Q&A with Sociology PhD candidate Eric Giannella

Sociology PhD Candidate Eric Giannella

Eric Giannella, author of “Morality and the Idea of Progress in the Silicon Valley” (Photo courtesy: Eric Giannella)

Eric Giannella is a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley Sociology Program. He studies personal networks in the Bay Area from the late 1970s to today. Giannella comes from a family of engineers and hails from the South Bay. Below is a discussion on startups, ethics, hookup culture and Giannella’s latest essay, “Morality and the Idea of Progress in the Silicon Valley.”

bB: Favorite sociologist?
EG: I like Max Weber. In terms of philosophy I cited Charles Taylor; he’s a philosopher who takes society seriously.

bB: What are the origins of the essay?
EG: A lot of what Max Weber said about cultural changes in the western world struck a chord with me. It explained a lot of my discomfort with what I saw around me. A lot of people rely too much on metrics, too much on rules, to make decisions. Maybe it’s because they think it is more legitimate and feel uncomfortable taking responsibility, or assume their judgment isn’t good enough to make those decisions. I think this is a very modern pathology, that we think we need rules to do everything. A lot of times this ends up backfiring. This obsession with procedure ends up undermining our real goals.

bB: But the alternative would have been religion or unspoken traditions in the period you’re talking about.
EG: Yes, that’s right. I think Weber’s right in the sense that rules and systems are really effective. But I think that he was a bit afraid that we’ve gone too far in the other direction. Certainly in a lot of cases you do need rules and formal institutions to run things. Yet I think our obsession with rules and systems has entered a lot of domains in life where it doesn’t make that much sense.

Sociologists have long been interested in the irrationality of rationality. Many people want to do something for the world by extending the way of thinking that is most suitable to engineering. For example, quantifying things and logically planning the design of systems.

The reason I wrote that piece was to ask, where does this faith in rationality come from? Why do we assume that making the world a more rational place means that it becomes a better place?

bB: What is the idea behind the “Narrative of Progress,” and how is it tied to the Silicon Valley?
EG: As science advances and we understand more natural phenomena, we have less need for magical or religious explanation of what’s going on around us. This is especially pronounced in the Bay Area, in part because of tech and in part because everybody’s so well educated.

Once we started using technology and institutions to control more parts of society, we realized we don’t have to rely on some unseen forces to bring about the kind of world that we want. We think that everything can be manipulated or controlled or pushed. Weber called this “disenchantment,” basically the loss of belief in traditional stories that helped us make sense of our place in the world. For Weber, this was a problem because it both caused an existential crisis and invited people to make up new myths to make sense of their lives.

People then start to take what is going on around them and turn it into a story. The problem is that people quickly begin making this link between their work in technology and benefiting others. They talk about technology in general helping to create a better world and think that because they’re contributing to technology they’re doing something relatively good. They lose sight of whether they are actually helping the people affected by their specific product or service. They could well find a more specific narrative about meaning on these terms linked to the people affected by their work.

bB: You talk about what people can do to mitigate these consequences and abandon this narrative, but in order for this to translate into action, people have to stop using these unethical businesses and show they’re not okay with this disregard for the consumer. Do you think people would choose more ethically-sound services over Uber?
EG: Shame could be a really powerful tool. Unfortunately, we seem uncomfortable talking about morality. Right now, it’s all the people on the margins. For example, grad students can say what they actually think. Also, people underestimate the choices they have. Many people who are working for Uber could have chosen to work for other companies. It’s important to get a normative discourse going, such as “I’m not taking this job because this company’s management is unethical.” In general, we need more conversations about morality and the moral implications of new products and services.

bB: Do you think it’s a bottom-up movement where people who are at these jobs or using these services have the power to make a difference?
EG: I think it’s both. It’s important that customers stop using these businesses and that employees try to start these conversations. But it would also be nice to see more venture capitalists or others at the top of the industry with a lot of discretion saying they won’t work with unethical companies.

I think the problem for the top-down approach is that VCs, journalists and others are very embedded in Silicon Valley networks. They all have wide networks of friends and colleagues and worry about offending people. But the only way to have a meaningful conversation about morality is for people to get a little offended.

bB: You reference the New York Times article, “The Slippery Slope of Silicon Valley,” which discusses the culture of “amorality, thoughtlessness and ignorance rather than ill intent.” Do you think this is an inevitable trend in general?
EG: No, I think there is a countermovement happening. The issue is, how do you accelerate the countermovement and get people to see the contours of the problems? The thing about amorality is that it involves not thinking rather than consciously deciding to make money no matter who gets hurt. I think a lot of people in tech startups have ideas along the lines of, “What’s an unexploited way to make money?” If it works, it’s good enough. I think the reason they don’t reflect is because they generally assume that technology is good.

bB: On another note, there’s this term for the dating scene called the hookup culture, which seems to have a lot of the same moral dilemmas as those in tech startup culture. Everyone looks out for themselves, as people increasingly start to hookup rather than date. Now Tinder as a business model is encouraging this trend.
EG: I’ve noticed that as well. But I think there is some backlash, and even with Tinder, some people now use it as a dating app. Maybe it’s inevitable that people build such tools. Yet, how people use these tools matters. Most people are probably not going to be content to hook up with strangers for their whole lives. Maybe two young people who do meet on Tinder start out treating each other purely as means rather than ends, but most people can’t hold that attitude toward someone for weeks or months. In that sense, I don’t think services like Tinder will change people.

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