Random finds (2018, week 6) — On Silicon Valley’s moral compass, launching a car into space, and shallow philosophy

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The French architects Dominique Coulon & Associés designed the Théodore Gouvy theatre as part of a drive to regenerate the former mining town of Freyming-Merlebach in north east France.

“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.

Silicon Valley’s moral compass

“Algorithmic markets probably aren’t mitigating falling living standards — they are more likely fuelling them. They are creating something like a new caste society, of owners of digital capital, and alienated techno-serfs, whose only real job left in life is to obey the algorithm faster and harder than the next techno-serf. That is the basic logic of Amazon warehouses, Uber, Taskrabbit, etcetera. It is a dismal one, which none of us should really call ‘innovation’ — because it is hardly something new to go back to Dickensian age, only by way of a computer program,” Umair Haque says in Why Innovation Isn’t Working.

“The market algorithm that is coming to dominate life in America — whether Uber’s, Amazon’s, or Facebook’s — is not optimized for a higher quality of life. It is only optimized for speed, scale, and profit — and damn the costs, whether they are human, social, cultural, environmental, or political.”

“The problem in this economy,” says Haque, “is that the algorithms that run it, just like the trade deals of global trade, reduce human beings to atomized, alienated, dehumanized, powerless commodities.”

“For innovation to work — even you have admitted, thus far, that it’s about ‘making lives better’ — then that very idea must be put first. Making people’s lives better means, at minimum, solving the problems that affect them, doesn’t it? But the last wave of innovation didn’t solve any of today’s great global problems: inequality, stagnation, shrinking middle classes, climate change, extremism, authoritarianism, loneliness, distrust. In fact, by fuelling the great economic and social problems, it is probably exacerbating the political ones: democratic decline, people turning to strongmen, as their lives somehow get worse and worse.”

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Last year, tech startup Bodega, founded by two former Googlers, boasted: “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary.” “Although the boxes appear to be little more than glorified vending machines, the company’s executives have been widely mocked, and criticized for explicitly stating that their mission is to displace neighborhood corner stores and put family-owned shops out of business,” Sam Levin wrote in The Guardian.

Haque offers us two solutions. First, “reinvent what innovators do,” and “[g]o beyond profit and earnings and whatnot, and put well-being first.” Second, by reinventing what innovation is. “This wave of innovation was about markets,” he writes. “Here’s the ugly truth: society doesn’t need more markets. It needs very different kinds of organizations: systems. Healthcare systems, financial systems, education systems — that deliver not just efficiency, but creativity, trust, sanity, trust, opportunity, imagination, health, beauty, purpose.”

The next wave of innovation should be about human systems, that deliver the basics for a decent human life, and not about algorithmic markets. Innovation “must begin genuinely improving lives again — not just pretending it does, and pocketing with one hand what it has hoodwinked with the other. This was a lost decade for innovation. Let’s hope that we don’t have another one.”

Haque isn’t the only one who critiques the current state of innovation. In an earlier Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship, in which I wrote why I had lost interest in what people call ‘innovation,’ I referred to Sarah Jones’ article in The New Republic, The Year Silicon Valley Went Morally Bankrupt. “If the Valley wants to create something other than a technocracy that favors authoritarians and punishes their critics,” she argued, “it has to engage with the world it’s trying to change and undertake the messy business of regaining its moral equilibrium. Algorithms can’t solve everything.”

In 1995, a year before John Perry Barlow wrote his manifesto, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, “theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified a ‘heterogenous ideology’ emerging from the Valley’s motley assortment of entrepreneurs and hackers. This ‘Californian Ideology,’ they argued, represented ‘a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.’ But Barbrook and Cameron believed that the Valley’s trenchant libertarianism would prevent it from achieving emancipation for anyone but tech moguls: ‘Their utopian vision of California depends upon a willful blindness towards the other — much less positive — features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty, and environmental degradation,’” Jones writes. Today, the Valley’s ideology and actual influence reach much further than in 1995.

What Barbrook and Cameron had identified was an early version of Evgeny Morozov’s solutionism, which he defined in 2013 as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are solvable with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.”

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“As a society, we have fallen in love with an idea of innovation that is not innovative,” says Formafantasma co-founder Simone Farresin in an interview with Dezeen.

Also Allison Arieff writes about Solving All the Wrong Problems. According to her, “We are overloaded daily with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, the bulk […] targets a very specific (and tiny!) slice of the population. As one colleague in tech explained it to me recently, for most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do.

[…]

[T]he impulse to conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works is not just a bit cultish, it’s currently a wildfire burning through the so-called innovation sector. Products and services are designed to ‘disrupt’ market sectors (a.k.a. bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems, especially those problems experienced by what the writer C. Z. Nnaemeka has described as ‘the unexotic underclass’ — single mothers, the white rural poor, veterans, out-of-work Americans over 50 — who, she explains, have the ‘misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.’”

According to Jessica Helfand, the author of Design — The Invention of Desire, empathy, humility, compassion, conscience are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation. Together, they form a set of principles — a system of moral values — for innovators to live by.

Helfand argues that innovation is now predicated less on creating and more on the undoing of the work of others. “In this humility-poor environment, the idea of disruption appeals as a kind of subversive provocation,” she says. “Too many designers think they are innovating when they are merely breaking and entering.”

“In this way, innovation is very much mirroring the larger public discourse: a distrust of institutions combined with unabashed confidence in one’s own judgment shifts solutions away from fixing, repairing or improving and shoves them toward destruction for its own sake. (Sound like a certain presidential candidate? Or Brexit?),” Arieff writes. “Meanwhile, in San Francisco, where such companies are based, sea level rise is ominous, the income gap between rich and poor has been growing faster than in any other city in the nation, a higher percentage of people send their kids to private school than in almost any other city, and a minimum salary of $254,000 is required to afford an average-priced home.”

So, when venture capitalist Marc Andreessen tweets that, according to him, the headline that is perpetually missing from all these stories is “Capitalism worked okay again today and most people in the world got a little better off,” Arieff, like Haque, wonders, “Who exactly is better off?” She feels that Silicon Valley desperately needs to reset its moral compass. “Design may provide the map,” says Jessica Helfand, “but the moral compass that guides our personal choices resides permanently within us all.”

Launching a car into space

“If we can send a Roadster to the asteroid belt, we can probably solve Model 3 production. It’s just a matter of timing,” Elon Musk said on an investors call shortly after launching a Tesla Roadster into orbit around the sun. However, “[w]hat 400,000-odd potential customers and more than a few investors want to know is, how much more time?,” Jack Stewart writes in Tesla Burns More Money Than Ever as Model 3 Production Crawls Along.

The Model 3 is crucial for Tesla’s success. “It’s the car meant to take electric cars mainstream — and Tesla into the ranks of the big automakers. Yet the Silicon Valley company just released financial figures revealing that it ended 2017 with its largest quarterly loss ever: $675 million. And it says the cash burn may increase in 2018.”

As it turns out, “car production isn’t rocket science. It’s much harder.”

“It was inspired by some whiteys on the moon. So I want to give credit where credit is due.” — Gil Scott-Heron

“Elon Musk is right: silly and fun things are important. But some of them are an indefensible waste of resources,” Nathan Robinson writes in Why Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch is utterly depressing.

“While there are still humanitarian crises such as that in Syria, nobody can justify vast spending on rocketry experiments. That point was made plain in 1970 by the poet Gil Scott-Heron, on his record Whitey On the Moon, which criticized the US for spending millions to send men on a pointless moon adventure while the country’s inner cities languished:

‘I can’t pay no doctor bills / But whitey’s on the moon / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / While whitey’s on the moon.’

Whitey may not have gone back to the moon recently. But his sports car is now in space.”

Robinson’s opinion in The Guardian triggered many responses, mostly from people saying that the ‘waste of resources’ argument was an old trope. But he wasn’t alone in his criticism. In Does Launching Cars Into Space Matter When Life’s Falling Apart?, Umair Haque, who we have already met in this Random finds, wondered “Why New Worlds Don’t Solve the Problems Of Old Ones.”

“Here’s why I ask,” Haque writes. “I read tweets from people saying things like ‘tears are pouring down my face!,’ ‘I have faith in my country again!,’ ‘We are gods! We will conquer the stars!’ I saw a country reach a hysterical frenzied mania about cars in space.

Let’s talk about earthbound reality for a moment — and then we’ll come back to the stars. The average American is dealing with: [l]ess than $1k in savings, [n]o retirement, [n]o decent healthcare, [n]ever being able to educate the kids, [n]o stability, security, opportunity. […] How does launching cars into space help him or her?”

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NASA image AS08–14–2382, better known as ‘Earthrise,’ is a photograph of the Earth and parts of the Moon’s surface taken by astronaut Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned voyage to orbit the Moon (1968). Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

“This world cannot solve its problems with machines, finding us new worlds to mistreat just the same way as have this one. I am very sorry to tell you that, because I think that deep down, you believe it. With all your secret heart and soul. It is human to look for an easy way out. But this easy way out of our problems, new worlds — whether the machines that send them are rockets or AIs or algorithms — is, like all illusions, only a way deeper into the labyrinth of confusion.

[…]

Going to the stars, then, is more than we think it is. I’m a romantic. I’d love nothing more than to see a galactic civilization lighting up the night sky. But first, I think, we must develop this thing called civilization, and its component parts — democracy, polity, society, economy. We are not ready for the stars yet — not only because we cannot get there, but because we would not know what to do there yet, any better than we do here on earth. If human history has taught us anything here on earth, it is that exploration is not simply finding new worlds — but knowing how to create them, too.”

Shallow philosophy

“Over the past few years, the tech industry has begun to fetishize the field of philosophy,” writes Josh Singer in Tech and Philosophy Need To Fix Their Relationship Problem. “Entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, and Stewart Butterfield have begun to publicly credit philosophy as integral to their success.”

Whether motivated by a search for new intellectual pursuits to distinguish them from their peers or a sincere desire to understand the principles behind their work, this “newfound obsession with this previously dismissed field of academia is misguided and shallow,” Singer says. Take, for example, Silicon Valley’s interest in Stoicism. Introduced by thought leaders like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, “the Joan Rivers on the red carpet of today’s Stoic gala,” enthusiasm for Stoic philosophy has quickly grown — but often without any targeted direction. “The popular cult of Stoicism has whittled the philosophy down from withstanding the iniquity of tyrants to the task of managing disappointment and 10,000 unread emails — inbox zero hero,” 1517 Fund wrote in The Inadequacies of the Invincible.

However, despite the failed attempts to apply Stoicism or any other field of philosophy, seriously contemplated philosophy should be crucial to the tech world. Engineers, just like the rest of us, should constantly try to recognize their moral intuitions and question them. “Consider the age-old mission of the archetypical Silicon Valley company: to ‘change the world.’ But how does one decide what is good for the world? Luckily, others have grappled with these queries. In fact, thinkers have spent millennia developing the field of ethics.”

And in Python Meets Plato: Why Stanford Should Require Computer Science Students to Study Ethics, Antigone Xenopoulos argued the importance of the study of ethics for engineering. “By neglecting to require computer science majors to study ethics, Stanford University produces engineers who can write code efficiently, but not thoughtfully,” she wrote. “Engineers aim to improve the human condition and improve people’s livelihoods. If computer scientists do not consider the moral consequences of their inventions, they will always fall short of achieving this goal. Neither technology nor innovation exist in a bubble. Stanford ought to require computer scientists to study computer and information ethics. Giving students the tools to create harm, without giving them the tools to understand it, is itself unethical.”

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“While advocating for the importance of philosophy might seem airy and idealistic, in fact, a single engineer with strong ethical principles can change the tides of a large company. In Silicon Valley, engineers are prized; in large tech companies, they are easily the most valued employees. Without them, tech companies’ product would not exist. Moreover, there have been countless instances in which engineers have been able to convince leadership to cancel a product on moral grounds.

[…] Philosophy has often been a means for Silicon Valley to engage with the humanities shallowly, rather than to meaningfully change behavior. But the study of ethics should serve as a guide for engineers and entrepreneurs. Engineers should examine the products they are creating and lives they are living. Only then can they fairly claim that they are trying to change the world for good.”

And also this …

Michael Palin wrote a beautiful “short piece” in Idler 58, The Minimal Issue (January/February 2018), What minimalism means to me:

‘This will be a short piece, because it’s all about minimalism and how we all have too much, and I’m aware that if I go on and on about the importance of thinking very carefully about the associations that certain possessions evoke and the danger of emptying one’s memory bank by the dogmatic eradication of such possessions, which have had significance at one stage of one’s life and may well have significance again, as opposed to the deliberate rejection of all but the essentials, we may very well end up confusing ourselves over what we really need and what we think we need, and in so doing confine ourselves and our experience to narrow limits which all too soon can prove uncomfortably ephemeral, and instead of restoring a sense of balance and cleanliness to our lives, in fact produce quite the opposite effect, which is to inflict upon ourselves a sense of loss, a sense of instability and dislocation which can often only be cured by the acceptance that there are unspecific elements of our innate sense of being which cannot be quantified by any conventional description but which are, by their very purposelessness, more thoroughly indicative of our essential nature than a stripped down severity imposed, not by our deep desire to cleanse ourselves of distractions in order to better lead a contemplative, meaningful existence, but rather to conform to an aesthetic which, by its very nature precludes the opportunity, or even the consideration, of the importance of the unspecific, but derives the force of its argument from the dismissal of any notion other than that there might be some spiritual benefit to the eradication of the unnecessary which, once de-mystified, might create a physical and spiritual self-discipline which can supplant the oppression of desire and create a loosening of the implications of ownership and a re-engagement with our internal space bringing with it the consequent concentration of our feelings on the discovery and identification of those previously dormant areas of our consciousness which can, if acknowledged, effect nothing less than a re-ordering of the most basic primal priorities, a redistribution of inherent physical and mental sensitivities, engendering a liberation of those restrictive forces which, though useful in marking the parameters of our everyday life, nevertheless confirm and install boundaries by which we like to define ourselves and beyond which we dare not cross for fear of incipient disorder and the erosion of moral protections but, once explored, can release instinctive strengths which, when fully engaged, can surprise and stimulate a wholly different awareness structure than that which went before, clearing minds, subjecting consciousness to an almost Maigret-like scrutiny and at the same time stimulating the flow of the very essences of existence.

This is what minimalism means to me.”

After being disconnected from corporate life for a yearlong sabbatical, during which he focused on the creation of art and reflected on the possible role of artists as enablers of structural change in organisations, Peter Vander Auwera has condensed his sabbatical thinking into a series of levers that could enable high quality advancement for a humanist future.

“Everything important has to do Aesthetic, Moral and Spiritual advancement” is one of them.

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Detail hand-cut tape on canvas on wooden panel, by Peter vande Auwera (2018).

“During my sabbatical,” Vander Auwera writes, “I had the luxury of visiting many art related expositions and retrospectives. I have been particularly struck by the beauty ànd the intensity of work from artists like Dries Van Noten (celebrated Belgian fashion designer), Rem Koolhaas, Winy Maas and Ricardo Bofill (renowned architects), and the urban (packaging) projects of Christo and Jean Claude. Why are they heroes? For one because of the high quality work they produced, the intensity of their work, and the high level of preparation in everything they do. Advancement in aesthetics has a lot to do with it. But there is always a dimension of moral and spiritual advancement as well.”

To conclude that, “For a better humanistic future, everything important will have a dimension of aesthetic, moral and spiritual advancement.”

“Machines […] are becoming stunningly adept at taking decisions for us on the basis of vast amounts of data — and getting better at this at an equally stunning rate. Forget the hypothetical emergence of general purpose artificial intelligence, at least for a moment: we’re handing over more and more of what happens in our world, today, to the speed and efficiency of unthinking deciders,” Tom Chatfield writes in Being more human in a digital age. And this matters, especially because our present machines can neither think nor feel.

“We call them ‘smart’ and marvel at their powers; we paint pictures of a world in which they, not we, are determining what we do and how. We can’t help ourselves: we see purpose, autonomy and intent everywhere. Yet in ascribing agency and intentions to our tools that they don’t possess, we misunderstand several fundamental points. Humans aren’t slow, dumb and heading for the evolutionary scrapheap; machine efficiency is a very poor model indeed for understanding ourselves; and cutting people out of every possible loop — the better to assure speed, profit, protection or military success — is an poor model for a future in which humans and machines equally maximise their capabilities.”

During the recent World Economic Forum 2018 meeting, Yuval Noah Harari took to the Congress Hall stage to highlight key challenges posed by data in the era of the technological revolution. Introduced and moderated by author and journalist Gillian Tett.

Will the Future Be Human? — Yuval Noah Harariat the WEF Annual Meeting 2018.

According to Ginia Bellafante, what the sharing economy really delivers is entitlement. “As people become their own brands, in the nonsense argot of the new economy, as work increasingly happens anywhere and everywhere, disaggregated from institutions and hierarchies and protocols that can offer various protections and clear channels of recourse, the policing of harassment will face new challenges. Already many women have chosen to bypass the air-hockey subculture of conventional co-working facilities for all-female alternatives like The Wing in New York or Rise Collaborative in St. Louis. They are tired of men and their predations and inefficiencies.

In so many ways the virtue capitalists who have built the sharing economy on the premise that they are making the world a more just and equitable place, as they generate billions of dollars for themselves, have simply delivered more of the status quo.”

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The Wing in SoHo is a woman-only co-working space, designed to offer a refuge from the air-hockey culture of places like WeWork. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY
CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times)

“And in New York, as the debate about congestion pricing has intensified, it has become very clear that the proliferation of ride-hailing apps has, in fact, caused a great deal more traffic. Midtown speeds have slowed to an average of 4.7 miles an hour from 6.5 miles per hour five years ago. There are now 103,000 for-hire cars operating in the city, and a report issued late last year found that cars operating as part of ride-hailing services average 11 minutes of unoccupied time between dropping one passenger off and picking up another. The comparable time for yellow taxis is eight minutes. Think about that the next time you want to Uber your way to that no-cash fast-food place with locally grown and sustainable everything.”

“Stacked white, concrete volumes conceal the vibrant red, pink and orange interior of this theatre in the former mining town of Freyming-Merlebach by Dominique Coulon & Associés,” writes India Block on Dezeen. The architects “designed the Théodore Gouvy theatre as part of a drive to regenerate the town in north east France, which has seen high levels of unemployment since the area’s coal mines closed in the 1990s”

According to the architects, “Culture is seen as one possibility for resolving the accompanying social and economic difficulties in the town. The theatre has become a symbol of the town’s renewal, and its position is generating a new public space in the town centre.”

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White concrete volumes conceal bright red auditorium in Dominique Coulon & Associés’ theatre. (Photography by Eugeni Pons, David Romero-Uzeda, Thibaut Muller)
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Two bream and a torpedo fish are in the center of this terra-cotta fish plate, with two scallops, a mussel, murex, and shrimp in the background, attributed to the Helgoland Painter, c. 350–325 BC. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1906)

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