Hey you kids, get on my lawn. On Monday 10,000 people attended a party in the White House’s yard celebrating tech, art, and changing the world. It was President Obama’s personal edition of a South by Southwest-style festival; called South by South Lawn, it featured virtual reality demos, social-media stars and conversations about climate change (The Daily Dot). Long lines waited to try out The Guardian’s 6×9, a VR creation that simulates the experience of solitary confinement. Slack founder Stewart Butterfield spoke about how to promote a more diverse startup universe and avoid creating a self-perpetuating system of exclusion. Obama himself chatted with Leonardo diCaprio and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe about accelerating efforts to cut carbon emissions. For a few hours, at least, you could forget that the 2016 presidential election is already a political and cultural train wreck and imagine a more hopeful future.
A man for all startups? Sam Altman took over as head of Y Combinator, the celebrated Silicon Valley startup accelerator, two years ago, and has presided over a period of rapid growth and escalating ambition. A lengthy profile of “startup Yoda” Altman (by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker) makes it clear that he’s sharp and talented. But when it comes to assessing Altman’s aims and ideals, the story offers a cornucopia of ambiguities. On the one hand, Altman wants to “move the world forward”; on the other, the organization he presides over is like a tech-industry version of a college old-boy’s network, filled with socially homogenous 20-something entrepreneurs. On the one hand, he’s pals with Trump supporter Peter Thiel; on the other, he’s brainstorming ways to muster tech-community power to defeat the GOP candidate. He is both a believer in singularity-style AI breakthroughs and a “prepper” who has made elaborate survivalist plans in case of global catastrophe. “Altman’s great strengths are clarity of thought and an intuitive grasp of complex systems,” writes Friend. “His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us.” Can you make social progress happen even if you “see people as chess pieces”? Keep an eye on Altman to find out.
Is it the dawn of disruption — or the eve? Is technology on the verge of delivering another massive upgrade to our economy and lives on the scale of the Industrial Revolution? Or is the wave of disruption promised by automation and artificial intelligence going to fizzle out with far less impact? In Vox, Timothy Lee examines this question through lenses provided by two authors. Futurist Kevin Kelly takes the positive view, arguing (in The Inevitable, a new book) that technology will “cognify” the physical world around us and drive unimaginably vast changes in our lives. In the opposite corner, economist Robert Gordon (author of The Rise And Fall of American Growth) says we’re deluded if we think anything on the horizon can match the transformations wrought by electricity, cars, and indoor plumbing. Lee comes down in the end a little more on Gordon’s skeptical side. The tech industry’s belief that it can transform sectors like health care and education will founder, he says. Technology just can’t add enough value in industries where “the main thing you’re buying is relationships to other human beings, [and that] can’t be automated.”
The world is about to rebel against inequality — among nation-states. “Birthplace injustice” is the simple idea that what country you were born in makes a gigantic difference in your prosperity, well-being and life expectancy, and that is, on the face of it, wrong. Economist Robert Shiller (The Guardian) predicts that we are on the cusp of a global revulsion against birthplace injustice, fueled by the power of international communications — by “daily interactions on computer monitors with foreigners whom we can see are intelligent, decent people — people who happen, through no choice of their own, to be living in poverty.” To be sure, at the moment electorates in North America and Europe seem to be recoiling from the principle of free trade, which tends to even out differences between have and have-not countries. Maybe thinking of the beneficiaries of such trade as fellow human beings rather than greedy foreign competitors could reverse that tide.
4chan, we hardly knew you. The 4chan bulletin board emerged nearly a decade ago as a champion of online anonymity, a seething cauldron of geek energy, and a notorious cesspool of digital hate speech. In the years since it has fallen on hard times: Founder Chris “Moot” Poole moved on, and its current owner now says it costs too much to run the site (Quartz). You can’t charge much for advertising in this sort of space, even if it does draw a claimed 27 million monthly visitors. 4chan has long been a kind of industry outcast, and its tolerance for abuse made it ground zero for the emergence of the alt-right. Its absolutist approach to free speech was at least consistent, but its adherence to libertarian principles at the expense of all others doomed it to a downward spiral of harassment, sexism, and racism. In a wide-open space like the internet, you need something more to hang your morality on than just free speech, or your project will disintegrate — one more victim of the tragedy of the commons.
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