|“None of us is as smart as all of us” Bob Taylor – Xerox PARC Creator of some the greatest tech teams of all time.
Bankers, pharmaceutical giants, Google, Facebook … a new breed of rentiers are at the very top of the pyramid and they’re sucking the rest of us dry. Wealth isn’t created at the top, it’s merely devoured there. To understand why, we need to recognise that there are two ways of making money. The first is what most of us do: work. That means tapping into our knowledge and know-how (our “human capital” in economic terms) to create something new. Initiative and Innovation. But there is also a second way to make money. That’s the rentier way: by leveraging control over something that already exists, such as land, knowledge, or money, to increase your wealth. You produce nothing, yet profit nonetheless. By definition, the rentier makes his living at others’ expense, using his power to claim economic benefit through regulations, lobbyists, “campaign donations” (i.e., bribery), and a complicit media. As Umberto Eco said, the role of the news media is not to report the news, it’s to cover up the news.
Law professors Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke argue that competition authorities must look not only at the platforms’ effects on consumers, but also look upstream to the platforms’ suppliers of content, where “the super-platforms can squeeze millions of sellers, including photographers, photojournalists, writers, journalists, and musicians.” Ultimately, consumers lose out when content suppliers, forced to accept unreasonable terms, have less to invest in quality content. Ezrachi and Stucke are the authors of the book Virtual Competition (a product description well worth reading – and also check the invaluable ‘related links’ at the bottom of the page), which explores the harm that super-platforms inflict on consumers through use of our personal data, price discrimination, and lack of privacy protections. Ultimately, consumers lose out when content suppliers, forced to accept unreasonable terms, have less to invest in quality content.
The challenge is to create a learning society rather than a class of economic rentiers. The best blue-print I’ve seen in the past few years is Joseph Stiglitz’s book Creating a Learning Society. In a nutshell, to abstract from a fantastic diverse book, 1) successful and sustained growth requires creating a learning society; 2) an open, democratic society is more conducive to the creation of a learning society; 3) successful and sustained economic growth must be inclusive. If you don’t have time to read the book, Stiglitz has very generously published his incredibly valuable presentation notes you can skim through. Extremely highly recommended. Btw, a society’s best insurance against total capitulation to a Rentier economy is a decent Inheritance Tax. Trump has just announced he’s abolishing the Inheritance Tax altogether. Good news for his daughter, I suppose, inheritance -wise. Government as your private bank account. Won’t be long before people don’t believe in it anymore.
The internet, defined as the network switched on in January 1983, is now 34 years old. When it began, it was a gloriously decentralised, creative, non-commercial system that evoked in many of its early users utopian hopes about liberation, empowerment, creativity and sticking it to The Man. In those heady days, only a few sceptics wondered how long it would take for capitalism to get a grip on it. Now we know: it took only 21 years. Jonathan Taplin’s new book “Move Fast and Break Things” reveals how just three companies subverted the internet’s utopian ideals.
In agreement, Wired Magazine reports: Innovation is the only sustainable way to make society wealthier and better off. An increasingly popular concern is that robots will eat up labour’s share of income at an accelerating rate, leaving ordinary workers impoverished and unemployed. In other words, without genuine Innovation, we’ll end up with a fully Rentier economy + automated robotics + the Police to deal with any dissent. Entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale at the ever-technoptimist Wired Magazine reels-off 12 Jobs of the Future that Innovation will create: VR/AR, Nanotech, E-marketing, Space Tech, Senior Care, the Sharing Economy (????), Renewable Energy, & etc.
“You don’t change the world by doing what you’re told”. I love MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito’s just announced $250,000 no-strings-attached Disobedience Award– “With this award, we honor work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles. These principles include non-violence, creativity, courage, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. This disobedience is not limited to specific disciplines; examples include scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate”. Let’s see who gets the award. In order to be more than a worthless ideological shambles, the award really needs to be given to someone in the US, and not some Chinese or Russian, or Iranian “activist”. That would be mere Obedience, not Disobedience.
One of the challenges of working in the tech industry is that it’s still very dominated by white men, not just in terms of the ratio of men to women, but in the way stories are told and expectations are set. Startup culture has a very strong narrative espousing the values of being (over)confident, aggressive, and going with your gut. Girls school graduates are six times more likely to study math, science, and technology than their counterparts in coed environments. Students at all girls schools have higher aspirations, feel more prepared for the real world, hold more leadership positions, and are more comfortable expressing their ideas. A fascinating article from Michelle Venetucci Harvey, product designer at Lyft, describing her experiences trying to maintain female spaces. Males can marauder wherever they like, right? Like, stick your feet on top of that woman’s desk in a meeting, you male asshole.
Btw, only three percent of venture capital funding goes to women and less than one percent to people of color. I love this project by 3 women called “Sex and Start-Ups (I think they mean “gender”, but anyway) to create “Zebra” companies rather than so-called Silicon Valley “Unicorns”. Why Zebras? 1) To state the obvious first: unlike unicorns, zebras are real. 2) Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other. 3) Zebras are also mutualistic: by banding together in groups, they protect and preserve one another. Their individual input results in stronger collective output, and 4) Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive. I love this!
Roger Schank challenges the idea that IBM’s Watson is in any way “Cognitive”. He argues: “Watson is not reasoning. You can only reason if you have goals, plans, ways of attaining them, a comprehension of the beliefs that others may have, and a knowledge of past experiences to reason from. A point of view helps too”. Roger was a special guest at the first international digital media event I ran in Melbourne, Australia more than 20 years ago. He examines IBM’s claims about Watson and finds them fraudulent. Noam Chomsky calls Watson “a scam” in an interview in Conversations with the Future: 21 Visions for the 21st Century (but doesn’t say why). Great book, btw.
Part of the reason for Roger Schank’s “understandable” annoyance is because it will never be possible to “understand” or “have an opinion or perspective” about a novel by “uploading” it, without actually reading it. It’s like saying that by walking into a library, you’ve suddenly read and understood every book in the library. It’s a misunderstanding of what understanding is. The brilliant Cathy O’Neill (Weapons of Math Destruction) apologises for only having a biological brain that needs to read things in order to understand them.
There’s been so much palaver about Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s) I won’t even link to it. But how close are we really to successfully connecting our brains to our technologies? A fantastic introduction / summary from two “Neural Engineers”. Connecting our brains directly to technology may ultimately be a natural progression of how humans have augmented themselves with technology over the ages, from using wheels to overcome our bipedal limitations to making notations on clay tablets and paper to augment our memories. Much like the computers, smartphones and virtual reality headsets of today, augmentative BCIs, when they finally arrive on the consumer market, will be exhilarating, frustrating, risky and, at the same time, full of promise. And full of rubbish – one reason is that opening a person’s skull is not a trivial procedure, to put it mildly.
If you’re only going to read only one thing on “AI” this edition make it Kevin Kelly’s superb “The AI Cargo Cult: the myth of a superhuman AI“. It’s full of great insights and a lot of wisdom, beautifully and thoughtfully-written, with his typical humility. Btw, Kevin Kelly also attended that event I organised in Melbourne over 20 years ago.