Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Vision and the movement of fish from water to land

Specimens at the California Academy of Sciences
Not a land-dwelling fish, by the way. Just a cool picture.

Ed Yong in The Atlantic writes about new research on the relationship between the evolution of vision and the movement of fish from water to land. Scientists have long known that some species of fish started hanging out near the shore, then venturing on land, and eventually living on land full-time, starting about 385 million years ago. During this process, Yong writes, “their flattened fins gradually transformed into sturdy legs, ending in feet and digits. Rather than paddling through water, they started striding over solid ground.”

Naturally the evolution of legs has gotten lots of attention among paleontologists, but in a new article, a team led by Northwestern University professor Malcolm MacIver argues that changes in vision played a very significant role in the transition, too. Continue reading

The myth of personal branding

An article in today’s Quartz discusses Indiana University anthropologist Ilana Gershon’s new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today and its argument that Personal branding “is largely a boondoggle advanced by inspirational speakers and job trainers.” What Gershon finds is that

It doesn’t help people get jobs. But it does make us more accepting of an increasingly dehumanized job market that treats workers as products rather than people.

For one thing, the employers and hiring managers Gershon talked to didn’t look for, or even notice, personal branding. Gershon concluded that despite all the hype, finding your personal brand doesn’t help job-seekers. Its primary function is to make people feel like they have control over their working lives in an increasingly hostile job landscape.

According to Gershon, the concept of personal branding developed over the last 30 years as the concept of work itself became more precarious.

In essence, companies tend to treat employees in a more transactional manner now, and the personal brand is the employee’s attempt to define that relationship on their terms, and to “reconcile oneself to an economy that provides less and less security.”

“he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.:”

Another quote from Seneca:

Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. For what new pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? They are all known, all have been enjoyed to the full. Mistress Fortune may deal out the rest as she likes; his life has already found safety. Something may be added to it, but nothing taken from it, and he will take any addition as the man who is satisfied and filled takes the food which he does not desire and yet can hold.

“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.”

From Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life:”

everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things… since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

Visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House

After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.

Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.

It still isn’t.

First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.

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From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
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After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.

However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.DSCF0875

There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.

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From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.

Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.

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The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.

For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.

To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.

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At the end of the path you come to the Sandwalk itself, just past the age tree on the left (which I believe Darwin himself might have planted).
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The path is a couple hundred yards long.

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At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.

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The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.

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After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.

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All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.

Goodreads giveaway

REST will be out in just over two weeks, and to celebrate, I’m starting a Goodreads giveaway.

I’ll be giving away ten autographed hardcover copies of the book. Goodreads will select the winners, and I’ll send the books out after the contest ends on December 15. (They might make it for Christmas, they might not. I can make no guarantees!)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Rest

by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Giveaway ends December 15, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Head over to Goodreads to enter, and good luck! And of course, you can also preorder the book online, or look for it in your local bookstore on December 6.

Packing this weekend

Among other things I’m doing this weekend (mainly related to my son’s rugby career, it seems) I’ve got pack and get ready for my Big European Tour: I’m off to London for several days to promote the Penguin Life edition of Rest, then will go to Amsterdam for the release of the Dutch edition of Rest and a talk sponsored by The School of Life.

It promises to be a fun time, particularly because after I take care of some business my wife will able to join me. (Next time, kids!) And because after years of writing about it, I finally plan to go to Downe and visit Charles Darwin’s house.

I’ve never been to Amsterdam, so I’m very much looking forward to spending several day there. I’m going to be speaking at the Westerkerk, which promises to be a pretty extraordinary venue.

I just hope the dogs don’t get too flipped out by seeing luggage. But they usually do.

How to make Silicon Valley the enemy (it wouldn’t be that hard)

Two articles on Silicon Valley’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump caught my eye this morning. Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal about how “Tuesday’s election by Donald Trump was an expression of voter angst that heralded a new type of populism. For Silicon Valley, it also marked the ascension of a vision starkly at odds with its own.” In The Guardian, meanwhile, Julie Carrie Wong has a piece about the Valley’s cautious reaction to Trump, and their weighing the prospect of the ascension of “decidedly pro-business ideas” against immigration restrictions and other policies that could hurt the Valley. Together, they make for some very interesting reading.

As Mims notes, some of the difference is cultural and political: the Valley and Bay Area are famously cosmopolitan, left-leaning outliers. Some of it is policy: the Valley’s chieftains have been enthusiastic about open borders, generous immigration policy, and generally the whole neoliberal agenda. And more generally, there’s a suspicion that for all his business bona fides, Trump doesn’t really quite understand high tech. Wong, meanwhile, notes the unease of immigrants over Trump’s embrace of xenophobia.

Both pieces touch on two other things that I think could lead to the Valley being demonized if the miraculous job comeback that Trump has promised doesn’t materialize.

First, there’s the industry’s attitude toward labor and automation. Wong has this great bit:

Still, other Trump promises might create new markets ripe for Silicon Valley’s favorite form of disruptive innovation, such as his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, some of whom form the bulk of the country’s agricultural labor force. That might create opportunity for the “agtech” sector, [venture capitalist Tim] Wilson said.

“If they really are serious and farm labor gets threatened, then anything that automates labor is something that is going to uptrend,” he said.

As Mims writes,

The populist wave Mr. Trump rode appears to be on a collision course with the fruits of technology and the people who build it.

Uber Technologies Inc. and others are testing self-driving trucks. That augurs trouble for the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., who hold some of the best-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence are beginning to consume white-collar jobs in fields such as medicine and finance, shifting the debate over the impact of technology.

I’m not sure when it happened, but Silicon Valley has come to treat the destruction of other people’s work and jobs as an opportunity for itself. “Disrupt” doesn’t just mean make supply chains more efficient, or give consumers more choice. It also means take away people’s livelihoods.

It’s especially striking when you juxtapose this attitude against the simultaneous rise of design thinking and ethnography and HCI and human-centered computing (not to mention the enthusiasm for chatbots and conversational computing).

When thinking about interfaces and smartphones and wearables, it’s critical to pay attention to people and their needs. When we’re thinking about automating their jobs or making it possible for employers to undercut workers’ autonomy and power, that empathy vanishes.

The ride-sharing app absolutely has to have an easy-to-use interface.

The fact that it’s the front end of a system that’s destroying your ability to feed your family?

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(Though no one should be surprised if Valley companies don’t think about the lives of workers in Pennsylvania or North Dakota, since it often seems we barely think about the lives of working-class people in East Palo Alto or Hayward.)

The second thing that the Mims and Wong pieces touch on is a sense that, well, Silicon Valley really isn’t part of America. It’s part of the future, and so all your rage and resistance against what the Valley brings is just futile. We’ve already beta tested the future. It just hasn’t reached you yet.

The Valley also isn’t part of America in the sense that some of those who do well in it see themselves as citizens of the world. They could be anywhere, and if things get bad, they always have the option to decamp for friendlier locations (taking their unicorn companies and great ideas with them).

This has made living here exciting, but I wonder if it’s an attitude that could create some problems in the future. Mims has this illuminating exchange:

To many in Silicon Valley, this [automation and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs] is just part of inexorable progress. Electing Mr. Trump won’t shield his supporters from the reality that they are now competing with every other worker on Earth, says Balaji Srinivasan, a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and CEO of bitcoin startup 21 Inc.

Mr. Srinivasan views the collision between tech culture and Mr. Trump’s populist movement as inevitable, and potentially so divisive that tech’s global elites should effectively secede from their respective countries, an idea he calls “the ultimate exit.”

Already, he says, elites in Silicon Valley are more connected to one another and to their counterparts around the globe than to non-techies in their midst or nearby. “My Stanford network connects to Harvard and Beijing more than [California’s] Central Valley,” says Mr. Srinivasan. Eventually, he argues, “there will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”

(Inevitability is another way of saying, “I’m profiting from this but I’m not responsible for it.”)

The idea that credentials and networks and wealth not only make us the future but give us the ability to opt out of the nation should we so choose could become raw meat for populists.

If I were an ambitious politician, I could have a field day with this stuff. If my policies tank, the jobs don’t come back, or high-tech companies balk at the idea of relocating their factories from Shenzhen to Youngstown, I could pin the blame on a wealthy, cosmopolitan, rootless elite that sees itself as part of a global order opposed to the nation-state, that is actively seeking to destroy America by draining its wealth and destroying its jobs.

Here’s what I’d say. “Our efforts to bring American back are failing not because we lack heart or vision or soul, but because we are being subverted by an elite that has relentlessly aimed to sap our might.

“First this elite took factories and shipped them to China, and used that money to enrich and empower a nation that now challenges us on the world stage.

“Now they’re automating the jobs they couldn’t offshore.

“They’re replacing hard-working truck drivers with self-driving trucks.

“They’re replacing coal miners with robots.

“They’re replacing nurses with chatbots and automated ‘wellness stations.’

“They’re intentionally replacing stable jobs with temporary labor.

“They use foreign-made smartphones and toys to distract you while they siphon our wealth into cryptocurrencies beloved mainly by drug dealers.

“They gleefully destroy your livelihoods in order to enrich themselves, and call it progress.

“And they declare themselves ‘citizens of the world’ who aren’t beholden to our laws, who have no loyalty to the United States, who care only about themselves and their ‘networks’.

“These are the people who are keeping you down. Give me the freedom to take them on, and the good times will finally return.”

And there’d be just enough reality mixed into the lie to make it stick. I couldn’t ask for a better enemy.

Alain de Botton on “The Citizen in Frightened Times”

Alain de Botton, on “The Citizen in Frightened Times:”

It is an enormous and very rare privilege to have lived in the days of good government. Across nations and centuries, few people have ever done so. By a rare bit of luck, certain groups in a few corners of the globe tasted decades of this remarkable, anomalous blessing. They might even, foolishly (especially if they traveled little, seldom read history books or had a very high estimation of their own populations) have started to assume it was a natural or God-given norm.

Yet the default state of almost all nations is quite other; it is authoritarianism, bullying, demagoguery, corruption, monopoly, racial segregation and state-sponsored aggression and murder. We will not now, it seems, be living in dramatically unusual times; it was the years before that will be remembered as unusual: a daring bet against the facts of human nature. We aren’t sliding into a new age of darkness, we are reverting to a mean. Civilization was always, simply, an unlikely concept….

We shouldn’t be surprised by our fellow citizens. That is what the human animal is really like: very sweet at points from close up, usually generous to small children and the elderly, hard-working, but highly prone to delusion, tribal, offended by strangers, disinclined to rational analysis and with a fondness for slaughter and reckless messianic plans. The elite are not “out of touch” because they forget what a gallon of milk costs, but because they forget how dark and broken human nature is.

“Nobody knows anything”

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” (William Goldman, screenwriter)

Sums up my feelings this morning.

Via The Reformed Banker

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