Shattering the mask of the benevolent tech company

My Observer review of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things:

Much has been made in previous histories of Silicon Valley’s counter-cultural origins. Taplin finds other, less agreeable roots, notably in the writings of Ayn Rand, a flake of Cadbury proportions who had an astonishing impact on many otherwise intelligent individuals. These include Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over events leading to the banking collapse of 2008, and [Peter] Thiel, who made an early fortune out of PayPal and was the first investor in Facebook. Rand believed that “achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life”. She had no time for altruism, government or anything else that might interfere with capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Neither does Thiel. For him, “competition is for losers”. He believes in investing only in companies that have the potential to become monopolies and he thinks monopolies are good for society. “Americans mythologise competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines,” he once wrote. “Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away.”

The three great monopolies of the digital world have followed the Thiel playbook and Taplin does a good job of explaining how each of them works and how, strangely, their vast profits are never “competed away”. He also punctures the public image so assiduously fostered by Google and Facebook – that they are basically cool tech companies run by good chaps (and they are still mainly chaps, btw) who are hellbent on making the world a better place – whereas, in fact, they are increasingly hard to distinguish from the older brutes of the capitalist jungle…

Read on

What happens when free trade’s ‘losers’ realise that Trump can’t help them?

Sombre column by Dani Rodrik on the new conventional wisdom that’s evolved as a response to the populist surge. “Gone are the confident assertions”, he writes, “that globalization benefits everyone: we must, the elites now concede, accept that globalization produces both winners and losers”. He quotes Nouriel Roubini’s assertion that the backlash against globalization “can be contained and managed through policies that compensate workers for its collateral damage and costs. Only by enacting such policies will globalization’s losers begin to think that they may eventually join the ranks of its winners.”

The problem is that even if one accepts that Trump was genuinely concerned by the plight of the victims of globalisation who voted for him (a big ‘if’, given his narcissism), he cannot actually do anything to help because he is himself a prisoner of a Republican Congress that has no intention of doing anything other than buttressing the interests of the wealthy.

Conventional wisdom about finding ways of helping those ‘left behind’ by globalization, writes Rodrik,

presumes that the winners are motivated by enlightened self-interest – that they believe buy-in from the losers is essential to maintain economic openness. Trump’s presidency has revealed an alternative perspective: globalization, at least as currently construed, tilts the balance of political power toward those with the skills and assets to benefit from openness, undermining whatever organized influence the losers might have had in the first place. Inchoate discontent about globalization, Trump has shown, can easily be channeled to serve an altogether different agenda, more in line with elites’ interests.

As far as the US is concerned, the game’s up. What happens, one wonders, when the angry brigade realise that they have been royally screwed?

If something can be done, then…

This morning’s Observer column:

The biggest impediments to automation are the practical difficulties that tech evangelists tend to ignore. Some of them have already sussed that self-driving cars are a distant prospect because their regulatory and infrastructural requirements are so complex. That’s why much of the excitement in the industry is now focused on trucks. It’s easy to see how autonomous “truck trains” could work on motorways, and indeed there have already been trials of such convoys.

The trouble starts when the vehicle has to leave the motorway in order to reach its final destination. Suddenly the truck faces the same obstacles as the self-driving car. So maybe it will be necessary to have human pilots to take it that last mile safely, just as ships have pilots to guide them into harbour. That’s also why we are unlikely to see autonomous white vans any time soon: their drivers do much more than simply drive – just like those DHL guys in Venice. So perhaps tech determinists need to revise their mantra: if something can be done, then it may be done – provided the economics and the practicalities are right.

Read on

Sexism and gender bias in Silicon Valley

Even the Economist gets it:

For a set of people who finance disruptive firms, venture capitalists are surprisingly averse to disrupting their own tried-and-tested way of doing things. They sit in small groups, meet entrepreneurs and repeat a single formula for investing whenever possible. John Doerr, who backed companies like Google, summed up his philosophy thus: “Invest in white male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford.”

Defenders of the valley have two retorts. One is that throwing stones at the most successful business cluster on Earth makes no sense. Market forces ensure that the best ideas win funding, irrespective of gender. The data suggest a different story. Only 7% of the founders of tech startups in America that raised $20m or more are women, according to recent research by Bloomberg. Yet nobody would argue that men make the best founders nine times out of ten. On average, firms founded by women obtain less funding ($77m) than those founded by men ($100m). The VC industry has been successful enough to ward off the pressure to change. That does not make it perfect.

A second defence is that VCs rely on tight-knit relationships, in which trust is essential. Call this the “dinner with Mike Pence” gambit, after the American vice-president’s reported refusal to eat alone with a woman other than his wife. On this argument, any outsider, particularly one lacking a Y chromosome, is liable to upset the club’s precious dynamic. Venture capital is indeed a strange mix of capital and contacts, and peculiarly hard to industrialise as a result. But as a justification for sexism, clubbiness is an argument that is as old as it is thin…

Yep. But when will society wake up to the fact that a technology that is changing everyone’s lives — male and female — is designed and financed by a tiny male only elite?

How to do invective

From H.L. Mencken’s obit of William Jennings Bryan who was three times the Democratic candidate for President of the US, and the 41st Secretary of State but who was also a major opponent of Darwinism and a witness in the 1925 Scopes trial:

When I first encountered him, on the sidewalk in front of the office of the rustic lawyers who were his associates in the Scopes case, the trial was yet to begin, and so he was still expansive and amiable. I had printed in the Nation, a week or so before, an article arguing that the Tennessee anti-evolution law, whatever its wisdom, was at least constitutional – that the yahoos of the State had a clear right to have their progeny taught whatever they chose, and kept secure from whatever knowledge violated their superstitions. The old boy professed to be delighted with the argument, and gave the gaping bystanders to understand that I was a publicist of parts. Not to be outdone, I admired the preposterous country shirt that he wore – sleeveless and with the neck cut very low. We parted in the manner of two ambassadors.

But that was the last touch of amiability that I was destined to see in Bryan. The next day the battle joined and his face became hard. By the end of the week he was simply a walking fever. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal magnetism seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the courtroom, standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me; I watched them all day long. They were blazing points of hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me, and I got my share, for my reports of the trial had come back to Dayton, and he had read them. It was like coming under fire.

Thus he fought his last fight, thirsting savagely for blood. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended to demagogy so dreadful that his very associates at the trial table blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels hated up – to lead his forlorn mob of imbeciles against the foe. That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It insisted upon seeing the whole battle as a comedy. Even [Clarence] Darrow, who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. One day he lured poor Bryan into the folly I have mentioned: his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I’d never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic – there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at. The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. So he was prepared for the final slaughter. He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. He was passing out a poor mountebank.

Lovely term, that: mountebank.