The Industrial Revolution Was No Coincidence



Something extraordinary happened to the human species over the past two centuries: Economic growth transformed everyday life and changed poverty from a near-universal condition to a limited problem. The technologies that enabled this change emerged largely in Western Europe. Why there — and not, say, in China? The Washington Post’s Ana Swanson explores the question in a fascinating interview with economic historian Joel Mokyr.

Mokyr argues that, though Chinese society had a rich culture full of intellectual achievement, it optimized for stability rather than growth. It remained a centralized empire for most of its history, whereas Europe never unified, and evolved a more competitive landscape — one that meant that heretical challengers of received knowledge could find harbor across a border.

You could take Mokyr’s analysis (which is the basis of a forthcoming book) and apply it to almost any level of the economy, from cities to regions like Silicon Valley to global trade. Hybrid vigor beats monocultures every time. Mokyr takes a profoundly optimistic long-term view: “We are going to make so much more progress, simply because we have more powerful tools.”

Is Facebook a tool for housing discrimination?

Facebook’s ad-targeting capabilities could be used to post illegally discriminatory housing and employment advertising: So concluded a widely publicized ProPublica investigation last week. Facebook doesn’t actually keep user data based on race or ethnicity, but it does give advertisers access to data on what it calls “Ethnic Affinity” based on a user’s click history. An advertiser could use this targeting tool to exclude all non-white “affinities” and display, say, a housing rental ad to whites only.

That would be illegal, and Facebook says it prohibits all illegal advertising, yet ProPublica claims it placed just such an ad targeted to “Facebook members who were househunting.” In a thorough rebuttal, search-marketing expert Danny Sullivan points out that the ad ProPublica posted was actually for a “forum” on housing issues, not for actual housing.

ProPublica’s story looks like it was probably a few notches too “gotcha”-driven. Yet it does point out a genuine issue: targeted advertising is a potent tool for both good and ill. Platform operators like Facebook should take extra caution that their tech doesn’t provide convenient cover for racism.

An Activist Joins Pepsi’s Board

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation since 2013, has long been a leader against inequality and a voice for morality in business. This month Walker joined the board of PepsiCo, and that raised eyebrows, since the soft-drink industry’s sugary products are charged with promoting obesity, particularly among lower-income consumers around the world (The New York Times).

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi says the company invited Walker to its board precisely so he could be in a position to hold its feet to the ethical fire. Walker says he knows his credibility is on the line and he intends to speak out in the boardroom.

It’s the oldest dilemma in the book: What’s the best way to promote social change — take a seat next to power, or fight the power? How Walker’s tenure at Pepsi plays out will provide some valuable data for understanding that dilemma.

Zillow Fails Its Trick-or-treat Test

On Halloween, you’ll find trick-or-treaters thronged most thickly on the best-designed streets — neighborhoods that are well-lit, houses that are close together, front doors that are near the street. Portland, Oregon planners first noticed this phenomenon 20 years ago, writes Henry Grabar in Slate. “It turns out this rather simple idea — could a kid find the door and easily get to the next one — is actually a pretty neat way to sum up what constitutes a well-designed neighborhood.”

But something troubling happened to the “trick or treat test” once Zillow, the real-estate data site, started quantifying it: Zillow took “an idea about design and [made] it about money.” It’s not just that Zillow’s “Trick or Treat Index” inevitably ranks rich neighborhoods highly; of course, that’s where the best candy pickings are. It’s that so man of the neighborhoods that rank high on Zillow, like the Hollywood Hills or Bel Air in Los Angeles, are the opposite of what the original Trick or Treat Test valued, with outsize houses inaccessible from the street. Yay for applying data-analysis techniques in creative, attention-getting ways; boo for getting the substance so wrong.

NewCo Shift Introduces Get Shift Done

Introducing NewCo’s latest project: A how-to guide to new workplace tools, with sections on management and tips and tricks. Writes editor-in-chief John Battelle: “All NewCos are mission driven. However, to execute on that mission, you need to use the modern tools of the platform economy — most of which are ‘software as a service’ tools, SaaS for short. Today’s SaaS tools are super powerful, but they don’t come with a manual. Wouldn’t it be cool, we thought, if there was a place that offered tips, tricks, and advice for the platform economy workforce?”

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