mfioretti: algorithms* + silicon valley*

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  1. When we look at digital technology and platforms, it’s always instructive to remember that they exist to extract data. The longer you are on the platform, the more you produce and the more can be extracted from you. Polarization keys engagement, and engagement/attention are the what keep us on platforms. In the words of Tristan Harris, the former Google Design Ethicist, and one of the earliest SV folks to have the scales fall from his eyes, “What people don’t know about or see about Facebook is that polarization is built into the business model,” Harris told NBC News. “Polarization is profitable.”

    David Golumbia’s description of the scholarly concept of Cyberlibertarianism is useful here (emphasis mine) :

    In perhaps the most pointed form of cyberlibertarianism, computer expertise is seen as directly applicable to social questions. In The Cultural Logic of Computation, I argue that computational practices are intrinsically hierarchical and shaped by identification with power. To the extent that algorithmic forms of reason and social organization can be said to have an inherent politics, these have long been understood as compatible with political formations on the Right rather than the Left.

    So the cui bono of digital polarization are the wealthy, the powerful, the people with so much to gain promoting systems that maintain the status quo, despite the language of freedom, democratization, and community that are featured so prominently when people like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey talk about technology. Digital technology in general, and platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter specifically, exist to promote polarization and maintain the existing concentration of power.

    To the extent that Silicon Valley is the seat of the technological power, it’s useful to note that the very ground of what we now call Silicon Valley is built on the foundation of segregating black and white workers. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law talks about auto workers in 1950’s California:

    So in 1953 the company (Ford) announced it would close its Richmond plant and reestablish operations in a larger facility fifty miles south in Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose, rural at the time. (Milpitas is a part of what we now call Silicon Valley.)

    Because Milpitas had no apartments, and houses in the area were off limits to black workers—though their incomes and economic circumstances were like those of whites on the assembly line—African Americans at Ford had to choose between giving up their good industrial jobs , moving to apartments in a segregated neighborhood of San Jose, or enduring lengthy commutes between North Richmond and Milpitas.
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  2. The point is not that making a world to accommodate oneself is bad, but that when one has as much power over the rest of the world as the tech sector does, over folks who don’t naturally share its worldview, then there is a risk of a strange imbalance. The tech world is predominantly male—very much so. Testosterone combined with a drive to eliminate as much interaction with real humans as possible—do the math, and there’s the future.

    We’ve gotten used to service personnel and staff who have no interest or participation in the businesses where they work. They have no incentive to make the products or the services better. This is a long legacy of the assembly line, standardising, franchising and other practices that increase efficiency and lower costs. It’s a small step then from a worker that doesn’t care to a robot. To consumers, it doesn’t seem like a big loss.

    Those who oversee the AI and robots will, not coincidentally, make a lot of money as this trend towards less human interaction continues and accelerates—as many of the products produced above are hugely and addictively convenient. Google, Facebook and other companies are powerful and yes, innovative, but the innovation curiously seems to have had an invisible trajectory. Our imaginations are constrained by who and what we are. We are biased in our drives, which in some ways is good, but maybe some diversity in what influences the world might be reasonable and may be beneficial to all.

    To repeat what I wrote above—humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. I’d argue that though those might seem like liabilities, many of those attributes actually work in our favor. Many of our emotional responses have evolved over millennia, and they are based on the probability that our responses, often prodded by an emotion, will more likely than not offer the best way to deal with a situation.

    Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote about a patient he called Elliot, who had damage to his frontal lobe that made him unemotional. In all other respects he was fine—intelligent, healthy—but emotionally he was Spock. Elliot couldn’t make decisions. He’d waffle endlessly over details. Damasio concluded that though we think decision-making is rational and machinelike, it’s our emotions that enable us to actually decide.

    With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents and unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction, cooperation and collaboration with others multiplies those opportunities.

    We’re a social species—we benefit from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to achieve what we cannot alone. In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari claims this is what allowed us to be so successful. He also claims that this cooperation was often facilitated by a possibility to believe in “fictions” such as nations, money, religions and legal institutions. Machines don’t believe in fictions, or not yet anyway. That’s not to say they won’t surpass us, but if machines are designed to be mainly self-interested, they may hit a roadblock. If less human interaction enables us to forget how to cooperate, then we lose our advantage.

    Our random accidents and odd behaviors are fun—they make life enjoyable. I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human interactions. Remove humans from the equation and we are less complete as people or as a society. “We” do not exist as isolated individuals—we as individuals are inhabitants of networks, we are relationships. That is how we prosper and thrive.
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  3. At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening. 2 » Once again, capitalism’s relentless drive to diversify and intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge of qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live together. By integrating different technologies around common protocols, something is being created which is more than the sum of its parts. When the ability to produce and receive unlimited amounts of information in any form is combined with the reach of the global telephone networks, existing forms of work and leisure can be fundamentally transformed. New industries will be born and current stock market favourites will swept away. At such moments of profound social change, anyone who can offer a simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great interest. At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age: the Californian Ideology.

    This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, TV programmes, websites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich. Not surprisingly, this optimistic vision of the future has been enthusiastically embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy academics, futurist bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA. As usual, Europeans have not been slow in copying the latest fad from America. While a recent EU Commission report recommends following the Californian free market model for building the information superhighway, cutting-edge artists and academics eagerly imitate the post human philosophers of the West Coast’s Extropian cult. 3 » With no obvious rivals, the triumph of the Californian Ideology appears to be complete.

    The widespread appeal of these West Coast ideologues isn’t simply the result of their infectious optimism. Above all, they are passionate advocates of what appears to be an impeccably libertarian form of politics – they want information technologies to be used to create a new ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ where all individuals will be able to express themselves freely within cyberspace. 4 » However, by championing this seemingly admirable ideal, these techno-boosters are at the same time reproducing some of the most atavistic features of American society, especially those derived from the bitter legacy of slavery. Their utopian vision of California depends upon a wilful blindness towards the other – much less positive – features of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental degradation. 5 » Ironically, in the not too distant past, the intellectuals and artists of the Bay Area were passionately concerned about these issues.
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  4. It seems everyone in Silicon Valley wants the world to work this way. You see it in TV ads and YouTube videos, on Squarespace-templated websites and Kickstarter campaigns. As everything from your Subaru to your garden hose comes online, engineers and designers envision the world responding to you as you move through it, adapting to your moods and desires (and purchasing history). Someday, they say, everything will know what you want, when you want it. For now, the goal is to do absolutely anything with a single click of a button. Think of it as a universal remote for life.

    Buttons have always held near-mystical power. You see one and want to press it. Especially if it’s red. Buttons are physical, active, and directly correlative in the way touchscreen can’t be. That’s why, when Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky and his team started pondering how to improve their smartwatch, they focused on its four buttons.
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  5. Not everything is being “disrupting” tho. Only the easy or non essential things are being disrupted. Cancer, bigotry, hunger, you know the “hard” stuff—not so much. Ain’t no college boys trying to solve those problems, no VCs funding the disruption of those things. The stuff that does not “need” to be disrupted is being “disrupted” at an alarming rate. Just call a taxi or drive yourself,lol. Do we really “need” self driving cars? Nope. We need to start “disrupting” the hard things, not the silly/dumb/non essential tasks/product/services/etc.
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  6. che cosa c'è di diverso in questi esempi rispetto alla storia delle lavandaie? Due sono a mio avviso le differenze essenziali.

    La prima differenza è relativa ai tempi: la diffusione delle lavatrici sul mercato e, di riflesso, il suo impatto sul mercato del lavoro sono stati più graduali. Le lavandaie e le loro famiglie hanno avuto sufficiente tempo di realizzare cosa stava succedendo e di trovare soluzioni alternative. Le innovazioni legate al mondo del digitale e di Internet hanno ritmi estremamente più stretti; arrivano dirompenti e scombussolano in pochi mesi equilibri di mercato che si erano creati in decenni. Il mercato del lavoro non fa in tempo ad assorbire l'impatto e intere categorie di lavoratori rimangono travolte e totalmente disorientate.

    La seconda differenza è invece meno intuitiva e implica una visione dell'impatto socio-economico di Internet più lucida e meno ingenua rispetto alla media. Questa seconda differenza è relativa a una variabile – per così dire – geografica. Come abbiamo detto, l'avvento delle lavatrici ha tolto lavoro alla lavandaie ma ha creato sullo stesso territorio (o comunque poco lontano) nuove opportunità di lavoro. Anche l'economia legata a internet e al digitale crea nuove opportunità (per gli informatici, per i commerciali, per i consulenti, per gli esperti di comunicazione...) ma ha una “leggera” peculiarità: questi effetti positivi non ricadono facilmente sullo stesso territorio in cui si sono registrati gli effetti negativi. Per intenderci, per cento agenzie di viaggi che chiudono in Italia vengono assunti cento nuove figure (sviluppatori, commerciali, redattori, consulenti...) in California.
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  7. They want to replace politicians with engineers and our modern financial system with one backed by the laws of science. They dream of a world without scarcity, where the miracles of technology can easily meet the needs of everyone in the nation.

    No, we’re not talking about today’s Bitcoin-hawking Silicon Valley techno-utopians. We’re talking about Technocracy Inc., an organization founded in 1931 to promote the ideas of a man named Howard Scott.

    Scott saw government and industry as wasteful and unfair. He believed that a new economy run by engineers would be more efficient and equitable. His core idea was that what he called the “price system”—essentially the capitalist economy and the fiat currencies it uses—should be replaced with a new economic system based on how much energy it takes to produce specific goods. Under Scott’s plan, engineers would run a new continent-wide government called the Technate and optimize the use of energy to assure abundance.

    It would be an exaggeration to say that modern Silicon Valley is self-consciously carrying on the legacy of Howard Scott and Technocracy Inc. itself. But it’s hard not to hear echoes of his ideas today when tech moguls propose floating city-states and pitch idealistic high-tech solutions as answers to deep-seated social issues such as homelessness. The group influenced inventor and utopian thinker Buckminster Fuller, whose ideas in turn shaped the thinking of Steward Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog—the DIY tome that shaped the early personal computing and networked computing era and the thinking of everyone from Steve Jobs to the founders of WIRED
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  8. If only Andreessen weren’t so rare in this respect. It’s not hyperbole to say that we are living through one of the most dysfunctional, polarized, and narrow-minded eras in US political history. But that makes 2015 the perfect time for what Silicon Valley calls disruption. For example, did you know that the US Senate doesn’t allow the use of cloud-based services by its members? Or that those same senators are prevented from using social media analytics tools—even to measure constituent sentiment? Crazy, right? The attempt to drag our esteemed representatives into the 21st century is what got senior staff writer Jessi Hempel interested in talking to US senator Cory Booker about some of the reforms he and fellow senator Claire McCaskill—a social media ace—have proposed
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  9. a broad survey of on-demand workers found that many encountered lower pay than they expected and hours tied tightly to periods of peak demand. They discovered they had to work earlier or later than they expected, and longer hours in general, because the systems weren’t as flexible as they assumed. The upshot: people are leaving on-demand work after finding out the promised advantages over traditional jobs don’t hold up.

    And this dissatisfaction could wind up being a big problem for Silicon Valley.

    Half of the respondents said they planned to stop working for on-demand companies within the year.

    An overwhelming majority of respondents—75 percent—said their top reason for doing on-demand work was because they thought it offered “greater schedule flexibility.” Yet nearly half of respondents said “peak hours and demand” was the most significant factor dictating when they worked. (“Family” came in second at 35 percent). Many workers didn’t end up straying too far from a traditional 9-to-5 schedule because this was when demand tended to be high. Inflexible schedules were a particular problem in ride service work.

    Still, insufficient pay, not scheduling, turned out to be the most common reason workers left their jobs. In fact, the likelihood of respondents staying in the job or leaving was directly tied to their earnings, which varied depending on the type of on-demand job.
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  10. Mothball public housing, food assistance, Medicaid, and the rest, and replace them with a single check. It turns out that the tech investors promoting basic income, by and large, aren't proposing to fund the payouts themselves; they'd prefer that the needy foot the bill for everyone else.

    "The cost has to come from somewhere," Hawkins explained, "and I think the most logical place to take it from is government-provided services."

    This kind of reasoning has started to find a constituency in Washington. The Cato Institute, Charles Koch's think tank for corporate-friendly libertarianism, published a series of essays last August debating the pros and cons of basic income. That same week, an article appeared in the Atlantic making a "conservative case for a guaranteed basic income." It suggested that basic income is actually a logical extension of Paul Ryan's scheme to replace federal welfare programs with cash grants to states—the Republican Party's latest bid to crown itself "the party of ideas." Basic income is still not quite yet speakable in the halls of power, but Republicans may be bringing it closer than they realize.

    If a basic income were too low, people wouldn't be able to quit their jobs, but employers would still lower their wages. It could incline more businesses to act like Walmart, letting their workers scrape by on government programs while they pay a pittance. Workers might get money for nothing, but they'd also find themselves with dwindling leverage in their workplaces.

    If we were to fund basic income only by gutting existing welfare, and not by taxing the rich, it would do the opposite of fixing inequality; money once reserved for the poor would end up going to those who need it less. Instead of being a formidable bulwark against poverty, a poorly funded basic-income program could produce a vast underclass more dependent on whoever cuts the checks. And as out-there as the idea can seem, Weeks's leftist critics complain that it's still a tweak, a reform. "It's not going to signal the end of capitalism," she recognizes.

    Like pretty much all the shortcut solutions Silicon Valley offers, basic income would have its perks, but it isn't enough to solve our real problems on its own. There's still no substitute for organizing more power in more communities—the power to shape society, not just to fiddle with someone else's app. Social Security, for instance, came to be thanks to the popular struggles of the 1930s, and it carried huge swaths of old people out of poverty. Obamacare, a set of reforms mostly written by the industry it was meant to regulate, has turned out to be a far more mixed bag.

    A basic income designed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley is more likely to reinforce their power than to strengthen the poor. But a basic income arrived at through the vision and the struggle of those who need it most would help ensure that it meets their needs first. If we're looking for a way through the robot apocalypse, we can do better than turn to the people who are causing it.
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