Tech’s Gifts Are Tough to Measure


Scott Akerman | Flickr

The future’s bright — but we’re counting it all wrong. Forget about the fate of that iPhone headphone jack! Sometimes it’s important to zoom out to the big picture. Google’s economist Hal Varian has been looking at technology’s economic impact over the long haul, and remains upbeat. In a brief paper for the International Monetary Fund’s Finance and Development, Varian outlines five areas where connected tech (primarily, networked smartphones) will keep introducing big new opportunities: Data collection and analysis, personalization and customization, “continuous improvement” through experimentation, novel types of contracts, and better coordination and communication. These sound like the same sorts of Good Things the industry has been promising since the early days of the personal computer, but Varian argues, convincingly, that we’re ramping up fast now that these trends are moving into every crevice of our businesses and lives. On the plus side, we keep reaping unexpected benefits and lifestyle improvements as these changes snowball. On the negative side, our systems for tracking and measuring economic activity have been left behind in the dust. Econometrically, we’re flying blind into the future. If Google doesn’t figure this one out for us, maybe there’s a startup we haven’t yet heard of that can.

Airbnb vows to build anti-discrimination into its platform. Last winter, after a study found that hosts were discriminating against African American users of Airbnb, the company commissioned an internal investigation and vowed to do better. Today Airbnb released the full report (PDF) and details of a plan of action, including a “community commitment” hosts and users will need to affirm and other interface changes designed to make discrimination more difficult (The New York Times). To some extent, Airbnb is just reflecting bad behavioral patterns that exist in the larger society, and the report admits that “no one company can create an alternative universe” that magically wipes human minds free of bias. But it’s entirely possible to build a platform that provides cues to better behavior and boundaries that bar socially damaging practices. Airbnb says it’s going to try — and the world will be watching carefully.

The excruciating pain of videoconferencing. Why is it so bad? We usually blame the technology — blurry pictures, latency, bad sound. But Etsy engineer Ben Burry (in an Ignite talk at a DevOps Portland event) points out that the fault is less in our tech than in ourselves. Specifically, we are mesmerized by our own images. Closing that window that shows you how you look can help squash this narcissistic tic. But even after you do this, your eyes don’t connect with those of other conferencees: When you look at their images on your screen, you’re not looking right into the camera, so to them it looks like you’re looking away. Until the equivalent of the transparent teleprompter arrives for our laptops, we’re all probably better off just sticking to sound.

No port in besieged shipping giant’s storm. Hanjin is a South Korean company that’s one of the world’s largest shippers. You’ve probably seen its name on the sides of shipping containers in ports or on trucks. It also declared bankruptcy last week. That has left $14 billion in goods trapped on container ships that can’t dock — the ports don’t know who will pay the fees and bills (The Wall Street Journal), and creditors are looking to claim ships and goods. When the abstract worlds of finance and law collide with the physical world of goods and transport, systems can go haywire. Hanjin’s stranded cargo containers are a harbinger of future snarls that will emerge when hyper-efficient distribution systems run headlong into financial breakdowns, data disruptions, and human error. If we’re smart, we’ll learn how to keep physical networks moving through the turbulence.

The kids are alright, but they’re workaholics. Generation Z — the demographic tranche after the millennials — is willing to work harder and longer hours than their predecessors, according to a study by Monster Worldwide, the job search company (Bloomberg). But a whopping 74 percent say their work should have “a greater purpose” than just a paycheck — that compares with 45 percent of millennials and even smaller numbers of the preceding generations. In one respect, at least, they resemble their forebears: Asked to list their top priority, 70 percent name a good health insurance plan.

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