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People have been talking about Bridgewater Associates and its culture of surveillance for years, and in general it has been met with skepticism and derision.
That has been the case again over the last few days. The $154 billion investment firm helmed by Wall Street legend Ray Dalio has yet again been confronted with decidedly bad press about its corporate culture.
In a New York Times story published on Tuesday called “At World’s Largest Hedge Fund, Sex, Fear and Video Surveillance,” reporters detail the firm’s efforts to squash a sexual harassment claim now making its way through the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
Bridgewater called this story a “distortion of reality” – but only part of it. The firm has always proudly owned the part of its culture where everything is recorded, either on audio or video, in the name of what its founder calls “radical transparency.”
According to the “principles” Dalio has also set out for the company, this is also supposed to encourage an environment in which people challenge each other’s ideas and feel that there’s an open dialogue.
Here’s an example, from the New York Times report:
“It is routine for recordings of contentious meetings to be archived and later shown to employees as part of the company’s policy of learning from mistakes. Several former employees recalled one video that Bridgewater showed to new employees that was of a confrontation several years ago between top executives including Mr. Dalio and a woman who was a manager at the time, who breaks down crying.”
Dalio has argued that this allows problems and weaknesses to rise to the surface and be dealt with objectively.
To me, the use of this logic is even scarier than the surveillance itself.
In the last few years researchers have learned more and more about the powerful connection between surveillance and silence, minority opinions, and self-censorship. For that we can thank Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who leaked details about Prism, a far-reaching clandestine surveillance program designed to ensnare terrorists.
What the program’s leak did was bring a crucial discussion about the nature of privacy in America – a discussion about what is and what is not acceptable within our values construct – to the the forefront of public discourse.
Had Bridgewater’s culture been thrown into that conversation, it would have undoubtedly been judged outside of acceptable American privacy norms.
Bridgewater is not what we are; it’s what millions of Americans fear we might become.
The selling point of the NSA’s Prism program was simple – it’s meant to keep us safe. In exchange for an invasion of privacy, Americans are supposed to believe that their lives may be spared from violence.
Yet according to Pew research, only 40% of Americans back the program. Being spied on is something we just don’t like. Those that are OK with it, though, tend to take the “nothing to hide” argument. They don’t care if the government is watching them because they don’t care what the government sees.
This line of thinking was tackled in the San Diego Law Review in 2007 by DJ Solove. He said that people need privacy not because they have things they want to hide, but because they are concerned with “concealing information about themselves that others might use to their disadvantage.”
That can include anything from when your kids will be with a babysitter to when you plan on going the dentist’s for a root canal.
But again, 40% of Americans are willing to set this fear aside because they feel their lives are in danger. At Bridgewater, the rationale for surveillance is obviously thinner. It’s sold as a part of a corporate culture – one that pays very handsomely.
More research tells us that this dedication to surveillance does not breed a culture of openness, but rather one of fear and suppression.
In a study published earlier this year called “Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring,” Elizabeth Stoycheff examined what surveillance does to speech.
“Theoretically, it adds a new layer of chilling effects to the spiral of silence,” Stoycheff wrote. “This is the first study to provide empirical evidence that the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion.”
Asymmetrical information and asymmetrical power
Now consider the power dynamics at Bridgewater. Instead of the government watching you, it’s your boss. Stoycheff’s subjects silenced their opinions because they perceived there may be retaliation. But in reality, the government was/is far more disconnected from these people than, say, their employers.
Your employer can really mess with you.
Stoycheff’s study found that people don’t speak up for fear of two things. One is social isolation. Applied to Bridgewater, in the gentlest way, think of this as being afraid no one will hang out with you at the office holiday party.
The other fear is one Bridgewater can conjure far more easily than the government can.
“Fear of isolation, as traditionally measured, taps an individual’s concern of being alienated from other members of society, but does not address fear of alienation or prosecution from the government. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) argues that social isolation is a minimal concern compared to material sanctions that government is capable of enacting, like losing one’s job or instigating legal consequences,” Stoycheff writes (emphasis ours).
It goes without saying that the powers that be at Bridgewater have their employee’s livelihoods hanging directly in the balance. Legal consequences are also on the table. Radical transparency serves as a reminder that what is being said is also being judged, and judgments have consequences.
This is how fear, though it is often imperceptible to the naked eye, is silently passed from one person to another like a message sent through a cold tin can. This is fear dancing on an invisible wire, regulating every employee with the same subliminal message.
It says: “Do not speak unless you agree.”