Random finds (2018, week 22) — On philanthrocapitalism and the CEO society, our culture of ‘metric fixation,‘ and making technology more human
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
After an absence of 9 weeks, though it feels much longer (is that a good thing?), I have decided to pick up where I left. The same format (for now), same idea and thus still a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
On philanthrocapitalism and the CEO society
“Today, when five of the world’s most valuable companies are technology firms, it’s very hard to see where their businesses end and their charity efforts begin,” Evgeny Morozov wrote in 2016 in an opinion for The Guardian, titled Rockefeller gave away money for no return. Can we say the same of today’s tech barons?
“As digital platforms, they power diverse industries and sectors from education to health to transport and thus have an option that was not available to the oil and steel magnates of yesteryear: they can simply continue selling their core product — mostly hope, albeit wrapped up in infinite layers of data, screens and sensors — without having to divert their funds into any nonproductive activities.”
“What passes for philanthropy these days is often just a sophisticated effort to make money on engineering the kinds of rational, entrepreneurial and quantitative souls that would delight at other types of personalisation. Such learning is, of course, well suited to the needs of consulting firms and technology giants. A recent profile of AltSchool in The New Yorker mentioned that its students read [Homer’s] Iliad armed with a spreadsheet where they mark how many times the theme of ‘rage’ occurs in the text. Such schools can produce excellent auditors; poets, however, might need an alternative, to, well, the AltSchool.”
“We should be careful not to fall victim to a perverse form of Stockholm syndrome, coming to sympathise with the corporate kidnappers of our democracy. On the one hand, given that the new tech billionaires pay very little tax, it’s not surprising that the public sector would fail to innovate as quickly. On the other, by constantly giving the private sector a head start through technologies that they own and develop, the new tech elites all but ensure that the public would rather choose slick but privatised technological solutions over quaint, but public, political ones.
That we can no longer differentiate between philanthropy and speculation is an occasion to worry, not celebrate. With Silicon Valley elites so keen on saving the world, shouldn’t we also ask who will eventually save us from Silicon Valley?”
“To speak of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ here — as many have done, either to praise or bury it — seems misguided, if only because such projects bear so little resemblance to philanthropy proper. One doesn’t have to admire Ford or Rockefeller to notice that their philanthropic endeavours, whatever their real political goals, were not supposed to make extra cash. But is it really so with our new tech barons?” — Evgeny Morozov in Rockefeller gave away money for no return. Can we say the same of today’s tech barons?
Last week, Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom published a long read in, again, The Guardian, titled The trouble with charitable billionaires. With more and more wealthy CEOs pledging to give away parts of their fortunes — often to help fix problems their companies caused, also Rhodes and Bloom wonder whether this ‘philanthrocapitalism’ isn’t just corporate hypocrisy?
“The creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative [founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his Priscilla Chan] — decidedly not a charity organisation — means that Zuckerberg can control the company’s investments as he sees fit, while accruing significant commercial, tax and political benefits. All of this is not to say that Zuckerberg’s motives do not include some expression of his own generosity or some genuine desire for humanity’s wellbeing and equality.
What it does suggest, however, is that when it comes to giving, the CEO approach is one in which there is no apparent incompatibility between being generous, seeking to retain control over what is given, and the expectation of reaping benefits in return. This reformulation of generosity — in which it is no longer considered incompatible with control and self-interest — is a hallmark of the ‘CEO society’: a society where the values associated with corporate leadership are applied to all dimensions of human endeavour.
Essentially, what we are witnessing is the transfer of responsibility for public goods and services from democratic institutions to the wealthy, to be administered by an executive class. In the CEO society, the exercise of social responsibilities is no longer debated in terms of whether corporations should or shouldn’t be responsible for more than their own business interests. Instead, it is about how philanthropy can be used to reinforce a politico-economic system that enables such a small number of people to accumulate obscene amounts of wealth. Zuckerberg’s investment in solutions to the Bay Area housing crisis is an example of this broader trend.
The reliance on billionaire businesspeople’s charity to support public projects is a part of what has been called ‘philanthrocapitalism.’ This resolves the apparent antinomy between charity (traditionally focused on giving) and capitalism (based on the pursuit of economic self-interest). As historian Mikkel Thorup explains, philanthrocapitalism rests on the claim that ‘capitalist mechanisms are superior to all others (especially the state) when it comes to not only creating economic but also human progress, and that the market and market actors are or should be made the prime creators of the good society.’
The golden age of philanthropy is not just about benefits that accrue to individual givers. More broadly, philanthropy serves to legitimise capitalism, as well as to extend it further and further into all domains of social, cultural and political activity.
Philanthrocapitalism is about much more than the simple act of generosity it pretends to be, instead involving the inculcation of neoliberal values personified by the billionaire CEOs who have led its charge. Philanthropy is recast in the same terms in which a CEO would consider a business venture. Charitable giving is translated into a business model that employs market-based solutions characterised by efficiency and quantified costs and benefits.
Philanthrocapitalism takes the application of management discourses and practices from business corporations and adapts them to charitable work. The focus is on entrepreneurship, market-based approaches and performance metrics. The process is funded by super-rich businesspeople and managed by those experienced in business. The result, at a practical level, is that philanthropy is undertaken by CEOs in a manner similar to how they would run businesses.”
“The very notion of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, has been criticised for providing companies with a moral cover to act in quite exploitative and socially damaging ways. But in the current era, social responsibility, when portrayed as an individual character trait of chief executives, has allowed corporations to be run as irresponsibly as ever. CEOs’ very public engagement in philanthrocapitalism can be understood as a key component of this reputation management. It is part of the marketing of the firm itself, as the good deeds of its leaders come to signify the overall goodness of the corporation.
Ironically, philanthrocapitalism also grants corporations the moral right, at least within the public consciousness, to be socially irresponsible. The trumpeting of the CEOs’ personal generosity can grant an implicit right for their corporations to act ruthlessly and with little consideration for the broader social effects of their activities. This reflects a productive tension at the heart of modern CSR: the more moral a CEO, the more immoral their company can in theory seek to be.
The hypocrisy revealed by CEOs claiming to be dedicated to social responsibility and charity also exposes a deeper authoritarian morality that prevails in the CEO society. Philanthrocapitalism is commonly presented as the social justice component of an otherwise amoral global free market. At best, corporate charity is a type of voluntary tax paid by the 1% for their role in creating such an economically deprived and unequal world. Yet this ‘giving’ culture also helps support and spread a distinctly authoritarian form of economic development that mirrors the autocratic leadership style of the executives who predominantly fund it.”
“CEO generosity is epic in proportions — or at least that is how it is portrayed. Indeed, on an individual level it is hard to find fault with those rich people who have given away vast swaths of their wealth to charitable causes, or those corporations that champion socially responsible programmes. But what CSR and philanthrocapitalism achieve more broadly is the social justification of extreme wealth inequality, rather than any kind of antidote to it. We need to note here that, despite the apparent proliferation of giving promised by philanthrocapitalism, the so-called golden age of philanthropy is also an age of expanding inequality.
Neither the philanthropy of the super-rich nor socially directed corporate programmes have any real effect on combating this trend, in the same way that Zuckerberg’s handout of $3m will have a negligible effect on the San Francisco housing crisis. Instead, vast fortunes in the hands of the few, whether earned through inheritance, commerce or crime, continue to grow at the expense of the poor.
In the end, it is capitalism that is at the heart of philanthrocapitalism, and the corporation that is at the heart of corporate social responsibility, with even well-meaning endeavours serving to justify a system that is rigged in favour of the rich.”
CEO Society: The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life by Peter Bloom and Carl Rhodes is published by Zed Books.
Our culture of ‘metric fixation‘
Jerry Z Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC and the author of The Tyranny of Metrics (2018), wonders to what extent our ‘culture of metrics’ — with its costs in employee time, morale and initiative, and its promotion of short-termism — has itself contributed to economic stagnation?
“More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation,’” he writes in Against Metrics:how measuring performance by numbers backfires.
“The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible — and desirable — to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.”
Yet, contrary to commonsense belief, Muller writes, “attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking.”
“The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics they are incentivised to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, indeed that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. At the same time, rewarding individuals for measured performance diminishes a sense of common purpose, as well as the social relationships that motivate co-operation and effectiveness. Instead, such rewards promote competition.
Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.
[…] The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box.”
Making technology more human
“For the last year, Lisa Park [a multimedia artist known for turning brainwaves and heartbeats into performance art], along with the artist Sougwen Chung and dancers Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman of the dance collective Hammerstep, have been working out of Bell Labs as part of a residency called Experiments in Art and Technology. The year-long residency, a collaboration between Bell Labs and the New Museum’s incubator, New Inc, culminated in Only Human,” Elizabeth Stinson writes in What Artists Can Teach Us About Making Technology More Human.
“Only Human is a homecoming of sorts for Bell Labs, which has a rich history of collaborating with artists that dates back to the 1960s. It was then that the first iteration of E.A.T. was started by Bell Labs engineers Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. The E.A.T. of the ’60s was famous for a performance called 9 Evenings, in which the artists and Bell Labs engineers crafted a series of techno-artistic experiments that defined interactive artwork for decades to come. At the time, E.A.T. was a foreign concept — artists, for the most part, didn’t use technology. And technologists certainly didn’t make a habit of sharing their work with artists.
Fifty years later, E.A.T. signifies something different for the artists and the researchers involved. Technology is no longer a novelty — it’s a given. And artists, who might have in the past approached technological advancement with a hint of idealistic curiosity, now question the impact it’s had on the way humans interact with one another.
This tension is ripe territory for artists, who are often more interested in creating provocations around technology than they are in building practical applications. The rebirth of E.A.T. is a chance for them to explore big questions (How can we make technology more human? Should we make technology more human?) alongside Bell Labs engineers — the very people who are building the networks, cameras, and cables the artists use in their works, says Julia Kaganskiy, director of New Inc. ‘My hope is that we don’t fetishize the technology,’ Kaganskiy said during a recent visit to Bell Labs. ‘We’re really trying to understand how it’s shaping culture and shaping our understanding of ourselves and our relationships to other people.’”
Over the years, Bell Labs has approached the challenge of how we, as humans, best communicate with one another with the scientific rigor one might expect from a company comprised of 1,000 specialized engineers with PhDs. A year-and-a-half ago, though, “Bell Labs’ corporate perspective began to subtly shift. Tensions around the 2016 election uncovered deep communication chasms between groups of people that had been there all along. […] For Bell Labs’ president, Marcus Weldon, this realization was a turning point in the way he thought about the company’s research. Bell Labs would continue to do the foundational research that pays the bills, but there were also bigger, more pressing issues to think about beyond improving fiber optic cables. Weldon decided that Bell Labs’ next BHAG [a big, hairy, audacious goal, as coined by Jim Collins in Built to Last] would focus on developing something called ‘empathic communication,’ a phrase he uses to describe an aspirational state of communication where people can connect on a deeper, more meaningful level. For Weldon, and therefore for the rest of Bell Labs, that means moving past basic audio, video, and text into the realm of technology that captures — and transfers — feeling.
This lack of true emotional connection, he believes, is at the core of our current political climate. It’s the root of misunderstandings, disagreements, lost love and fractured friendships. ‘We’ve become isolated in little silos of existence; we have no understanding of what it’s like to be other people,’ he said. ‘What’s lacking is state transfer between individuals so you can actually feel how they feel.’
There’s one problem, though. State transfer is incredibly complicated as it requires a way to meaningfully translate biometric data into something that another person can intuit. And that’s where the artists come in.
For Bell Labs, the cliched left brain-right brain gap or, rather, myth is at the center of the company’s investment in resuscitating E.A.T. By pairing artists with engineers, Bell Labs hopes its engineers, who have traditionally taken a hard-nosed academic approach to their research, start to think about their work with a hint of creativity. “Trained scientists have a very different approach in their thinking,” the head of Experiments in Arts and Technology at Bell Labs, Domhnaill Hernon, told Elizabeth Stinson. “We’re reductionist in our thinking — artists are divergent. Bringing together those two modes can be very powerful.”
When the artists find themselves back at Mana preparing for the opening of Only Human, the questions they started out with still loomed, Stinson writes. “What happens when humans communicate through touch instead of words? Can you imbue robotics with a humanistic sense of collaboration? Is it possible to transfer empathy through music, rhythm, and technology? These are 10-year questions — the artistic equivalent of a BHAG — and they weren’t going to be answered in a single afternoon or even through a year-long residency.”
And also this …
“The greatest threat that humanity faces from artificial intelligence is not killer robots, but rather, our lack of willingness to analyze, name, and live to the values we want society to have today. Reductionism denies not only the specific values that individuals hold, but erodes humanity’s ability to identify and build upon them in aggregate for our collective future,” John C. Havens, the executive director of The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems and the author of Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize Machines, writes in While We Remain.
In this article for the Spring edition of The Wilson Quarterly, Havens explores two radically different fictional, yet possible future interactions between human beings and AI-enabled technologies.
“While some posit that the growing discussions around AI ethics may hinder innovation, others recognize the myriad ways that design favoring the ‘move fast and break things’ model de facto prioritizes market-driven incentives over human well-being. Turner [in scenario one] exists in a society guided by our existing consumer-centric model, valuing people primarily by what they purchase. Like any technology, AI is not to blame here. It has been designed based on the values we deem most significant. In Turner’s case, when he can’t increase the bottom line, he’s invited to take his leave.
Christine [in scenario two] lives in a dramatically different reality that is based on the informed and genuine consent she utilizes with her support network to boost her physical and mental health. Algorithmic personalization and brand affinity haven’t disappeared with control of data intact. Quite the opposite: AI functionality and value will be improved when we can correct errors about our information, and we’ll be happy to provide more details about our lives when we’re provided trusted channels to share, in ways we can actually administer.”
What these scenarios reflect is an issue that is very much of the present day: humanity itself is in play as these technologies advance. Society must make considered choices now to best shape the nature and value of our humanness in this new, algorithmic age.
According to Havens, “Our primary challenge today is determining what a human is worth. If we continue to prioritize shareholder-maximized growth, we need to acknowledge the reality that there is no business imperative to keep humans in jobs once their skills and attributes can be replaced by machines — and like Turner, once people can’t work and consume, they’re of no value to society at all.
Genuine prosperity means prioritizing people and planet at the same level as financial profit. Human sustainability relies on the equal distribution of AI’s benefits in a world of transparency and consent. We’ll all be in Christine’s shoes eventually — older, reliant on the support of others, and in a world with much more AI in our daily lives. So, before algorithms make all our decisions — while we remain — the question we have to ask ourselves is:
How will machines know what we value if we don’t know ourselves?”
“There is an ongoing struggle over what responsibilities should be borne by those dominating an online space. Investors demand a fantasy of monopolization: that their firm not merely occupy a field, but develop ‘moats’ against entrants in order to guarantee both present returns and future growth. The day-to-day reality of operational budget constraints, however, pushes the same firms toward the pathologies of absentee ownership,” Frank Pasquale, a professor of law at Francis King Carey School of Law, University of Maryland, writes in Tech Platforms and the Knowledge Problem.
“Law can help resolve these tensions. Competition laws take aim at the functional sovereignty of large tech platforms, and antitrust authorities should have blocked Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, instead of letting its juggernaut of domination over communication roll up entities capable of providing alternative modes of association online. Ten, twenty, or one hundred social networks could eventually emerge, if competition law were properly enforced, and interoperability standards could assure smooth connections among confederations of social networks, just as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon customers can all talk to one another seamlessly. If that diversity emerged, we could worry less about a few persons in Silicon Valley essentially serving as a world Supreme Court deciding which expression is appropriate for a so-called global community.
When industrial giants can’t be broken up, there are still many ways to neutralize their power. Utility-style regulation mitigates the worst failures of absentee owners, as well as the caprices of the powerful. The state can require Google to carry certain content on YouTube, just as it has required cable networks to include local news. Moreover, whenever policymakers are afraid that firms like Google, Amazon, or Uber are taking too large a cut of transactions, they can take a page out of the playbook of insurance regulators, which often limit insurers to taking 15 to 20 percent of premiums (the rest must be spent on health care). That kind of limit recognizes the infrastructure-like quality of these firms’ services. We would not want to live in a world in which the electric company can endlessly jack up charges in order to take advantage of our dependence on it. Digital monopolists should face similar constraints.
Though Jeffersonian trust-busters and Hamiltonian utility regulators have very different views of political economy, each counters the untrammeled aspirations (and disappointing quotidian reality) of the stalwarts of digital capitalism. They also help us understand when giant firms can help us solve the ‘knowledge problem’ Hayek [the preeminent theorist of laissez-faire, Friedrich von Hayek] identified, and when they exacerbate it via obscurity and obfuscation. If conglomeration and vertical mergers actually help solve real-world problems — of faster transport, better food, higher-quality health care, and more — then authorities should let them proceed. Such industrial bigness helps us understand and control the natural world better. But states should block the mere accumulation of bargaining power and leverage. Such moves are exercises in controlling persons — a much less salubrious aim of industrial organization. Economic policy focused on productivity and inclusive prosperity will balance and do justice to important insights from both Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian critics of our increasingly sclerotic economy.”
“Architecture is not out there, it’s a mediation between the world and our minds,” according to the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa.
In a video interview by Rasmus Quistgaard at the architect’s office in Helsinki, Finland, Pallasmaa talks about how good architecture and good art alike tell us something not only about our society, history and culture, but also about ourselves.
“Pallasmaa argues that self-construction is important in order to eventually be able to build something yourself. Reading is an important part of this built-up, and he encourages his students not to read architecture books but rather poetry and novels: ‘When we read a good book, we construct each one of the characters, every room, every space, every house, entire cities we construct in our imagination.’ Moreover, the miracle of art, Pallasmaa finds, is that it conveys the presence of the maker, whether that be a current artist, or one who lived thousands of years ago: ‘Greatness is measured by timelessness.’”
“Living in Mumbai, India it is impossible to ignore the informal settlements in the city, and if looked at closely there are many lessons to be learnt in frugality, adaptability, multi-tasking, resourcefulness and ingenuity. A visual language emerges that is of the found object, ad-hoc, eclectic, patched and collaged.”
At Collage House, S+PS Architects have attempted “to apply some of these lessons without romanticizing or fetishizing them. The project looks at the idea of recycling and collage in several ways, from the very physical — like materials, energy, etc. to the intangible — like history, space and memories.”
As a result, the architects have created stunningly beautiful architecture.
“Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.’ We do ourselves an immense favour when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery — and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.” — Lary Wallace in Indifference is a power