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Google and tech’s elite are living in a parallel universe | John Naughton | Comment is free | The Guardian
"The gap between the richly rewarded few of tech firms and banks and the rest of us is growing wider. Blame the digital revolution"



"Someone once observed that the difference between Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher was that whereas Thatcher believed that she was always right, Blair believed not only that he was right but also that he was good. Visitors to the big technology companies in California come away with the feeling that they have been talking to tech-savvy analogues of Blair. They are fired with a zealous conviction that they are doing great stuff for the world, and proud of the fact that they work insanely hard in the furtherance of that goal. The fact that they are richly rewarded for their dedication is, one is given to believe, incidental.

The guys (and they are mostly guys) who manage these good folk are properly respectful of their high-IQ charges. Chief among them is Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he co-authored a book with his colleague Jonathan Rosenberg on the care and maintenance of these precious beings. Dr Schmidt objects to the demeaning term – “knowledge workers” – that economists have devised for them. Google employees, he tells us, are much, much more impressive than mere knowledge workers: they are “smart creatives”.

In the opinion of their chairman, these wunderkinder are very special indeed. They are “not averse to taking risks”, for example. Nor are they “punished or held back when those risky initiatives fail”. They are “not hemmed in by role definitions or organisational structures”. And “they don’t keep quiet when they disagree with something”. And so on. Altogether, they are an admirable body of men and women – mostly men (70%), admittedly, but, hey, what’s a little gender imbalance in a brave new world.

Dr Schmidt’s smart creatives work all the hours that God sends, and then some. They are, to use his term, “overworked in a good way”. The concept of work-life balance can, he thinks, “be insulting to smart, dedicated employees”, for whom work is an important part of life, not something to be separated. The best corporate cultures, he thinks, “invite and enable people to be overworked in a good way, with too many interesting things to do both at work and at home”.

All of which no doubt makes perfect sense if you’re running an outfit like Google. But it also highlights the extent to which our world is bifurcating into parallel universes. In one – that populated by technology companies, investment banks, hedge funds and other elite institutions – people are over-stimulated, appreciated, overworked (but in a “good way”, of course) and richly rewarded. Meanwhile, in the other universe, people are under-stimulated, overworked and poorly rewarded. And the gap between the two universes appears to be widening, not narrowing every time Moore’s Law ratchets up another notch in computing power.

Which is why we need to make a connection between what those smart creatives in California and elsewhere are creating and what is happening in the real world. In that domain, the level of economic inequality has attained staggering proportions for reasons that Thomas Piketty set out in his celebrated book Capital in the 21st Century.

Although there have been lots of detailed arguments about Piketty’s work, his central proposition – that in the absence of special circumstances such as war or redistributive taxation, the rate of return to capital exceeds the rate of return to labour – is both simple and obvious. What it means is that if your wealth involves ownership of capital assets (like company shares), then you will inexorably get richer at compound rates.

One of the oddest things about the furore surrounding Piketty’s book was that almost nobody talked about the role of technology in all this. Specifically, there was little discussion of the strange coincidence that the recent catastrophic rise in levels of inequality has coincided neatly with the digital revolution.

When you think about it, it’s clear that this isn’t just a random correlation. The digital revolution is driving inequality, not reducing it. That’s because the technology has certain characteristics (zero marginal returns, network effects and technological lock-in, to name just three) which confer colossal power on corporations that have mastered the technology. In the process it confers vast wealth on those who own them.

But that wealth isn’t shared with the users of the platforms operated by those corporations: most of the work that generates revenues for Facebook or Google is done by unpaid workers – you and me. And folks who work in paid occupations powered by those platforms – Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, to name just two – are not sharing in the wealth it generates for their owners either. Like Google’s smart creatives, these people are also overworked. But not in that “good way” advocated by Dr Schmidt."
economics  johnnaughton  inequality  2015  google  thomaspiketty  uber  labor  wealth  digital  power  sharingeconomy 
february 2015 by robertogreco
Request for Comments | Gardner Writes
"As Naughton tells the story, the young graduate students who were at the center of the Network Working Group found themselves with the future of the Internet in their hands. The big corporate brains knew about the machines that made up the network, but they didn’t know much about the network itself–it was too new, and it was an emergent phenomenon, not a thing they had built. The grad students in the NWG felt they were at great risk of offending the honchos, of overstepping their bounds as “vulnerable, insecure apprentices,” to use Naughton’s words. Crocker was especially worried they “would offend whomever the official protocol designers were….” But the work had to go forward. So Crocker invented the “Request for Comments,” what he called “humble words for our notes” that would document the discussions that would build the network.

Here’s how Crocker himself put it in this excerpt from RFC-3, “Documentation Conventions”:
Documentation of the NWG’s effort is through notes such as this. Notes may be produced at any site by anybody and included in this series…. [Content] may be any thought, suggestion, etc. related to the HOST software or other aspect of the network. Notes are encouraged to be timely rather than polished. Philosophical positions without examples or other specifics, specific suggestions or implementation techniques without introductory or background explication, and explicit questions without any attempted answers are all acceptable. The minimum length for a NWG note is one sentence.

These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative, and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas. Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition.

You can see the similarity to blogging right away. At least two primary Network Working Groups are involved: that of all the other people in the world (let’s call that civilization), and that of the network that constitutes one’s own cognition and the resulting “strange loop,” to use Douglas Hofstadter’s language. We are all of us in this macrocosm and this microcosm. Most of us will have multiple networks within these mirroring extremes, but the same principles will of course apply there as well. What is the ethos of the Network Working Group we call civilization? And for those of us engaged in the specific cognitive interventions we call education, what is the ethos of the Network Working Group we help out students to build and grow within themselves as learners? We discussed Ivan Illich in the Virginia Tech New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar today, and I was forcibly reminded that the NWG within sets the boundaries (and hopes) we have with which to craft our NWG without. School conditions what we expect in and from civilization.

I hope it’s also clear that these RFC-3 documentation conventions specify a praxis of intellectual discourse–indeed, I’d even say scholarly communication–that is sadly absent from most academic work today.

Would such communciation be rigorous? Academic? Worthy of tenure and promotion? What did these RFCs accomplish, and how do they figure in the human record? Naughton observes that this “Request for Comments” idea–and the title itself, now with many numerals following–has persisted as “the way the Internet discusses technical issues.” Naughton goes on to write that “it wasn’t just the title that endured … but the intelligent, friendly, co-operative, consensual attitude implied by it. With his modest, placatory style, Steve Crocker set the tone for the way the Net developed.” Naughton then quotes Katie Hafner’s and Matthew Lyon’s judgment that “the language of the RFC … was warm and welcoming. The idea was to promote cooperation, not ego.”

Naughton concludes,
The RFC archives contain an extraordinary record of thought in action, a riveting chronicle of the application of high intelligence to hard problems….

Why would we not want to produce such a record within the academy and share it with the public? Or are we content with the ordinary, forgotten, and non-riveting so long as the business model holds up?

Or have we been schooled so thoroughly that the very ambition makes no sense?

More Naughton:
The fundamental ethos of the Net was laid down in the deliberations of the Network Working Group. It was an ethos which assumed that nothing was secret, that problems existed to be solved collaboratively, that solutions emerged iteratively, and that everything which was produced should be in the public domain.

I think of the many faculty and department meetings I have been to. Some of them I have myself convened. The ethos of those Network Working Groups has varied considerably. I am disappointed to say that none of them has lived up to the fundamental ethos Naughton identifies above. I yearn for documentation conventions that will produce an extraordinary record of thought in action, with the production shared by all who work within a community of learning. And I wonder if I’m capable of Crocker’s humility or wisdom, and answerable to his invitation. I want to be."
gardnercampbell  internet  web  online  commenting  johnnaughton  2011  arpanet  stevecrocker  via:steelemaley  networks  networkworkinggroups  ivanillich  standards  content  shiftytext  networkedculture  networkedlearning  blogs  blogging  inhibition  unfinished  incomplete  cicilization  douglashofstadter  praxis  cooperation  tcsnmy  sharing  schooling  unschooling  academia  highered  highereducation  authority  humility  wisdom  collegiality  katiehafner  matthewlyon  rfc-3  rfc 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Wikipedia isn't perfect, but as a model it's as good as it gets | Technology | The Observer
"Basically because Wikipedia embodies a new approach to the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge in a networked world. The most striking thing about this approach is that it is completely open: the reason Channel 4 was able to uncover what it reported is that the history of every single edit to a Wikipedia is freely available, right back to the first incarnation of the page. So anyone with the time and inclination can see the evolution and transformation of the page over its entire lifetime. Equally, anyone who messes with a page has real difficulty covering their tracks. Likewise, every Wikipedia page has a discussion page associated with it, which allows people to explain or justify changes that they have made.

Wikipedia is a typical product of the open internet, in that it started with a few simple principles and evolved a fascinating governance structure to deal with problems as they arose. It recognised early on that there would be legitimate disagreements about some subjects and that eventually corporations and other powerful entities would try to subvert or corrupt it.

As these challenges arose, Wikipedia's editors and volunteers developed procedures, norms and rules for addressing them. These included software for detecting and remedying vandalism, for example, and processes such as the "three-revert" rule. This says that an editor should not undo someone else's edits to a page more than three times in one day, after which disagreements are put to formal or informal mediation or a warning is placed on the page alerting readers that there is controversy about the topic. Some perennially disputed pages, for example the one on George W Bush, are locked down. And so on.

In trying to figure out how to run itself, Wikipedia has therefore been grappling with the problems that will increasingly bug us in the future. In a comprehensively networked world, opinions and information will be super-abundant, the authority of older, print-based quality control and verification systems will be eroded and information resources will be intrinsically malleable. In such a cacophonous world, how will we know what is reliable and true? How will we deal with disagreements and disputes about knowledge? How will we sort out digital wheat from digital chaff? Wikipedia may be imperfect (what isn't?) but at the moment it's the only model we have for addressing these problems."
2014  wikipedia  internet  online  web  authority  information  disagreement  johnnaughton  open  openinternet  governance  mediation 
august 2014 by robertogreco
Wikileaks in 10 - Preoccupations
"Early last Monday, I gave a 10 minute talk about Wikileaks to our top two years (12 & 13). I hope I managed to keep some of the variety. The way in, stepping stones and some points made: …"
wikileaks  davidsmith  johnnaughton  secrecy  security  journalism  whistleblowing  internet  web  hierarchy  power  policy  government 
february 2011 by robertogreco
Memex 1.1 » Blog Archive » Assange and the herd instinct [Condensed by David Smith]
"First & foremost it’s what Manuel Castells calls a “networked enterprise”…comprised of widely-distributed, autonomous nodes which use the Internet for communication & (sometimes) co-ordination. But WikiLeaks, in addition to being a networked enterprise, is also a project & an architecture of considerable technical sophistication. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, has to be that WikiLeaks is bigger than Assange, & it would survive his disappearance, whether by imprisonment or worse…" "The tone of much public American discussion about WikiLeaks is increasingly “extra legal”, to put it politely…En passant, this argument about leaks putting lives in danger comes oddly from people whose overt policies & covert manoeuvring have been responsible for the death & mutilation of thousands of US & allied troops in Iraq & Afghanistan, & God knows how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis & Afghans. People who live in glass — or even White — houses ought not to throw stones."
wikileaks  2010  transparency  media  networks  johnnaughton  via:preoccupations 
december 2010 by robertogreco
Memex 1.1 » Something for the weekend
"“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London”, said Samuel Johnson. “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Much the same might be said about the Web. Here, for example, is a brief list of remarkable things I encountered on it today."

Similar "Upside of information overload: I haven't been bored in a decade." —Adam Greenfield http://twitter.com/agpublic/status/19416322355
via:preoccupations  ilovetheweb  web  online  internet  boredom  theworldisamazing  infinitegames  infiniteinterestingness  interestingness  samueljohnson  london  place  cities  life  cv  johnnaughton 
august 2010 by robertogreco
John Naughton: Of course worms can enter the net, that's the whole point | Media | The Observer
"So we're stuck with the trade-off between the creativity, innovation - and, yes, insecurity - that comes with openness; and the security - and stagnation - that comes with a tightly-controlled network. Which do we prefer? You only have to look at the data traffic for web pages and file sharing to know the answer."
internet  future  trends  openness  security  innovation  johnnaughton  open  worms 
march 2009 by robertogreco

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