Tag: Silicon Valley

Friday floutings

Did you see these things this week? I did, and thought they were aces.

  1. Do you live in a ‘soft city’? Here’s why you probably want to (Fast Company) — “The benefits of taking a layered approach to building design—and urban planning overall—is that it also cuts down on the amount of travel by car that people need to do. If resources are assembled in a way that a person leaving their home can access everything they need by walking, biking, or taking transit, it frees up space for streets to also be layered to support these different modes.”
  2. YouTube should stop recommending garbage videos to users (Ars Technica) — “When a video finishes playing, YouTube should show the next video in the same channel. Or maybe it could show users a video selected from a list of high-quality videos curated by human YouTube employees. But the current approach—in which an algorithm tries to recommend the most engaging videos without worrying about whether they’re any good—has got to go.”
  3. Fairphone 3 is the ‘ethical’ smartphone you might actually buy (Engadget) — “Doing the right thing is often framed as giving up something. You’re not enjoying a vegetarian burger, you’re being denied the delights of red meat. But what if the ethical, moral, right choice was also the tastiest one? What if the smartphone made by the yurt-dwelling moralists was also good-looking, inexpensive and useful? That’s the question the Fairphone 3 poses.”
  4. Uh-oh: Silicon Valley is building a Chinese-style social credit system (Fast Company) — “The most disturbing attribute of a social credit system is not that it’s invasive, but that it’s extralegal. Crimes are punished outside the legal system, which means no presumption of innocence, no legal representation, no judge, no jury, and often no appeal. In other words, it’s an alternative legal system where the accused have fewer rights.”
  5. The Adults In The Room (Deadspin) — “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”
  6. A brief introduction to learning agility (Opensource.com) — “One crucial element of adaptability is learning agility. It is the capacity for adapting to situations and applying knowledge from prior experience—even when you don’t know what to do. In short, it’s a willingness to learn from all your experiences and then apply that knowledge to tackle new challenges in new situations.”
  7. Telegram Pushes Ahead With Plans for ‘Gram’ Cryptocurrency (The New York Times) — “In its sales pitch for the Gram, which was viewed by The New York Times, Telegram has said the new digital money will operate with a decentralized structure similar to Bitcoin, which could make it easier to skirt government regulations.”
  8. Don’t Teach Tools (Assorted Stuff) — “As Culatta notes, concentrating on specific products also locks teachers (and, by extension, their students) into a particular brand, to the advantage of the company, rather than helping them understand the broader concepts of using computing devices as learning and creative tools.”
  9. Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler (Modern Stoicism) — “From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other.”

Calvin & Hobbes cartoon found via a recent post on tenpencemore

The best way out is always through

So said Robert Frost, but I want to begin with the ending of a magnificent post from Kate Bowles. She expresses clearly how I feel sometimes when I sit down to write something for Thought Shrapnel:

[T]his morning I blocked out time, cleared space, and sat down to write — and nothing happened. Nothing. Not a word, not even a wisp of an idea. After enough time staring at the blankness of the screen I couldn’t clearly remember having had an idea, ever.

Along the way I looked at the sky, I ate a mandarin and then a second mandarin, I made a cup of tea, I watched a family of wrens outside my window, I panicked. I let email divert me, and then remembered that was the opposite of the plan. I stayed off Twitter. Panic increased.

Then I did the one thing that absolutely makes a difference to me. I asked for help. I said “I write so many stupid words in my bullshit writing job that I can no longer write and that is the end of that.” And the person I reached out to said very calmly “Why not write about the thing you’re thinking about?”

Sometimes what you have to do as a writer is sit in place long enough, and sometimes you have to ask for help. Whatever works for you, is what works.

Kate Bowles

There are so many things wrong with the world right now, that sometimes I feel like I could stop working on all of the things I’m working on and spend time just pointing them out to people.

But to what end? You don’t change the world by just making people aware of things, not usually. For example, as tragic as the sentence, “the Amazon is on fire” is, it isn’t in and of itself a call-to-action. These days, people argue about the facts themselves as well as the appropriate response.

The world is an inordinately complicated place that we seek to make sense of by not thinking as much as humanly possible. To aid and abet us in this task, we divide ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, into groups who apply similar heuristics. The new (information) is then assimilated into the old (worldview).

I have no privileged position, no objective viewpoint in which to observe and judge the world’s actions. None of us do. I’m as complicit in joining and forming in and out groups as the next person. I decide I’m going to delete my Twitter account and then end up rage-tweeting All The Things.

Thankfully, there are smart people, and not only academics, thinking about all this to figure out what we can and should do. Tim Urban, from the phenomenally-successful Wait But Why, for example, has spent the last three years working on “a new language we can use to think and talk about our societies and the people inside of them”. In the first chapter in a new series, he writes about the ongoing struggle between (what he calls) the ‘Primitive Minds’ and ‘Higher Minds’ of humans:

The never-ending struggle between these two minds is the human condition. It’s the backdrop of everything that has ever happened in the human world, and everything that happens today. It’s the story of our times because it’s the story of all human times.

Tim Urban

I think this is worth remembering when we spend time on social networks. And especially when we spend so much time that it becomes our default delivery method for the news of the day. Our Primitive Minds respond strongly to stimuli around fear and fornication.

When we reflect on our social media usage and the changing information landscape, the temptation is either to cut down, or to try a different information diet. Some people become the equivalent of Information Vegans, attempting to source the ‘cleanest’ morsels of information from the most wholesome, trusted, and traceable of places.

But where are those ‘trusted places’ these days? Are we as happy with the previously gold-standard news outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times as we once were? And if not, what’s changed?

The difference, I think, is the way we’ve decided to allow money to flow through our digital lives. Commercial news outlets, including those with which the BBC competes, are funded by advertising. Those adverts we see in digital spaces aren’t just showing things that we might happen to be interested in. They’ll keep on showing you that pair of shoes you almost bought last week in every space that is funded by advertising. Which is basically everywhere.

I feel like I’m saying obvious things here that everyone knows, but perhaps it bears repeating. If everyone is consuming news via social networks, and those news stories are funded by advertising, then the nature of what counts as ‘news’ starts to evolve. What gets the most engagement? How are headlines formed now, compared with a decade ago?

It’s as if something hot-wires our brain when something non-threatening and potentially interesting is made available to us ‘for free’. We never get to the stuff that we’d like to think defines us, because we caught in neverending cycles of titillation. We pay with our attention, that scarce and valuable resource.

Our attention, and more specifically, how we react to our social media feeds when we’re ‘engaged’ is valuable because it can be packaged up and sold to advertisers. But it’s also sold to governments too. Twitter just had to update their terms and conditions specifically because of the outcry over the Chinese government’s propaganda around the Hong Kong protests.

Protesters part of the ‘umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong have recently been focusing on cutting down what we used to call CCTV cameras, but which are much more accurately described as ‘facial recognition masts’:

We are living in a world where the answer to everything seems to be ‘increased surveillance’. Kids not learning fast enough in school? Track them more. Scared of terrorism? Add more surveillance into the lives of everyday citizens. And on and on.

In an essay earlier this year, Maciej Cegłowski riffed on all of this, reflecting on what he calls ‘ambient privacy’:

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent.

Ambient privacy is particularly hard to protect where it extends into social and public spaces outside the reach of privacy law. If I’m subjected to facial recognition at the airport, or tagged on social media at a little league game, or my public library installs an always-on Alexa microphone, no one is violating my legal rights. But a portion of my life has been brought under the magnifying glass of software. Even if the data harvested from me is anonymized in strict conformity with the most fashionable data protection laws, I’ve lost something by the fact of being monitored.

Maciej Cegłowski

One of the difficulties in resisting the ‘Silicon Valley narrative’ and Big Tech’s complicity with governments is the danger of coming across as a neo-luddite. Without looking very closely to understand what’s going on (and having some time to reflect) it can all look like the inevitable march of progress.

So, without necessarily an answer to all this, I guess the best thing is, like Kate, to ask for help. What can we do here? What practical steps can we take? Comments are open.

Wretched is a mind anxious about the future

So said one of my favourite non-fiction authors, the 16th century proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne. There’s plenty of writing about how we need to be anxious because of the drift towards a future of surveillance states. Eventually, because it’s not currently affecting us here and now, we become blasé. We forget that it’s already the lived experience for hundreds of millions of people.

Take China, for example. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the Chinese government’s brutality against the Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang:

[The] horrifying situation is built on the scaffolding of mass surveillance. Cameras fill the marketplaces and intersections of the key city of Kashgar. Recording devices are placed in homes and even in bathrooms. Checkpoints that limit the movement of Muslims are often outfitted with facial-recognition devices to vacuum up the population’s biometric data. As China seeks to export its suite of surveillance tech around the world, Xinjiang is a kind of R&D incubator, with the local Muslim population serving as guinea pigs in a laboratory for the deprivation of human rights.

Derek Thompson

As Ian Welsh points out, surveillance states usually involve us in the West pointing towards places like China and shaking our heads. However, if you step back a moment and remember that societies like the US and UK are becoming more unequal over time, then perhaps we’re the ones who should be worried:

The endgame, as I’ve been pointing out for years, is a society in which where you are and what you’re doing, and have done is, always known, or at least knowable. And that information is known forever, so the moment someone with power wants to take you out, they can go back thru your life in minute detail. If laws or norms change so that what was OK 10 or 30 years ago isn’t OK now, well they can get you on that.

Ian Welsh

As the world becomes more unequal, the position of elites becomes more perilous, hence Silicon Valley billionaires preparing boltholes in New Zealand. Ironically, they’re looking for places where they can’t be found, while making serious money from providing surveillance technology. Instead of solving the inequality, they attempt to insulate themselves from the effect of that inequality.

A lot of the crazy amounts of money earned in Silicon Valley comes at the price of infringing our privacy. I’ve spent a long time thinking about quite nebulous concept. It’s not the easiest thing to understand when you examine it more closely.

Privacy is usually considered a freedom from rather than a freedom to, as in “freedom from surveillance”. The trouble is that there are many kinds of surveillance, and some of these we actively encourage. A quick example: I know of at least one family that share their location with one another all of the time. At the same time, of course, they’re sharing it with the company that provides that service.

There’s a lot of power in the ‘default’ privacy settings devices and applications come with. People tend to go with whatever comes as standard. Sidney Fussell writes in The Atlantic that:

Many apps and products are initially set up to be public: Instagram accounts are open to everyone until you lock them… Even when companies announce convenient shortcuts for enhancing security, their products can never become truly private. Strangers may not be able to see your selfies, but you have no way to untether yourself from the larger ad-targeting ecosystem.

Sidney Fussell

Some of us (including me) are willing to trade some of that privacy for more personalised services that somehow make our lives easier. The tricky thing is when it comes to employers and state surveillance. In these cases there are coercive power relationships at play, rather than just convenience.

Ellen Sheng, writing for CNBC explains how employees in the US are at huge risk from workplace surveillance:

In the workplace, almost any consumer privacy law can be waived. Even if companies give employees a choice about whether or not they want to participate, it’s not hard to force employees to agree. That is, unless lawmakers introduce laws that explicitly state a company can’t make workers agree to a technology…

One example: Companies are increasingly interested in employee social media posts out of concern that employee posts could reflect poorly on the company. A teacher’s aide in Michigan was suspended in 2012 after refusing to share her Facebook page with the school’s superintendent following complaints about a photo she had posted. Since then, dozens of similar cases prompted lawmakers to take action. More than 16 states have passed social media protections for individuals.

Ellen Sheng

It’s not just workplaces, though. Schools are hotbeds for new surveillance technologies, as Benjamin Herold notes in an article for Education Week:

Social media monitoring companies track the posts of everyone in the areas surrounding schools, including adults. Other companies scan the private digital content of millions of students using district-issued computers and accounts. Those services are complemented with tip-reporting apps, facial-recognition software, and other new technology systems.

[…]

While schools are typically quiet about their monitoring of public social media posts, they generally disclose to students and parents when digital content created on district-issued devices and accounts will be monitored. Such surveillance is typically done in accordance with schools’ responsible-use policies, which students and parents must agree to in order to use districts’ devices, networks, and accounts.
Hypothetically, students and families can opt out of using that technology. But doing so would make participating in the educational life of most schools exceedingly difficult.

Benjamin Herold

In China, of course, a social credit system makes all of this a million times worse, but we in the West aren’t heading in a great direction either.

We’re entering a time where, by the time my children are my age, companies, employers, and the state could have decades of data from when they entered the school system through to them finding jobs, and becoming parents themselves.

There are upsides to all of this data, obviously. But I think that in the midst of privacy-focused conversations about Amazon’s smart speakers and Google location-sharing, we might be missing the bigger picture around surveillance by educational institutions, employers, and governments.

Returning to Ian Welsh to finish up, remember that it’s the coercive power relationships that make surveillance a bad thing:

Surveillance societies are sterile societies. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do all the time, and because we become what we do, it affects our personalities. It particularly affects our creativity, and is a large part of why Communist surveillance societies were less creative than the West, particularly as their police states ramped up.

Ian Welsh

We don’t want to think about all of this, though, do we?


Also check out:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present

Thanks to Seneca for today’s quotation, taken from his still-all-too-relevant On the Shortness of Life. We’re constantly being told that we need to ‘hustle’ to make it in today’s society. However, as Dan Lyons points out in a book I’m currently reading called Lab Rats: how Silicon Valley made work miserable for the rest of uswe’re actually being ‘immiserated’ for the benefit of Venture Capitalists. 

As anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow will know, there are two dominant types of thinking:

The central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman’s own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to people’s tendency to replace a difficult question with one which is easy to answer, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgement.

WIkipedia

Cal Newport, in a book of the same name, calls ‘System 2’ something else: Deep Work. Seneca, Kahneman, and Newport, are all basically saying the same thing but with different emphasis. We need to allow ourselves time for the slower and deliberative work that makes us uniquely human.

That kind of work doesn’t happen when you’re being constantly interrupted, nor when you’re in an environment that isn’t comfortable, nor when you’re fearful that your job may not exist next week. A post for the Nuclino blog entitled Slack Is Not Where ‘Deep Work’ Happens uses a potentially-apocryphal tale to illustrate the point:

On one morning in 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was composing his famous poem Kubla Khan, which came to him in an opium-induced dream the night before. Upon waking, he set about writing until he was interrupted by an unknown person from Porlock. The interruption caused him to forget the rest of the lines, and Kubla Khan, only 54 lines long, was never completed.

Nuclino blog

What we’re actually doing by forcing everyone to use synchronous tools like Slack is a form of journalistic rhythm — but without everyone being synced-up:

Diagram courtesy of the Nuclino blog

If you haven’t read Deep Work, never fear, because there’s an epic article by Fadeke Adegbuyi for doist entitled The Complete Guide to Deep Work which is particularly useful:

This is an actionable guide based directly on Newport’s strategies in Deep Work. While we fully recommend reading the book in its entirety, this guide distills all of the research and recommendations into a single actionable resource that you can reference again and again as you build your deep work practice. You’ll learn how to integrate deep work into your life in order to execute at a higher level and discover the rewards that come with regularly losing yourself in meaningful work.

Fadeke Adegbuyi

Lots of articles and podcast episodes say they’re ‘actionable’ or provide ‘tactics’ for success. I have to say this one delivers. I’d still read Newport’s book, though.

Interestingly, despite all of the ridiculousness spouted by VC’s, people are pretty clear about how they can do their best work. After a Dropbox survey of 500 US-based workers in the knowledge economy, Ben Taylor outlines four ‘lessons’ they’ve learned:

  1. More workers want to slow down to get things right — “In reality, 61% of workers said they wanted to “slow down to get things right” while only 41%* wanted to “go fast to achieve more.” The divide was even starker among older workers.”
  2. Workers strongly value uninterrupted focus at work, but most will make an exception to help others — “The results suggest we need to be more thoughtful about when we break our concentration, or ask others to do so. When people know they are helping others in a meaningful way, they tend to be okay with some distraction. But the busywork of meetings, alerts, and emails can quickly disrupt a person’s flow—one of the most important values we polled.”
  3. Most workers have slightly more trust in people closest to the work, rather than people in upper management — “Among all respondents, 53% trusted people “closest to the work,” while only 45% trusted “upper management.” You might assume that younger workers would be the most likely to trust peers over management, but in fact, the opposite was true.”
  4. Workers are torn between idealism and pragmatism — “It’s tempting to assume that addressing just one piece—like taking a stand on societal issues—will necessarily get in the way of the work itself. But our research suggests we can begin to solve the two in tandem, as more equality, inclusion, and diversity tends to come hand-in-hand with a healthier mindset about work.”

I think we need to reclaim workplace culture from the hustlers, shallow thinkers, and those focused on short-term profit. Let’s reflect on how things actually work in practice. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says about being ‘antifragile’, let’s “look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time”.


Also check out:

  • Health effects of job insecurity (IZA) — “Workers’ health is not just a matter for employees and employers, but also for public policy. Governments should count the health cost of restrictive policies that generate unemployment and insecurity, while promoting employability through skills training.”
  • Will your organization change itself to death? (opensource.com) — “Sometimes, an organization returns to the same state after sensing a stimulus. Think about a kid’s balancing doll: You can push it and it’ll wobble around, but it always returns to its upright state… Resilient organizations undergo change, but they do so in the service of maintaining equilibrium.”
  • Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus (HBR) — “The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.”

Charisma instead of hierarchy?

An interesting interview with Fred Turner, former journalist, Stanford professor, and someone who spends a lot of time studying the technology and culture of Silicon Valley.

Turner likens tech companies who try to do away with hierarchy to 1960s communes:

When you take away bureaucracy and hierarchy and politics, you take away the ability to negotiate the distribution of resources on explicit terms. And you replace it with charisma, with cool, with shared but unspoken perceptions of power. You replace it with the cultural forces that guide our behavior in the absence of rules.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, and one which chimes with works such as The Tyranny of Structurelessness. I still think less hierarchy is a good thing. But then I would say that, because I’m a white, privileged western man getting ever-closer to middle-age…

Source: Logic magazine

What would a version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for society look like?

I like the notion put forward by Susan Wu in this article — although Maslow’s framework was actually based on co-operation, so re-thinking it as a dynamic hierarchy may be all that’s required:

Perhaps it’s time for an updated version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one that underscores what’s essential not just for individuals to flourish, but for the greater good of society. Startups and management executives universally invoke this theory as an accepted canon for framing the human problems they’re trying to solve.

The problem is that Maslow’s framework pertains to individual, not societal, well-being. The reality is that individual needs cannot be met without the social cohesion of belonging, connectedness, and symbiotic networks. A revised design focused on a thriving civilization would have at its root empathy and ethics, and acknowledge that if inequality continues to grow at its current pace, societal well-being becomes impossible to achieve.

Source: WIRED