A Philosophical Look at the Tech Companies You Use


A philosopher who specializes in questions about technology and a Silicon Valley executive with a Ph.D. in philosophy have a conversation.

The philosopher is Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, and the executive is Mary Berk, most recently a product manager at Instagram and Facebook (and whose previous employers include Amazon, Ebay, Google, and Microsoft).

[Rob Pettit, “Flip Phone Spiral”]

The conversation ranges from stories from Dr. Berk’s education—

During my first year of graduate school, I wrote a paper on Hobbes. One of my professors stopped me in the middle of my presentation on it and said, “No, that’s wrong. Whose presentation is next?”

to how she got her first job in tech—

They weren’t interested in me at first… But eventually, the hiring manager called me. He expressed that after 50 phone interviews, nobody demonstrated they could think critically about how to calculate the consequences of actions 20 or so steps down the line, or understand the motivations behind someone’s actions… But given my training, I could do that easily.

to various issues in the tech world, such as corporate knowledge—

Companies may go to lengths to avoid having knowledge or the appearance of knowledge, especially when that “knowledge” is tenuous or obligates them.

and corporate ethics, both in general—

When companies put out value statements, they’re really excited about them and announce the ideas with great fanfare. They typically believe in them upfront. But often, they’ve also gone through 18 layers of PR and legal vetting. These processes are designed to prevent companies from using words or making claims that can be interpreted in ways that might create problems down the line.

and at specific companies—

Facebook is generally really good at ensuring its employees think of the people who use their products as real people — not abstract entities like users to be exploited… But what happens in tech companies is that company culture, policy, or executive direction constrain all of this good stuff.

as well as what it is like to work at some of these places—

In one hilarious performance review, I received peer feedback that criticized me for both not smiling enough, which meant I’m too serious and unapproachable, and also for smiling too much, which meant I’m not serious enough. I’ve also been called “difficult” for having even the gentlest of opinions and was basically told that having any feedback at all meant that I didn’t trust my manager and that this made me a problem. Even with lots of emotional labor, offering constructive criticism through compliment sandwiches — where you insert carefully worded criticism in-between praise — it’s very hard for women to be heard. These are the situations and performance reviews I can laugh at. You develop a thick skin and learn to laugh when it hurts.

The interview is part of a new series from Dr. Selinger called “Open Dialog.” You can read the whole interview with Dr. Berk here. And you can follow Dr. Selinger on Twitter here.

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