• Kenneth Asher

Going to Work at Facebook

This letter is adapted from Wendell Berry’s 2000 essay “Going To Work,” published in Citizenship Papers (2003).

Dear Facebook Programmer:

To live, we must go to work. We are all the same this way.

Obviously we work in different places, all of us, but it should also be obvious that work always happens in a place and its impact is always on a place, or places. Even at Facebook. You’re working in northern California, and the impact of your work is felt there and around the world. I work in northern Oregon and the impact of my work is right here in the Portland metropolitan region.

For most of human history, work and place were inseparable. Work effects were experienced only where the work was done, and the locale determined the kind of work humans performed. Work was more physical then, but even as work evolved to entail more and more mental tasks, work continued to be place-bound. Most work, like mine, is still that way.

Finance, telecommunications and the internet have changed that equation for workers like yourself. Nowadays, it’s not entirely obvious how work and place interact. They still do, though this truth has become all too easy to miss.

Many people now work in enclosures – either academic, professional, industrial or electronic. By enclosure I mean separated – cut off from a broader context that includes other disciplines, community members or nature itself. Enclosed, it’s easy to think that certain work can happen everywhere or anywhere. I suspect this must be a very real feeling for you and your colleagues at Facebook, if you ever think about such things at all.

It’s inescapably true, however, that work always has a precise and practical influence on places – places where the work products are used, where the attitudes toward its products are felt, and where its byproducts are carried to. By these standards, Facebook is influencing places all around the world all the time, even as you do your work, seemingly untethered from everything except your headphones and the code you’re conjuring from mathematical ether.

This is a problem. On the one hand, your work is changing the way people are inhabiting cities and villages – how they are relating to their friends, families and strangers. On the other hand, you don’t know how or why this is happening. You probably don’t even have a way of thinking about this problem in the first place.

Probably no one has told you this, but it is your responsibility to think about these places and the effect your work has on them. You have an obligation to ensure that the abstraction of your work is not unjust. I'm not thinking here about the violence in Myanmar, though that is a case study for how deadly serious this is. Your obligation is to every user, in every place Facebook is used.

How can you meet it?

Well what do you have in mind when you log on to your terminal to begin a day’s work? Is it only what your supervisor has asked of you? Because the answer starts with a broadening out. Can you bring to mind the larger questions that transcend the programming itself?

Questions like: what are YOU bringing to this work? What are your affections, loyalties and allegiances? I’ve read that the Facebook culture demands a toeing of the line -- an absolute fidelity to the brand. But surely you are more than that. What formed you before you ever showed up there? What made you you? You can ask yourself these things and not act any differently – not at first. But you do need to think differently, and you need to know who you are.

I can be a little more direct. What is it that you like about Menlo Park? Yes, you should pay attention to where you are. People like you made Menlo Park. I mean, people went to work every day and planned out those streets, made room for bikes and buses and shade trees. People mixed and formed and poured that concrete, and irrigated those parks, built the buildings, started those businesses, grew or preserved the food that feeds you and everyone else there. Sure, Facebook could operate anywhere. You don’t need Menlo Park the way other workers are bound to their farm, city, or local market, the resources nearby. But until the singularity comes (joking there), Facebook has to happen somewhere. It matters that you know where you are. If you don’t, you won’t get past the abstraction problem.

As a Facebook programmer, you won a kind of lottery. You are intelligent, driven, well-educated, well-connected and well-credentialed. But what do you make of these comforts you’ve secured? Are they really yours? Are they dependable? Are they fair? And are they the right rewards for your labors?

Does your wealth and status give you the same pleasure as a fresh and well-prepared meal, as time spent with your family, as the security of knowing that others will take care of you if disaster strikes? Does your wealth insure that you’re not ingesting poisons or toxins from dirty air, or genetically modified food? Do you worry about the wildfires that ravaged California last summer? Or the political wildfire that’s burning through the limited reserves of decency and civility that accumulated in this country over 250 years?

You might believe your wealth does provide you with these good things, and insulates you from the bad. And it might, as long as fresh food, time, health care, clean air and safe enclaves are available for purchase. These might not always be on offer, by the way. And they are certainly NOT on offer to people who don’t have your advantages. Does that matter to you?

Perhaps you've been conditioned to think that the whole point is to earn enough money to secure these goods, thereby avoiding the hard work of dividing wants from needs. But it’s not true that to get one thing we have to give up another, or that every satisfaction must be dispensed before moving on to the next. The mindset that assumes that we are racing to stay ahead of the pack is overly rational and hyper-economic, and continually trapped on the hamster wheel of progress. Why must the next thing always be better than the last thing? (It's not). Why do you think the future is always brighter than the past? (It isn't). This is zero sum thinking and a race to misery.

We can’t continue this way. Do you know how much topsoil we’ve lost in the name of progress? Or how many species have gone extinct? Or how much human heartbreak and sundering has taken place for the satisfaction of wants, disguised as needs? You cannot know the answer to that, because none of us can. These losses are unaccountable and unaccounted for. This is the place where Reason fails. We simply cannot know the costs of what we’re doing and the more we rely on our rational minds, the more lost we will become. Only when the planet is too polluted, or when climate refugees upend the stability of nation-states, or when grocery shelves remain unstocked because of supply chain disruptions – only then will the rational and economic mind will suddenly recognize the error of its thinking. And of course then it will be too late.

So I’m asking if you, a computer engineer at this super-successful, metrics-driven, highly enclosed company to develop a different kind of mind – one that might honor the abstraction of your work while also hewing to the real physical world in which Facebook operates. I’m talking about a sympathetic or affectionate mind, that is neither rational nor irrational, but preserving. Not a mind that fetishizes progress, but one that appreciates how we human beings have been given gifts -- gifts that require our craft and care, and which won’t necessarily survive our enclosures.

This is a radical change in perspective, I know, but only because of our industrial ethics. It should reassure you to know that humans have had this knowledge and point of view for long periods of time. Sure, it was easier when work and place were more tightly coupled. But we can rediscover it pretty quickly I think. It begins by moving past profitability and utility – the twin gods of your managers there, and then proceeds by way of questions: What is the context for our work? What standards should be applied within this context to know the work is good? What are the effects of the work on us, the workers? On the people and places where our work has its effect? On the air and water and myriad communities that will forever commingle in these places?

At a place like Facebook, standards that might arise from questions like these could be: Does the platform make communities stronger? What sort of connections does Facebook enable, and which of these are worth enabling? Might it be correct to disable some of these connections? Would you want the outcomes of these connections in your kids’ school? On your own street? In your government? Do the connections degrade or reinforce social cohesion?

You will argue, have argued, that it’s not your place to arbitrate norms like these. That neither Facebook nor any corporation should censor individual speech. But this is what social networks have always done – are designed to do – even if it feels untested in the digital domain. Never have people banded together without using social norms to help support constructive human interactions.

I know that like all technology developers, you are under commercial pressure to follow the principle of general applicability – to achieve design fitness applicable to everyone, everywhere, all the time. If it works for a beta group, it should work for every group, right? But this is analogous to centralized planning of economics and politics – two domains where the generality principle is anathema to your industry. Can't you see that your technology, generally applied, has the same effect? By manipulating people for profit everywhere, you neither see people or places in their particularity, nor care particularly about the people and places using your product.

I’d like you to change this.

What is within the boundary of your consideration? What matters to you? When you sit down to work, what will you care about? That area around your heart – that’s where this change begins. You will need to get out of your head, slip the Facebook coil, and stop being “just” a programmer when you go to work. At the risk of some embarrassment, you will need to embrace amateurism. You’ll need to go outside, into your watershed, into your community, and learn how to allow affection to expand that space around your heart. This will both widen and localize the context of your work. If you do this with real sincerity, it will help retire any notion of scientific heroism you may harbor. The final arbiter of your contribution, like the rest of us, will be in the effect your work and knowledge has on your home place – not on the world at large. That effect is almost certain to be small, as we humans are small. But if done with care, it will also be meaningful.

Despite what you hear in the restaurants and coffee shops of Silicon Valley, we cannot know, in any complete or final way, what we’re doing. Don’t be deceived by data, by facts -- and yes I know I've moved into blasphemous territory here. Data is accumulating and will continue to do so just as it has since the Renaissance. But we will never fill in all the gaps. We will never construct the ultimate truth out of data. New knowledge will never replace all our old knowledge. Empirical truth is not the whole truth. The formula H20 describes water but is not, itself, water. Water is water because of the absolute sum of all facts about itself, and whether humans apprehend all these facts or whether they don’t does not change what water is and is not. The only true representation of a thing, a person, or a place is that thing, person or place itself. Reality is reality.

So! Whether we come at something as a programmer or an artist, remember that the pictures we carry in our minds about the world are incomplete. They are pictures – selected, framed and cropped by us. They are not equal to the reality they represent, nor often are they even adequate to that reality. If you can accept that our understanding of reality is always partial and often misleading and falsifying of reality, then you might become impressionable to nonfactual knowledge. For example knowledge born of experience. Or of intuition. Or of faith.

Facebook owes a courtesy to Reality – a courtesy that cannot be paid on the terms that Facebook is using. Courtesy can only be enacted through humility. If you can truly learn humility, then propriety of scale and good workmanship will naturally follow.

This process can run in reverse as well. If you know what good work is, you’ll also know the right scale to work at. I promise it will be small in comparison to what you think you’ve been doing, but small also, gratefully, in comparison to the damage you and your company have already done. There and then you will find yourself humbled by the good effect of your work, even at such a small scale, and by the wonderful mystery of the once-again awe-inspiring world that you’d once thought you’d conquered.