David Heinemeier Hansson

March 8, 2024

Google's sad ideological capture was exactly what we were trying to avoid

The Gemini AI roll out should have been Google's day of triumph. The company made one of the smartest acquisitions in tech when they bought DeepMind in 2014. They helped set the course for the modern AI movement with the Transformer paper in 2017. They were poised to be right there, right at the fore font of a whole new era of computing. And then they blew it.

If it wasn't all so terribly dark and sad, it would actually be funny. Rendering George Washington as a Black man. Equivocating on whether Musk's memes are worse or not than actual, literal Hitler. Oh, and defending pedophilia. Yeah, the Gemini launch had it all. Like a risqué stand-up comic shocking her audience for effect. Except, Gemini wasn't joking.

In pictures and texts, it ironically made the point of the "AI safety" crowd incredibly well, but in the opposite direction. The threat from AI will come less from "perpetuating existing biases in the world" and more from "injecting the biases and ideology of its overseers".

How on earth Google could release something so twisted, so wrong to the world? The company's executives, as well as Google co-founder Sergei Brin, tried to brush it off as "bugs", but few people bought that story. It seemed more likely that Gemini was working just fine by the company's muddle Google AI Principles. A set of principles that unapologetically puts social justice and anti-bias instincts as prime directives #1 and #2. While failing to even mention "accuracy" or "usefulness".

But this part of the story has already been diagnosed to death. Gemini was a catastrophic, confidence-shattering launch. It  also caused Google's stock price to take quite the dive. Presumably because it called into question whether all of those investments and years of research will ultimately be squandered on a futile search for cosmic justice. Investors are right to worry.

The part that's even more fascinating to me than the hilarious broken product is what kind of organization could possibly design and release such an abomination to the world. The answer came courtesy of a Pirate Wires report this week. It's shocking reading. Even if you've paid attention to the institutional capture by the social justice/woke/whatever ideology that peaked from 2020-2022.

While the rest of tech has started to return to sanity on this issue, Google clearly has not. It appears completely captured and paralyzed by this stifling ideology. An asylum run entirely by its most deranged inmates, holding everyone else captive. Even its founder duo, who seem either incapable or unwilling to act to restrain it.

But I can totally see how they got there. How Sergei and Larry could feels like it's too late, too hard, too painful to deal with the cultural capitulation. Because that's almost how Jason and I felt at times prior to April 2021, when some of the same forces and sentiments were spreading inside our own company.

The Pirate Wires report was entitled "Google's Culture of Fear", and that's exactly what it felt like at times at our company leading up to April 2021. That the ship was being forced in a bad direction, by bad actors, with bad ideas, but that if you were going to question the compass, there'd be hell to pay. Both internally and externally. You were going to be called names. Accused of horrible things. And, really, do you want to deal with all that right now? Maybe it'd be easier to just let dragons lie.

But the problem with ideological dragons like this is that they're never content with the political scalps or capital accumulated. There's always a hunger for more, more, more. Every little victory is an opportunity to move the goal posts further north. Make ever smaller transgressions punishable by ostracization and shame. Label even bigger swaths of normal interactions and behaviors as "problematic". It just never fucking ends.

That is unless you say "enough". Enough with the nonsense. Enough with the witch hunts. Enough with the echo chamber.

That's what we did at our company in April of 2021, and it hurt like hell for a couple of weeks. And that was at a small software company with no board or investors. I can't even imagine how it would have gone then if we'd had either of those. Good odds that they'd buckled under the pressure, and Jason and I would have been pushed out in a futile attempt to appease the mob.

So I totally get why Sergei and Larry might have more than a little trepidation about rocking the boat. Google appears to be so deeply captured at this point, the rot has been left to fester for so long, that it's going to be extraordinarily painful to correct now.

On the other hand, there's more cover. The worst of the woke scourge has indeed passed in tech. Plenty of other companies have now dismantled their DEI bureaucracies or made them a shadow of their former might. It is possible to reverse course, and it's infinitely easier to do so in 2024 than it was in 2021. But it's still a motherfucker.
If I were a betting man, I'd bet it's going to happen, though. Maybe not as spectacularly and decisively as we did it at our company, with one clean cut. But gradually, like most major corporations have wound down the woke excesses while pretending it's all just a correction for "over hiring".
What's clear to me is that addressing this is existential to Google. Just like it was existential for us. If you follow these bad ideas to their logical conclusion, you end up with worse than useless products. You end up with a search engine that wants to lecture people rather than finding the facts. There's no mainstream market for such a bullshit product in the long run.
Eventually the market will force the correction. But Google is a very rich company. It could coast on the fumes of its former glory for a long time. Let's hope that there's more than an empty, hollowed out shell of a company left by the time they get this right and return to sanity.
I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually rooting for Google on this one. Big tech is a game of thrones, and all us mere peasants are better off when the big powers all counter each other in a variety of ways. We need a stronger Google to counter a strong Apple and a strong Microsoft.
So. Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life. We made some incredibly hard choices in April of 2021. We've lived a comparably very easy life on that vector ever since we finished the cleanup. Sergei and Larry, you guys can do it too. But you have to want to do it. You have to want Google to be relevant in AI. You have to want to make the world's information accessible and useful again, without the ideological nonsense. Vamos! 

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.