Random finds (2017, week 42) — On Silicon Valley (“as the wrecking ball that it is”), ‘urbanism as a service,’ and why the future looks like the past

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“I’m dumbfounded!” … British architect and winner of the RIBA royal gold medal Neave Brown on bagging an award for the building that killed his career.

“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, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

On Silicon Valley (“as the wrecking ball that it is”), ‘urbanism as a service,’ and why the future looks like the past

Tech giants, once seen as saviours, are now viewed as threats, David Streitfeld writes in The New York Times. Despite the swell of criticism, however, the vast majority of investors, consumers and regulators seem not to have changed their behaviour. But in Europe, the ground is already shifting. Google’s 92 percent share of the search engine market “did not stop the European Union from fining it $2.7 billion in June for putting its products above those of its rivals,” according to Streitfeld.

“A new German law that fines social networks huge sums for not taking down hate speech went into effect this month. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said the government was looking ‘carefully at the roles, responsibility and legal status’ of Google and Facebook, with an eye to regulating them as news publishers rather than platforms.”

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Facebook, Google and others positioned themselves as bettering the world. But their systems and tools have also been used to undermine democracy. (Photograph by Ali Asaei for The New York Times)

“For some tech companies, the new power is a heavy weight. Cloudflare, which provides many sites with essential protection from hacking, made its first editorial decision in August. It lifted its protection from The Daily Stormer, basically expunging the neo-Nazi site from the visible web. ‘Increasingly tech companies are going to be put into the position of making these sorts of judgments,’ said Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s chief executive.

The picture is likely to get even more complicated. Mr. Prince foresees several possible dystopian futures. One is where every search engine has a political point of view, and users gravitate toward the one they feel most comfortable with. That would further balkanize the internet. Another possibility is the opposite extreme: Under the pressure of regulation, all hate speech — and eventually all dissent — is filtered out.

‘People are realizing that technology isn’t neutral,’ Mr. Prince said. ‘I used to travel to Europe to hear these fears. Now I just have to go to Sacramento.’”

So, slowly we are beginning to understand that tech companies don’t have our best interests at heart. In Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend, an adaptation of his book The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, Noam Cohen wonders if they ever did.

“Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon have become world dominators, the questions of the hour are, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is? And do we still have the regulatory tools and social cohesion to restrain the monopolists before they smash the foundations of our society?

[…]

In addition to their power, tech companies have a tool that other powerful industries don’t: the generally benign feelings of the public. To oppose Silicon Valley can appear to be opposing progress [as Jamie Bartlett found out when he met Y Combinator President Sam Altman for his two-part documentary series Secrets of Silicon Valley], even if progress has been defined as online monopolies; propaganda that distorts elections; driverless cars and trucks that threaten to erase the jobs of millions of people; the Uberization of work life, where each of us must fend for ourselves in a pitiless market.

As is becoming obvious, these companies do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We need greater regulation, even if it impedes the introduction of new services. If we can’t stop their proposals — if we can’t say that driverless cars may not be a worthy goal, to give just one example — then are we in control of our society?”

Facebook “has a long track record of treating ethical failures like bugs to be fixed: say sorry, squash them down, and keep moving forward. That’s what happens when you build your company on a motto like ‘move fast and break things,’ after all: every failure gets treated like an isolated incident, rather than part of a systemic pattern that needs systemic action.” As a result, writes Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Facebook keeps making the same kinds of blunders, over and over again.

“Facebook may not have intended to surface traumatic content, just like it didn’t intend to let advertisers post hateful or nefarious ads. But it did intend to prioritize rapid growth and user engagement over all else. […]

These priorities have consequences — and those consequences are now more far-reaching than ever, spilling over from affecting our emotional state to manipulating our social and political infrastructure, too. So the next time a Facebook exec says ‘sorry,’ don’t praise their PR response. Ask them how much time, money, and staff they’ve committed to changing the policies, processes, and culture that allowed engagement to trump ethics in the first place. Demand that they look past simple fixes, and do the real work — or we’ll all pay the price.”

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Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s Developer Conference 2017. (Photograph: Reuters/Stephen Lam)

Of course, we’re already paying a price. Whether it’s our democracy, news, policing or our smartphones — and these are only a few of the many stories recently published — Silicon Valley’s tech giants are changing the fabric of our society, as Franklin Foer writes in World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, his latest book in which Foer sets out to expose Silicon Valley’s arrogance and foolishness.

“It’s undeniable that Silicon Valley’s greatest innovators know an awful lot,” says Damon Linker in his review of Foer’s book, The genius and stupidity of Silicon Valley. But “[w]hen it comes to human beings — what motivates them, how they interact socially, to what end they organize politically — figures like Page and Zuckerberg know very little. Almost nothing, in fact. And that ignorance has enormous consequences for us all.

[…]

What began with a hope of bringing the country and the world together has in a little over a decade become one of the most potent sources of division in a deeply divided time.

And on it goes, with each company and technology platform producing its own graveyards full of unintended consequences. Facebook disseminates journalism widely but ends up promoting vacuous and sometimes politically pernicious clickbait. Google works to make information (including the content of books) freely available to all but in the process dismantles the infrastructure that was constructed to make it possible for people to write for a living. Twitter gives a megaphone to everyone who opens an account but ends up amplifying the voice of a demagogue-charlatan above everyone else, helping to propel him all the way to the White House.

Foer ends his book on an optimistic note, offering practical suggestions for pushing back against the ideological and technological influence of Silicon Valley on our lives. Most of them are worthwhile. But the lesson I took from the book is that the challenge we face may defy any simple solution. It’s a product, after all, of the age-old human temptation toward arrogance or pride — only now inflated by the magnitude of our undeniable technological achievements. How difficult it must be for our techno-visionaries to accept that they know far less than they’d like to believe.”

And if this isn’t enough, Google now plans to revolutionise our cities. Its founders have long fantasized about what would happen if the company could shape the real world as much as it has life on the internet.

Richard Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller believed it was possible to build floating cities called Cloud Nines. The cities would be contained within geodesic domes — huge, spherical objects — and they’d be able to float by carefully adjusting the temperature of the interior air,” writes Stephen Johnson in 5 New Societies Silicon Valley Wants To Create. “Today, similarly ambitious plans to transform societies are being dreamt up in Silicon Valley. The main difference is that the gap between fantasy and reality is closing, faster than you may realize.”

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Richard Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s Project for Floating Cloud Structures (c. 1960).

“By 2030, two thirds of the world will live in cities. Silicon Valley is anticipating that massive, creeping influx by looking into designing ‘smart cities’ that would optimize everything from housing to transportation. […] It’d be a massive undertaking. But given that many cities worldwide are threatened by environmental changes, some might benefit from having Silicon Valley put its city-planning ideas to the test.”

Enter Sidewalk Toronto — a 12-acre urban development along Toronto’s waterfront where Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary that is “reimagining cities to improve quality of life,” will “combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighbourhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity,” as the company puts it.

Sidewalk Labs seems well aware of the foibles of technologists building cities, the arrogant optimism that comes with seeing a place and deciding you can do it much better by razing and remaking. But according to Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt, this redevelopment will be extremely thoughtful. “This is not some random activity from our perspective. This is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”

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Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create high-tech “future city” on Toronto waterfront.

“But this section of Toronto will be a tiny city, not a private company, so Sidewalk Labs faces a particular challenge: building a place that works for all,” writes Aarian Marshall in Alphabet Is Trying to Remake the Modern City, Starting With Toronto.

“Alphabet is very good at sucking in personal information and repackaging it to sell stuff. But the stuff, in this case, includes baseline city functions, like garbage collection, safe streets, efficient public transit. ‘I think the company needs to show that it can provide city services that are not restricted to white, male millennials,’ says Sarah Kaufman, who studies transportation and technology at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. ‘That means serving the elderly, the disabled, the poor — all populations that cities serve and private companies do not.’

Sidewalk Labs insists it wants to do this. It says it will spend a year hammering out the details of the community with local policymakers, city leaders, academics, and activists. When a local reporter asked CEO Dan Doctoroff about his company’s appetite for integration with the wider Toronto community, he called it ‘insatiable.’ The frictionless tech city, the one that data could build, wants to work for everyone. But feeling like a neighborhood will be the real struggle.”

Or, as Johnson puts it, “Without a doubt Alphabet–a company worth half a trillion dollars–is capable of building a neighborhood. We’ll have to see how that neighborhood prioritizes people over data.”

If the past is a good indicator of the future —and it apparently is, according to Julie Beck (see below) — I’m not so sure Alphabet will get its priorities right. Also Evgeny Morozov believes we shouldn’t have any illusions about what he calls ‘Google Urbanism.’

“Amid all this platformaphoria, one could easily forget that the street grid is not typically the property of a private entity, capable of excluding some and indulging others. Would we want Trump Inc to own it? Probably not. So why hurry to give its digital equivalent to Alphabet?,” Morozov writes in Google’s plan to revolutionise cities is a takeover in all but name.

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Toronto has already given Alphabet the job of developing part of its quayside. (Photograph: Ikonica/Getty Images/Radius Images)

“Who determines the rules by which different companies get access to it? Would cities be saving energy using Alphabet’s own AI systems or would the platform be open to others? Would its self-driving cars be those of Waymo, Alphabet’s dedicated unit, or those of Uber and any other entity that builds them? Would Alphabet support ‘urban net neutrality’ as actively as it supports net neutrality of the conventional type?

In reality, there is no ‘digital grid’: there are just individual Alphabet products. Its bet is to furnish cool digital services to establish complete monopoly over data extractivism within a city. What passes for the efforts to build the ‘digital grid’ might, in fact, be an attempt to privatise municipal services.

[…]

That Alphabet’s ‘urbanism as a service’ might not appeal to the residents of Toronto does not matter. As a real estate project, its chief goal is to impress its future missing residents –above all, millions of Chinese millionaires flocking to Canada’s housing markets. Doctoroff was not equivocating when he told the Globe and Mail that Alphabet’s Canadian venture primarily is a real-estate play.’

Alphabet’s urban turn also has a broader political significance. The courting of Alphabet by Canada’s politicians along with the bidding war that has erupted over Amazon’s second North American headquarters — some cities have offered it incentives to the tune of $7bn to relocate there — suggest that, despite the growing backlash against Silicon Valley, our political classes have few other positive (and, as importantly, cash-positive) industries to draw upon.”

For what it really takes to design a more inclusive city, please read Allison Arieff’s recent opinion in The New York Times. “Everyone has the potential […] to be the designer of his or her environment,” she writes.

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A graphic interpretation of The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion, an encyclopedia of 202 tools used by architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, activists, and other urban actors in the United States to restrict or increase access to urban space. (Illustration by Lesser Gonzalez)

Humans’ ability to predict the future is all thanks to our ability to remember the past, writes Julie Beck in Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory.

“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia, because humans predict what the future will be like by using their memories. This is how things you do over and over again become routine. For example, you know generally what your day will be like at the office tomorrow based on what your day at the office was like today, and all the other days you’ve spent there. But memory also helps people predict what it will be like to do things they haven’t done before.

[…]

When people try to imagine the more distant future — that classic interview question, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ — they tend to rely heavily on something called a cultural life script. This is the progression of events that a life in a certain culture is expected to contain. In much of the West, the cultural life script is something like: go to school, move out of your parents’ house, get one or more college degrees, find a job, fall in love, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandchildren, die. Not everyone expects their life to contain all of those events, but they’re aware of those milestones and will generally tell their life story using them as a framework. The further into the future you try to imagine, the more unknowns there are, so people reach for these events.

‘We can’t really imagine or think that far into the future, and we can’t remember that far back, if we don’t have this cultural life script as a kind of skeleton for our life story,’ says Annette Bohn, a professor of psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark. In studies Bohn has done with adolescents, their conception of a script seemed to develop in parallel with their ability to remember the past and imagine the future. (At the other end of the life course, older people’s ability to imagine the future declines in tandem with their memory.)”

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A futuristic rendering of human life off Earth. (Illustration by Rick Guidice for NASA Ames Research Center VCG, 1975)

“It’s not hard to see how this ability to imagine the future gives humans an evolutionary advantage. If you can plan for the future, you’re more likely to survive it. But there’s are limitations as well. Your accumulated experiences — and your cultural life script — are the only building blocks you have to construct a vision of the future. This can make it hard to expect the unexpected, and it means people often expect the future to be more like the past, or the present, than it will be.

In a similar vein, people tend to underestimate how much their feelings and desires will change over time. Even though they know that their personalities have changed a lot in the past, they have a tendency to think that the person they are now is the person they will be forever. This applies more broadly, too. You can see it in the technological advances imagined in science fiction. As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance wrote, while Back to the Future II (made in 1989 and set in 2015) made a lot of canny predictions — it got videoconferencing and drones right — it also thought people would still be using pay phones and fax machines. Which makes sense, given how ubiquitous those technologies were at the time the film was made.”

According to Beck, when it comes to predicting the future, we should temper our expectations and keep in mind that, even though we can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, our imagined futures are really nothing more than projections of our pasts. “The future holds more surprises — and, potentially, more disappointments — than we might predict.”

And also this …

“What if each product was distilled down to its non-water ingredients and sold as a solid? That’s the idea behind the designer Mirjam de Bruijn’s project Twenty, a concept for packaging where these products are sold in solid form. Once you’ve bought your shampoo pellets, you simply put them in a reusable bottle, and add water,” writes Katherine Schwab on Co.Design.

“‘By raising awareness I hope to activate consumers in such a way that one day the concept of Twenty will become a standard for household goods,’ de Bruijn tells […]. It’s a clever, simple way to reduce packaging, reduce costs, and save on emissions. For any company serious about sustainability–or just cutting costs–it seems like a no-brainer.”

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Twenty by Mirjam de Bruijn.
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More beautiful Dutch design from Lotte de Raadt who presented a range of terracotta carafes that naturally keep liquids cool at this year’s Dutch Design Week.

“De Raadt hopes to discourage people from continuously buying plastic bottles of water with her Tap Water carafes, which feature stoppers shaped like the traditional taps handles,” Natasha Levy writes on Dezeen.

“‘I think it’s important to know more about elements we use every day, like water,’ said Raadt. ‘Design is a way to make systems more transparent.’”

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Tap Water Carafe by Lotte de Raadt.
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On In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Greek poet Sappho. Born in the late seventh century BC, Sappho spent much of her life on the island of Lesbos. In antiquity she was famed as one of the greatest lyric poets, but owing to a series of accidents the bulk of her work was lost to posterity. The fragments that do survive, however, give a tantalising glimpse of a unique voice of Greek literature. Her work has lived on in other languages, too, translated by such major poets as Ovid, Christina Rossetti and Baudelaire.

“Some celebrate the beauty
of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
but I place far above
these military splendors
the one thing that you love.

For proof of this contention
examine history:
we all remember Helen,
who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
to take a stranger’s hand:
her beauty had no equal,
but bowed to love’s command.

As love then is the power
that none can disobey,
so too my thoughts must follow
my darling far away:
the sparkle of her laughter
would give me greater joy
than all the bronze-clad heroes.”

On What Is Best, by Sappho (c. 630 — c. 570 BC)

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One of the surviving fragments of Sappho’s work give a tantalising glimpse of her unique voice.
Thelonious Monk — Live in Norway and Denmark (1966) with Ben Riley (drums), Larry Gales (bass) and Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone).

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