I originally wrote this piece several days ago after I initially read this opinion piece by Dr. Alex Karp, the CEO of Palantir. I originally wrote this from a place of anger and resentment for a few reasons which will become apparent. I’ve calmed down a bit and cleaned this up some. A few contextual notes, I myself have used the Palantir platform in my defense contracting days and was excited about the potential for good use. I am no longer a defense contractor, and of course the views herein are mine an mine alone (as always).
On October 4th, 1943, the crew of “Ten Knights in a Bar Room” set off from a base in England to conduct a bombing raid in Germany. Shortly after this image was taken, they, and several other B-17s, were shot down over Nazi occupied France. The members of the crew were forced to abandon the craft and parachute to the ground. Some were met by the local French resistance who aided them in their escape back to Allied territory. Three of the crew were captured by the Germans. I was lucky enough to get to speak with Jim Millin, a POW who was held by the Nazis for two years, about his experience late last year before he died in early 2019. He was the last living member of the crew and I hoped he might tell me more than my grandfather did when I was a young man. Arthur Whalen was the tailgunner on that flight, he died in the spring of 1995. This October 4th I will stop to reflect on how his life the life I share with my family. I often think about the sheer odds that we are here today and all the plights our ancestors faced that we don’t know about – all those near misses with death.
Anyway, I have an inkling of what my grandfather might think of Dr. Karp’s comparison of a private citizen employee to a Marine or any service member.
I too am a veteran of a foreign war, I served in the Army and was lucky enough to only have one tour of Iraq before ending my military career. As I mentioned to Jim when I spoke to him in 2018, I really can’t compare my service to his. Sure we went out all day and night, but I was on a military base that actually had a pizza hut and a Green Beans Coffee. As I understand it, the entire 101st Airborne Division came back from that tour with high cholesterol which we attributed to the Friday steaks and lobsters flown in from Germany. Jim told me how they lost thousands of peers a day.
I lead with this because of how damn offended I think any veteran should be the comparison of a Silicon Valley employee’s duty to the duty of a member of the Armed Services. I say that with no disrespect to the private citizen employee whatsoever, in fact I would argue is partially the job of the soldier, literal or metaphorical, to protect the division of industry and state and the citizen’s ability to disagree with their employer.
In the United States, citizens do not work for the state. They owe no allegiance to their employer beyond the scope of the employment contract. While I would never argue that industry and state perhaps get entwined in less than legitimate ways (i.e. lobbying), industry is not supposed to be an extension of the state here. There are other countries where that is less clear. To highlight my point, you might recall a certain executive tweeted something to the extent that all companies will pull out of China; that’s not how this works. At the same time, a certain world power is accusing another world power of leveraging a telecommunications company to achieve state ends. Would I be surprised to hear that was going on the other way, not entirely, but we at least hold up the ideal of some division between industry and state.
Another point, in the military, disobeying orders can land you in a military court and perhaps get you a dishonorable discharge – effectively destroying future career plans. Protesting your employer’s decision and organizing some might say is the right of the worker. The employer’s decision on how to react is theirs.
For example, sometime after WWII, my grandfather was working for the railroad in a more management capacity. There was some sort of strike and he was called to intervene; he would not on his personal ethics – so he was demoted into a lower position. Unfortunate? Yes for him. Unacceptable? Maybe not.
Also, something I infer might be lost on the general public, or perhaps Dr. Karp, soldiers are actually expected to question leadership when we are given an illegal command. Yes, that might land us in hot water for a bit, but in the end following an illegal command will end you up in a much worse place. So we don’t just “march along” to the beat of the drum always as was implied. This is one of those things I feel like most folks do not entirely understand who were not in the Armed Services themselves, media has done a pretty poor job of accurately demonstrating military culture, in days past at least (i.e. the dumb enlisted needs to be supervised and directed by the smart officer who is essentially a shining city on a hill).
This is something in the military we refer to as “intestinal fortitude.” Doing the right thing even when it doesn’t feel great or might not go over well. To be blunt, the concept that an employee who has a moral or legal objection to their employer’s actions should just “serve” as the article seems to say soldiers do, is offensive, repugnant, and actually belittles those who serve as little more than mindless peons.
So that was a big chunk of trigger for me. One last note on being a soldier and I’ll move along (maybe). While we do raise our right hand, I would argue that the borders we defend are second to the ideals. Nations come and go and will come and go, sometimes led by honest leaders, other times not. The literal and metaphorical soldier are motivated to protect the ideal, and in that respect I would consider the employee who takes that risk a soldier in their own life – protecting a value they hold dear.
And that has nothing to do with Silicon Valley dictating policy. One could argue Silicon Valley is dictating policy or the course of the future because of a vacuum in government, or an inability to grasp critical issues. One might argue Silicon Valley is dictating policy through lobbying efforts, but none of those parallels are made in the article in question. Rather the only equation I see here is employees forced their employer to pull from a government contract which is somehow translated to leaders determining policy. I would think this was a business risk based decision and nothing more.
But assuming that perhaps that part just did not translate, that instead the article was saying technology leaders should just stay out of things. Well, one that’s just impractical, and two, is that really a good idea? I’m sure there are legislators who might be able to tell you about the TLS handshake, but I bet it’s not a majority. From an ethical standpoint I think it would be fair to argue that NOT informing legislators, NOT being involved to an extent would be unethical and could create serious harm – which is the opposite of the Hippocratic Oath.
Why do I mention the Hippocratic Oath? Because that is probably what we should be looking to in exactly this situation. The doctor is one of those few positions of inherent trust in society. We trust doctors, we trust healers. If doctors give reason to question that trust, EVERYONE loses.
Is Silicon Valley full of medical doctors? No, but they are deciding the world humans will inhabit, beyond borders. They are determining how people think, communicate, interact, and perceive. You don’t need to go to many product releases or mission statements to see these industries making messianic claims of importance. So wouldn’t it follow those very leaders should not only inform the patient (society at large) but also be responsive, accountable, and at least – do no harm?
Put another way, while you are certainly welcome to consult your own belief systems and apply leeches to your person to eliminate foul winds, night airs, and the like, I would generally recommend speaking to a doctor about the symptom and treatment. If your don’t particularly like their recommendations, you are welcome to seek another opinion.
Here’s the other thing about being in the godlike position of a doctor or a Silicon Valley leader. You don’t get to make the new world, take all the credit, and walk away when it hits the fan. Having intestinal fortitude means taking the accolade along with the criticism and making the right choice – hard or not. But you don’t get to walk away with the money and say you have no responsibility for your choices, actions or in-actions.