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Solving All the Wrong Problems - The New York Times
"We are overloaded daily with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, the bulk of the above list targets a very specific (and tiny!) slice of the population. As one colleague in tech explained it to me recently, for most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do.

He was joking — sort of — but his comment made me think hard about who is served by this stuff. I’m concerned that such a focus on comfort and instant gratification will reduce us all to those characters in “Wall-E,” bound to their recliners, Big Gulps in hand, interacting with the world exclusively through their remotes.

Too many well-funded entrepreneurial efforts turn out to promise more than they can deliver (i.e., Theranos’ finger-prick blood test) or read as parody (but, sadly, are not — such as the $99 “vessel” that monitors your water intake and tells you when you should drink more water).

When everything is characterized as “world-changing,” is anything?

Clay Tarver, a writer and producer for the painfully on-point HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” said in a recent New Yorker article: “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the P.R. departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly. So I guess, at the very least, we’re making the world a better place by making these people stop saying they’re making the world a better place.”

O.K., that’s a start. But the impulse to conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works is not just a bit cultish, it’s currently a wildfire burning through the so-called innovation sector. Products and services are designed to “disrupt” market sectors (a.k.a. bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems, especially those problems experienced by what the writer C. Z. Nnaemeka has described as “the unexotic underclass” — single mothers, the white rural poor, veterans, out-of-work Americans over 50 — who, she explains, have the “misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.”

If the most fundamental definition of design is to solve problems, why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist? How can we get more people to look beyond their own lived experience?

In “Design: The Invention of Desire,” a thoughtful and necessary new book by the designer and theorist Jessica Helfand, the author brings to light an amazing kernel: “hack,” a term so beloved in Silicon Valley that it’s painted on the courtyard of the Facebook campus and is visible from planes flying overhead, is also prison slang for “horse’s ass carrying keys.”

To “hack” is to cut, to gash, to break. It proceeds from the belief that nothing is worth saving, that everything needs fixing. But is that really the case? Are we fixing the right things? Are we breaking the wrong ones? Is it necessary to start from scratch every time?

Empathy, humility, compassion, conscience: These are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation, Ms. Helfand argues, and in her book she explores design, and by extension innovation, as an intrinsically human discipline — albeit one that seems to have lost its way. Ms. Helfand argues that innovation is now predicated less on creating and more on the undoing of the work of others.

“In this humility-poor environment, the idea of disruption appeals as a kind of subversive provocation,” she writes. “Too many designers think they are innovating when they are merely breaking and entering.”

In this way, innovation is very much mirroring the larger public discourse: a distrust of institutions combined with unabashed confidence in one’s own judgment shifts solutions away from fixing, repairing or improving and shoves them toward destruction for its own sake. (Sound like a certain presidential candidate? Or Brexit?)

Perhaps the main reason these frivolous products and services frustrate me is because of their creators’ insistence that changing lives for the better is their reason for being. To wit, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who has invested in companies like Airbnb and Twitter but also in services such as LikeALittle (which started out as a flirting tool among college students) and Soylent (a sort of SlimFast concoction for tech geeks), tweeted last week: “The perpetually missing headline: ‘Capitalism worked okay again today and most people in the world got a little better off.’ ”

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, where such companies are based, sea level rise is ominous, the income gap between rich and poor has been growing faster than in any other city in the nation, a higher percentage of people send their kids to private school than in almost any other city, and a minimum salary of $254,000 is required to afford an average-priced home. Who exactly is better off?

Ms. Helfand calls for a deeper embrace of personal vigilance: “Design may provide the map,” she writes, “but the moral compass that guides our personal choices resides permanently within us all.”

Can we reset that moral compass? Maybe we can start by not being a bunch of hacks."
2016  allisonarieff  siliconvalley  problemsolving  disruption  claytarver  sanfrancisco  capitalism  jessicahelfand  books  invention  narcissism  theranos  comfort  instantgratification  hacking  innovation  publicdiscourse  publicgood  inequality  marcandreessen  morality  moralcompass  soylent  venturecapitalism  brexit  us  priorities 
july 2016 by robertogreco
Remarks at the SASE Panel On The Moral Economy of Tech
"I am only a small minnow in the technology ocean, but since it is my natural habitat, I want to make an effort to describe it to you.

As computer programmers, our formative intellectual experience is working with deterministic systems that have been designed by other human beings. These can be very complex, but the complexity is not the kind we find in the natural world. It is ultimately always tractable. Find the right abstractions, and the puzzle box opens before you.

The feeling of competence, control and delight in discovering a clever twist that solves a difficult problem is what makes being a computer programmer sometimes enjoyable.

But as anyone who's worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence.

Today we are embarked on a great project to make computers a part of everyday life. As Marc Andreessen memorably frames it, "software is eating the world". And those of us writing the software expect to be greeted as liberators.

Our intentions are simple and clear. First we will instrument, then we will analyze, then we will optimize. And you will thank us.

But the real world is a stubborn place. It is complex in ways that resist abstraction and modeling. It notices and reacts to our attempts to affect it. Nor can we hope to examine it objectively from the outside, any more than we can step out of our own skin.

The connected world we're building may resemble a computer system, but really it's just the regular old world from before, with a bunch of microphones and keyboards and flat screens sticking out of it. And it has the same old problems.

Approaching the world as a software problem is a category error that has led us into some terrible habits of mind.

BAD MENTAL HABITS

First, programmers are trained to seek maximal and global solutions. Why solve a specific problem in one place when you can fix the general problem for everybody, and for all time? We don't think of this as hubris, but as a laudable economy of effort. And the startup funding culture of big risk, big reward encourages this grandiose mode of thinking. There is powerful social pressure to avoid incremental change, particularly any change that would require working with people outside tech and treating them as intellectual equals.

Second, treating the world as a software project gives us a rationale for being selfish. The old adage has it that if you are given ten minutes to cut down a tree, you should spend the first five sharpening your axe. We are used to the idea of bootstrapping ourselves into a position of maximum leverage before tackling a problem.

In the real world, this has led to a pathology where the tech sector maximizes its own comfort. You don't have to go far to see this. Hop on BART after the conference and take a look at Oakland, or take a stroll through downtown San Francisco and try to persuade yourself you're in the heart of a boom that has lasted for forty years. You'll see a residential theme park for tech workers, surrounded by areas of poverty and misery that have seen no benefit and ample harm from our presence. We pretend that by maximizing our convenience and productivity, we're hastening the day when we finally make life better for all those other people.

Third, treating the world as software promotes fantasies of control. And the best kind of control is control without responsibility. Our unique position as authors of software used by millions gives us power, but we don't accept that this should make us accountable. We're programmers—who else is going to write the software that runs the world? To put it plainly, we are surprised that people seem to get mad at us for trying to help.

Fortunately we are smart people and have found a way out of this predicament. Instead of relying on algorithms, which we can be accused of manipulating for our benefit, we have turned to machine learning, an ingenious way of disclaiming responsibility for anything. Machine learning is like money laundering for bias. It's a clean, mathematical apparatus that gives the status quo the aura of logical inevitability. The numbers don't lie.

Of course, people obsessed with control have to eventually confront the fact of their own extinction. The response of the tech world to death has been enthusiastic. We are going to fix it. Google Ventures, for example, is seriously funding research into immortality. Their head VC will call you a "deathist" for pointing out that this is delusional.

Such fantasies of control come with a dark side. Witness the current anxieties about an artificial superintelligence, or Elon Musk's apparently sincere belief that we're living in a simulation. For a computer programmer, that's the ultimate loss of control. Instead of writing the software, you are the software.

We obsess over these fake problems while creating some real ones.

In our attempt to feed the world to software, techies have built the greatest surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen. Unlike earlier efforts, this one is fully mechanized and in a large sense autonomous. Its power is latent, lying in the vast amounts of permanently stored personal data about entire populations.

We started out collecting this information by accident, as part of our project to automate everything, but soon realized that it had economic value. We could use it to make the process self-funding. And so mechanized surveillance has become the economic basis of the modern tech industry.

SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM

Surveillance capitalism has some of the features of a zero-sum game. The actual value of the data collected is not clear, but it is definitely an advantage to collect more than your rivals do. Because human beings develop an immune response to new forms of tracking and manipulation, the only way to stay successful is to keep finding novel ways to peer into people's private lives. And because much of the surveillance economy is funded by speculators, there is an incentive to try flashy things that will capture the speculators' imagination, and attract their money.

This creates a ratcheting effect where the behavior of ever more people is tracked ever more closely, and the collected information retained, in the hopes that further dollars can be squeezed out of it.

Just like industrialized manufacturing changed the relationship between labor and capital, surveillance capitalism is changing the relationship between private citizens and the entities doing the tracking. Our old ideas about individual privacy and consent no longer hold in a world where personal data is harvested on an industrial scale.

Those who benefit from the death of privacy attempt to frame our subjugation in terms of freedom, just like early factory owners talked about the sanctity of contract law. They insisted that a worker should have the right to agree to anything, from sixteen-hour days to unsafe working conditions, as if factory owners and workers were on an equal footing.

Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick. They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods—you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.

Many of you had to obtain a US visa to attend this conference. The customs service announced yesterday it wants to start asking people for their social media profiles. Imagine trying to attend your next conference without a LinkedIn profile, and explaining to the American authorities why you are so suspiciously off the grid.

The reality is, opting out of surveillance capitalism means opting out of much of modern life.

We're used to talking about the private and public sector in the real economy, but in the surveillance economy this boundary doesn't exist. Much of the day-to-day work of surveillance is done by telecommunications firms, which have a close relationship with government. The techniques and software of surveillance are freely shared between practitioners on both sides. All of the major players in the surveillance economy cooperate with their own country's intelligence agencies, and are spied on (very effectively) by all the others.

As a technologist, this state of affairs gives me the feeling of living in a forest that is filling up with dry, dead wood. The very personal, very potent information we're gathering about people never goes away, only accumulates. I don't want to see the fire come, but at the same time, I can't figure out a way to persuade other people of the great danger.

So I try to spin scenarios.

THE INEVITABLE LIST OF SCARY SCENARIOS

One of the candidates running for President this year has promised to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, as well as block Muslims from entering the country altogether. Try to imagine this policy enacted using the tools of modern technology. The FBI would subpoena Facebook for information on every user born abroad. Email and phone conversations would be monitored to check for the use of Arabic or Spanish, and sentiment analysis applied to see if the participants sounded "nervous". Social networks, phone metadata, and cell phone tracking would lead police to nests of hiding immigrants.

We could do a really good job deporting people if we put our minds to it.

Or consider the other candidate running for President, the one we consider the sane alternative, who has been a longtime promoter of a system of extrajudicial murder that uses blanket surveillance of cell phone traffic, email, and social media to create lists of people to be tracked and killed with autonomous aircraft. … [more]
culture  ethics  privacy  surveillance  technology  technosolutionism  maciegceglowski  2016  computing  coding  programming  problemsolving  systemsthinking  systems  software  control  power  elonmusk  marcandreessen  siliconvalley  sanfrancisco  oakland  responsibility  machinelearning  googlevntures  vc  capitalism  speculation  consent  labor  economics  poland  dystopia  government  politics  policy  immortality 
june 2016 by robertogreco
Facebook the Colonial Empire - The Atlantic
[See also: https://backchannel.com/how-india-pierced-facebook-s-free-internet-program-6ae3f9ffd1b4#.lywam4h52 ]

"The kerfuffle elicited a torrent of criticism for Andreessen, but the connection he made—between Facebook’s global expansion and colonialism—is nothing new. Which probably helps explain why Zuckerberg felt the need to step in, and which brings us back to Free Basics. The platform, billed by Facebook as a way to help people connect to the Internet for the first time, offers a stripped-down version of the mobile web that people can use without it counting toward their data-usage limit.

“I’m loath to toss around words like colonialism but it’s hard to ignore the family resemblances and recognizable DNA, to wit,” said Deepika Bahri, an English professor at Emory University who focuses on postcolonial studies. In an email, Bahri summed up those similarities in list form:

1. ride in like the savior

2. bandy about words like equality, democracy, basic rights

3. mask the long-term profit motive (see 2 above)

4. justify the logic of partial dissemination as better than nothing

5. partner with local elites and vested interests

6. accuse the critics of ingratitude

“In the end,” she told me, “if it isn’t a duck, it shouldn’t quack like a duck.”

In India, where Free Basics has been the subject of a long, public debate, plenty of people already rejected the platform precisely because of its colonialist overtones. “We’ve been stupid with the East India Company,” one Reddit user said in a forum about Free Basics last year, referring to the British Raj. “Never again brother, Never again!”"



"Well, here’s the other side of the argument: When mobile-network operators allow some companies to offer access to their sites without charging people for data use, it gives those companies an unfair advantage. Free Basics makes Facebook a gatekeeper with too much leverage—so much that it conflicts with the foundational principles of the open web. Those principles, and what people mean when they talk about net neutrality, can be summed up this way: Internet service providers should treat all content equally, without favoring certain sites or platforms over others.

And doesn’t the fact that so many people upgrade to the full Internet so soon after trying Free Basics dismantle the claim that Facebook isn’t looking at the platform as a way to expand its global user base? People may start with an ad-free version of the site, but they quickly graduate to regular old ad-peppered, data-gathering Facebook.

All this raises a question about who Free Basics is actually for, which may further hint at Facebook’s motivations. Sumanth Raghavendra, an app developer and startup founder in India, points to this commercial for Free Basics—from back when it was still branded under the larger umbrella of Facebook’s Internet.org project—as representative of the local marketing for the platform.

“If you are awestruck by how cool India’s ‘poorest’ folks seem to be, don’t be …because these folks, the target audience for Free Basics, are far from being India’s poor!” Raghavendra wrote in an essay for Medium. “As is plainly obvious, the original target audience of Free Basics was not India’s poorest who have never come online but far more so, students and millennials to whom the hook was about surfing for free.”

As of October, one of India’s biggest mobile carriers said 1 million people had signed up for Free Basics. But only about 20 percent of Free Basics users weren’t previously using the Internet, Facebook told the Press Trust of India, the country’s largest news agency. (Facebook didn’t immediately respond to my request for comment and more recent numbers.) In other words, the vast majority of the people who used Free Basics already had Internet connections.

“Free Basics was hardly something aimed at poor people and even less so, targeted at people who have ‘no connectivity,’” Raghavendra wrote. “This entire narrative painting it as a choice between some connectivity and no connectivity is false and disingenuous.”

“There is absolutely no need to offer a condescending promise based on altruism to bring these folks online,” he added. “They will do so on their own time and at their own pace with or without any external help or artificial incentive.”

Zuckerman, from MIT, is even more pointed: “When Zuckerberg or Andreessen face criticism, they argue that their critics are being elitist and inhumane—after all, who could be against helping India develop? The rhetoric is rich with the White Man’s Burden.”

Some of the colonialist subtext in all this evokes what the writer Courtney Martin calls the “reductive seduction” of Americans wanting to save the world, and the hubris that underscores this kind of supposed problem solving. “There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity,” Martin wrote.

Representations of colonialism have long been present in digital landscapes. (“Even Super Mario Brothers,” the video game designer Steven Fox told me last year. “You run through the landscape, stomp on everything, and raise your flag at the end.”) But web-based colonialism is not an abstraction. The online forces that shape a new kind of imperialism go beyond Facebook.

Consider, for example, digitization projects that focus primarily on English-language literature. If the web is meant to be humanity’s new Library of Alexandria, a living repository for all of humanity’s knowledge, this is a problem. So is the fact that the vast majority of Wikipedia pages are about a relatively tiny square of the planet. For instance, 14 percent of the world’s population lives in Africa, but less than 3 percent of the world’s geotagged Wikipedia articles originate there, according to a 2014 Oxford Internet Institute report.

“This uneven distribution of knowledge carries with it the danger of spatial solipsism for the people who live inside one of Wikipedia’s focal regions,” the researchers of that report wrote. “It also strongly underrepresents regions such as the Middle East and North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. In the global context of today’s digital knowledge economies, these digital absences are likely to have very material effects and consequences.”

Consider, too, the dominant business models online. Companies commodify people as users, mining them for data and personally targeting them with advertising. “In digital capitalism—another stage of imperialism?—capital and corporation underwrite free-ness,” Bahri, the Emory professor, told me. “That’s why Facebook can claim to be always free.”

Incidentally, “users” is a term that Facebook now discourages, favoring “people” instead. Though “users” was, at least, an improvement over “dumb fucks,” which is what Zuckerberg called the people who signed up for Facebook when it was new, according to online chat transcripts that emerged as part of a lawsuit several years ago.

In 2010, Zuckerberg told The New Yorker he had “grown and learned a lot” since then. “If you’re going to go on to build a service that is influential and that a lot of people rely on, then you need to be mature, right?” he said at the time.

A lot of people, in 2010, meant Facebook’s 400 million users. Since then, that number has quadrupled to 1.6 billion people—the vast majority of them connecting to the site via mobile. Last year, Facebook’s market cap crossed the $300 billion threshold. Earnings statements show it made more than $5.8 billion in ad revenue in 2015, with more than 80 percent of that money—some $4.6 billion—coming from mobile ads.

Facebook is already, it is often said, eating the Internet. So it’s easy to see why Internet.org was rebranded as Free Basics. The old name sounded too much like a reflection of what Facebook actually is: a dominant and possibly unstoppable force, a private company exerting enormous influence on public access to the web. “The great social network of the early 21st century is laying the groundwork,” Austin Carr wrote for Fast Company in 2014, “for a platform that could make Facebook a part of just about every social interaction that takes place around the world.”

Free Basics might be stoppable. But is Facebook?

“It is an uncomfortable truth that, in emerging economies, Facebook had already won the Internet well before Internet.org and the FreeBasics campaign began,” Steve Song, a telecommunications policy activist, wrote in a blog post this week. “Facebook became the de facto Internet for many people because it did the most profoundly useful thing the Internet can do: Connect people.”"
facebook  colonialism  imperialism  india  freebasics  internet  2016  adriennelafrance  markzuckerberg  marcandreessen  class  whiteman'sburden  ethanzuckerman  web  online  economics  designimperialism  humanitariandesign 
february 2016 by robertogreco
Silicon Valley’s Basic Income Bromance — Backchannel — Medium
"A cult of bros, brahmins and braintrusters is pushing the idea of a government-distributed living wage"



"Among the grassroots braintrust, Santens is elite.

His fascination with basic income started in his late 30s, with a Reddit thread about how quickly tech-induced unemployment was coming. He read about basic income as a possible solution, and was hooked. “When I came across this idea and read more and more into it, I’m like wow, this is something that can totally change the world for the better.” In the fall of 2013 he abandoned his career as a freelance web developer to become the movement’s most omnipresent advocate. “People passionate about basic income don’t have a very loud voice,” he says.

In person, Santens doesn’t have one either; he’s polite and thoughtful, a reed-like 6-foot-2. His microphone is Medium and The Huffington Post, the Basic Income subreddit he moderates, and his Twitter account, from which he tweets anything in the day’s news that can be summoned into a case for basic income. Santens also created a Twibbon to superimpose #basicincome on one’s Twitter or Facebook profile pic. Such is the newness of this movement in the United States that the guy who does all this wins a profile in The Atlantic, and gets invited to talk on a Brookings Institution panel.

The technologist crowd says a basic income will become a moral imperative as robots replace workers and unemployment skyrockets. Conservatives say it would replace the kraken of welfare bureaucracy, with its arbitrary income cutoffs and overlapping programs. Optimists say humanity will no longer have to work for survival, freeing us to instead work for self-actualization. (You know, start businesses. Go to school. Do unpaid care, volunteer, and parenting work that doesn’t add a cent to the GDP.) Progressives say it would level the playing field: the working classes could have a taste of the stability that’s become an upper-middle class luxury, and would have bargaining power with low-paid work.

It’s a compelling idea having an international moment: Finland’s government announced first steps toward a basic income pilot project in 2017. Details aren’t finalized, but early plans call for giving 800 to 1,000 euros a month to a large test group for two years instead of any other social benefits. (Tally it up to another socialist program from a Northern European country if you will, but Finland is trying to solve eerily familiar U.S. problems: a growing class of freelancers who were neither eligible for employment benefits nor unemployment, and Finns in the poverty trap: taking a temporary job decreases your welfare benefits.) Several Dutch cities aim to introduce similar programs next year, and the idea of a universal basic income has gotten some consideration and endorsements in Canada, where it was tried for five years in the 1970s in Manitoba.

In the United States, it only makes sense that Silicon Valley would be the natural habitat for basic income bros, brahmins, and braintrusts. The Bay Area is home to a fertile mix of early adopters, earnest change-the-worlders, the Singularity crowd, cryptocurrency hackers, progressives and libertarians — all of whom have their reasons for supporting a universal basic income. “Some of my friends [in favor] are hardcore libertarian types, and others will be left-wing even by San Francisco standards,” says Steven Grimm, an early Facebook engineer who now writes code for a cash transfer platform used by charities, the most direct way he could think of to apply his skills to advance basic income. If we’re name-dropping: Zipcar CEO Robin Chase, Singularity University’s Peter Diamandis, Jeremy Howard, Kathryn Myronuk, and Neil Jacobstein, and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich, Tesla principal engineer Gerald Huff, author Martin Ford, Samasource CEO Leila Janah, and Silicon Valley optimist-in-chief Marc Andreessen all support it.

So of course, while Scott Santens isn’t from here, he needs to come kiss the ring."



"Back in San Francisco at the end of his trip, Santens was mostly killing time before a 2:00 am redeye (to avoid the hotel bill, of course). We leave Patreon and head out to Market Street, and Santens snaps a photo of the Twitter headquarters plopped in the middle of the city’s tech-gentrified skid row, where the city’s polarized classes come into sharp relief.

It’s a boulevard of all the ills Santens believes basic income will solve: the shuffling homeless people — they could get cash in one fell swoop instead of extracting it from a byzantine welfare system. Lining the sidewalk are drug dealers; they could do something else, and their customers — not having to self-medicate their desperation — might dry up, too. We pass the Crazy Horse strip club. No one would have to dance or do sex work out of poverty, leaving it to the true aficionados. The high-interest payday loan shop would lose its raison d’etre.

The thought experiment of basic income serves as a Rorschach test of one’s beliefs about human nature: some people instantly worry that human enterprise would be reduced to playing PlayStation; others point to the studies of cash transfers that show people increase their working hours and production. One cash transfer program in North Carolina revealed long-term beneficial effects on Cherokee children whose parents received some $6,000 a year from a distribution of casino profits. (The kids were more likely to graduate high school on time, less likely to have psychiatric or alcohol abuse problems in adulthood.) No one debates that $1,000 a month, the amount usually discussed as a basic income in the U.S., would only be enough to cover the basics — and in expensive cities like San Francisco, not even that. Anyone wanting to live with greater creature comforts would still have the carrot of paid work.

Santens is, unsurprisingly, of the optimist group. He tells me about his baby boomer dad who moved into The Villages, the luxury retirement community in Florida (“basically Walt Disney World for senior citizens”). He says it’s a great case study in that people stay busy even when they don’t have to work: the seniors join kayak and billiards clubs, paint watercolors, and go to Zumba. “People do all sorts of things.” His dad is partial to golf.

Before he goes, I ask what he would do if he truly got a basic income, one that was not dependent on advocating basic income. “I’d do more screen-writing,” he says. “I’m a sci-fi writer at heart.”
You might be a basic income bro if, if and when basic income comes, you finally can do something else."
laurensmiley  siliconvalley  universalbasicincome  libertarianism  economics  2015  policy  government  miltonfriedman  richardnixon  edwardsnowden  martinlutherkingjr  scottsantens  arjunbanker  robinchase  peterdiamandis  jeremyhoward  kathrynmyronuk  neiljacobstein  samaltman  robertreich  geraldhuff  martinford  leilajanah  marcandreessen  rosebroome  jimpugh  finland  erikbrynjolfsson  federicopistono  singularityuniversity  automation  future  robots  bullshitjobs  efficiency  publicassistance  mlk  ubi 
december 2015 by robertogreco
Being rich isn’t a superpower, and Steve Jobs isn’t Spider-Man
"Every age gets the heroes it deserves—or rather, the heroes it needs to do a certain kind of cultural work. Superhero stories have become our Greek dramas — popular entertainment built around larger-than-life figures with rich histories playing out complex fables of power, morality, and democracy. We tell the stories over and over again, either taking their characters back to their roots or placing them in fresh scenarios. We use these stories to explore new fantasies and solve new problems.

There are many issues playing themselves out in contemporary superhero stories—race and gender representation, surveillance and militarization, LGBT rights and identities, to name just a few. It’s strange, however, that one of the most important is one of the least talked-about: the disproportionate power wielded by the rich, whether wealthy individuals or wealthy societies. Wealth may be the buried theme of both contemporary comics and contemporary politics. Talking about superheroes and superpowers without talking about money misses an enormous part of the story—not least because the business of superheroes is bigger than ever, and the companies behind our most popular superheroes are some of the largest conglomerates in the world.

Now, it’s true that many superheroes have been rich: Batman’s Bruce Wayne and Iron Man’s Tony Stark were created as millionaire playboys decades ago. And this makes sense. As Spider-Man’s adventures showed for years, super-heroics don’t pay the bills: it’s difficult being a gadget-driven superhero (or any kind of superhero) without first having money to burn. But over time, Bruce Wayne stopped being just an idle heir and Tony Stark stopped being just an eccentric arms dealer, and both became hero figures much more recognizable to the 21st century: the genius entrepreneur. These characters are less Howard Hughes (the original model for Tony Stark) and more Elon Musk, less J. Robert Oppenheimer and more Mark Zuckerberg. They are brilliant futurists, larger than life—the people we ask to show us the future, and hope that they will help make the world one worth saving.

We don’t have warriors and war heroes at the center of our popular consciousness any more; we don’t have kings and queens, gods or monsters. We have entrepreneurs and superheroes: incarnations of a myth of the heroic individual. These are the titanic figures, at the junction of capitalism and futurism, whose actions have disproportionate effects on our world—actions and effects the rest of us are trying to grapple with. The Social Network, Steve Jobs (both the book and the movie), Ashlee Vance’s biography Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—all are about businesses and entrepreneurship but also have a strong element of inspiration and self-help, and not just for budding business leaders but the larger public, to a degree we haven’t seen since the days of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

They offer, in short, much the same appeal as comic books.

The sociologist Thomas Streeter argues in “Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism” that these myths play an important role in contemporary culture. For Streeter:
The romanticized version of Jobs’ life offers a story wherein one can imagine a capitalism with integrity, a capitalism where one’s inner life, one’s flaws, one’s passions are appreciated and lead to good things. The Jobs narrative offers the appealing vision of an idealized, productive, humane capitalism contrasted with the speculative, predatory kind of capitalism, unconnected to useful objects or activities, that appeared in the headlines after 2008. The name of Steve Jobs has become the symbol for the opposite of a Wall Street financial manipulator. Jobs functions, not always but often, as a signifier of good capitalism, of industrial capitalism with moral integrity. And in a world straining awkwardly, perhaps desperately, for ways to reconcile capitalist production with political democracy, that signifier can seem immensely useful and attractive.

Now consider The Amazing Spider-Man #1. Peter Parker is still a superhero, a good guy—so the story’s authors go out of their way to dot every I and cross every T to make sure we know that he’s still a good guy, one still obsessed with “great responsibility.” Parker explains that his goal with Parker Industries isn’t to save the world—which superheroes do every day—but to “make a world worth saving.” Over the course of the issue, we learn that his factories in China pay fair wages, that he’s taken a minimum salary, and that along with consumer products, the company works on biotechnology and renewable energy. When SHIELD helps Spider-Man stop thieves who’ve made off with Parker Industries’ customer data, Spider-Man strong-arms Nick Fury into handing the data back without the government taking a peek. He’s even started an “Uncle Ben Foundation” with the vague but noble mandate of “going around the globe using Parker Industries technology to help the less fortunate and raise the quality of life wherever we can.” It’s half Gates Foundation, half Batman Incorporated.

“We’re not here to build a fortune,” Parker says, “we’re here to build the future.” In short, as a businessman, a superhero, and a human being, the new Peter Parker, the world’s greatest self-made superhero, is impeccably, improbably, offensively good. Peter Parker is what you get if you tally our persistent anxieties about the power and personality of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Bezos, et al—and then just alleviate them: the perfectly polished superhero entrepreneur. If the real Steve Jobs is not available to serve as our imaginary heroic capitalist—whether because his personality is too flawed, the businesses he built are too imperfect, or simply because we can’t continue to tell new stories about him—Spider-Man is available forever.

This is not to say that all CEO superheroes are as perfect as Peter Parker. For Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Oliver Queen, and other wealthy superheroes, exploring business gives the writers room to explore the characters’ flaws and mistakes: their obsessiveness, their addictions, their immaturity. In fact, often these characters can sometimes seem barely likable. But in many ways—just as with Steve Jobs—this focus on flaws is still an act of reconciliation and never really jars the premise that the story being told is the story of a hero. The assumption remains that, barring a mind swap with a supervillain or a mystical personality reversal, these men (and it’s almost always men) are fundamentally good.

On the outside they may be flaky, boorish, and arrogant. Still, they feel things, have powerful value systems, and ultimately want most of all to improve the world—if not save it. If they were not superheroes, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne would be awful people. (They also resemble many young men in the worlds of business and technology.) Because we know Stark and Wayne are superheroes—and because we intimately know the history and personality traits that drive them—we forgive them everything. (Can you think of a better way to try to understand Elon Musk?) Despite their flaws, our superheroes are what we want our capitalists to be.

More subtly, they also give us tools we can use to understand ourselves—to reconcile our own wealth and power relative to others, our own status as citizens of global superpowers in a world filled with injustice, a world needing to be saved."



"In recent years, there have been a handful of comic book stories where superpowers have become consumer goods. MGH (mutant growth hormone), Xperience, and Kick are all mutant-derived drugs that induce or boost superpowers. All of them are addictive and deadly in various degrees.

But in a recent storyline, Iron Man/Tony Stark suffers a magic reversal spell that changes his personality. “Evil” Stark moves to San Francisco, where he creates a smartphone application and nanobot stack that lets users change their bodies to whatever they want, including boosted intelligence, health, beauty, and even immortality. Initially, he gives away the powers for free, but when adoption peaks, he remotely shuts them down, charging $99.99 a day for continued activation. The wealthy continue enjoying superhuman life, desperate users turned to crime, and Stark’s company makes a killing. Eventually, employee/love-interest Pepper Potts stops him, with the aid of a robot programmed with Stark’s old “good” personality. When that fails, Potts—a talented and quite wealthy business mind in her own right—buys out media outlets and blackmails Stark with the promise to expose the scheme.

The Superior Iron Man is literally a story of good capitalist versus bad capitalist, masquerading as a critique of contemporary tech culture. But the funny thing is that the “evil” Tony Stark doesn’t seem all that different from the “good” Tony Stark of past years. A little more craven, a little more louche, less evil than he is amoral. The difference between superheroes and supervillains turns out to be little more than a matter of perspective and degree.

It is tempting to think of our new capabilities as superpowers, because that makes us, in some way, superheroes. It is tempting to think of the inventors of our new technologies as heroes, icons, brilliant men and women of vision and ethics who overcame their own limitations and external opposition to save the day. It means that to cheer for them is to cheer for good. It means we live in a world that is both more magical and more ordered—even more human— than the one we know. It is much more distressing to ask ourselves, “What if we are not the hero in the story? What if we are not even the villain? What if the story was never even ours at all?”"
2015  timcarmody  superpowers  superheroes  comics  stevejobs  technology  wealth  capitalism  thomasstreeter  marcandreessen  tonystark  ironman  spider-man  brucewayne  batman  siliconvalley  elonmusk  peterparker  howardhughes  jrobertoppenheimer  markzuckerberg  inequality 
october 2015 by robertogreco
The Dads of Tech - The Baffler
"The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde famously said, but let Clay Shirky mansplain. It “always struck me as a strange observation—even the metaphor isn’t true,” the tech consultant and bestselling author said at the New Yorker Festival last autumn in a debate with the novelist Jonathan Franzen. “Get ahold of the master’s hammer,” and you can dismantle anything. Just consider all the people “flipping on the ‘I’m gay’ light on Facebook” to signal their support for marriage equality—there, Shirky declared, is a prime example of the master’s tools put to good use.

“Shirky invented the Internet and Franzen wants to shut it down,” panel moderator Henry Finder mused with an air of sophisticated hyperbole. Finder said he was merely paraphrasing a festival attendee he’d overheard outside—and joked that for once in his New Yorker editing career, he didn’t need fact-checkers to determine whether the story was true. He then announced with a wink that it was “maybe a little true.” Heh.

Shirky studied fine art in school, worked as a lighting designer for theater and dance companies; he was a partner at investment firm The Accelerator Group before turning to tech punditry. Now he teaches at NYU and publishes gung-ho cyberliberation tracts such as Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus while plying a consulting sideline for a diverse corps of well-paying clients such as Nokia, the BBC, and the U.S. Navy—as well as high-profile speaking gigs like the New Yorker forum, which was convened under the stupifyingly dualistic heading “Is Technology Good for Culture?”

And that’s tech punditry for you: simplification with an undercurrent of sexism. There are plenty of woman academics and researchers who study technology and social change, but we are a long way from the forefront of stage-managed gobbledygook. Instead of getting regaled with nods and winks for “inventing the Internet,” women in the tech world typically have to overcome the bigoted suspicions of an intensively male geek culture—when, that is, they don’t face outright harassment in the course of pursuing industry careers."



"No wonder, then, that investors ignore coders from marginalized communities who aspire to meet real needs. With an Internet so simple even your Dad can understand it as our guiding model, the myriad challenges that attend the digital transformation, from rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia to the decline of journalism, are impossible to apprehend, let alone address. How else could a white dude who didn’t know that a “bustle” is a butt-enhancing device from the late nineteenth century raise $6.5 million to start a women’s content site under that name? Or look at investors racing to fund the latest fad: “explainer” journalism, a format that epitomizes our current predicament. Explainer journalism is an Internet simple enough for Dad to understand made manifest. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times’ The Upshot, and Ezra Klein’s Vox (which boasts a “Leadership Team” of seventeen men and three women) all champion a numbers-driven model that does not allow for qualification or uncertainty. No doubt, quantification can aid insight, but statistics shouldn’t be synonymous with a naive, didactic faith that numbers don’t lie or that everything worth knowing can be rendered in a series of quickly clickable virtual notecards. Plenty of news reports cry out for further explanation, because the world is complex and journalists often get things wrong, but like Internet punditry before it, these explainer outlets don’t explain, they simplify."



"Most of all, the dominance of the Dad’s-eye-view of the world shores up the Internet’s underlying economic operating system. This also means a de facto free pass for corporate surveillance, along with an increasing concentration of wealth and power in the coffers of a handful of advertising-dependent, privacy-violating info-monopolies and the men who run them (namely Google and Facebook, though Amazon and Apple are also addicted to sucking up our personal data). Study after study shows that women are more sensitive to the subject of privacy than men, from a Pew poll that found that young girls are more prone than boys are to disabling location tracking on their devices to another that showed that while women are equally enthusiastic about technology in general, they’re also more concerned about the implications of wearable technologies. A more complicated Internet would incorporate these legitimate apprehensions instead of demanding “openness” and “transparency” from everyone. (It would also, we dare to hope, recognize that the vacuous sloganeering on behalf of openness only makes us more easily surveilled by government and big business.) But, of course, imposing privacy protections would involve regulation and impede profit—two bête noires of tech dudes who are quite sure that Internet freedom is synonymous with the free market.

The master’s house might have a new shape—it may be sprawling and diffuse, and occupy what is euphemistically referred to as the “cloud”—but it also has become corporatized and commercialized, redolent of hierarchies of yore, and it needs to be dismantled. Unfortunately, in the digital age, like the predigital one, men don’t want to take it apart."
astrataylor  joannemcneil  2014  sexism  technology  culture  siliconvalley  dads  nodads  patriarchy  paternalism  gender  emotionallabor  hisotry  computing  programming  complexity  simplification  nuance  diversity  journalism  clayshirky  polarization  exclusion  marcandreessen  ellenchisa  julieannhorvath  github  careers  audrelorde  punditry  canon  inequality 
november 2014 by robertogreco
Maximum Happy Imagination | Magical Nihilism
"His analogies run out in the 20th century when it comes to the political, social and economic implications of his maximum happy imagination.

Consumer-capitalism in-excelsis?

That system of the world was invented. It’s not really natural. To imagine that capitalism is not subject to deconstruction, reinvention or critique in maximum happy imagination seems a little silly.

If disruption is your mantra – why not go all the way?

He states right at the start that there are zero jobs in the sectors affected by his future. Writers on futures such as Toffler and Rifkin, and SF from the lofty peaks of Arthur C. Clarke to the perhaps lower, more lurid weekly plains of 2000AD have speculated for decades on ‘The Leisure Problem’.

Recently, I read “The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford which extrapolates a future similar to Andreesen’s, wherein the self-declared market-capitalist author ends up arguing for something like a welfare state…

Another world is possible, right?

I’ll hope Marc might grudgingly nod at that at least.

It’ll need brains like his to get there."
mattjones  2014  marcandreessen  economics  capitalism  disruption  leisure  martinford  welfarestate  universalbasicincome  work  labor  markets  ubi 
june 2014 by robertogreco
Alex Payne — Dear Marc Andreessen
"If we’re gonna throw around Marxist terminology, though, can we at least keep Karl’s ideas intact? Workers prosper when they own the means of production. The factory owner gets rich. The line worker, not so much.

Owning a smartphone is not the equivalent of owning a factory. I paid for my iPhone in full, but Apple owns the software that runs on it, the patents on the hardware inside it, and the exclusive right to the marketplace of applications for it. If I want to participate in their marketplace, Apple can arbitrarily reject my application, extract whatever cut of my sales they see fit, and change the terms whenever they like. Same story with their scant competitors.

It seemed like a lot of people were going to get rich in the “app economy”. Outside of Apple and Google, it turns out, not so much. For every WhatsApp there are thousands of failures.

The real money in tech is in platforms, network effects, scale. Sell pickaxes and jeans to the miners, right? Only today it’s Amazon selling the pickaxes. The startup with its servers on EC2 is about as likely to find gold as a ’49er panhandler. Before the startup goes out of business, Amazon gets paid.

Investors, shrinking in number but growing in wealth and political influence, own the means of digital production. Everyone else is doing shift work and hoping they still have jobs tomorrow.

You spent a lot of paragraphs on back-of-the-napkin economics describing the coming Awesome Robot Future, addressing the hypotheticals. What you left out was the essential question: who owns the robots?"



"Sure, technology that enhances productivity can make products and services cheaper. Emerging technologies can also create demand for things that are inherently expensive – cutting-edge medical procedures and treatments, for example – driving up costs in entire economic sectors.

Unless we collectively choose to pay for a safety net, technology alone isn’t going to make it happen. Though technological progress has sped up over recent decades of capitalist expansion, most people on the planet are in need of a safety net today. The market hasn’t been there to catch them. Why is this different in Awesome Robot Future? Did I miss one of Asimov’s Laws that says androids are always programmed to be more socially-minded than neoliberals?

I appreciate that smart, ambitious people like you are thinking about a future of universal prosperity. You borrow terminology from finance in saying that you’re “way long human creativity”. While I’m creeped out by the commodification of our species’s ingenuity, I appreciate the sentiment. If our industry stops painting anyone who questions our business models as Luddites and finds creative ways to build products and services that sustainably address real needs, maybe we can hold on to the receding myth of triumphal disruption. Hopefully we can agree that there are many more meaningful quality of life improvements technology has yet to deliver on before we can start brainstorming the “luxury goods markets” of the future.

Meanwhile, we don’t need to wait until a hypercapitalist techno-utopia emerges to do right by our struggling neighbors. We could make the choice to pay for universal health care, higher education, and a basic income tomorrow. Instead, you’re kicking the can down the road and hoping the can will turn into a robot with a market solution."
automation  capitalism  economics  inequality  alexpayne  socialsafetynet  2014  marcandreessen  libertarianism  technosolutionism  californianideology  neoliberalism  miltonfriedman  technology  marxism 
june 2014 by robertogreco
Marc Andreessen and the Inevitability of Catastrophic Ideas - The Awl
"It's not false to say that some crumbs perforce will fall from the tables of the rich onto those of the poor. It in no way follows, however, that that is the way bread should be shared."



"Those affiliated with the humanities—who interest themselves in all the things that can’t be measured, but must be judged instead, like moral, aesthetic and philosophical questions—are experiencing a daily low-grade fever of dissatisfaction (or generalized rage, in the case of Sam Biddle) as we are daily sold on the inevitability of catastrophic ideas. In 2003, Donald Rumsfeld told a reporter that the OMB had estimated that the Iraq War would cost something less than $50 billion—the total sum, to be shared by the US and its allies. There would be “smart bombs,” plans laid by expert warmongerers, all kinds of precision.
None of this persuaded the people who’d read their history and learned about the politics, who were warning against the likelihood of disaster and of civil war and the emboldening of extremists, and who marched in their millions (many, many millions) in the streets of the world’s capital cities in early 2003. So it rankles in a particular way to see that the true cost of the Iraq War topped $2 trillion not long ago.

What is the study of humanities for? It’s to prevent this. To apply the lessons of history, and consider the possible costs to the future. To consider not only what will profit us but what will be right for us to do, and why. Andreessen, a dyed-in-the-wool measurer and chart-monger if there ever was one, is a man who would never even dream of a just world, where all would sit at the same table. He is the living example of what is lost when we value things only through the money they represent."

[Via http://log.scifihifi.com/post/89088821716/those-affiliated-with-the-humanities-who-interest who adds:

"This is exactly why so much the tech industry’s rhetoric these days makes broadly educated people feel like they’re taking crazy pills. When Marc Andreesen claims, for example, that we’re about to enter a robot utopia where we all paint and compose symphonies in perfect economic harmony (and that any unpleasantness in the intervening period will be smoothed over by a form of trickle down economics that demands nothing of the rich while ensuring that society doesn’t collapse under the weight of crushing economic inequality), it’s hard not to wonder if he knows anything at all about, oh, say, the entire history of humanity. When he attempts to undermine a critic by mocking her liberal arts credentials and pointing out that she surely can’t be as smart as him because she probably knows nothing about real, scienc-ey things like “quantum entanglement,” he only demonstrates that, like so many blinkered, self-proclaimed rationalists in tech, he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."]
technosolutionism  disruption  ideology  siliconvalley  californianideology  libertarianism  inequality  humanities  mariabustillos  2014  marcandreessen 
june 2014 by robertogreco
Marc Andreessen’s Crude and Nuanced Tech Cynicism — Weird Future — Medium
"On Saturday night, serial-tweet-lover Marc Andreessen started a list.

1/Degrees of tech cynicism from crude to nuanced?
https://twitter.com/pmarca/status/447604341591908352

Andreessen ought to know tech cynicism — he’s been around for awhile. Indeed as co-author of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser, his career more or less spans the life of the web as we know it.

2/That can’t possibly work.
https://twitter.com/pmarca/status/447604381764960256

Today, Andreessen is a venture capitalist. He’s half of the name of Andreessen Horowitz, a firm whose holdings represent a range of successful tech start-ups. They put money into Skype, Facebook, Twitter, AirBnB, and Instagram. They also put money into Groupon and Zynga, but you can win ‘em all (actually, since both companies IPO’d, their stocks falling to 1/3 of peak valuation doesn’t really matter to Andreessen Horowitz — the exit is the win).

In short, Andreessen has seen some shit.

Embedded tweets take up too much space, so I’m gonna go ahead and paste in the rest of his list by hand.

3/Normal people will use it, but it’s trivial. 4/It will never replace [legacy]. 5/It will replace [legacy], which is why the world is going to hell. 6/Yes, fine, but just wait until [big company] does it. 7/Yes, fine, but just wait until [hypothetical better version that doesn’t actually exist] does it. 8/I can’t believe how much money those kids made from that. 9/It’s a clear and obvious bubble. 10/Whatever, innovation is dead.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Marc Andreessen thinks “Whatever, innovation is dead” is the most nuanced form of tech cynicism available.

You know, it happens. Andreessen is a busy man, what with all the innovation and disruption he’s got to fund and then exit from. When your days are that packed, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. If you have to spend all your time immersed in the promise of tech, your cynic muscles can atrophy and even the crudest cynicism might seem nuanced.

But we can do better. Here are a some additions.

11/ Normal people will use it, and then they’ll stop because it is a fad.

12/ It is as vulnerable to the logic of disruption as [legacy].

13/ It will prioritize speed of implementation over security, offering users’ personal data to hackers, advertisers, and spies on a silver platter.

14/ It will succeed long enough for a successful exit, then crash and burn, enriching VCs but doing little to improve the world as a whole.

15/ Although it preaches revolution, it will end up reproducing and empowering the structures of injustice that dominate today.

16/ It will intensify the growing concentration of wealth and power that appears to be endemic to economies which take advantage of network effects.

17/ Because it is being implemented in a country where food and healthcare are treated as luxuries rather than basic human rights, its success will multiply the misery in the world as it lays waste to [legacy].

18/ It is being created and sold to a tiny cadre of wealthy inter-connected players who are so convinced of their own intelligence that it doesn’t occur to them to ask around and find out the needs of other people.

19/ It will be powered by ads.

20/ It will do nothing to slow the headlong rush of global civilization into any number of catastrophes which would in turn render it irrelevant.

21/ It preys on and amplifies human weakness.

22/ It will have unintended consequences.

23/ It will do nothing to mitigate the chaos it leaves in its wake."

[Also

24/ It will re-enable scams that regulation had previously tamped down in [legacy].
https://twitter.com/doingitwrong/status/447812538638794752

25/ Its successful ubiquity will force users to contort their selves so they can slot into an ill-considered early design decision.
https://twitter.com/doingitwrong/status/447813472580300800 ]
timmaly  technology  marcandreessen  cynicism  technosolutionism  criticism  2014  internet  web  civilization  inequality  power  advertising  money  vc  venturecapital  legacy  unintendedconsequences  fads  wealth  economics  innovation  disruption 
march 2014 by robertogreco
The Technium: Predicting the Present, First Five Years of Wired
"I was digging through some files the other day and found this document from 1997. It gathers a set of quotes from issues of Wired magazine in its first five years. I don't recall why I created this (or even if I did compile all of them), but I suspect it was for our fifth anniversary issue. I don't think we ever ran any of it. Reading it now it is clear that all predictions of the future are really just predictions of the present. Here it is in full:"
kevinkelly  technium  future  futurism  guidance  history  quotes  trends  value  90s  web  wired  death  dannyhillis  paulsaffo  nicholasnegroponte  peterdrucker  jaychiat  alankay  vernorvinge  nathanmyhrvold  sherryturkle  stevejobs  nealstephenson  marcandreessen  newtgingrich  brianeno  scottsassa  billgates  garywolf  johnnaisbitt  mikeperry  marktilden  hughgallagher  billatkinson  michaelschrage  jimmetzner  brendalaurel  jaronlanier  douglashofstaster  frandallfarmer  rayjones  jonkatz  davidcronenberg  johnhagel  joemaceda  tompeters  meaning  ritual  technology  rituals 
may 2010 by robertogreco
blog.pmarca.com: An hour and a half with Barack Obama
"Smart, normal, curious, not radical, post-Boomer. If you were asking me to write capsule description of what I would look for in next President of United States, that would be it...best organized & executed presidential campaigns in memory"
2008  elections  us  barackobama  marcandreessen  politics  leadership 
march 2008 by robertogreco

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