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…

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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.

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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?

The search for the ultimate ‘man-cave’

My eye was caught by an extraordinary piece in the FT last weekend which, in a strange way, relates to my Observer column about the Silicon Valley crowd’s obsession with dodging mortality. The FT article is about the new market in apocalypse bunkers.

The location that has become something of an unlikely media sensation is the Survival Condo Project in the usually rather less than super-prime plains north of Wichita, Kansas. Situated on a 1960s Atlas F missile launch site, the 15 condos in the first site are all sold and orders are being taken for places in the second silo. The reason there has been so much interest, from media and buyers, is the spec.

We might think of bunkers as places of desperate last resort, bleak, damp concrete cellars with industrial shelving stacked with cans of beans and musty-smelling gas masks. These, however, are something altogether different. The “Penthouse” units, comprising 3,600 sq ft of living space spread over two storeys, start from $4.5m. LED screens offer a window onto a fantasy outside world of trees and waterfalls (not the actual, frazzled and burnt-out landscape). The communal facilities include a climbing wall, dog park, pool, cinema and shooting range (of course). They also provide hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture and aquaculture, and the machinery to filter air and water indefinitely. These are bunkers for the long haul: five years or more completely off-grid.

The FT piece claims that “the latest real estate trend among internet billionaires and hedge fund tycoons is, apparently, buying bunkers”. If this is indeed true then one wonders what it means. These, after all, are people who made their fortunes from correctly guessing the short- and medium-term future. Does their appetite for these hideous, inhuman residences suggest that they have real fears for the future? Or are they so rich that blowing $4.5m on a holiday house they might never need is a bit like the rest of us buying a ticket in the lottery? The cost is relatively trivial, and you never know… you might get lucky.

Making death optional

This morning’s Observer column:

In this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This proposition doesn’t cut much ice in Silicon Valley, where they take a poor view of paying taxes. What’s interesting is that they are also coming to the view that perhaps death is optional too, at least for the very rich.

You think I jest? Well, meet Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s owners. Three years ago, Maris decided to create a company that will “solve” death…

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So the iPad is “done”. Really?

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a headline in the Register, an invaluable online source of tech news and opinion. “Clearance sale shows Apple’s iPad is over. It’s done,” it read. This was a quotation from a piece by Volker Weber on the latest product announcements from Apple. “iPad is the biggest news,” he wrote, “and it says: the iPad is done. Apple is just refining the components, but there isn’t much they can do these days to make yet another super-duper Earth-shattering innovation here.”

Since I was reading this on my iPad Pro, which is probably the most useful electronic device I have ever owned, it came as a bit of a shock. But in fact Volker was really just articulating a truth about digital hardware, which is that the evolution of all such products (and a good deal else besides) follows a sigmoid curve.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t really…

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Hacking your tractor used to be a crime. Now it’s a breach of contract.

This morning’s Observer column:

John Deere is a large corporation that makes tractors. They’re green, big and powerful and they don’t come cheap. I’ve just noticed a nearly new 6175R model for £77,500 plus VAT, for example. That’s £93,000 in real money, so imagine how proud you’d feel if you were fortunate enough to own one of these magnificent machines.

Well, it depends on what you mean by “own”…

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One Nation Under Fox

If anyone thought that old-style media power was over, then Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, is the living refutation of that comforting hypothesis. Fox News, according to the New York Times “has been the most watched cable news network for 15 years, but depending on the hour, the news narrative it presents to its large and loyal conservative audience can sharply diverge from what consumers of other media outlets may be seeing.”

Times reporters watched Fox News from 6 a.m. until midnight last Thursday to see how its coverage varied from that of its rivals on a day when cable news was dominated by the health care debate in Congress, the terrorist attack in London and the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

One notable way Fox News stood apart from its competition, as it has been known to do for years, was in the stories it chose to highlight and the tone — in some of its opinion shows, unapologetically supportive of Mr. Trump and his agenda — with which it covered them.

There was extensive coverage of the health care vote, for example, but there was also considerable time given to topics, like a rape case in Maryland, that viewers would not have heard about if they had turned to CNN or MSNBC. The rape case, which involved an undocumented immigrant and went virtually uncovered on most networks, received almost hourly updates on Fox, and at times was used as proof that Mr. Trump’s calls for tighter borders and a crackdown on immigration were justified.

The key role played in the US election by TV is also a cautionary tale for those who thought that the Internet would eventually wipe out TV. This is the most common misconception about new communications technologies: what John Seely Brown calls “endism” — the belief that new media wipe out older media. That’s why I’ve argued for many years that a better metaphor for our communications environment is ecological. New media don’t wipe out older ones; but new relationships (many of them symbiotic, and sometimes parasitic) evolve. Broadcast TV has, of course, been eroded by the rise of ‘on-demand’ viewing, Netflix, etc. But TV hasn’t gone away, and Fox’s dominance confirms that.

Information overload is nothing new

Alan Jacobs putting forward some theses for disputation:

Francis Bacon, in the essay “Of Studies,” provided a stringent model for how to narrow our attentiveness: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” In her wonderful book Too Much to Know, Ann Blair explains that Bacon in this essay offered instruction in the skills of intellectual triage for people afflicted by information overload. Blair points out that one of the most common complaints of literate people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the proliferation of stuff to read. Cried Erasmus in 1525, “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?”

And many of those books were simply not good — not good for you, lacking nutrition. Therefore Bacon recommends that we begin with tasting; and in many cases that will be sufficient. It is unhealthy to read worthless books “with diligence and attention.”