Random finds (2018, week 30) — On Silicon Valley’s ‘blitzscaling’ illusion, the wonders of sleep, and the tyranny of convenience
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.
This week: The ‘blitzscaling’ illusion and why we should think twice before following our ‘blitz’; sleep and why bother to stay awake?; the need to consciously embrace the inconvenient from time to time; the West’s self-obsessed culture (for which we can blame the ancient Greeks); a discourse of discontent; ‘toska’ and the Russian soul; and a red meditation space in an Indian village.
Silicon Valley’s ‘blitzscaling’ illusion
All the great inventions took painstaking, risky, indirect routes to fruition. But has Silicon Valley escaped history, Edward Tenner wonders in The blitzscaling illusion.
“[Thomas] Edison might be the last great self-taught inventor who also brought technological research and design into the 20th century. By building a staff of researchers, some trained in the emerging US academic science programmes, Edison’s laboratory served as a model for the 20th century’s great industrial laboratories, including General Electric, Bell Labs and the chemical and pharmaceutical giants. Edison’s role in power generation, musical recording, motion pictures and other technology remained an inspiration for decades. Yet some influential economists insist that the age of rapid development of transformative inventions, pioneered by Edison, has reached an end,” Tenner writes.
The US economist Tyler Cowen was the first who to sound the alarm bells. In The Great Stagnation (2011), he “proposed that the economic woes of the US reflected the exhaustion of centuries of comparatively easy innovation, which he compared to the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of a cherry orchard.” It was another US economist, Robert J Gordon, who “brought a historical perspective to Cowen’s argument that the low-hanging fruit of innovation had already been picked. In his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016), Gordon described a golden age of rising living standards in the century from 1870 (the year after Edison’s first patent) to 1970. Yet, he questioned the impact of the web’s lower transaction costs on the quality of life.”
[Watch Robert J Gordon’s TEDTalk from 2013, The death of innovation, the end of growth.]
“Cowen and Gordon both acknowledged the power and market capitalisation of companies using cloud services to bring buyers, sellers and advertisers together — from Amazon and Google to ‘sharing economy’ newcomers such as Uber and Airbnb. Neither of them, however, considered the possibility that it is not exhaustion of limited technological options but these firms’ success in attracting capital that has held up productivity growth. Two other academics, Clayton Christensen and Derek Van Bever of Harvard Business School, have made a distinction between ‘process innovations’ that speed manufacture of existing products and reduce transaction costs, and ‘market-creating innovations’ that give rise to new industries and employment,” Tenner writes.
“There is no proof, but it’s worth considering whether the skyrocketing market capitalisation of Silicon Valley’s so-called ‘unicorns’ — corporations that are worth a billion dollars or more but have not yet gone public — are growing at the expense of undercapitalised market-creating innovations. Consider two facts: first, every year magazines such as Scientific American, MIT Technology Review and New Scientist publish lists of ‘breakthrough’ technologies. Yet at the same time, as the historian of military technology David Edgerton has documented in The Shock of the Old (2006), the actual rate of technological change is surprisingly slow.”
“The stark fact of technological transformation from the late-18th century to the late-20th is that there was scant low-hanging fruit. Innovation, much less transformation, was arduous and slow. […] What most triumphs of 19th- and 20th-century technological progress share is not a sudden dividend from a scientific insight. Rather they all took painstaking, risky, indirect routes to fruition,” Tenner notes. Most illustrate the paradox that if innovators could have foreseen what they would have to endure, many wouldn’t have started. But once committed, they find ways to realise their goals. This is what the German-born economist Albert O Hirschman called the The principle of the hiding hand.
“Most Silicon Valley start-ups also face daunting odds and fail. But there is a crucial difference between 21st-century Silicon Valley innovation and the physical and chemical champions of earlier centuries. Software-based ventures are far, far easier to scale up than hardware pioneers. What remains hard is that there are not many people who can design and maintain web-based systems that are capable of growing rapidly without breaking down. If there were, Silicon Valley salaries would be much lower and the housing crisis in San Francisco would be less severe. But people who design ultra-efficient algorithms further multiply growing processing power and can achieve dominance that at least appears impossible to challenge,” Tenner argues.
“Even more striking are the market capitalisations of Silicon Valley companies that are still losing money. The transportation app Uber has burned through $10.7 billion in the past nine years: a fact that has not stopped it raising more than $17 billion from investors. Far from creating jobs or speeding up traffic, Uber has been increasing congestion in major cities and growing at the expense of ‘medallion’ or licensed taxi drivers, whose suicides are now a sad staple of city newspapers.”
“Software and cloud-based platform companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook can take advantage of the capacity of software to increase the scope of operations rapidly. But an increased scope of operations is itself a modest innovation,” Tenner writes. PayPal and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has even coined a word for exponential growth — ‘blitzscaling.’ In 2016, he told Harvard Business Review, “[T]he marginal costs of serving any size market are virtually zero. The more that software becomes integral to all industries, the faster things will move.”
“Yet it’s questionable whether any of the Silicon Valley champions have created the kind of broad-based prosperity of former industrial centres. And there are social costs beyond those of ride-sharing. Recycling can’t absorb the extra cardboard generated by e-commerce; apartment-sharing apps have increased urban rents,” Tenner writes. So what can we do?
Tenner suggests that “our first goal should be to study more systematically all those ideas that the technology press has identified as transformative, and to offer better incentives (for example, prizes and preferential tax treatment) for socially beneficial hard technology.” Discovery is likely to remain hard, but we have much more powerful tools than Edison and his researchers could dream of. Artificial intelligence and robotics, which could, for example, help cutting drug-discovery time, or international government and private cooperation to help conquer major obstacles and scale up breakthrough discoveries. As the economist Joel Mokyr put it in Is technological progress a thing of the past?, higher fruit just needs taller ladders.
It was the urgency of war and the newly created Office of Scientific Research and Development, which oversaw the accelerating development of military-related innovation, that convined the skeptical pharmaceutical companies to work together, and perhaps most importantly exchange information. In 1944, Pfizer opened the first facility for theh commercial production of penicillin, 16 years after Alexander Fleming’s discovery.
“The best things in life are not virtually free and usually can’t move fast. We should think twice before following our blitz,” Tenner concludes. It is, as Tom Peters writes in The Speed Trap, “The bottom line […] is that I think in this age of ‘speed, speed, more speed,’ it is in fact the case that the most important things associated with enterprise effectiveness and, yes, excellence take time. In fact, lots of time.”
The wonders of sleep
“Nearly every night of our lives, we undergo a startling metamorphosis. Our brain profoundly alters its behavior and purpose, dimming our consciousness. For a while, we become almost entirely paralyzed. We can’t even shiver. Our eyes, however, periodically dart about behind closed lids as if seeing, and the tiny muscles in our middle ear, even in silence, move as though hearing. We are sexually stimulated, men and women both, repeatedly. We sometimes believe we can fly. We approach the frontiers of death. We sleep.”
Ever since Aristotle wrote On Sleep and Sleeplessness (around 350 B.C.), we have been wondering what happens when we sleep. Only in 1924, when the German psychiatrist Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph, which records electrical activity in the brain, the study of sleep entered the realm of science. It’s only in the past few decades, though, as imaging machines have allowed ever deeper glimpses of the brain’s inner workings, that we have been able to come up with a convincing answer to Aristotle’s philosophical question of what we were doing and why?
“Everything we’ve learned about sleep has emphasized its importance to our mental and physical health. Our sleep-wake pattern is a central feature of human biology — an adaptation to life on a spinning planet, with its endless wheel of day and night. The 2017 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to three scientists who, in the 1980s and 1990s, identified the molecular clock inside our cells that aims to keep us in sync with the sun. When this circadian rhythm breaks down, recent research has shown, we are at increased risk for illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia,” Michael Finkel writes in While We Sleep, Our Mind Goes on an Amazing Journey, an essay for the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
“The average American today sleeps less than seven hours a night, about two hours less than a century ago. This is chiefly due to the proliferation of electric lights, followed by televisions, computers, and smartphones. In our restless, floodlit society, we often think of sleep as an adversary, a state depriving us of productivity and play,” Finkel writes. “Thomas Edison, who gave us light bulbs, said that ‘sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit.’ He believed we’d eventually dispense with it entirely.
A full night’s sleep now feels as rare and old-fashioned as a handwritten letter. We all seem to cut corners, fighting insomnia through sleeping pills, guzzling coffee to slap away yawns, ignoring the intricate journey we’re designed to take each evening. On a good night, we cycle four or five times through several stages of sleep [see Finkel’s essay for a detailed description of each of these stages], each with distinct qualities and purpose — a serpentine, surreal descent into an alternative world.”
“Evolution endowed us, like other creatures, with sleep that is malleable in its timing and readily interruptible, so it can be subordinated to higher priorities. The brain has an override system, operating in all stages of sleep, that can rouse us when it perceives an emergency — the cry of a child, say, or the footfall of an approaching predator.
The problem is that in the modern world, our ancient, innate wake-up call is constantly triggered by non–life-threatening situations, like anxiety before an exam, worries about finances, or every car alarm in the neighborhood. Before the industrial revolution, which brought us alarm clocks and fixed work schedules, we could often counteract insomnia simply by sleeping in. No longer. And if you’re one of those people who are proud of being able to fall asleep quickly just about anywhere, you can stop gloating — it’s a distinct sign, especially if you’re less than 40 years old, that you’re acutely sleep deprived.
The first segment of the brain that begins to fizzle when we don’t get enough sleep is the prefrontal cortex, the cradle of decision-making and problem-solving. Underslept people are more irritable, moody, and irrational. ‘Every cognitive function to some extent seems to be affected by sleep loss,’ says Chiara Cirelli, a neuroscientist at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness. Sleep-deprived suspects held by the police, it’s been shown, will confess to anything in exchange for rest.
Power naps don’t solve the problem; nor do pharmaceuticals. ‘Sleep is not monolithic,’ says Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a sleep scientist at Johns Hopkins University who directs the Sound Sleep Project, which counsels businesses on how their employees can achieve better performance through healthier rest. ‘It’s not a marathon; it’s more like a decathlon. It’s a thousand different things. It’s tempting to manipulate sleep with drugs or devices, but we don’t yet understand sleep enough to risk artificially manipulating the parts.’
Ellenbogen and other experts argue against shortcuts, especially the original one — the notion that we can mostly do without sleep. It was a glorious idea: If we could just cut the unnecessary parts of sleep, it’d be like adding decades to our life.”
“[W]hen we’re sleeping, and we commence our first REM session, the most elaborate and complex instrument known in the universe is free to do what it wishes. It self-activates. It dreams. This, one could say, is the playtime of the brain. Some sleep theorists postulate that REM sleep is when we are our most intelligent, insightful, creative, and free. It’s when we truly come alive. ‘REM sleep may be the thing that makes us the most human, both for what it does for the brain and body, and for the sheer experience of it,’ says Michael Perlis [the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Perelman School of Medicine].
Maybe, then, we’ve been asking the wrong question about sleep, ever since Aristotle. The real wonder isn’t why we sleep. It’s why, with such an incredible alternative available, do we bother to stay awake?
And the answer might be that we need to attend to the basics of life — the eating and mating and fighting — only to ensure that the body is fully ready for sleep.”
The tyranny of convenience
Convenience is probably the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies, says Tim Wu in The Tyranny of Convenience.
“[It] has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.”
But given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, a value, a way of life — it is well worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country, Wu writes. This doesn’t mean that convenience — making things easier — is a force for evil. “On the contrary, it can open up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.
But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.”
However mundane it may seem to us, convenience once was a utopian ideal. “By saving time and eliminating drudgery, it would create the possibility of leisure. And with leisure would come the possibility of devoting time to learning, hobbies or whatever else might really matter to us. Convenience would make available to the general population the kind of freedom for self-cultivation once available only to the aristocracy. In this way convenience would also be the great leveler.”
“The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work,” Wu writes. “But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits. Perhaps this is why, with every advance of convenience, there have always been those who resist it. They resist out of stubbornness, yes (and because they have the luxury to do so), but also because they see a threat to their sense of who they are, to their feeling of control over things that matter to them.”
But despite the utopian promise, the first convenience revolution began to sputter in the late 1960s. It no longer seemed like society’s greatest aspiration. “Convenience meant conformity. The counterculture was about people’s need to express themselves, to fulfill their individual potential, to live in harmony with nature rather than constantly seeking to overcome its nuisances.” So, it was perhaps “inevitable that the second wave of convenience technologies — the period we are living in — would co-opt this ideal. It would conveniencize individuality.”
This time, its promise was not, like the first convenience revolution, to make life and work easier for you, but to make it easier to be you. New technologies were catalysts of selfhood. They conferred efficiency on self-expression, and it all started with the advent of the Sony Walkman in 1979. “With the Walkman we can see a subtle but fundamental shift in the ideology of convenience,” Wu argues.
Almost forty years into this second convenience revolution, task after task has become easier and the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. “We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating. This is especially true for those who have never had to wait in lines (which may help explain the low rate at which young people vote).”
Again, Wu doesn’t deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways, like giving us many choices where we used to have only a few or none. “But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?,” he wonders.
The cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. “Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.
We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient — not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others. Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are.”
And also this …
“It’s tempting to blame self-indulgent tools like social media and smartphones for this so-called epidemic, and many do. But that’s not quite right, or at least that’s the argument that Will Storr makes in his book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. Western culture has always been this way, Storr argues, and over time we’ve built up a culture that conditions us to overstate our role in our own successes and failures,” Sean Illing writes in How the West became a self-obsessed culture.
“Storr, a British novelist and journalist, has previously written about human credulity and how the stories we tell ourselves about the world color our beliefs about what’s true. A book like Selfie seems like a departure from this, but it’s not. This, too, is a book about beliefs and their consequences. And it’s not merely a snapshot of internet culture; it’s really a survey of the history of individualism in the Western world, and how it contrasts with the more community-minded cultures in the East.”
In The Geography of Thougth (2003), the psychologist Richard Nisbett traced the beginning of Western individualism back to ancient Greece. Surprisingly enough, he attributed it to the nature of its geography.
“Greece was full of separate rocky islands dotted with individual city-states. To get ahead, you couldn’t be part of a big farming community or something like that; you had to hustle as an individual — fishing or foraging or making olive oil or pottery or whatever. So this created an ideal of selfhood, of the individual as the prime source of success and accomplishment. And this ideal persisted throughout the evolution of Western culture,” Illing writes.
Nisbett and his team contrasted this idea with the psychology of Asian culture — what did they find?
“It’s quite extraordinary,” Storr explains. “They put people from the West and people from East Asia into the lab and found that their cognition still works in ways that reflect the history of their respective cultures, and that history was shaped in large part by geography. For instance, the landscape in East Asia 2,500 years ago was totally different than Greece. It was landlocked, with low mountains and undulating landscapes. To get ahead, you had to be part of a big farming community either growing wheat or rice, and you had to participate in these massive irrigation projects that were essential to group success.
Nisbett put Western people and people from East Asia in a lab and had them look at a cartoon of a fish tank, in which there was a big individualistic flashy fish at the front and lots of smaller fish around it. They tracked tiny unconscious eye movements to see what people were paying attention to. They discovered that Western people were largely focused on the big flashy fish out front and East Asian people were largely focused on the group of smaller fish around it.
Afterward, they asked people from both groups what they saw, and the Westerners said, “Oh, I saw a fish,” and the East Asian people said, “I saw a fish tank,” and they would describe the context. The researchers then asked them what they thought of the fish, and the Westerners would say that the big fish was obviously the leader and the East Asian people would say they felt sorry for the big fish because it had obviously been excluded from the group.
That’s a long answer, but the point is really important. This tendency to focus on the self, on the individual, runs deep in our cultural history, and it’s not something we can easily escape.”
The answer to the question ‘Does the West have a self-obsession problem?’ is both yes and no, Storr explains. “In the book, I argue that the West is basically an individualist culture, and that causes us all sorts of problems. On the one hand, putting all the focus on the individual as the locus of success can be a good thing because you’re saying to people, ‘You can do anything; you can change the world on your own two feet,’ and that’s incredibly motivating.
But this is also a bad thing because we give ourselves too much credit for successes and too much blame for failures. The problem with individualism is that it ignores the fact that we’re social creatures, that we live and survive and succeed in tribes. We call ourselves failures, we call ourselves losers, and that’s the beginning of a descent into a range of dangerous mental health problems. And the truth is that our successes and our failures are the product of so many factors we don’t control that it’s a fantasy to believe that we alone are solely responsible for who and what we are.”
Storr’s advice “is to stop trying to change yourself, because you’re pretty much stuck — and that’s okay. You can improve yourself, of course, but there are limitations, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up because you’re not Beyoncé. The toxic lie that our culture gives us is that we can be anyone we want, do anything we want, but that’s never been true.
If you want to be happy and find fulfillment, don’t try to be Beyoncé or Elon Musk; instead, find the thing you’re good at and become even better at it, and try to help the people around you as much as possible. It’s really that simple.”
“And what of the corporate world? After all, most of us, most of the time are not engaged in the expression of government,” John Atkinson writes in A discourse of discontent.
“We manufacture cell phones or dog food or stitch shirts. It is in the world of work that people spend much of their social lives. Here we meet with our fellow humans and make sense of the world around us. Often these are work conversations, how will we improve quality, what is our next market, why are sales down in SE Asia? And also they are very human conversations. We share news of our families, our football teams and sense of what is going on in the world. Without changing the discourse in the commercial world little changes. Dismissing global corporations as evil empires is simply bizarre. They have arisen, in symbiosis with their environment over decades. They are a product of our modern world as much as they are shaping it. We can no more ignore them than regulate them. The discourse needs to be different.”
“We need to change our discourse from one of ‘discontent’ to one of ‘glorious summer’. That means getting really practical and working with and through existing organisations and structures rather than concentrating our efforts outside of them. There is a place on the fringes for the creation of new, bold and visionary thought yet if it stays there, unnourished by our everyday discourse, it dies. Change is not something that happens necessarily from the top down or the bottom up. It need no more happen from the outside in than the inside out. Examples of all can be found if you wish to hold a particular point of view. Instead, if change is to really happen, if we’re to find a gloriously sustainable summer, lots of things have to move all at once. That means lots of people all engaging their energetic efforts in a similar direction. The more connected they are the better, yet the act of connection is only part of the work.
The important thing is a dawning realisation that neither governments, nor media, nor global corporations are in control. For any society, control is an illusion. That these amorphous bodies exist is through our creation. We together made them and they have only the power we choose to vest in them. If we wish to evolve something new in them it is in our grasp to do just that. All it takes is for us to become more conscious of how we are really connected, to be more honest about not just what we want, but what we are actually prepared to do for that. Small groups of people, all around the world, each acting to make things different in their own environment, changes the environment. Its time to stop ceding so much authority to others to change our lives and the world. Its time to change the way we change.”
“Leave it to Russia to serve up the melancholy: toska translates as yearning or ennui. Except it doesn’t, because no English word can accurately reflect all the shades of the word, to paraphrase Vladimir Nabokov,” Andrew Roth, the Guardian’s correspondent in Russia, writes in 10 of the best words in the world (that don’t translate into English).
“What can ‘toska’ (pronounced tahs-kah) mean? Spiritual anguish, a deep pining, perhaps the product of nostalgia or love-sickness, toska is depression plus longing, an unbearable feeling that you need to escape but lack the hope or energy to do so.”
“Toska is the stuff of great literature. Evgeny Onegin, the foundational Russian novel-in-verse about superfluous men, unrequited love and duels? Loads of toska. Anton Chekhov wrote an entire short story called Toska about a cabman who recently lost his son and searches for someone to talk to about his grief. He ends up talking to his horse. All that broodiness in the great (and not-so-great) Russian novels? You get the picture.
So why choose toska for this list of positivity? Because if the Russian soul is the place where great emotions reside, then toska pays the rent. Without toska there cannot be delirious happiness, endless heartfelt conversations at 4am at the kitchen table, boundless generosity at obvious personal expense.
Toska is a sign that your emotions go beyond logic and that you are really, truly living your emotions. Perhaps you’ve felt toska and you didn’t realise it, but it’s a good thing: it means you’ve got a little bit of the Russian soul in you.”
This simple concrete temple in a village near the Indian city of Pune is topped with a pyramidal roof and incorporates a channel that allows ceremonial holy water to flow out into its lush surroundings. Designed by locally based Karan Darda Architects, the temple is located within an orchard of chikoo trees in a traditional farming region in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
“The design intends to look like a sculpture and is a result of careful extraction from the traditional forms, put together in a simpler way so that the locals could easily associate themselves with it,” Karan Darda, the founder of Karan Darda Architects, explained.
“To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe