The MBA: a Grand Tour in the age of Airbnb

Lovely column in today’s FT (behind a paywall, alas) about the MBA degree, a qualification that I’ve long regarded as pernicious. The peg for the piece is the fact that King’s College London is launching a new business school which is very pointedly not offering an MBA. At one point, Broughton retells a story about the “marshmallow challenge” invented by Peter Skillman (a former smartphone company executive):

A team of four or five people is asked to build the tallest possible structure using 20 strands of dry spaghetti, a roll of tape, a ball of string and a marshmallow, in 18 minutes. Mr Skillman found that the most successful were children just out of kindergarten. They immediately began building, and if their tower collapsed they would build again. The worst were recent MBA graduates. They would start by arguing about who had the most expertise, then sketch blueprints and make calculations before constructing a tower. If it collapsed, they had no time to start over.

That sounds too good to be true. Still, as the Italians say, if it’s not true it ought to be.

The education of Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

One of my favourite books is The Education of Henry Adams (published in 1918). It’s an extended meditation, written in old age by a scion of one of Boston’s elite families, on how the world had changed in his lifetime, and how his formal education had not prepared him for the events through which he had lived. This education had been grounded in the classics, history and literature, and had rendered him incapable, he said, of dealing with the impact of science and technology.

Re-reading Adams recently left me with the thought that there is now an opening for a similar book, The Education of Mark Zuckerberg. It would have an analogous theme, namely how the hero’s education rendered him incapable of understanding the world into which he was born. For although he was supposed to be majoring in psychology at Harvard, the young Zuckerberg mostly took computer science classes until he started Facebook and dropped out. And it turns out that this half-baked education has left him bewildered and rudderless in a culturally complex and politically polarised world…

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Sixty years on

Today is the 60th anniversary of the day that the Soviet Union announced that it had launched a satellite — Sputnik — in earth orbit. The conventional historical narrative (as recounted, for example, in my book and in Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s history) is that this event really alarmed the American public, not least because it suggested that the Soviet Union might be superior to the US in important fields like rocketry and ballistic missiles. The narrative goes on to recount that the shock resulted in a major shake-up in the US government which — among other things — led to the setting up of ARPA — the Advanced Research Projects Agency — in the Pentagon. This was the organisation which funded the development of ARPANET, the packet-switched network that was the precursor of the Internet.

The narrative is accurate in that Sputnik clearly provided the impetus for a drive to produce a massive increase in US capability in science, aerospace technology and computing. But the declassification of a trove of hitherto-secret CIA documents (for example, this one) to mark the anniversary suggests that the CIA was pretty well-informed about Soviet capabilities and intentions and that the launch of a satellite was expected, though nobody could guess at the timing. So President Eisenhower and the US government were not as shocked as the public, and they clearly worked on the principle that one should never waste a good crisis.

Why ‘free speech’ is always problematic

Nice New Yorker piece by Jill Lepore which starts with the Berkeley Free Speech movement of the 1960s and goes right up to the recent ‘kneeling’ protest by black NFL players. Concludes thus:

N.F.L. players insist that a stadium is a public square in which they have a right to exercise free speech. Their fight will rage on. But this fight began on college campuses, and it needs to be won there. All speech is not equal. Some things are true; some things are not. Figuring out how to tell the difference is the work of the university, which rests on a commitment to freedom of inquiry, an unflinching search for truth, and the fearless unmasking of error. But the university has obligations, too, to freedom of speech, whose premise, however idealized, is that, in a battle between truth and error, truth, in an open field, will always win. If the commitment to these difficult freedoms has sometimes flagged—and it has—it has just as often been renewed. Free speech is not a week or a place. It is a long and strenuous argument, as maddening as the past and as painful as the truth.

MadMen 2.0: The anthropology of the political

Gillian Tett, who is now the US Editor of the Financial Times, was trained as an anthropologist (which may be one reason why she spotted the fishy world of Collateral Debt Obligations and other dodgy derivatives before specialists who covered the banking sector). She had some interesting reflections in last weekend’s FT about data-driven campaigning in the 2016 Presidential election.

These were based on visits she had paid to the data-mavens of the Trump and Clinton campaigns during the election, and came away with some revealing insights into how they had taken completely different views on what constituted ‘politics’.

“Until now”, she writes,

”whenever pollsters have been asked to do research on politics, they have generally focussed on the things that modern western society labels ‘political’ — such as voter registration, policy surveys, party affiliation, voting records, and so on”. Broadly speaking, this is the way Clinton’s data team viewed the electorate. They had a vast database based on past voting patterns, voter registration and affiliations that was much more comprehensive than anything the Trump crowd had. “But”, says Tett, “this database was backwards-looking and limited to ‘politics’”. And Clinton’s data scientists thought that politics began and ended with ‘politics’.

The Trump crowd (which seems mainly to have been Cambridge Analytica, a strange outfit that is part hype-machine and part applied-psychometrics), took a completely different approach. As one of their executives told Tett,

”Enabling somebody and encouraging somebody to go out and vote on a wet Wednesday morning is no different in my mind to persuading and encouraging somebody to move from one toothpaste brand to another.” The task was, he said, “about understanding what message is relevant to that person at that time when they are in that particular mindset”.

This goes to the heart of what happened, in a way. It turned out that a sophisticated machine built for targeting finely-calibrated commercial messages to particular consumers was also suitable for delivering calibrated political messages to targeted voters. And I suppose that shouldn’t have come as such a shock. After all, when TV first appeared, all of the expertise and resources of Madison Avenue’s “hidden persuaders” was brought to bear on political campaigning. So what we’re seeing now is just Mad Men 2.0.

The equation that determines how Brexit will pan out

Growth = productivity + demographics

The UK’s productivity has been stagnant for a long time. And the Brexiteers propose to reduce immigration — which, when combined with an ageing population, means a declining workforce.

So the options are:

  • Find a way to dramatically boost productivity (difficult)
  • Rethink immigration policy (politically infeasible)
  • Ban contraception. (Jacob Rees-Mogg’s preferred policy.)

How to be smart and clueless at the same time

Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘defence’ of Facebook’s role in the election of Trump provides a vivid demonstration of how someone can have a very high IQ and yet be completely clueless — as Zeynep Tufecki points out in a splendid NYT OpEd piece:

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.

Lessons of history?

This morning’s Observer column:

The abiding problem with writing about digital technology is how to avoid what the sociologist Michael Mann calls “the sociology of the last five minutes”. There’s something about the technology that reduces our collective attention span to that of newts. This is how we wind up obsessing over the next iPhone, the travails of Uber, Facebook being weaponised by Russia, Samsung’s new non-combustible smartphone and so on. It’s mostly a breathless search for what Michael Lewis once called “the new new thing”.

We have become mesmerised by digital technology and by the companies that control and exploit it. Accordingly, we find it genuinely difficult to judge whether a particular development is really something new and unprecedented or just a contemporary variant on something that is much older…

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