnelled cash from advertisers to the extremists posting videos.
But the firm has repeatedly told MPs it cannot stop problem content because of the sheer volume of videos that are uploaded to YouTube.
Miss Powell was in charge of the company’s response to the criticism, reporting directly to Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai.
Her decision to quit the lucrative role in August last year surprised many in the industry. At the time, Miss Powell claimed she was leaving to go back to university to study creative writing.
However, in her essay, published for free on the Medium website, she admitted she needed to ‘take a break from the issues that I got tired of defending at parties’.
She said: ‘On the surface, things seemed really important and exciting. We were doing big things! Bringing the internet to the developing world! But also, on some level, it all felt a bit off, like when you go on vacation and find yourself wondering when it’s going to feel like the Instagram pics other people have posted.’
While Silicon Valley insiders probably think they’re among the most noble people on the planet as they fight to expand Internet access in the developing world and support other similarly “noble” causes, Powell argues that there’s a certain cognitive dissonance that arises from tech industry excuses about its failures to combat election hacking and its unwillingness to be transparent about how user data is monetized.
“This is an industry that takes itself far too seriously, and its own responsibility not seriously enough.”
“You can’t tell your advertisers that you can target users down to the tiniest pixel but then throw your hands up before the politicians and say your machines can’t figure out if bad actors are using your platform.”
“You can’t buy up a big bookstore and then a big diaper store and a big pet supply store and, finally, a big grocery store, national newspaper, and rocket ship and then act surprised when people start wondering if maybe you’re a bit too powerful.”
Powell urged Silicon Valley to “end the self-delusion” and “fess up to reality” or work toward holding itself to a higher ethical standard.
“I want Silicon Valley to end the self-delusion and either fess up to the reality we are creating, or live up to the vision we market to the world each day. Because if you’re going to tell people you’re their saviour, you better be ready to be held to a higher standard.”
Of course, no Silicon Valley tell-all would be complete without details of the sexual harassment that’s reportedly rampant in the valley. And Powell’s essay is no exception.
Should I start with the early stage companies? Like the time I was at a startup and the founder I was working for — a guy who owned a hundred shirts in the same color and quoted Steve Jobs on a daily basis — asked me whether we should hand out dildos as company swag or consider converting our social media platform into an anonymous sex club. (We even whiteboarded it.)
Or maybe I could start with the money — all the absurd valuations with seemingly little basis in reality. Or the time a partner at a VC “jokingly” offered up my female friend, his employee, as an enticement for a founder to work with his firm.
To be sure, Powell isn’t saying anything new. All of these criticisms of Silicon Valley have been lodged in the past – but mostly by outsiders. The fact that she was a senior executive working her tech – and that she walked away from the money because she became disillusioned – is almost as relevant as the details of her story.