What Ethan Zuckerman Could Teach Googlers About Debate Culture

When I read recently about Google’s attempts to corral internal debates, I thought the way Ethan Zuckerman handled his leaving the MIT Media Lab was a very good model for how to handle debate in general. I’ve met Ethan twice while sitting on panels together and have always been impressed with how he handled himself. On one of the panels he even criticized many of my personal views about AI and the news media, but did so in a way that was very factual and respectful.

Here is the key text I like from Zuckerman’s response:

That’s okay. I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors. My guess is that the decision is different for everyone involved.

The decision is “different for everyone involved.”

As someone who has spent a lot of time in debates over the years, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the reasoning behind the debates, in general, has gotten worse. People rarely take Zuckerman’s view that rational people can come to different decisions or conclusions about the same thing that happened, or a stance on a major topic. I suspect if most college students today had to write a resignation letter from the MIT Media Lab, they would demand that everyone else resign too, and the lab shut down, or something like that.

What struck me about Zuckerman’s response is that he doesn’t demand anyone do anything else. He is mostly concerned with his own behavior and feelings, and he acknowledges that others may feel differently and that’s ok. It is an extremely mature perspective in today’s world, and I wanted to highlight it because I feel like it should be the norm, not the exception.

I’ve had a lot of friends leave Google over the past couple of years, as people say “it’s not the same.” I know some of their consternation is due to the attitudes of Googlers, the way the debates happen, and the my-way-or-the-highway debate types that often dominate these discussions. Maybe Googlers could learn something from Zuckerman about respect, perspective, and maturity.

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