An exhibition at FACT in Liverpool showcases a video that reveals the dark side of Silicon Valley.
Google is great, isn’t it? The Silicon Valley giant, king of the complex algorithm, is a company that inspires fierce loyalty among its workers. Little wonder: office perks apparently include three free meals a day, in-house massages and laundry services. Many column inches have been devoted to the Google’s “20 per cent time”, the policy of allowing staff to pursue their own interests one day a week, while the company’s UK HQ, which opened in London last November, comes with its own climbing wall and rooftop pool.
Yet Google may not be as squeaky clean as its all-American image may suggest – at least, that’s the conclusion of former Googler, Andrew Norman Wilson. The artist worked at Google in 2011; fresh out of university, he swung a position at the company’s international headquarters in Silicon Valley, taking advantage of “the things that the best place to work in the world is famous for: the large, transparent offices, free shuttle, fine food and a campus-style environment.”
Wilson was told to stop filming and within a few hours had been sacked
The first thing that Wilson noticed was that Google, for all its talk about breaking down traditional hierarchies, enforced one of its own. Workers were graded into three bands – red, white and green – with the corresponding coloured badges giving the staff that wore them access to lesser or greater priviledges. The second thing Wilson noticed was that there was another building next to his own, one where the workers seemed to operate outside the rest of the campus. They didn’t wear the same badges and weren’t given access to things like the company’s shuttle bus.
“They seemed out of place on the campus, working out of this separate building, coming and going in their own cars rather than sharing the shuttle. Other people noticed it, too, but most didn’t pay any attention to who they were or what they were doing.” Wilson did take a look, however, and discovered another “class” of worker, the so-called ScanOps at Google Books whom he suspected of being paid far lower rates than other Googlers, for what amounted to manual, repetitive tasks. He began filming the ScanOps as they left the office. He tried to ask a few questions but most refused to speak to him. What happened next took Wilson completely by surprise: he was told to stop filming and within a few hours had been sacked.
This chapter in Wilson’s life could have ended there, but for the fact that he turned the footage into a short film that subsequently went viral. Workers Leaving the Googleplex – on display as part of FACT’s Time and Motion (12 Dec 2013 – 9 March 2014) – is a curious video, part documentary, part colour-coded artwork, whose split screen images are held together by Wilson’s monotone voiceover. “I wanted it to function as an analysis of this particular situation but also look at the history of labour,” says Wilson of a video whose title deliberately echoes the Lumière brothers’ 1895 film, Workers Leaving the Factory. “It’s good that the video was seen by so many people but I want it to function as a topic for discussion; it’s not just about Google. Their big secret is just a reality – so much of the world functions like this. All that is exceptional about it is the fact that Google is otherwise so community orientated.”
While Wilson acknowledges that most people’s interest is more about Google being caught misbehaving and less about the wider subject of 21st century working life, he nevertheless hopes that his film “leaves things open. I hope it gets people thinking about the fact that we still need people to do manual, repetitive jobs, about the kinds of people who end up doing them.” Google may dominate the digital world, but even it can’t tackle this sort of workplace problem. There are some things an algorithm can’t fix.