Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: politics (page 1 of 2)

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.

Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025

University of Wisconsin history professor Alfred McCoy is blogging about a project he and an international team of scholars has just completed, a series of scenarios on "the end of the American century." This is part of a larger project titled "U.S. Empire Project: Rise & Decline of American Global Power," which seems to be keeping alive Madison's rich tradition of radical scholarship.

It's not clear from the description of the project what kinds of methods they used to craft the four scenarios (or how they were chosen, etc.), but I hope to learn more about the project soon. From McCoy's post:

As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

Available economic, educational, and military data indicate that, when it comes to U.S. global power, negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could be history by 2030….

Viewed historically, the question is not whether the United States will lose its unchallenged global power, but just how precipitous and wrenching the decline will be. In place of Washington's wishful thinking, let’s use the National Intelligence Council's own futuristic methodology to suggest four realistic scenarios for how, whether with a bang or a whimper, U.S. global power could reach its end in the 2020s (along with four accompanying assessments of just where we are today). The future scenarios include: economic decline, oil shock, military misadventure, and World War III. While these are hardly the only possibilities when it comes to American decline or even collapse, they offer a window into an onrushing future.

What could behavioral economists make of the Sarah Palin phenomenon?

Frank Rich has this nice line:

If logic applied to Palin’s career trajectory, this month might have been judged dreadful for her. In an otherwise great year for Republicans she endorsed a “Star Wars” bar gaggle of anomalous and wacky losers…

But logic doesn’t apply to Palin. What might bring down other politicians only seems to make her stronger: the malapropisms and gaffes, the cut-and-run half-term governorship, family scandals, shameless lying and rapacious self-merchandising. In an angry time when America’s experts and elites all seem to have failed, her amateurism and liabilities are badges of honor. She has turned fallibility into a formula for success.

I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Star Wars quite the same way again, and if someone doesn’t have a YouTube video of this in the next 36 hours I’ll lose all faith in the hive mind. But Rich raises a good question: what is it about the dynamic of Palin that makes her thrive off personal scandal and unnecessary self-created chaos? Or more to the point, what is it about her fans’ relationship with Palin that lets them take all this and see it as strength?

[To the tune of Van Morrison, “I’ll Take Care Of You/It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” from the album A Night In San Francisco (a 3-star song, imo).]

Why do people vote? “A sticker and a 0% chance of changing the results of the election.”

Via Daily Dish, a very interesting article about why people vote.

On Tuesday, 42% of registered voters took time out of their day to travel to their assigned polling location, wait in line, exchange niceties with a grumpy volunteer, and fill in some bubbles with a Sharpie. What did they receive in return?: a sticker and a 0% chance of changing the results of the election.

Political scientists have tried to calculate the probability that one vote will make a difference in a Presidential election. They estimate that the chances are roughly 1 in 10 million to 1 in 100 million, depending on your state. This does not give an individual much incentive to vote. In a YouGov survey, we asked respondents to estimate the same probability. “If you vote in 2012, what are the chances that your vote will determine the winner of the Presidential election?” Some of the responses are illuminating.

Not surprisingly, Americans vastly overestimate the chances that their vote will make a difference. Our median respondent felt that there is a 1 in 1000 chance that their vote could change the outcome of a Presidential election, missing the true chance by a factor of 10,000. However, this dramatic overestimation does not explain the prevalence of turnout, because those who actually vote know that this probability is low. Over 40% of regular voters know that the chances of a pivotal vote are less than 1 in a million. Amazingly, turnout is negatively correlated with the perceived chances that one vote will make a difference—meaning the less likely you are to think your vote will actually matter, the more likely you are to vote [emphasis added].

This reminds me of a study that showed a complicated relationship between knowledge about climate change and a willingness to act on it. As I explained in my article "Futures 2.0,"

the presence of expertise about the future may encourage people to be less engaged in shaping their own futures. A study of popular responses to climate change suggests that a higher degree of confidence in the reality of climate change and the reliability of climate science can promote passivity and a sense that experts will deal with the problem, rather than inspire people to change their lives (Kellstedt et al., 2008; Swim et al., 2009). In another remarkable study, Jan Engelmann and colleagues used fMRI to observe the brains of people who received expert advice during a financial simulation. They found that subjects thought differently about their decisions when they received expert advice – even bad advice – than when they worked on their own. As the researchers put it, "one effect of expert advice is to ‘offload’ the calculation of value of decision options from the individual’s brain" (Engelmann et al., 2009). Put another way, "the advice made the brain switch off (at least to a great extent) processes required for financial decision-making" (Nir, 2009). In an era in which ordinary people play a bigger role in shaping the future, the prospect of an inverse relationship between how much confidence they place in expert opinion about complex problems, and how responsible they feel for acting to solve it, presents a substantial conundrum for futurists.

Clearly just giving people information about the future, or about the choices before them, and assuming they'll then act in a rational (or even straightforward, self-interested) manner doesn't quite work. We like to think we're rational, and we like to think other people are rational; but it's not quite so. As the voting example shows, sometimes that's a good thing; more often, though, it's not, and we need to better deal with that fact.

The Tetlock Gambit

A few years ago, I coined the term Nunberg Error, in honor of Geoffrey Nunberg and his observation about our tendency when forecasting to overestimate the impact of technological change while underestimating social change. It's time now to coin a new term, just in time for the avalanche of punditry around the midterms: the Tetlock Gambit.

Briefly, the Tetlock Gambit (named in honor of Philip Tetlock, author of the fantastic book Expert Political Judgment) is a kind of pundit's hedge: it's an outrageous prediction, made in the hope of a big payoff if it comes true, and with the knowledge that there'll be no penalty if it's false. So you can't be a true believer in, say, the idea that we'll use nanotechnology to rewire our brains, and forecast the same; you must make such a prediction self-consciously and cynically.

The example that inspires all this? Penn professor Justin Wolfers:

The Democrats will retain control of the House and the Senate. And I’m the only person in D.C. insightful enough to make this brave forecast.

If I’m right? Well you can bet that I’ll beat the drums loudly and tell everyone in sight that I called it. I’ll blog it all week. I’ll write an op-ed explaining my insights. I’ll go on to Jon Stewart’s show to explain the fine art of psephology. Hopefully you’ll be calling me the Nouriel Roubini of political punditry. I’ll go on to a new life of lucrative speaking engagements and big book advances, while I beat back my coterie of devoted followers.

And if I’m wrong? We both know there won’t be any real consequences. I’ll be sure to sell some clever story. You know, there was weather on election day (hot or cold, wet or dry — it all works!) and this messed with turnout. Or perhaps, This Time Was Different, and my excellent forecast was knocked off course by our first black president, by rising cellphone penetration or a candidate who may not be a witch. I’ll remind you how I nailed previous elections. (Follow the links, you’ll see I’m doing it already!) I’ll bluster and use long words like sociotropic, or perhaps heteroskedastic. And I’ll remind you that my first name is Professor, and I went to a prestigious school. More to the point, if I’m wrong, I’m sure we’ll all have forgotten by the time the 2012 election rolls around. Shhhh… I won’t tell if you won’t.

As he confesses at the end of his prediction,

[Y]es, my forecast is more about the marketplace for punditry than it is about this election. I’m influenced strongly by my Penn colleague Philip Tetlock, who has spent decades pointing out just how bad expert political judgment is. Given these market failures, I would be a fool not to go for the gold.

It was inevitable that someone would read Tetlock as a manual for how to succeed as a pundit, rather than as a caution against trusting pundits, much as Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker was read by some college students as a how-to manual for success on Wall Street, not a caution against going into finance.

No wait, someone has already done it: I did, in my "Evil Futurists' Guide to World Domination."

Leon Fuerth on “Strategic Myopia: The Case for Forward Engagement”

From Leon Fuerth, "Strategic Myopia: The Case for Forward Engagement":

The habit of heavily discounting the future in favor of the nearterm must be abandoned, for the simple reason that the future—defined here as the rate of incidence of major social change—is accelerating. That acceleration represents, in turn, the dramatically quickened pace of science and technology, translated into ethical, political, economic and social consequences. If we are overtaken and swamped by the accelerating rate of change, then it is likely that our society will fail to grasp major opportunities for advancement and forfeit them to others who are more alert. We will also fail to take action in time to mitigate the societal impact of major, abrupt dislocations….

Leaders are not unmindful of the need to think of the longer-term implications of their actions, but they also know that representing the interests of the future often involves significant political risk to themselves in the present. Faced with such a choice, they frequently take comfort from the bromide that it is impossible to predict the future. That is certainly true in a literal sense, but it obscures a much more important fact: that it is entirely feasible to think about the future in disciplined fashion and to reach conclusions about it that ought to be important factors in the making of contemporary policy.

Forecasting will never reach the point at which it eliminates doubt. However, it can be used as part of an orderly policymaking process to diminish risk and to maximize opportunity. Our era is destined to be marked by accelerating, deep change. In such a period it is increasingly dangerous to make policy only in the short term or to look at the universe of possibilities through the filter of ideology. An important hallmark of successful governance is the timely ability to recognize what may happen, in order to have the best possible chance of influencing what does happen. Democratic governance is at risk of losing this capacity by failing to analyze the alternative paths that lead towards futures that are desirable, or away from those that are not, and especially by failing to begin that process early enough to permit adequate time for the debate and deliberation our system requires.

During the Cold War, the United States practiced “Forward Deployment”: placing its intelligence sensors and its military forces at strategic locations chosen to improve our ability to engage the enemy as early as possible, on terms advantageous to ourselves. We should now be practicing what ought to be thought of as “Forward Engagement”: recognizing and responding to major societal challenges sooner rather than later, when our leverage over the course of events is greatest and the costs for influencing them are lowest.

The greatest political column since Sally Quinn…

…did that stupid thing about dueling weddings:

My Constituents Care Way More About Political Gamesmanship Than Jobs, Health Care, And The Economy
By House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH)

It is my responsibility as an elected official to look out for the people back home, the voters who sent me to Washington. So, after 20 years representing Ohio’s 8th District, I know what the good citizens of Montgomery, Preble, and Butler counties really want: someone who engages in the kind of calculated political gamesmanship that increases his standing in the Republican party while simultaneously hindering our country’s legislative process at every conceivable turn.

I assure you, the last thing my voters need is some well intended, do-all-I-possibly-can-to-help-the-little-guy congressman running around Washington, working across the aisle, and fighting tooth and nail for jobs, health care, and financial reform to ensure their tax dollars never end up in the hands of banks capable of holding our entire economy hostage.

“In the current era it is prosperity, not ideology, that keeps authoritarian regimes in power”

This bit by Anne Applebaum in Slate caught my eye a little while ago:

I would say that in the closing days of the 2000s, the future does not look good for all authoritarian regimes. However, the signs are very positive for one particular authoritarian regime: China. Partly this is because the Chinese, unlike the Iranians and the Russians, continue to deliver prosperity, and in the current era it is prosperity, not ideology, that keeps authoritarian regimes in power.

Perhaps, then, we are embarking not upon a new twilight of liberalism but, rather, on an era in which prosperity, in the form of infrastructure as well as consumption, becomes the focus of international competition and U.S. foreign policy. We are already heading that way: The Copenhagen climate summit failed, after all, because the United States and China could not agree on a matter that affected their prospects for growth. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the focus of U.S. foreign policy for the past decade, is dwindling to the status of major nuisance.

Some time ago I wrote about Buckminster Fuller and the geodesic dome, and its curious cultural trajectory– its use by Cold Warriors in international exhibitions in the 1950s, then by commune-builders in the 1960s and early 1970s. American exhibits at trade fairs were designed to show people in non-aligned countries what was best about the United States, and why the model of liberal, democratic capitalism was superior to the Soviet model; but organizers argued about just what was "best." Exhibits tended to emphasize economic growth and prosperity, rather than personal liberty, the belief that government belonged to the people, or the power of workers to organize and assert their rights: the message tended to boil down to, "Americans are free… to buy houses, freezers, and cars."

Some of these were trade fairs, which were pretty tightly focused on promoting trade and industry. But the equation of freedom with prosperity was pretty clear and consistent, and according to contemporary accounts (in the American press, anyway) it was pretty successful. So if the Chinese are able to make a convincing argument that their system delivers prosperity and growth, I wouldn't dismiss the attractiveness of that claim.

Sarah Palin, muse

William Shatner reads Sarah Palin’s resignation speech as poetry (listen for the bongo drums).

Thanks to Balloon Juice for costing me several minutes of productivity this morning. Though the best commentary is from Gawker:

It’s like Peggy Noonan, Jack London, and William Faulkner wandered into the woods with three buttons of peyote and one typewriter, and only this speech emerged.

And she wrote this speech! In advance, on paper! What does any of it mean? It is amazing. Twenty years ago she could competently descibe a dog race, three years ago she could articulate a position on the abortion issue, and this weekend she composed a resignation speech by throwing culture war stock phrases into a hat and dumping it upside down on a copy of The Paranoid Style in American Politics [ed: great book! really holds up!].

Okay, now I’m going to work.

Paul Miller on government and cyberspace

Paul Miller has an interesting piece in The Independent on government and cyberspace:

The relationship between government and the internet has always been tense. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel”, typed John Perry Barlow in 1996, “your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter and there is no matter here.”

His Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace spread quickly among the libertarian digerati of the time. For those who craved a space over which governments could have no influence, it was an appealing idea. They also believed that the internet age would herald an era when decentralised technology could do away with the need for government at all.

John Perry Barlow and his friends, of course, were wrong. The internet hasn’t swept away government, neither has the internet completely escaped government intervention… But we’re still just at the beginning of understanding the relationship between government and the ways that the internet can help deliver public goods – sometimes through government itself and sometimes through new lightweight public service start-ups. As we attempt to understand what might be possible, we need to replace Barlow’s black or white ‘cyberspace versus government’ with a new understanding of the way that online tools could help us to live the lives we want to lead….

What Meetup and the hundreds of other online businesses that facilitate real world activity show is that the real power of the net in the future won’t be about information or content – although that’s what we use it for mainly these days – its real power is organisation away from the computer itself. The most successful services will be those with a ‘Why Don’t You’ ethic, which encourages us away from the screen and to be active participants in the world outside….

There was a time when digital technologies were about a new space, detached from the physical. The digerati took William Gibson’s word ‘cyberspace’ and made it their own. This was a place where the pioneers would be safe from governments or corporations or anybody impinging upon their freedom. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Actually, there’s no such thing as cyberspace. Cyberspace is dead. But I don’t think we should mourn it because what we should be working on is much more exciting. What we’ve realised is that the power of the internet is in changing the real world.

Those last three sentences summarize about half of my book.

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