Useful mental models

While there’s nothing worse than a pedantic philosopher (I’m looking at you Socrates) it’s definitely worth remembering that, as human beings, we’re subject to biases.

This long list of mental models from Farnam Street is worth going through. I particularly like Hanlon’s Razor:

Hard to trace in its origin, Hanlon’s Razor states that we should not attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity. In a complex world, using this model helps us avoid paranoia and ideology. By not generally assuming that bad results are the fault of a bad actor, we look for options instead of missing opportunities. This model reminds us that people do make mistakes. It demands that we ask if there is another reasonable explanation for the events that have occurred. The explanation most likely to be right is the one that contains the least amount of intent.

Another that’s come in handy is the Fundamental Attribution Error:

We tend to over-ascribe the behavior of others to their innate traits rather than to situational factors, leading us to overestimate how consistent that behavior will be in the future. In such a situation, predicting behavior seems not very difficult. Of course, in practice this assumption is consistently demonstrated to be wrong, and we are consequently surprised when others do not act in accordance with the “innate” traits we’ve endowed them with.

A list to return to time and again.

Source: Farnam Street

Nobody is ready for GDPR

As a small business owner and co-op founder, GDPR applies to me as much as everyone else. It’s a massive ballache, but I support the philosophy behind what it’s trying to achieve.

After four years of deliberation, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was officially adopted by the European Union in 2016. The regulation gave companies a two-year runway to get compliant, which is theoretically plenty of time to get shipshape. The reality is messier. Like term papers and tax returns, there are people who get it done early, and then there’s the rest of us.

I’m definitely in “the rest of us” camp, meaning that, over the last week or so, my wife and I have spent time figuring stuff out. The main thing is getting things in order so that  you’ve got a process in place. Different things are going to affect different organisations, well, differently.

But perhaps the GDPR requirement that has everyone tearing their hair out the most is the data subject access request. EU residents have the right to request access to review personal information gathered by companies. Those users — called “data subjects” in GDPR parlance — can ask for their information to be deleted, to be corrected if it’s incorrect, and even get delivered to them in a portable form. But that data might be on five different servers and in god knows how many formats. (This is assuming the company even knows that the data exists in the first place.) A big part of becoming GDPR compliant is setting up internal infrastructures so that these requests can be responded to.

A data subject access request isn’t going to affect our size of business very much. If someone does make a request, we’ve got a list of places from which to manually export the data. That’s obviously not a viable option for larger enterprises, who need to automate.

To be fair, GDPR as a whole is a bit complicated. Alison Cool, a professor of anthropology and information science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, writes in The New York Times that the law is “staggeringly complex” and practically incomprehensible to the people who are trying to comply with it. Scientists and data managers she spoke to “doubted that absolute compliance was even possible.”

To my mind, GDPR is like an much more far-reaching version of the Freedom of Information Act that came into force in the year 2000. That changed the nature of what citizens could expect from public bodies. I hope that the GDPR similarly changes what we all can expect from organisations who process our personal data.

Source: The Verge

"Ability and greatness must be measured by virtue, not by good fortune." (Baltasar Gracián)

Estonia goes for free public transport

Estonia is pretty much already the home of free public wifi, so this is a logical next step. The council of the capital city, Tallinn, provided free public transport to citizens for the last five years after a referdendum. Now the idea is to extend that to everyone — including tourists.

This article mainly comprises of an interview with Allan Alaküla, the Head of Tallinn European Union Office. He makes a couple of important points:

 A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.

In other words, allowing people to move around the city without thinking about the cost encourages people to do so. This has economic and social benefits.

Before introducing free public transport, the city center was crammed with cars. This situation has improved — also because we raised parking fees. When non-Tallinners leave their cars in a park-and-ride and check in to public transport on the same day, they [not] only use public transport for free, but also won’t be charged the parking fee. We noticed that people didn’t complain about high parking fees once we offered them a good alternative.

This is great, joined-up thinking: make it really easy for visitors to the city to do the right thing. Estonia really is at the forefront of citizen and pro-social innovation, as anyone familiar with their e-Residency scheme will be aware.

Source: Pop-Up City

The toughest smartphones on the market

I found this interesting:

To help you avoid finding out the horrifying truth when your phone goes clattering to the ground, we tested all of the major smartphones by dropping them over the course of four rounds from 4 feet and 6 feet onto wood and concrete — and even into a toilet — to see which handset is the toughest.

The results?

While the result wasn’t completely unexpected — after all, the phone has a ShatterShield display, which the company guarantees against cracks — the Moto Z2 Force survived drops from 6 feet onto concrete, with barely a scratch.

Apple’s least-expensive phone didn’t prove very tough at all. In fact, the $399 iPhone SE was rendered unusable before all of the others. However, this was not a big surprise, as the newer iPhone 8 and iPhone X are made with much stronger glass than the iPhone SE’s from 2016.

Summary:

  • Motorola Moto Z2 Force – Toughness score: 8.5/10
  • LG X Venture – Toughness score: 6.6/10
  • Apple iPhone X – Toughness score: 6.2/10
  • LG V30 – Toughness score: 6/10
  • Samsung Galaxy S9 – Toughness score: 6/10
  • Motorola Moto G5 Plus – Toughness score: 5.1/10
  • Apple iPhone 8 – Toughness score: 4.9/10
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – Toughness score: 4.3/10
  • OnePlus 5T – Toughness score: 4.3/10
  • Huawei Mate 10 Pro – Toughness score: 4.3/10
  • Google Pixel 2 XL – Toughness score: 4.3/10
  • iPhone SE – Toughness score: 3.9/10

Source: Tom’s Guide

The increase in worker-owned co-ops

This article by Eillie Anzilotti is a Fast Company ‘long read’. It’s US-focused and includes specific examples and case studies, but is, I think, more widely-applicable.

Anzilotti explains some of the benefits of worker-owned co-ops, which are increasing in number as the ‘baby boomer’ generation retires.

Because the people doing the work for the company are also the ones who own the company, they feel a greater sense of responsibility for and personal stake in helping the business succeed. While there’s still a lot of knowledge-sharing that needs to happen before co-ops go mainstream, recently, policymakers are taking notice of the benefits of worker cooperatives, and new legislation is on the way support their growth. And with millions of baby boomer-owned businesses set to change hands in the upcoming decades, this transition could be an opportunity to create more democratic workplaces across the country–if business owners, workers, and advocates can work together to convert these enterprises into employee-owned cooperatives.

Hilariously, Anzilotti calls the retirement of the boomer generation a ‘silver tsunami’ which, more seriously, provides a huge opportunity to wrest back control from organisations that exist for the benefit of the few.

But instead of selling to a private owner, there’s a real opportunity amid this “silver tsunami” to radically scale the presence of worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S. “Historically, co-ops do best when there’s a market failure,” says Melissa Hoover, founding executive director of DAWI. During the Great Depression, for instance, farmers struggling to access energy resources, set up electrical cooperatives that they collectively owned, and cooperative housing models took off in some cities. Nearly a century later, we’re living through our own version of market failure. As banks have consolidated, capital for small businesses has grown scarce. More small businesses are now closing than opening in the U.S., and jobs are consistently failing to provide livable wages to employees.

Small businesses are vital in the economy, but to really make a change, we need larger, stronger businesses. Worker-owned co-ops can do that.

Employee-owned cooperatives… create a stronger base from which a business can continue to exist, and even grow. The workers already have demonstrated their commitment to the company and the community in which it operates, and granting them ownership allows the business to continue to operate and the community to continue to reap the benefits. And because the sales are done in a way that’s transparent and mutually beneficial, the selling business owners also get a fairer shake.

The difficulty, as Anzilotti notes, is that talking about democratic control of the organisation for which you work isn’t necessarily the most scintillating topic of conversation.

“Co-ops are not whiz-bang businesses that are going to get anybody rich,” Hoover says. “They’re bread and butter types–necessary and profitable, but not sexy.” Still, communities and policymakers alike are recognizing that their shared ownership structure can provide the kind of stability that the market cannot. “We’ve seen growing interest in rapidly changing cities and in rural areas where they’re really trying to make capital investments that anchor community wealth,” Hoover says. “Business retention makes more sense than trying to attract Amazon HQ2,” she adds. “Why don’t we invest in our local ecosystem and retain what’s already here?”

I have to say that the process of setting up We Are Open Co-op has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I’d highly recommend looking into the co-operatives for your organisation, whether extant or nascent.

Source: Fast Company
 

Issue #304: Grateful Dead Public Radio

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The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.

[…]

A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.

[…]

A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.

[…]

Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.

[…]

We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)

“The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” (Stephen Covey)

Owners need to invest in employees to have them feel invested in their work

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes:

As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What’s clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.

I think it’s great that forward-thinking organisations are trying to find ways to make work more fulfilling, and be part of a more holistic approach to life.

Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.

Whitehurst suggests that there are three things organisations can do. I’d support all of these:

  1. Connect to a mission and purpose
  2. Reconsider your view of failure
  3. Cultivate a sense of ownership

However, what I think is startlingly missing from almost every vision from people 40+ is that they should be thinking about actual employee ownership — not just cultivating a ‘sense’ of it.

Don’t get me wrong, forming a co-op doesn’t automatically guarantee worker satisfaction, but it’s a whole lot more motivating when you know you’re not just working to make someone else rich.

Source: opensource.com