mfioretti: solutionism*

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  1. When it comes to human beings — what motivates them, how they interact socially, to what end they organize politically — figures like Page and Zuckerberg know very little. Almost nothing, in fact. And that ignorance has enormous consequences for us all.
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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. Juicero is hilarious. But it also reflects a deeply unfunny truth about Silicon Valley, and our economy more broadly. Juicero is not, as its apologists at Vox claim, an anomaly in an otherwise innovative investment climate. On the contrary: it’s yet another example of how profoundly anti-innovation America has become. And the consequences couldn’t be more serious: the economy that produced Juicero is the same one that’s creating opioid addicts in Ohio, maiming auto workers in Alabama, and evicting families in Los Angeles.

    These phenomena might seem worlds apart, but they’re intimately connected. Innovation drives economic growth. It boosts productivity, making it possible to create more wealth with less labor. When economies don’t innovate, the result is stagnation, inequality, and the whole horizon of hopelessness that has come to define the lives of most working people today. Juicero isn’t just an entertaining bit of Silicon Valley stupidity. It’s the sign of a country committing economic suicide.

    At the root of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about innovation. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a lone genius disappears into a garage, preferably in Palo Alto, and emerges with an invention that changes the world. The engine of technological progress is the entrepreneur – the fast-moving, risk-loving, rule-breaking visionary in the mold of Steve Jobs.

    This story has been so widely repeated as to become a cliche. It’s also inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurs typically make terrible innovators. Left to its own devices, the private sector is far more likely to impede technological progress than to advance it. That’s because real innovation is very expensive to produce
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  4. Danny Crichton writes at TechCrunch that startups in Silicon Valley run on an alchemy of ignorance and amnesia and that lying is a requisite and daily part of being a founder, the grease that keeps the startup flywheel running. Most startups fail. The vast, vast majority of startup employees will never exercise their options, let alone become millionaires while doing it. But founders have little choice as they sell their company to everyone, whether investors, employees, potential employees, or clients. "Founders have to tell the lie – that everything is fine, that a feature is going to launch even though the engineer for that feature hasn't been hired yet, that payroll will run even though the VC dollars are still nowhere on the horizon," writes Crichton. "For one of the most hyper-rational populations in the world, Silicon Valley runs off a myth about startup success, of the lowly founder conquering the world."
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  5. the whole Juicero phenomenon is really symptomatic of how misguided and removed nutrition is becoming, and it’s all based on the presumption that eating well and eating right somehow takes a lot of time and effort. The Soylent hype is based on this. But this approach simply removes people further and further away from the reality of the food they eat. It comes in a closed, pristine package, the contents of which aren’t even visible. It erases the fact that food grows in the soil and feeds on the soil, it’s part of our ecosystem and part of our culture. I think this concept of food as an abstraction, not tied to the reality of the earth or the labour that goes into it, is what promotes conspicuous consumption and a disregard for our common environment. For me, it’s actually the opposite of mindful nutrition.
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  6. That idea of efficiency through speed brought by the tech industry has consequences for society. First, the immediacy of the communications creates moments of intense information overload and distractions. Like other moments of major revolution in information technology, people are racing behind to adapt to the increasing pace of information exchange. In the Big Now, the pool of instantaneous information has dramatically increased, however the pool of available understanding of what that information means has not. People and organizations are still seeking new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information in a world obsessed with the production and consumption of the freshest data points (see Social media at human pace). Doing so, they animate almost uniquely their capacity to fast-check status updates and leave their ability for reflection unstimulated (see, in French, L’écologie de l’attention). The Big Now is not designed for people to step back and understand information in a bigger context (e.g. poor debates in the recent US elections, inability to foresee the 2008 economic crisis). It is only recently that alternatives have started to emerge. For example, the recent strategic changes at Medium proposes to reverse the tendency:

    “We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention”.

    Secondly, the asynchronous Internet diminished the frontiers between work, family and leisure. In response, the tech world proposes to ‘hack’ time and to remove frictions (e.g. Soylent diet) to free up time. The flourishing personal productivity books and apps promise peace of mind with time-management advice tailored to the era of connected devices (see The global village and its discomfort). However, like building bigger roads make traffic worse, many of these solutions only provide a quick fix that induces even busier and more stressed lifestyles (see Why time management is ruining our lives). In the Big Now and its cybernetic loops, the more efficient we get at doing things and the more data we generate, the faster the Internet gets back to us, keeps us busy and grabs our limited amount of attention. Besides the promises of time-compression technologies to save us valuable time and free us for life’s important things, in the past half-century, leisure time has remained overall about the same (see Fast-world values).

    Try to imagine another version of the Internet in which the sense of simultaneity that Adam Greenfield described moves to the background of our lives and leaves stage for temporal depth and quality. Connecting people to share and collaborate has been a wonderful thing. Today, I believe that giving us the time to think will be even better (see The collaboration curse). As an illustration, regardless of current methodological trends, creativity rarely emerges rapidly. Many ideas need time to mature, they need different contexts or mindsets to get stronger. This does not often happen when teams are in ‘sprints’ or a young start-up feels under the gun in its ‘incubator’. I participated in ‘start-up accelerator’ mentoring sessions in which I advised young entrepreneurs to step back and consider if their objectives were about speed and scale. Many of them were lured by that Silicon Valley’s unicorn fantasy. Not surprisingly, the first startup decelerator program has now been created, and socratic design workshops are becoming a thing for tech executives to reconsider what’s important.
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  7. 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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  8. Remember all those breathless TV anchors extolling the Twitter revolutions and Facebook uprisings of the Arab Spring? How the internet was going to empower activists and citizen-journalists to fast-track creaking autocracies into youth-driven, market-friendly democracies? How the ideological battle of the 21st century was not between left and right but between open and closed societies?

    We now know that social media was just a small part of a complicated situation that brought down or changed governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. (And also that few of these countries have yet to experience a happily ever after.) Although the State Department has toned down the clueless optimism and Silicon Valley–will-fix-politics message, it still preaches the virtues of the internet in allowing dissidents to communicate, organize, and, implicitly, overthrow nasty governments. That message has gone out loud and clear to America’s authoritarian rivals, and they don’t like what they hear.

    When the U.S. says, “Breaking the internet into pieces gives you echo chambers instead of an innovative global marketplace of ideas,” China hears, “I don’t care about your fragile state, demographic time bomb, and ancient culture. I want you to be argumentative and disrespectful like me, so my companies can sell you more stuff.”

    When the U.S. says, “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” Russia hears “We want you to look and sound more like us, and if your crumbling petro-state succumbs to revolution as a result, so be it.”

    When President Obama paraphrases the U.S. cybersecurity strategy at a town hall meeting in China as “the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become,” China thinks, “You’re a guest and that’s just rude.”

    When the U.S. says, “We will work with partners in industry, academia, and NGOs to harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals,” Russia thinks, “We were so right to kick out those foreign NGOs.”

    And when Hillary Clinton says, “A new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day,” you can imagine President Putin pausing as he manfully wrestles the Russian bear to ask, “She said what?”
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  9. Following Newton’s monumental discoveries in the seventeenth century, a series of scientists and mathematicians, including Leibniz, Lagrange, Euler, and Hamilton, developed a new mathematical language using differential equations to describe a staggeringly broad range of natural phenomena. Problems that had baffled humankind since the ancient Greeks, from the motions of planets to the vibrations of violin strings, were suddenly mastered. The success of these theories gave scientists a boundless optimism that they could describe any aspect of nature in their equations. Walras and his compatriots were convinced that if the equations of differential calculus could capture the motions of planets and atoms in the universe, these same mathematical techniques could also capture the motion of human minds in the economy.

    Walras appeared to achieve this goal in his masterwork titled Elements of a Pure Economics published in 1872.

    Walras’s main challenge was to provide a mathematical demonstration of the invisible hand. If individuals maximizing their local concerns really do self-organize into well-functioning economies, then top-down regulation by government leaders is unnecessary. The government merely needs to stop meddling and the economy will run itself. Walras succeeded in providing a mathematical proof of this possibility, but only by making certain assumptions–lots of them.

    Anyone who builds theoretical models, as I do, knows how many simplifying assumptions must be made for a model to be mathematically tractable. The world described by the mathematics becomes detached from the real world, not because of any ideological bias, but just so that you can grind through the equations. It was at this point that economists began to rely upon a conception of human nature that defies the dictates of common sense, even before we get to the more refined dictates of psychology and evolutionary theory.

    The people who inhabit the economic models, often referred to as Homo economicus, are driven purely by self-regarding preferences. Mathematically, this means that they care only about maximizing their own interests without reference to anyone else’s interests.
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  10. SF is also seeing issues stemming from rampant growth of a class of entitled douchebags who want to treat the city as Disneyworld for adults and not have to see the homeless people their tax cuts are harming or have to deal with using the same transit options as the service class they're displacing. Tech isn't the only industry doing it, but it's the only industry trying to pretend that by doing it, they're the good guys. Finance isn't pretending to be the white fucking knight of the city.
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