Whistle(blow) while you work

Updated: Sep 29

Software developer and artist Manu Cornet worked at Google for 14 years until he left the company to work at Twitter in July 2021.

During his time at Google, Cornet created a series of 372 comics called Goomics to reflect upon his experiences at the company. What began as a string of cute and lighthearted comics about the ridiculousness of Silicon Valley culture (e.g., lazy, messy tech bros, the pitfalls of having access to too many free snacks) and the annoyances of code reviews, eventually shifted into a critique of Google and Big Tech's unconstrained power and influence, and its detrimental impact on society and democracy.

Cornet's increasingly cringe-worthy visual truth bombs correlate with his increasing disillusionment with Google and Big Tech in general. He made direct jabs at the company's infinite growth and profiteering, contracts with ICE and the US military, employee censorship, rampant sexism, general corporate hypocrisy, and CEO Sundar Pichai himself.

a hand-drawn line graph that shows that as company ethics go down, your compensation only slightly increases, but the price of your soul goes up

In a July 2021 interview with Mashable, Cornet explains that over time, "there were more and more things to have ethical qualms about that the company was doing at a higher level...I had to look at the bigger picture and think that maybe I would be better elsewhere."

Let's pause here for a moment to recap.

1. Cornet created a comic series to criticize his employer, Google, for its shittyness.

2. He did this for 11 years while receiving a paycheck, benefits, stocks, promotions, etc.

3. There were minimal complaints from others (a couple of coworkers reported him to HR for "offensive" content), but no major consequences.

4. He shared the comics internally with thousands of employees.

5. Eric Schmidt, ex-Google CEO, had one of Cornet's comics taped to the door of his office.

6. Cornet didn't get fired.

This is weird, right? To talk shit about your employer and not get fired. Sounds like a fantasy. Usually pissing off the people in power doesn't go so well. Heck, I think about my own experiences with ruffling features at my last employer, where several times I brought up ethical concerns about product design or business strategy. Occasionally I was reprimanded, bullied and excluded from conversations, and fearful I'd lose my job. And that was small potatoes relative to most of Cornet's concerns.

I love Cornet's work-- it's brave, brilliant, and crucial to the discourse around tech's destructiveness. But how did he manage to stay employed while doing something that could have easily been seen as agitation and an attack on the business and its "leaders"? What gave him this immunity and privilege--this power--to be a low-key internal whistleblower? It's a mystery so I can only make an educated guess that it has to do with the privileges of his role (software engineers are the most monetarily valuable kind of tech worker), gender, skin color and tenure.

Now consider this in the context of the recent firings of Google artificial intelligence ethics researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru (December 2020) and Margaret Mitchell (February 2021), who were forced out for speaking up about ethical and social issues. Gebru, a Black woman, called for Google to be more transparent about its technology and to take responsibility for the discriminatory work environment, and had to deal with her employer censoring her and her team's research. Mitchell, a white woman, was a colleague of Gebru's, and was critical of the firing and its sexist and racist undertones. She was let go less than three months later.

The Mashable article about Manu Cornet and his Goomics makes no mention of these events and the contradictory nature of how differently these three people were treated.

And for Cornet, there will be minimal to no negative career impact (clearly he doesn't care about burning the Google bridge). He can get a job wherever he wants at companies with values that are similar to his own (although any for profit company will lack in ethics to some extent). Not only does he have a new job at Twitter, but he probably doesn't actually need to work for the rest of his life due to the amount of wealth he has accumulated from being a longtime employee at once of the richest companies in the world.