Detail from the cover of Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Everyone in tech loves Yuval Noah Harari. This is cause for concern.
A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”
Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”
If you’re read my rants for long enough, you know I’m fond of programmatic advertising. I’ve called it the most important artifact in human history, replacing the Macintosh as the most significant tool ever created.
So yes, I think programmatic advertising is a big deal. As I wrote in the aforementioned post:
“I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.”)”
Well, Walmart vs. Amazon is all about big business – a platform giant (Amazon) disrupting an OldBigCo (Walmart and its kin). Over the past two decades, Amazon bumped Walmart out of the race to a trillion-dollar market cap, and the OldCo from Bentonville had to reset and play the role of the upstart. The Token Act levels the playing field, forcing both to win where it really matters: In service to the customer.
But while BigCos are sexy and well known, it’s the small and medium-sized business ecosystem that determines whether or not we have an economy of mass flourishing. So let’s explore the Token Act from the point of view of a small business startup, in this case, a new neighborhood restaurant. I briefly touched upon this idea in my set up post, Don’t Break Up The Tech Oligarchs. Force Them To Share Instead. (If you haven’t already, you might want to read that post before this one, as I lay out the framework in which this scenario would play out.) What I envision below assumes the Token Act has passed, and we’re at least a year or two into its adoption by most major data players. Here we go…
In my last post I imagined a world in which large data-driven platforms like Amazon, Google, Spotify, and Uber are compelled to share machine-readable copies of data to their users. There are literally scores, if not hundreds of wrinkles to iron out around how such a system would work, and in a future post I hope to dig into some of those questions. But for now, come with me on a journey into the future, where the wrinkles have been ironed out, and a new marketplace of personally-driven information is flourishing. We’ll return to one of the primary examples I sketched out in the aforementioned post: A battle for the allegiance – and pocketbook – of one online shopper, in this case, my wife Michelle.
It’s a crisp winter mid morning in Manhattan when the doorbell rings. Michelle looks up from her laptop, wondering who it might be. She’s not expecting any deliveries from Amazon, usually the source of such interruptions. She glances at her phone, and the Ring app (an Amazon service, naturally) shows a well dressed, smiling young woman at the door. She’s holding what looks like an elegantly wrapped gift in her hands. Now that’s unusual! Michelle checks the date – no anniversaries, no birthdays, no special occasions – so what gives?
Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs – they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society – Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption – and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.
This is often a good thing – an efficient way to get to an answer. But it can also mean we fail to imagine a better solution, because our own biases are obstructing a more elegant path forward.
The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.
Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lotofcompany).
Algorithmic merchandising leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Slowly but surely, it will erode trust for all the tech giants.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
To fix our society, we have to reimagine the role of government in our lives.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? We’re in the midst of the most significant shift in our society since at least the Gilded Age – a tectonic reshaping of economic systems, social mores, and political institutions. Some even argue our current transition to a post-digital world, one in which technology has lapped our own intelligence and automation may displace the majority of our workforce within our lifetimes, is the most dramatic change to ever occur in recorded history. And that’s before we tackle a few other existential threats, including global warming – which is inarguably devastating our environment and driving massive immigration, drought, and famine – or income inequality, which has already fomented historic levels of political turmoil.
Any way you look at it, we’ve got a lot of difficult intellectual, social, and policy work to do, and we’ve got to do it quickly. Lucky for us, two major political events loom before us: The midterm elections this November, and a presidential election two years after that. Will we use these milestones to effect real change?
Given our current political atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that we will. I fervently hope that the midterms will provide an overdue check on the insane clown show that the White House has delivered to us so far, but I’ve little faith that the build up to the 2020 Presidential election will be much more than an ongoing circus of divisive theatrics. Will there be room for serious debate about reshaping our fundamental relationship to government? If we are truly in an unprecedented period of social change, shouldn’t we be talking about how we’re going to manage it?
So first the news. To celebrate the company’s eight birthday, Cloudflare is announcing the launch of a domain registrar. And because the company operates at massive scale, and can afford to do things most companies simply can’t (or won’t – looking at you, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – the company is offering domains *at cost.* In other words, Cloudflare isn’t making one red cent when you register a domain with them. What they pay to register a domain (and yes, that number is fixed, and the same for all domain registrars), is what you pay to register a domain.
If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?