Random finds (2017, week 24–25) — On the rise and fall of Uber’s Travis Kalanick, ethical innovation, and why creators are not mere experts

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Maison sur le Lac by ACDF Architecture — “Like Memphremagog’s landscape, the house is built with openness as a mindset, without physical boundaries.”

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

The rise and fall of Uber’s Travis Kalanick

“The ousting of the Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick is wake-up call for Silicon Valley and a tech industry that has long celebrated founders who break the rules and pursue growth at all costs,” say Olivia Solon and Julia Carrie Wong, technology reporters for the Guardian in San Francisco, in With Uber’s Travis Kalanick out, will Silicon Valley clean up its bro culture?

But whether Kalanick’s ousting will make a real difference, depends on the investor community, which is, according to veteran software engineer Leslie Miley, “still predominantly male, white and privileged. Until that changes, the people who get money and funding and access aren’t going to change. There are many Travises in the wings waiting for their chance in the limelight. Silicon Valley is going to be Silicon Valley.”

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Dozens protest outside Uber’s headquarters in Long Island City in February. (Photograph: Michael N/Pacific/Barcroft Image)

According to Farhad Manjoo Travis Kalanick’s spectacular rise and fall holds many lessons for the technology industry. “But one lesson should rise above the others: This was not just Mr. Kalanick’s failure — it was far bigger,” he writes in Uber’s Lesson: Silicon Valley’s Start-Up Machine Needs Fixing. “It was a failure driven by plain greed, of ends justifying means.”

“What happened at Uber is an indictment of everyone who enabled Mr. Kalanick’s worst tendencies and practices, which is just about everyone in a position of power at the ride-hailing company and its funders. In other words, this was systemic. Top to bottom, Uber was a failure of Silicon Valley’s start-up machine,” Manjoo writes. “And if we want Silicon Valley to create better start-ups — which we should, for everyone’s sake — the Valley would be wise to now examine Uber’s entrails and find another way.”

But it didn’t have to be like this. “Yes, business ain’t beanbag; yes, fighting the incumbent businesses requires a strong stomach. But there were so many different problems at Uber that you’d have to be comically naïve to conclude they all stemmed from an intransigent rival. No, there was something much more deeply amiss here — and everyone put in their money anyway, because, hey, Uber was growing very quickly, so why not.”

Also Gillian B. White believes Uber’s problems extend well beyond its former CEO. In Fixing Uber Will Require More Than Ousting Its Leader, White cites Audra Diers-Lawson, a professor of public relations strategy at Leeds Beckett University, who argues that Uber’s problem isn’t only about a single figure — a reputational cancer that could have been cut away — but that the cancer has infected the rest of the body. “Because the bad behaviors have extended beyond just the CEO, a new negative expectation is probably being formed and this is fundamentally damaging to the company.”

Brian Kropp, the head of Gartner’s human-resources practice, believes that, in order to create real and lasting change, Uber will have to do more than saying things need to change. “Forcing the CEO out is certainly a bold step toward change,” White writes, “but Kropp says that alone won’t be enough. Instead, salvaging Uber will require constant investment and training for initiatives that will constantly reinforce the company’s new values, accepted behaviors, and expectations. They’ll need to hire people who align with the new values, and create new roles, such as the one Frances Frei, the new senior vice president of leadership and strategy, inhabits. They’ll also need to expand their budgets to help the people in those new roles build teams and implement big changes that can influence the culture. And they’ll have to implement ongoing methods of measuring progress and sussing out new problems. Without those continuing efforts, eventually muscle memory will kick in and everyone will go back to their same old behavior, new CEO or not.”

“Uber’s collapse should not come as a surprise but it does offer a lesson: Toxic workplace culture and rotten financial performance go hand-in-hand. It’s possible for a boorish jerk to run a successful company, but jerks do best when surrounded by non-jerks, and bros do best when they hire seasoned executives to help them. Without ‘adult supervision’ and institutional restraints, the C.E.-Bro’s vices end up infecting the culture of the workplaces they control.” — Dan Lyons in Jerks and the Start-Ups They Ruin.

Adrienne LaFrance wonders what Kanack’s forced resignation for the good of the company will mean for Uber’s future?

“It came down to money, in the end. Investors backing Uber decided it wasn’t enough that Kalanick announced last week he would take an indefinite leave from his position at the helm of the scandal-plagued company. He had to go. Now,” she writes in What Will Uber Become Without Travis Kalanick as CEO?

“Kalanick’s ouster — and the paradox of how it seems both sudden and drawn out — is a reflection of the forces that rule Silicon Valley. Namely, money, money, and more money. (‘Cash flows before bros,’ as the tech news site Pando put it last week.)

It was ultimately concerns over the bottom line — not merely the toxic culture, or Kalanick’s trademark hubris, or explosive allegations of sexual harassment, or revelations about Uber’s secret software to evade of law enforcement — that forced Kalanick out. Well, out of his job as CEO, that is. He’ll still be on Uber’s board of directors, and he will retain his control of a majority of Uber’s voting shares. Which means that, even without Kalanick at the helm, Uber is still the Uber Kalanick built — barring other changes that the company has promised to make.”

“Eventually,” LaFrance writes, “it was investors who answered the question of whether Uber could thrive with Kalanick as CEO. They decided it could not. Next, they will find out if the company can survive without him.”

The tech industry’s ‘bro culture.’ (Illustration by Tim Enthoven for The New York Times)

But according to Benjamin Edelman in Harvard Business Review, Uber can’t be fixed. It’s time for regulators to shut it down. “Having built a corporate culture that celebrates breaking the law, it is surely no accident that Uber then faced scandal after scandal. How is an Uber manager to know which laws should be followed and which ignored?,” Edelman writes.

“It’s certainly true that, in many cases, companies that have developed a dysfunctional management culture have changed by bringing in new leaders. […] But because Uber’s problem is rooted in its business model, changing the leadership will not fix it. Unless the model itself is targeted and punished, law breaking will continue. The best way to do this is to punish Uber (and others using similar methods) for transgressions committed, strictly enforcing prevailing laws, and doing so with little forgiveness. Since its founding, Uber has offered literally billions of rides in thousands of jurisdictions, and fines and penalties could easily reach hundreds of dollars for each of these rides.

[…]

Uber fans might argue that shutting down the company would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater — with passengers and drivers losing out alongside Uber’s shareholders. But there’s strong evidence to the contrary.”

Edelman gives Napster as an example. Although highly innovative, its overall approach was grounded in illegality, and the company’s valuable innovations couldn’t undo the fundamental intellectual property theft. Eventually, it was forced to close under pressure from artists and recording companies. It was replaced by iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. They retained what was great and lawful about Napster while operating within the confines of copyright law.

“Like Napster, Uber gets credit for seeing fundamental inefficiencies that could be improved through smart deployment of modern IT. But that is not enough. Participation in the global community requires respect for and compliance with the law. It is tempting to discard those requirements when a company brings radically improved services, as many feel Uber did. But in declining to enforce clear-cut rules like commercial vehicle licensing, we reward lawbreaking and all its unsavory consequences. Uber’s well-publicized shortcomings show all too clearly why we ought not do so.”

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Uber has long prided itself on ignoring the status quo and rewriting the rules. (Photograph: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

According to Jay Edelson, Christopher Dore and Kimberly Rubin, Uber’s CEO was brought down by a God complex — and that should scare the rest of Silicon Valley.

“In many ways, Uber embraced a dark interpretation of Facebook’s famous motto, ‘Move fast and break things.’ A willingness to break things is one thing when dealing with code; it’s quite another when people’s privacy and dignity are at stake. Although Uber finally fired 20 employees following an internal investigation of harassment, we have to wonder whether, as with paying fines, Uber saw this as just another cost of doing business.

The end of the Kalanick era suggests that Uber has learned that some norms cannot be ignored. But the disruption culture that created Uber, which reveres commercial success over ethical business practices, is still very much in place. It’s time for startups to internalize the lesson that it’s one thing to challenge industry norms — quite another to ignore the law, or the standards of basic human decency. Even unicorns have to watch their step.”

Max Chafkin takes a different angle. In Uber’s Biggest Problem Is In Court, he argues that the lawsuit with Waymo, the former Google driverless car division, represents the biggest threat to Uber’s continued survival and the biggest impediment to Travis Kalanick’s rehabilitation.

“The lawsuit still could end with a settlement between Google and Uber. But, in the meantime, the almost daily disclosures continue to damage Uber’s already sullied brand and weaken arguments that the company is capable of turning over a new leaf.”

According to Chafkin, “the rumor-mongering around who will lead Uber is somewhat beside the point. The company could use a Sheryl Sandberg if she were willing, and if he existed, I suppose Uber could make do with a Travis 2.0. But for the time being, any reforms will be overshadowed by what’s happening in court.”

Ethical innovation

“Technology is approaching the man-machine and man-animal boundaries. And with this, society may be leaping into humanity-defining innovation without the equivalent of a constitutional convention to decide who should have the authority to decide whether, when, and how these innovations are released into society. What are the ethical ramifications? What checks and balances might be important? Who gets to control innovation is a central question of our time. Should society let technological prowess or scientific brilliance determine who makes decisions that may affect all humanity in profound ways?,” Susan Liautaud, the founder of The Ethics Incubator, a lecturer on cutting-edge ethics and the ethics of truth at Stanford, wonders in an opinion article in WIRED, Ethical Innovation Means Giving Society A Say.

“Increasingly, the people and companies with the technological or scientific ability to create new products or innovations are de facto making policy decisions that affect human safety and society. But these decisions are often based on the creator’s intent for the product, and they don’t always take into account its potential risks and unforeseen uses.”

But “[w]hat if gene-editing is diverted for terrorist ends? What if human-pig chimeras mate? What if citizens prefer to see birds rather than flying cars when they look out a window? (Apparently, this is a real risk. Uber plans to offer flight-hailing apps by 2020.) What if Echo Look leads to mental health issues for teenagers? Who bears responsibility for the consequences?”

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Illustration by Getty Images.

Liautaud believes the solutions should involve integrating ethics earlier and more rigorously into decision-making, improved disclosure, and technology.

“First, more real-time, creative, and thorough analysis of the actual and potential consequences of an innovation in the short, medium, and long term should accompany the innovation process. […]

Second, consumers should better understand how technologies operate and what their risks are. Take the Echo Look: Amazon does not disclose the theory behind Echo Look’s algorithm rating our fashion sense, which means customers are using a product without a chance to consent to any potential risk. Is the algorithm trained to reflect the opinions of Vogue editors or 2000 diverse teenagers? Amazon could disclose more about the algorithm without revealing proprietary secrets, improve the privacy protection, and accept more responsibility.

Third, ethics must be embedded in technology. Many companies are trying, from Facebook’s battle against livestreaming crimes to DeepMind, which has an internal ethics board but hasn’t revealed publicly who is on it. The ethics questions about innovation should not be a binary yes or no, or even now or later. The questions should be to what extent and under what conditions — and who decides?”

“The technology we thought we were using to make life more efficient started using us some time ago. It is now attempting to reshape our social behaviour into patterns reminiscent of the total surveillance culture of the medieval village, East Germany under the Stasi, or the white supremacist state of South Africa in which I grew up.” — Rachel Holmes in We let technology into our lives. And now it’s starting to control us.

And this …

According to Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016), deliberate practice can help you master almost any skill. It involves a series of techniques designed to learn efficiently and purposefully. They are most applicable to highly developed fields such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. But when it comes to professions in which there is little or no direct competition, they don’t work nearly as well.

“Over the past 50 years or so, there have been many systematic studies of the career trajectories of creative people, the traits that predict creativity, and the life experiences of creative people. This wealth of research on creativity contradicts the notion that deliberate practice is the sole — or even the most important — aspect of creativity,” writes Scott Barry Kaufman. In Creativity Is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice, Kaufman summarizes 12 of these findings, including: creative people have broad interests.

While the deliberate practice approach tends to focus on highly specialized training and purposeful techniques designed for improvement within a specific field, creative experts tend to have broader interests and greater versatility compared to their less creative expert colleagues. Simonton investigated all 911 operas composed by all 59 composers who contributed to the standard classical repertoire. If creativity were solely the result of deliberate practice, you would expect that the best approach for an opera composer would be to specialize within a particular genre of opera. But Simonton found the exact opposite. The compositions of the most successful operatic composers tended to represent a mix of genres. His data suggests that composers were able to avoid the inflexibility of too much expertise (overtraining) by cross-training. The importance of cross-training for creativity has also been found in the sciences. In fact, highly creative scientists tend to have a lot of artistic hobbies and interests. For instance, Simonton’s extensive analysis of Galileo reveals Galileo’s intense fascination with art, literature, and music. As the psychologist Howard Gruber has shown, rather than a dogged single pursuit of a single research question, the most creative scientists throughout history engaged in ‘networks of enterprise,’ where they pursued a large number of loosely related projects.”

“Tech startups helped turn a handful of metro areas into megastars. Now they’re tearing those cities apart,” Richard Florida, a professor at Rotman School of Management and co-founder and editor-at-large of the Atlantic’s CityLab, writes in The Unaffordable Urban Paradise.

“Urban areas provide the diversity, creative energy, cultural richness, vibrant street life, and openness to new ideas that attract startup talent. Their industrial and warehouse buildings also provide employees with flexible and reconfigurable work spaces. Cities and startups are a natural match,” Florida writes. “For years, economists, mayors, and urbanists believed that high-tech development was an unalloyed good thing, and that more high-tech startups and more venture capital investment would ‘lift all boats. But the reality is that high-tech development has ushered in a new phase of what I call winner-take-all urbanism, where a relatively small number of metro areas, and a small number of neighborhoods within them, capture most of the benefits.”

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“The tech startup boom has brought billions of dollars of venture capital into urban areas like San Francisco. It’s also driven out the middle class and caused a wave of resentment.”

Despite all this, Florida believes it doesn’t make any sense to put the brakes on high-tech development. Instead, it’s time to put its tremendous resources, talent, and skills to work helping cities solve the urban crisis it helped to create.

“High-tech companies should — out of self-interest, if for no other reason — embrace a shift to a kind of urbanism that allows many more people, especially blue-collar and service workers, to share in the gains of urban development. The superstar cities they’ve helped create cannot survive when nurses, EMTs, teachers, police officers, and other service providers can no longer afford to live in them.”

One of the three things Florida suggests is for tech companies to “engage the wider business community and government to upgrade the jobs of low-wage service workers — who now make up more than 45 percent of the national workforce — into higher-paying, family-supporting work.” This may “seem outlandish,” he writes, “but it’s analogous to how the U.S. turned low-paying manufacturing jobs of the early 20th century into middle-class jobs in the 1950s and 1960s.”

According to Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, authors of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, Stoicism is a philosophy for leadership.

“Stoicism teaches us that, before we try to control events, we have to control ourselves first. Our attempts to exert influence on the world are subject to chance, disappointment, and failure — but control of the self is the only kind that can succeed 100% of the time. From emperor Marcus Aurelius on, leaders have found that a Stoic attitude earns them respect in the face of failure, and guards against arrogance in the face of success,” they write in Five Reasons Why Stoicism Matters Today.

“Stoicism has an appeal for anyone who faces uncertainty–that is, for all of us. But leaders are especially subject to risk and flux, so it’s not surprising that many of them find a Stoic attitude crucial to their mental health. We mentioned Barack Obama’s Stoic demeanor above [according to Bill Clinton, Obama is ‘a man cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside’] — and there’s some more evidence for it in his recent interview with Michael Lewis. ‘I’m trying to pare down decisions,’ he told Lewis. ‘I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’ Whatever your opinion of Obama’s politics, that’s classic Stoicism — trying to draw lines between the essential and the inessential at every level of life.”

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The 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama.

“Of course, Stoicism doesn’t guarantee results. One of Bill Clinton’s favorite books was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations — and he’s no one’s idea of a Stoic. Cato the Younger subscribed to this philosophy from his young adulthood to his death, but he was also prone to violent outbursts of anger, obstinate pride, and occasional drunkenness.

Yet in his most courageous moments — when he faced down the army of Julius Caesar and certain defeat without blinking — Cato lived out the Stoic ideal. The Stoics taught that we fail far more often than we succeed, that to be human is to be fearful, selfish, and angry far more often than we’d like. But they also taught a realistic way to be more.

The more we practice Stoic qualities in good times, the more likely that we’ll find them in ourselves when they’re most needed.”

The Royal Institute of British Architects has named 49 winners of the 2017 RIBA National Awards — ranging from a cluster of luxury townhouses, to a new wing for the Tate Modern museum and Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat Centre.

“RIBA National Awards provide insight into emerging design trends, as well as showing how well the profession responds to economic drivers. I am delighted to see such confident, innovative and ambitious architecture delivered in such challenging times,” said RIBA president Jane Duncan.

The complete list of winners can be found here.

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Command of the Oceans (Kent, England), by Baynes and Mitchell Architects.
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Fallahogey Studio (Kilrea, Northern Ireland) by McGarry-Moon Architects.
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Caring Wood (Kent, England), by Macdonald Wright Architects and Rural Office for Architecture.

“Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

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