Basecamp Is Failing Its Own Future

The company’s ban on social discussions forgets that workers are people

For the past several years, Chicago-based company Basecamp has positioned itself as a moral and strategic leader in the tech world. This posture has come, in no small part, from the tireless workplace culture evangelism of cofounders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson—better known by his web handle DHH. DHH’s reputation for performatively calling out the unethical practices of other tech companies is part of the reason it came as a shock to many when, on Monday, Basecamp issued a statement outlining a series of internal changes to the company. Among other things, this statement (which has already been heavily edited in response to criticism) aims to establish a ban on “societal and political discussions” in the (virtual) workplace. Such discussions are framed as “a major distraction” that “saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places.”

Basecamp is not the first tech company to take such measures. Back in September, the cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase announced a new policy against allowing employees to engage “broader societal issues” that were deemed to be unrelated to the company’s “core mission.” Coming from Coinbase, such a statement was disappointing but not entirely surprising given the company’s amoral, libertarian outlook. But Basecamp was supposed to be a different kind of company (or at least that’s what it had spent years trying to convince the public).

The social media response to Basecamp’s announcement was swift but largely thoughtful. A number of tech workers, including multiple employees of Basecamp, took to Twitter on Monday afternoon to clarify the context around the changes and express their frustration and disillusionment:

As many commenters pointed out, the new policy against “societal and political discussions” is so vague that it’s hard to know exactly what it prohibits. Would a transgender employee advocating for the use of their correct pronouns be deemed “too political” for the workplace? Would an employee who is living in fear of racially motivated hate crimes be allowed to answer honestly when asked what’s wrong? What this policy seems to miss is that workers are people, and the conditions of people living in proximity to one another are what comprise a society. Asking workers to leave their humanity at the door is a recipe for resentment in the short term and an inability to attract top talent in the future. It’s sacrificing the company’s long-term success for a short-term safe space where the troubles of the world can be imagined away for eight hours a day—for those able to imagine them away, that is.

On Tuesday afternoon, blogger Casey Newton offered further clarification of what had happened at Basecamp. According to Newton, the new policy was announced in response to conversations around diversity, equity, and a list of “funny names” kept by company reps, which some associates deemed racist. In other words, the conversations that triggered the policy were very much conversations about the internal workings of the company itself, not discussions brought into work from the outside world.

Beyond the toll on morale the announcement is already taking—several employees, Newton reports, are planning to leave the company—there is a more practical reason this policy proposal is ominous. As much as a company might want to imagine itself as existing in some utopian bubble, software is a product, and products are used by human beings. At best, a company that fails to consider larger social dynamics is doomed to create products that do not adequately engage with the world they are supposed to serve; at worst, it results in products that actively reproduce structures of violence. A ban on political speech in the workplace would effectively shut down collective actions like the protest by Microsoft workers against the company’s proposed military contracts or the walkout organized by women employees at Google, and perhaps this is what Basecamp is really angling for.

If your only motive is profit, human well-being can be readily sacrificed. But if their history of public virtue signaling is any indication, the founders of Basecamp want more than that. It seems to me that like many tech founders, the Basecamp bosses want more than anything to be able to believe in the myth of their own benevolent greatness, which is easier to do when they don’t have to answer any hard questions or grapple with any difficult truths. It is the shattering of this painstakingly crafted illusion that will likely deal the most devastating blow to the company’s future.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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