Random finds (2017, week 51) — On the danger of elite projection, Facebook’s algorithms, and leadership and purpose beyond ‘feel-good lines’

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Steel-wrapped home and studio by Kouichi Kimura in Shiga, Japan. (Photography by Yoshihiro Asada and Norihito Yamauchi )

“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 and thinking.

The danger of elite projection

When Erin Griffith was asked by an entrepreneur looking for positive press on his new project whether anyone would ever write another positive story about a tech startup?, her answer was “probably not.”

“The entrepreneur was disappointed by my cynicism. The industry’s problems, he believed, could be solved with more technology. As a matter of fact, his startup was working on just the thing: a tool that would tackle a problem caused by tech. If he was successful, the world (and his bank account, and his investors’ bank accounts) would be better off for it, he argued,” Griffith writes in Techies Still Think They’re the Good Guys. They’re Not.

According to Griffith, who talks to tech founders “every day,” their lives have changed little in the last year, even as the world around them has shifted. “Even top bosses who’ve noticed the change in public opinion aren’t willing to adjust. On his blog, Y Combinator president Sam Altman argued that political correctness was damaging the tech industry. ‘This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics,’ he wrote.”

Although on the inside little seems to have changed, outside the bubble things are different. “We are not egging on startups that willingly flout regulations. We are wary of artificial intelligence and its potential to eliminate jobs. We are dubious of tech leaders’ promises to make their products safe for their kids to use. We are all sick of the jokes that no longer feel funny: lines about the lack of women in tech, about obscenely rich 20-somethings, about awkward coders with bad people skills, about hustling and growth at any cost. It all feels inappropriate.”

Investors are now “increasingly passing on deals — including hot ones they’d normally fight to get a piece of — because of negative character references. […] ‘People are hypersensitive to working with anyone with any type of issues,’ one investor told [Griffith]. They’re scared of the reputational blow they face if they’re associated with a ‘tainted’ startup.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s recent comments about public transportation triggered a firestorm of criticism. In The danger of elite projection, Jarrett Walker explains why: “Instead of doing exactly what you want, an efficient mass transit network is designed to do most of what thousands of people want.”

“Evidence is mounting that that the world is no longer fascinated with Silicon Valley: It’s disturbed by its callous behavior. But it will take a massive shift to introduce self-awareness to an industry that has always assumed it was changing the world for the better. […] But even if things stay the same inside the Silicon Valley bubble, change is coming from the outside. Critics from the government, the media, and watchdog groups are calling for regulation, be it antitrust, compliance, or transparency around advertising.”

One of those changes coming from the outside comes the European Union’s highest court, which ruled that Uber isn’t just an app — it’s a transportation company.

“The consequence of this designation is that, within the borders of the EU, the company will be regulated just like any other transportation company. That’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for Uber (which will now have to play by any rule a European city sets for transportation companies) and it’s a big deal for the platforms that, like Uber, depend on the labor of people who aren’t full-time employees,” says Joe Pinsker in Europe’s Message to Silicon Valley: Tech Is Not Special.

Changing the image of the company shaped by Travis Kalanick is one of the many challenges that Uber faces. “Travis Kalanick’s style of engagement was more pugilistic — everything was a battle to be won,” [Arun Sundararajan, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the author of The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism] says. “But Dara Khosrowshahi [Kalanick’s successor as CEO] is trying to create a ‘kinder, gentler’ Uber that is seen as an entity that is more worthy of the public trust.” Establishing that reputation is important, if Uber is to earn the trust of regulators moving forward.

Cabs blocked streets in central London in 2014 as part of a protest against Uber in major cities across Europe. (Photograph by Simn Dawson for Bloomberg)

The high court’s ruling “also carries implications that reach beyond any one company. By deciding to treat Uber as a transportation company, the EU’s high court might be suggesting that other similar platforms, such as Airbnb, could be regulated similarly in Europe. This means that companies that depend on independent contractors (who generally get fewer benefits and legal protections, in both the EU and the US) for their labor might be required to hire people as full-time employees,” Pinsker argues. And although the EU’s decision doesn’t have any bearing on US courts, the designation that Uber is a transportation service, rather than just a technology company matters greatly in the U.S. for how the company — however courts decide to classify it — treats the people who drive the cars that show up when its users tap the screens of their phones.

Earlier this year, Jamie Bartlett tried to uncover the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world in a two-part documentary series for the BBC, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The series is currently unavailable on BBC iPlayer, but my transcripts can be found here (Part 1: The Disruptors) and here (Part 2: The Persuasion Machine).

Facebook’s algorithms

When you open Facebook, one of the world’s most influential, controversial, and misunderstood algorithms springs into action, writes Will Oremus in Who Controls Your Facebook Feed.

“No one outside Facebook knows for sure how it does this, and no one inside the company will tell you. And yet the results of this automated ranking process shape the social lives and reading habits of more than 1 billion daily active users — one-fifth of the world’s adult population. The algorithm’s viral power has turned the media industry upside down, propelling startups like BuzzFeed and Vox to national prominence while 100-year-old newspapers wither and die. It fueled the stratospheric rise of billion-dollar companies like Zynga and LivingSocial — only to suck the helium from them a year or two later with a few adjustments to its code, leaving behind empty-pocketed investors and laid-off workers. Facebook’s news feed algorithm can be tweaked to make us happy or sad; it can expose us to new and challenging ideas or insulate us in ideological bubbles.”

Despite its power, “Facebook’s news feed algorithm is surprisingly inelegant, maddeningly mercurial, and stubbornly opaque. It remains as likely as not to serve us posts we find trivial, irritating, misleading, or just plain boring. And Facebook knows it. Over the past several months, the social network has been running a test in which it shows some users the top post in their news feed alongside one other, lower-ranked post, asking them to pick the one they’d prefer to read. The result? The algorithm’s rankings correspond to the user’s preferences ‘sometimes,’ Facebook acknowledges, declining to get more specific. When they don’t match up, the company says, that points to ‘an area for improvement.’”

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The Facebook office in Menlo Park, California. (Photograph by Christophe Wu for Facebook)

“The reality of Facebook’s algorithm is somewhat less fantastical, but no less fascinating,” says Oremus, who recently had a rare chance to see for himself what it actually looks like when Facebook’s news feed team make one of those infamous, market-moving ‘tweaks’ to the algorithm. “A glimpse into its inner workings sheds light not only on the mechanisms of Facebook’s news feed, but on the limitations of machine learning, the pitfalls of data-driven decision making, and the moves Facebook is increasingly making to collect and address feedback” from individual users and a growing panel of testers

“Facebook’s algorithm, [Oremus] learned, isn’t flawed because of some glitch in the system. It’s flawed because, unlike the perfectly realized, sentient algorithms of our sci-fi fever dreams, the intelligence behind Facebook’s software is fundamentally human. Humans decide what data goes into it, what it can do with that data, and what they want to come out the other end. When the algorithm errs, humans are to blame. When it evolves, it’s because a bunch of humans read a bunch of spreadsheets, held a bunch of meetings, ran a bunch of tests, and decided to make it better. And if it does keep getting better? That’ll be because another group of humans keeps telling them about all the ways it’s falling short: us.”

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Facebook’s news feed engineering and design team, including software engineer Sami Tas (back row, far right). (Photograph by Christophe Wu for Facebook)

“Crucial as the feed quality panel has become to Facebook’s algorithm, the company has grown increasingly aware that no single source of data can tell it everything. It has responded by developing a sort of checks-and-balances system in which every news feed tweak must undergo a battery of tests among different types of audiences, and be judged on a variety of different metrics.

That balancing act is the task of a small team of news feed ranking engineers, data scientists, and product managers who come to work every day in Menlo Park, California. They’re people like Sami Tas, a software engineer whose job is to translate the news feed ranking team’s proposed changes into language that a computer can understand.”

However, to speak of Facebook’s news feed algorithm in the singular can be misleading, says Oremus. “It isn’t just that the algorithm is really a collection of hundreds of smaller algorithms solving the smaller problems that make up the larger problem of what stories to show people. It’s that, thanks to all the tests and holdout groups, there are more than a dozen different versions of that master algorithm running in the world at any given time.”

Facebook’s algorithm is still the driving force behind the ranking of posts in but users are increasingly able to fine-tune their own feeds — a level of control it had long resisted as onerous and unnecessary. This shift, however, is partly a defensive one, says Oremus, as the upstarts that threaten to do to Facebook what Facebook did to Myspace have eschewed a data-driven approach, like Facebook’s, altogether.

“Facebook is not the only data-driven company to run up against the limits of algorithmic optimization in recent years. Netflix’s famous recommendation engine has come to rely heavily on humans who are paid to watch movies all day and classify them by genre. To counterbalance the influence of Amazon’s automated A/B tests, CEO Jeff Bezos places outsize importance on the specific complaints of individual users and maintains a public email address for that very purpose. It would be premature to declare the age of the algorithm over before it really began, but there has been a change in velocity. Facebook’s [32-year-old director of product for news feed, Adam] Mosseri, for his part, rejects the buzzword ‘data-driven’ in reference to decision making; he prefers ‘data-informed.’”

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Max Eulenstein, product manager, and Lauren Scissors, user experience researcher, in a conference room near their team’s work space. (Photograph by Christophe Wu for Facebook)

“Facebook’s news feed ranking team believes the change in its approach is paying off. […] There’s a potential downside, however, to giving users this sort of control: What if they’re mistaken, as humans often are, about what they really want to see? What if Facebook’s database of our online behaviors really did know us better, at least in some ways, than we knew ourselves? Could giving people the news feed they say they want actually make it less addictive than it was before?

Mosseri tells me he’s not particularly worried about that. The data so far, he explains, suggest that placing more weight on surveys and giving users more options have led to an increase in overall engagement and time spent on the site. While the two goals may seem to be in tension in the short term, ‘’We find that qualitiative improvements to the news feed look like they correlate with long-term engagement.’ That may be a happy coincidence if it continues to hold true. But if there’s one thing that Facebook has learned in 10 years of running the news feed, it’s that data never tell the full story, and the algorithm will never be perfect. What looks like it’s working today might be unmasked as a mistake tomorrow. And when it does, the humans who go to work every day in Menlo Park will read a bunch of spreadsheets, hold a bunch of meetings, ran a bunch of tests — and then change the algorithm once again.”

But Sara Wachter-Boettcher, the author of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, believes that algorithms are pushing the tech giants into the danger zone. The algorithms Facebook and other tech companies use to boost engagement — and increase profits — have led to spectacular failures of sensitivity and worse. How can we fight back?, she wonders.

In an article for The Observer, How algorithms are pushing the tech giants into the danger zone, Wachter-Boettcher writes that Facebook’s algorithm failures “only occur because Facebook invests far more time and energy in building algorithmically controlled features meant to drive user engagement, or give more control to advertisers, than it does thinking about the social and cultural implications of making it easy for 2 billion people to share content.”

“It’s not just Facebook that’s turned to algorithms to bump up engagement over the past few years, of course — it’s most of the tech industry, particularly the parts reliant on ad revenue,” Wachter-Boettcher notes. In their pursuit of growth, they have built their platforms around features that aren’t just vulnerable to abuse, but are literally optimised for it. “Take a system that’s easy to game, profitable to misuse, intertwined with our vulnerable people and our most intimate moments, and operating at a scale that’s impossible to control or even monitor, and this is what you get.

The question now is, when will we force tech companies to reckon with what they’ve wrought? We’ve long decided that we won’t let companies sell cigarettes to children or put asbestos into their building materials. If we want, we can decide that there are limits to what tech can do to ‘engage’ us, too, rather than watching these platforms spin further and further away from the utopian dreams they were sold to us on.”

Leadership and purpose beyond ‘feel-good lines’

According to Sudhanshu Palsule and Michael Chavez, the re-humanization of leadership is one of the most pressing issues of our times.

“Human beings are meaning makers,” Palsule and Chavez write in an article for Dialogue Review (2016). “The higher emotions of purpose, empathy, and shared meaning are critical as they build the foundations for sustainability. But with strategy becoming the proverbial one-eyed king in the country of quantifiable information, we spent much of the 20th century assuming that measurement holds the secret to mastery.”

Management has become the science of finding the most efficient ways to maximize production by designing organizations as assemblages of clear, interlocking parts of functions, departments, and processes, managed by lines of command and control. To re-humanize leadership, Palsule and Chavez say, we will have to overcome an Industrial Age worldview that taught us to define ourselves and our organizations as closed and fragmented black boxes.

“This approach did seem to work as long as the world was assumed to be linear and a closed system. So strategy became the Holy Grail, and the harbinger of success. And yes, every once in a while we would pay lip service to our values, except those were not values at all but, at best, a list of aspirational statements that were unmoored from reality. At worst they were simply feel-good lines. Purpose had little or no value in a worldview that was defined by input and output. Our contention is that purpose will have to be the core leadership resource in the 21st century.”

As the business environment becomes increasingly complex and ambiguous, there is an even greater need to humanize leadership, imbuing it with deeper meaning and purpose, the authors argue.

But there is a problem with purpose, as Kenneth Mikkelsen shows in Purpose Parasites, an article written for the 9th Global Drucker Forum, held in Vienna in November 2017. According to him, “it has become somewhat fashionable for leading organisations to blow their own trumpets and wave purpose flags from their glass and steel buildings.”

Mikkelsen invites us to watch the discussion between the top executives from, amongst others, Procter & Gamble and EY during this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “Then ask yourself,” he writes, “Which of the represented companies live and breathe a purpose? What does the body language and rhetoric of the top executives tell you about their intentions and commitment to an authentic, noble and inclusive purpose? What is the difference between sweet talking and purposeful action?”

Creating profit through purpose — A discusssion between top executives during the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2017, moderated by Randall Lane, the Editor of Forbes Magazine.

“[T]he viewpoints shared […] seem hollow and void. Calculated and cynical. A quest of economic, spiritual wellbeing and dignity cannot and should not be lead by marketers. Purpose is not a compelling slogan or a fancy sales pitch based on what executives think the market wants or what happens to be the management flavour of the moment.”

We need to call time on purpose washing, Mikkelsen argues. The actual litmus test for any ethical and moral organisation is how its people resolve dilemmas when nobody is looking over their shoulder. “A purpose-driven organisation then should be seen as an instrument to propose human beings a way to fulfil their needs. […] This is what Peter Drucker had in mind when he insisted that, ‘Free enterprise cannot be justified as being good for business. It can only be justified as being good for society.’ It translates into doing the right things and doing things right while simultaneously asking what is right.”

In an article for Harvard Business Review, What’s a Business For? (2002), the social philosopher Charles Handy wrote something similar: “The purpose of a business […] is not to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit so that the business can do something more or better. That ‘something’ becomes the real justification for the business.”

Shame, though, so many companies and executives still see purpose as a way of creating more profit, “full stop,” instead of something which is to be lived and breathed — something that goes well beyond profit. It’s not that that we, as customers or clients of these companies, don’t have a choice. We have. The thing is that sticking to the status quo is often just as comfortable for us as it is for these companies.

“Inclusive growth is tied to purposeful action. It is always easier to say no than yes, because yes sets things in motion,” Mikkelsen concludes. Yet, “[t]o solve the interconnected challenges we face as a human species, we need conscious and mature leaders who are committed to daring, caring and sharing. In his book Legacy, James Kerr writes that true leaders are stewards of the future. They take responsibility for adding to the legacy. The ultimate goal of such transformational leaders is to make themselves redundant. What are we waiting for? Now is the time.”

Indeed, what are we waiting for? As Jo Confino, an executive editor for The Huffington Post, wrote in Society must call business’ bluff on its fixation with profit maximisation (the Guardian, 2014): “The only reason this ruinous idea of running a business is allowed to continue is because enough executives still collude with each other to justify it and society has not yet called their bluff.”

“Making a profit is no more the purpose of business as breathing is the purpose of living. Why should I allow organisations that believe in profits above all else to exist in modern society? There is no good answer to that question.” — John Kay, one of Britain’s leading economists

And also this …

Muji’s aim is to be tenacious in trying to deliver on its promise and to live as part of a community — simply, conscientiously, and in harmony. Today, the message of its art director, Kenya Hara, on the virtue of utter blankness has never been more appealing, says Anne Quito in Emptiness — not minimalism — is the path to creativity.

According to Hara, “emptiness is a creative receptacle,” clearly distinguishing it from simplicity or minimalism. Instead of a system for shedding elements or clearing up spaces, like the one advocated by Marie Kondo, emptiness or ku is a more fundamental state of being. “Ku is not a poverty or absence of ideas or materials. Indeed, it’s a much richer concept than the Western understanding of ‘emptiness.’ It’s a stance — a readiness to receive inspiration from outside. ‘To offer an empty vessel is to pose a single question and to be wholly ready to accept the huge variety of answers,’ says Hara. ‘Emptiness is itself a possibility of being filled.’”

This Henckels knife fits the hand of the cook beautifully. It is designed that way, ergonomically.
In contrast, the Yanagiba knife fits not so much the ‘hand’ of the cook as their ‘skill.’

“Applied to product design, ‘emptiness’ is a treatise against over-engineered objects. To illustrate the point, Hara compared two kitchen knives — a sleek, Henckels ergonomic chef’s knife from Germany, and the basic Yanagiba knife preferred by Japanese master chefs. The German knife anticipates the user’s grip, giving the thumb a natural place to rest, but Japanese chefs prefer a less programmed tool, to hold as they want. ‘A flat handle is not seen as raw or poorly crafted,’ Hara explained. ‘On the contrary, its perfect plainness is meant to say, You can use me whichever way suits your skills. The Japanese knife adapts to the cook’s skill, not a cook’s thumb.’”

“Questioning is emptiness. To create is not just to create objects. Coming up with a question is also creation — the very essence of a question is its power to elicit the possibilities of reply, to collect a variety of thoughts. I believe that the richness of thinking may be the critical resource needed to give this world a future.” — Kenya Hara

See also Muji is not just about minimalism and simplicity, says art director Kenya Hara in Dezeen for an interview with Kenya Hara, and The Chairman of Ryohin Keikaku on Charting Muji’s Global Expansion in Harvard Business Review.

“Clean lines, absence of decoration, avoidance of clutter, simplicity, and above all functionality — these are the characteristics of modernist architecture that were encapsulated in the phrase ‘less is more.’ Although originally coined in Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto, ‘less is more’ is often associated with the modernist architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, famous for his clean-lined glass and steel tower blocks in Chicago and New York City. But it was another architect, Adolf Loos, who started this obsession with simplicity,” according to Is less more? in New Philosopher.

Loos’ modernist aesthetic was also the inspiration for Ludwig Wittgenstein, who turned away from philosophy to work on the design a house for his sister, Margaret, on the Kundmanngasse in Vienna, known as Haus Wittgenstein.

Details from Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna.

“Nothing in the finished building was superfluous or remotely decorative; nothing was imprecise. This was design pared back to function, that in the process became an aesthetic expression of purity, of geometrical precision, of balance and proportionality.

[…]

Behind Wittgenstein’s preference for stark simplicity in living spaces there was perhaps more than just a Loos-inspired modernist aesthetic: something closer to the view expressed by the guru of household decluttering, Marie Kondo, that once you have removed all the unnecessary things which fill most of our rooms, leaving only those objects which ‘spark joy,’ the result will be akin to a Shinto shrine, a pure place where thoughts too become clear.

Yet I’m not completely persuaded by this. At least not for everyone. Although I’m a fan of the clean lines of modernist architecture and furniture and I’m a sucker for the sleek lines of technological design, I’m not convinced that the ideal intellectual workspace is an empty cell. Perhaps if what you want to do is meditate, then this can provide a kind of visual white noise that eliminates distraction. But as someone whose desk is always a mess, and who works best surrounded by untidy piles of books and papers, I want to make the case for clutter as a catalyst for, and not an enemy of, writing.”

My idea of heaven (books, sea, sounds, smells and the most beautiful colour palette) — the Seashore Library by Beijing-based Vector Architects, located along the seashore of Bohai Bay, some three hours from Beijing. Each space was meant to establish a distinctive relationship with the ocean by defining how light and wind enters into each room.

According to the architects, the design key point of the library is “focused on exploring the co-existing relationship of the space boundary, the movement of the human body, the shifting light ambience, and the air ventilating through and the ocean view.”

“As we as a society become desperate financially, and more regulated and conformist, our ideals of competence become more misleading and cruel, making people feel like losers. There might be more to our distractions than we realized we knew. We might need to be irresponsible. But to follow a distraction requires independence and disobedience; there will be anxiety in not completing something, in looking away, or in not looking where others prefer you to. This may be why most art is either collaborative — the cinema, pop, theater, opera — or is made by individual artists supporting one another in various forms of loose arrangement, where people might find the solidarity and backing they need.” — Hanif Kureishi in The Art of Distraction (The New York Times, 2012)

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