Tech’s Empathy Gap Is a Bug, Not a Feature


Max Kiesler | Flickr

The mood in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley since the election has been dejected, writes Om Malik (The New Yorker). That’s less about fear of specific changes the new administration will introduce and more a coming to terms with a collective failure in empathy. The inventors of the future — some of them, anyway — are realizing they’ve become seriously disconnected from the occupiers of the present.

Technologists must “try to understand the impact of whiplashing change on a generation of our fellow-citizens who feel hopeless and left behind,” Malik writes. Our “data-driven oligarchies” — Facebook, Google, Amazon, et a. — are creating wonders of technological efficiency. But these engines of change enrich only a tiny sliver of society and actively threaten the livelihoods of a much broader population. And they’re only beginning to wake up to this dilemma.

The Obama White House, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Stanford are hosting a conference today and tomorrow on “Poverty and Opportunity.” Right theme, wrong venue? There might be better ways to learn about poverty than at an invite-only event in Palo Alto.

As Malik says: “Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced.” If Silicon Valley fails to learn this skill, it could end up as reviled as Wall Street.

One Hundred Years of Inequality

Here’s a good starting point for that empathy lesson: An inequality graph that charts the percentages of wealth owned over the last century by the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. population and the top 0.1 percent (Digg).

During the Roaring 20s and through the Depression, these figures map pretty closely. From the Second World War through the 1980s, they diverge, as the U.S. shares a significant portion of its prosperity with the middle and working classes. Then the lines converge again. Right now, we’re back where we started in our grandparents’ time. Throw enough tax cuts into the mix, though, and we could soon head into new, hitherto uncharted territories of inequality.

EU Weighs Uber’s Status

The European Court of Justice begins a trial today that will determine whether the EU nations will treat Uber as a conventional transportation company or a tech platform governed by looser rules (The New York Times). A ruling against Uber would severely constrain the company’s European growth plans. France and Spain are lined up against Uber, while the European Commission and other countries support the company’s position.

Uber’s ride-hailing model is powerful and successful enough that Europe’s riders are going to have it, whatever the court decides. (A ruling isn’t likely till the middle of next year.) The real question is whether Europeans will end up using Uber’s app or some homegrown, locally-owned equivalent. That’s how the Uber-in-China saga played out.

Josephine Tries to Share the Equity

Sharing stock with employees is one of the technology industry’s most cherished business strategies. Now some gig economy startups are trying to adapt the equity-sharing model to give participants on their platforms a slice of their pie (Buzzfeed).

Josephine, the Bay Area company that gives home cooks a way to sell meals to neighbors, is setting aside 20 percent of itself for its chefs. Juno (ride-sharing), Honor (care-giving on demand), and Managed by Q (office services) are pursuing similar approaches. These companies all face legal wrinkles and practical hurdles, particularly if, like Josephine, they are trying to share stock with people who are not technically on their payroll. But their experiments are important, and the results will be useful. The best way for companies to give employees “a sense of ownership” is to give them some actual ownership.

Venezuelans Turn Juice into Bitcoin

Bitcoin mining is big in Venezuela, where the currency has collapsed but electricity is still free (Reason). Mining Bitcoin is a math challenge requiring lots of computer processing power, and that takes lots of electrical power. But Venezuela’s socialist government made energy free, so its Bitcoin miners are essentially converting a free good into a portable currency, which they can then use to buy food, electronics, and other goods — on Amazon. (The retailer doesn’t accept Bitcoin but third parties will.)

Venezuela has an electricity shortage and suffers frequent blackouts, so the Bitcoin industry isn’t exactly welcome, and the Venezuelan secret police are cracking down. But Bitcoin mining isn’t itself a crime, so the miners get charged with “electricity theft” or other infringements. Their work is dangerous, but at least, Reason’s Jim Epstein argues, they’re providing their country with a more stable currency than the government.

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