A view from the new Facebook Reality Lab in Pittsburgh. Facebook

Facebook’s new Pittsburgh research lab says it’s building technology for the “future of work.” But it’s unclear whether there are black people in that future.

From the outside looking in, Facebook’s new Reality Lab office building in Pittsburgh is nothing opulent. The interior sports a Yinz-gineer charm that marries its nerdy ambitions with the city’s hardscrabble ethos. On one wall hang photos of African-American activists and thinkers, such as Colin Kaepernick, Audre Lorde, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, with kente cloth borders around their faces. On another, small neon-colored collages were assembled with messages like “Claim Your Power” and “Black Stories Matter.”  

Wall art in the new Facebook Reality Lab office in Pittsburgh. (Brentin Mock)

I was there for a press conference announcing the grand opening of the new Facebook office building, and a futuristic new augmented reality “telepresence” system they are building there. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether the art design choices in the new building were an actual reflection of pro-black and socially just values they hoped to capture within these walls, or just decorations. After all, it was Black History Month.

Images of African-American activists and thinkers hang in the new Facebook Reality Lab office in Pittsburgh (Brentin Mock)

In company materials, Facebook has touted its renewed commitment to diversity: “We are more focused than ever on creating a diverse workforce and supporting our people.” That goal doesn’t come without real effort in an industry that has been mostly the province of white men: Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission figures state that as of 2014, the tech sector employed a larger share of white and Asian-American men and a smaller share of African Americans and women than were employed in the overall private sector. The Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology reports that less than .5% of Silicon Valley tech leadership positions are African American women.

Opening a new 100,000-square-foot office building that can house as many as 250 employees — the specs for the new Pittsburgh Facebook lab — seems like a particular opportunity to focus on diverse hiring from the start. I wanted to learn how, or if, the company’s diversity focus and new building project had the equity needs of Pittsburgh in mind: The gap between the white and black employment rates is higher than that found in 85% of other cities of similar size, and with strikingly low black employment despite an otherwise booming economy,” according to the city’s recent race and gender equity report.

Press conferences aren’t the most productive venues for having substantive discussions about any topic really, let alone intractable social issues like racial exclusion in the workforce. So I requested a post-visit interview with Facebook Reality Lab research director Yaser Sheikh to talk about it. I forwarded CityLab articles on Pittsburgh’s challenges with tech diversity and hiring black people in general to Facebook’s comms staff to review so that we could have a thoughtful conversation about the issue. But the company passed on the interview request several days later, saying they’re “not quite ready to weigh into this discussion yet.”

Instead, I was referred to Facebook’s 2019 diversity report, which states that since 2014 the company has “increased the number of Black women at Facebook by 25X and the number of Black men by 10X.”

They also denied my request for statistics on the racial composition of the company’s Pittsburgh staff (Facebook opened its first Reality Lab office in 2015 in another part of the city), which currently employs a little more than 100 employees. Instead, Facebook gave me this statement:

Our work creating an inclusive environment where people from all backgrounds can thrive is ongoing. Our progress is founded on an ambitious and incredibly important goal – in the next five years, at least 50% of our workforce will be women, people who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islanders, people with two or more ethnicities, people with disabilities and veterans. We’re striving to be a company that reflects and better serves the people on our platforms, services, and products.

But the city of Pittsburgh has its own extensive commitment to diversify its techforce, called the Inclusive Innovation Roadmap. It’s a strategy for Pittsburgh to accomplish its goals of becoming a leader in the tech and innovation industry through the lens of inclusivity, meaning in ways “that benefit all of [Pittsburgh’s] communities.” The Roadmap even comes with its own slogan, often quoted by Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto: “If it’s not for all, it’s not for us!

Peduto was present for the new Facebook Reality Labs opening, addressing reporters at the press conference alongside Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Asked how the new Facebook Reality Lab figured into the city’s Inclusive Innovation strategy, Peduto said he had been talking with companies such as Google and Duolingo about getting them “more involved in the fabric of Pittsburgh,” particularly through mentoring and training kids on coding. And he said he’d like to engage the tech companies on a different level as well: through youth football.

“What I would like to see is each of our tech firms adopt a youth football team in Pittsburgh,” said Peduto. “So each of the different neighborhoods would be represented by one of these tech giants that would get the kids the opportunity, when they’re not playing football, to walk into an office like this and to imagine themselves as an engineer, to be able to have the workers when they come in on Monday, looking at the stats, to see how well their quarterback did, and to build a bond that we don’t have yet between neighborhoods that are underserved and the tech giants that are moving into the city.”

The game room in Pittsburgh’s new Facebook Reality Lab office. (Facebook/CTG Photography)

As for diversity strategies for people who aren’t children or don’t like football, Peduto also said that these companies have been hiring mechanics from auto shops, and that Carnegie Mellon University has partnered with the local sheet metal workers union to help build robots.

In terms of the company we were actually gathered with that day, he said, “I can’t answer specifically for Facebook, but I’m sure that within the number of jobs they have there are blue-collar as well as white-collar.”

County Executive Fitzgerald reminded the press that Facebook was donating $20,000 for tech training programs at the Sara Heinz House, an afterschool youth program that sustains a roughly $3 million annual budget from a healthy Rolodex of corporate donors such as Coca-Cola, Comcast, FedEx, and the Heinz Endowments, affiliated with the Heinz family of ketchup fame.

Perhaps it was a bit much to expect a robust discussion on one of the most un-diverse work sectors in one of the most un-diverse cities in the United States. A major explanation for this problem is occupational segregation, according to the city’s 2019 race and gender inequality report: White men are disproportionately clustered in jobs as lawyers and computer programmers in the city while black men and women are disproportionately represented in jobs in maintenance, food service, and as factory workers.

(Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race)

So whose responsibility is it to address diverse hiring from the start? According to several black women in the city who’ve been tracking progress on racial and gender equity concerns in Pittsburgh’s tech community, companies like Facebook should be self-motivated to do more diverse hiring.

“The tech industry should know, as research has shown, it is in their best interest, financially and socially to diversify,” said Janera Solomon, who co-chairs a task force on employment and entrepreneurship for All-In-Cities, an equitable development initiative for which the city is partnering with Policylink. “If they can make robotic cars work they can make diversity happen.”

“Just hire us, it’s not hard,” said Kelauni Cook, a software engineer who moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago several years ago, and has since founded the Black Tech Nation network that supports black tech professionals. “It’s the obligation of companies like Facebook and others to open doors of access in our very diverse nation because we are all a part of the fabric of our technological society.” But she cautions that the seemingly “active aversion” to hiring black women in Pittsburgh is a problem beyond just the local tech sector.

Despite the company’s reluctance to discuss diverse hiring in Pittsburgh, how people work in general is very much on the minds of the engineers driving the city’s new Facebook Reality Labs. The purpose of the Pittsburgh lab is to develop an augmented reality system that will transmit a lifelike 3-D image of a user — a Codec Avatar — to another destination. It was billed several times at the grand opening as “the future of work,” allowing people to virtually attend business meetings, conferences, trainings, and college courses in cities across the world. The goal, said Sheikh, is “to help people build communities and build much [deeper] and more meaningful relationships with people no matter where they live."

To create the Codec Avatar, the user must sit in a large “capture studio” equipped with 180 cameras and 1,700 microphones. This technology is currently only being developed in Pittsburgh, which Sheikh said was picked because of the pool of talent that exists there, mainly at Carnegie Mellon University. The machines are too humongous for mobility and nowhere near ready for market — ”We’re about 10 miracles away from that,” said Sheikh.

An outside view of the capture studio used to create Codec Avatars (Facebook)

As impressive as the technology looked, I couldn’t help but walk away feeling like this was yet another instance of innovators creating a solution for which there’s no problem. The invention, if realized at public scale, would not, of course, come without benefits. Greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants could be minimized from reduced travel, and Lord knows some of us could use a remote-meeting system like this under the current coronavirus malaise. But we should be clear that this would be most utilized among the higher echelons of the professional working class. If this is indeed the “future of work,” it is hard to see how it could avoid actually exacerbating the kinds of problems with automation that reduce available employment.

“This is a product that could change the way that humans communicate forever,” said Peduto. “The future of Pittsburgh is going to be based on companies like Facebook that want to invest into Pittsburgh’s economy.”

It’s all good, so long as they realize that there are black people in the future.

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