On changing the world and not
Dear technology startup: It sends a chill down my spine when you say you’ll change the world. Hitler changed the world. The Koch brothers are having a “scalable impact”. I need you to be more specific. What is the magnitude of the change? Is it tectonic or incremental? What are its moral dimensions? Will the world be more or less just as a result? Build cool stuff, by all means, but don’t delude yourself. Lies of effusion are some of the most insidious.
Frank Chimero puts it brilliantly:
Revolutionary, disruptive, magical, wizards, and on and on—contemporary digital culture has co-opted the language of revolution and magic without the muscle, ethics, conviction, or imagination of either. And it’s not that those things aren’t possible, we just aren’t living up to their meaning and instead saturating ourselves with hyperbole. These are words you have to earn, and slinging them around strips the words of their powerful meaning. Can you take a real revolution seriously if you are bombarded with messaging that says your phone is revolutionary?
This is the most important TED talk. TED, like Silicon Valley and the wider audience of nominally liberal, technocratic elites it draws from and caters to, has a tendency towards timidity, agnosticism even, on complex, soul-rending, matters of justice. There’s this unwillingness to connect our privilege with the dispossession of others and it casts a dark shadow over the optimistic, “breathless bullshit” that is TED’s bread and butter.
Well I believe that our identity is at risk. That when we actually don’t care about these difficult things, the positive and wonderful things are nonetheless implicated. We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment. But ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world. And for me that means spending time thinking and talking about the poor, the disadvantaged, those who will never get to TED. But thinking about them in a way that is integrated in our own lives. -Bryan Stevenson
In practice, what television’s dominance has come to mean is that the inherent value of political propositions put forward by candidates is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based ad campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters. The high cost of these commercials has radically increased the role of money in politics, and the influence of those who contribute it. That is why campaign finance reform, however well drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the dominant means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue in one way or another to dominate American politics. And as a result, ideas will continue to play a diminished role.
Our engagement with digital technologies leave us with also sorts of expectations and delusions about our interface with the non digitally-mediated world. I was having trouble opening a door the other day, and in frustration, and expectation, I made an Apple multi-touch hand gesture at it. You can imagine my disillusionment when it didn’t open, or zoom me through it. Designers of the physical world really need to get consistent in their models with the digital world I live in.
All kidding aside though, common parlance for extinguishing human life among military drone operators is “bug splat”, like the video game.
Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936, equipped governments with the intellectual tools to counter the unemployment caused by slumps. In this earlier essay, however, Keynes distinguished between unemployment caused by temporary economic breakdowns and what he called “technological unemployment” – that is, “unemployment due to the discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour”.
Keynes reckoned that we would hear much more about this kind of unemployment in the future. But its emergence, he thought, was a cause for hope, rather than despair. For it showed that the developed world, at least, was on track to solving the “economic problem” – the problem of scarcity that kept mankind tethered to a burdensome life of toil.
Machines were rapidly replacing human labour, holding out the prospect of vastly increased production at a fraction of the existing human effort. In fact, Keynes thought that by about now (the early 21st century) most people would have to work only 15 hours a week to produce all that they needed for subsistence and comfort.
Developed countries are now about as rich as Keynes thought they would be, but most of us work much longer than 15 hours a week, although we do take longer holidays, and work has become less physically demanding, so we also live longer. But, in broad terms, the prophecy of vastly increased leisure for all has not been fulfilled. Automation has been proceeding apace, but most of us who work still put in an average of 40 hours a week. In fact, working hours have not fallen since the early 1980s.
At the same time, “technological unemployment” has risen. Since the 1980s, we have never regained the full employment levels of the 1950s and 1960s. If most people still work a 40-hour week, a substantial and growing minority have had unwanted leisure thrust upon them in the form of unemployment, under-employment and forced withdrawal from the labour market. And, as we recover from the current recession, most experts expect this group to grow even larger.
What this means is that we have largely failed to convert growing technological unemployment into increased voluntary leisure. The main reason for this is that the lion’s share of the productivity gains achieved over the last 30 years has been seized by the well-off.
That’s where the good and evil imagination is at play. Most of these technologies are neutral in themselves; it’s the way in which they are used that goes one way or the other, and that is dependent on our imagination. Going back to the Hebraic imagination, something that I think is very important about the biblical story—and I’m taking this philosophically here, as a story on par with many of the Greek stories, and not making a truth claim for it as sacred Revelation—is that much like the story of Prometheus, it is a story about imagination and how it works in terms of good and evil. I have always found a certain Talmudic reading of Genesis (developed by Eric Fromm and others) fascinating: six days of creation and then leaving the seventh day empty as a sabbatical space for humans to cocreate with God, with the good, and with the Torah (a word which means “direction” or “way”). God leaves that day free so that we might cocreate or not, so that we might keep or break with the covenant. The seventh day is an invitation to complete creation. This is a refusal of theodicy. The seventh day is left for humans to complete and therefore to direct creation in an evil or a good direction. A good direction is imagination responding to the call of the other, whereas an evil direction is an imagination that has closed itself off from alterity, strangeness, transcendence, foreignness, surprise.
[T]echnology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.
When I read Friedman’s piece “One Country: Two Revolutions" my response was as follows:
Interesting piece. Friedman is giddy about the potential of a new wave of technologies to empower and connect individuals and groups, helping them to create value for themselves and society more broadly while avoiding the old middle-men and traditional barriers-to-entry. I share that same hope, and am cautiously optimistic (on a 10-year time frame).
That said, it seems problematic that he doesn’t commit even one sentence to acknowledging that the record of Silicon Valley in the past 10+ years, has been mixed at best. I suspect that the net effect to date of many of the technologies and trends he cites, has been job loss and significant wealth concentration.
And as many commenters on the op-ed point out, Silicon Valley’s most successful ventures (almost by definition) create very few net jobs compared to their valuations (even when you consider their broader value-creating ecosystems).
Maybe we need to go a little bit beyond the “salvation through entrepreneurship and tech” mantra, and actually put some parameters around what sorts of entrepreneurial activities are “socially productive”, perhaps even going so far as to account for the robbing of talent and mindshare by things that are frivolous (as many Silicon Valley produced products are) from things that are essential.
Reading Rodnitzky’s piece in Tech Crunch today “Here In Silicon Valley, Are We Killing Jobs And Making The Rich Richer?”, I couldn’t help but think that, like Friedman, he comes across as a little out of touch in his exuberance. To his credit he spends half his words outlining how the businesses that have made Silicon Valley rich have, so far, mostly destroyed jobs and concentrated welath:
Think about it. The success of most tech companies’ products is predicated on delivering scale and efficiency, also known as the ability to do more with less. That “more” typically means more wealth generated. And that “less” typically means with less and/or less expensive labor. In other words, the primary export for many Silicon Valley companies can be simplified down to labor substitution. In the near term, there are a variety of unfortunate ways in which this is manifesting itself as a social fabric-eroding, wealth-concentrating job killer.
In the second half of the editorial, however, he sounds much the same note as Friedman does, arguing that in the longer term these companies decentralize, dis-intermediate and put more competitive, wealth-creating power back in the hands of individuals and small businesses over large corporations. This paragraph sums up the core of his argument:
Professionals whose jobs were eliminated due to automation and outsourcing can now outsource themselves on automated marketplaces. Many of these skilled professionals are finding new homes as independent knowledge workers connected to a broad base of smaller organizations via evolved crowdsourcing marketplaces like oDesk and Trada. Once again, this is creating employment and redistributing wealth back into more hands.
The problem is that in the short term, these technologies and business models empower some narrow swatch of pretty highly educated/skilled knowledge workers (people like me and Rodnitzky) but leave the broader American workforce out. And the “short term” is probably something like five or ten years, which leaves a lot of people struggling for a long time. Further, in the long term, it is not at all clear that we’re preparing workers to compete in this new economy.
Some thoughts on Theatre and its corollaries in UX design.
I believe that Twitter is a new form of communication so important that it rivals the development of language in the evolutionary history of the human race.
Some thoughts on science, technology and human progress. (Stanford University – Science, Tech & Society Program Commencement – Student Address – June 13th, 2010)
Pretty Pink Cameras
What is it with girls and taking pictures? At my Senior Formal the other night it seemed like every girl had a cute, compact digital camera - most of them canon and many of them pink. In contrast I didn’t see a single guy with a camera.
This seems to be more or less representative of a general trend where young women tirelessly document their social lives - from randomly trying on outfits to sleepover antics to conspicuously posed party pics.
I have some musings on this phenomenon, particularly as it relates to Facebook as a sharing medium, but could really use some help getting my head around it. What’s up with the gender dynamic around digital photography?
Wherein I share some of my thoughts/experiences with micro-entrepreneurship.
Just finished moderating a panel at I Don’t Know to CEO Conference at Stanford on “The Internet and How Its Changed Young Entrepreneurship”.
Featuring Tariq West, Brian Wong, Crystal Yan, and Ricky Yean. Major success.
"Gadgets come and gadgets go. The iPad you buy today will be e-waste in a year or two (less, if you decide not to pay to have the battery changed for you). The real issue isn’t the capabilities of the piece of plastic you unwrap today, but the technical and social infrastructure that accompanies it."
I bought an iPad, and sold it on eBay 5 days later (at a profit). I love to play with gadgets, but increasingly the dynamic around consumer hardware is becoming a matter of conscience for me. A prime example is how good Apple is at building-in obsolescence. (1) Many of their devices have essential components which are designed to expire in less than 24 months and/or not be customer replaceable. (2) Many of their devices are purposely missing more or less essential features (de-featuring) so as to drive an 14 month upgrade cycle by releasing marginally improved devices. Apple gets a lot of credit for being “green” but building things for the dump is just about the most un-green thing you can do.
Source: Boing Boing