Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Page 2 of 519

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?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(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

This feels like a good description of the day

Still going to try to do some writing today, but this captures lots of my friends’ mood:

How “weak parties and strong partisanship” brought us 2016

Political scientist Julia Azari has an essay on Vox explaining the rise of Trump in terms of “weak parties and strong partisanship:”

The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong…. it is a particularly dangerous combination [because] parties can’t control whom they nominate. But their adherents — elites and ordinary voters alike — are prepared to support them.

Why is this a very bad combination? It encourages polarization between parties, and a heightened sense that people who belong to other parties, and the candidates they support, are evil. It creates an environment in which partisan voters can be mobilized to vote against the opposition even if they have strong reservations about their own candidate. It means that the apparatus of a political party can more easily fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t believe in the party’s major principles, but succeeds in appealing to its rank and file.

And it also makes moderation much less likely in governing. Compromise with the other party seen as weakness, but each side is less likely to have things that the other wants or needs. As ideological purity becomes more important, it becomes more dangerous for politicians to engage in bipartisan deals, or to be seen as wavering or uncertain in their ideological commitment. And partisanship undermines institutions. As Azari puts it, “It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments,” or for “courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies” to be seen as trustworthy when citizens are inclined to “view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.”

And of course the bad news here is that the structural forces that gave rise to Trump are either not going to go away if he loses, or will overwhelm to GOP and Washington if he wins. One is hard pressed to imagine a cabinet consisting of his most ardent supporters and apologists serving as a balance against his authoritarian tendencies; and Capitol Hill hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage so far either.

How to avoid the Terminator Apocalypse: Don’t yell at Siri

You shouldn’t be mean to smart technology.

via GIPHY

That’s the takeaway from a new Harvard Business Review piece by Michael Schrage about “Why You Shouldn’t Swear at Siri:”

[The] irresistible rise of ever-smarter machines worldwide demands that leaders and managers become better people. Self-indulgently lashing out at underperforming bots and software agents represents poor leadership-by-example — and worse, bad manners.

Sooner, rather than later, organizations will have to recognize that getting the best out of their smart technologies requires getting the best from themselves.

The abuse of technologies is actually a nontrivial social problem. Think of kids attacking robots in shopping malls (this happened in Japan), or adults beating up a hitchhiking robot (this happened in Philly). While we’ve always yelled at devices when they don’t do what we want them to (e.g., a printer that jans when we’re printing out a final paper due in a few minutes), yelling at technologies that are taking their cues from our behavior could be problematic.

 

Writing and Research

Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award Acceptance Speech, which he won for his book about the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is getting some well-deserved attention for its reflections on the state of the academy, criticism, and the powers that are shaping scholarship (away from projects like his) and destroying careers.

I recognize my own work in this line:

If my book deserves recognition, then we must also recognize that no young scholar with any sense would be foolish enough to write it. Graduate students must tailor their research projects to a fickle job market, and a book like mine simply doesn’t fit…. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees a trade book is merely a book that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.

I wouldn’t have written a book as intellectually ambitious and revisionist as REST when I was a young journeyman academic, and still wouldn’t have touched it until I had become a full professor and was untouchable (or had decided I DGAF). I always knew how the game was played. And I think my life would have been poorer and less interesting as a result.

Among other things, the experience of working with a trade press has challenged me in ways academic writing did not. Of course, you can rightly argue that I’ve merely traded one set of institutional and market constraints for another; but by virtue of its size and variety, I would argue that the world of trade publishing is one that’s receptive to a wider range of projects than academia. We never escape systems and incentives, but some are stricter than others.

Anyway, read Birmingham’s entire piece. It’s well worth it.

From working ON a book, to working WITH a book: How thinking about REST changes as we move to publication and I move ahead

This week I reviewed the dust jacket for REST. I’ve always liked the book’s cover, with its sling chair, but the whole package just looks terrific.

Proof of REST dust jacket

We were lucky to get a cross-section of great blurbs, from a variety of contributors, each of whom saw slightly different things in the book. It’s satisfying when readers see value in a book that you didn’t, or can really relate to a particular piece of it. You want people to be able to take your work and make it their own.

Indeed, over the last couple weeks, I’ve noticed my relationship with the book changing subtly. It’s moved from being something that I work on, to something that I work with; from a theory, backed up by a set of arguments and evidence that I have to shape, to an intellectual toolkit that I can now apply.

Morning edits

This is an intellectual version of the shift toward thinking of the book as a commodity in the marketplace, of watching it moving closer to production, of getting feedback on it from other people, and of seeing other people contributing to its final shape (and, one hopes, success as a product). I can no longer do anything to the content itself; and as my mind accepts that, it shifts to the mode of thinking about what it can do with the content.

It’s also driven by my decision to leave SBI, to devote myself full-time to writing and consulting about deliberate rest.

I realized that if I want REST to be a success, and if the ideas in it are to have any kind of impact in the world, I would have to work on them full-time.

So I’m now ramping up a new consultancy that’ll support my ongoing research on deliberate rest, and work with industries and organizations to apply those ideas. Having spent fifteen years as a futurist, I’ve done a LOT of workshop organizing, and spent a lot of time developing expertise around creating workshop processes and working with clients. It’s time to put that to use in a new area.

Brainstorming session on the future of science

Besides, as I’ve discovered (somewhat to my surprise) this is a kind of work I really like. Helping people explore and think through the practical implications of abstract ideas is not a skill you spend a lot of time developing as an academic; indeed, it’s safe to say that for many Ph.D.s, the question “so what’s the application of this idea?” is one that they tend to meet with derision, rather than enthusiasm.

Workshop

But over the years I’ve discovered that for my, thinking about what you can do with ideas is very rewarding. And deliberate rest is an idea I really believe in.

I didn’t realized any of this with THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION; I assumed that ideas get out in the world, and they succeed on their own. Wrong. So I don’t want to make the same mistake. I’ll make different ones, no doubt, but at least they’ll be different.

I’ll still be an occasional contractor at SBI, and contribute the odd piece or put an oar in the water for a couple unfinished projects with clients I like. And it’s a fine place; I’ve not left because I disliked it, or because I have ill feelings about it. But it’s time to focus on deliberate rest.

This is what happens when you write about your book cover

People find old postcards of sling chairs and send them to you. This is one from the 1980s that an aunt just found, scanned, and sent me.

Sling chairs

The chair from the cover of my book is even in the picture!

My next book, REST, is off to the presses

This weekend I finished reviewing the index and page proofs of my next book, REST. It now goes off to the printer, and the next time I see it will be December 6, when it hits store shelves.

Final REST cover

For those of you who are interested in the process of revising a book, I explain the process of copyediting and reviewing page proofs on my Deliberate Rest blog.

Of course, there’s plenty more to be done before the book hits the shelves: promotional campaigns to be designed, influencers to be tapped, journalists and producers to be approached about doing pieces about the book, and so on. New books aren’t finished the way, say, the Parthenon was finished; they’re “finished” the way a really good meal is finished when the cook puts it in the serving dish. It still needs to be brought to the table and served; the table has be set; and the restaurant needs to be decorated.

This work is something I knew nothing about the last time I published a trade book, and I’m really going to try not to underestimate it this time!

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑