Buying Your Way Out of the Apocalypse


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

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If civilization is about to get hit by a tidal wave of disaster, the one percent are buying luxurious rescue boats. The tech-industry “preppers” that Evan Osnos’s colorful, disquieting New Yorker piece profiles aren’t certain that the end is nigh. But their cash surpluses are so enormous they think it’s a reasonable hedge to splurge on some “apocalypse insurance” — a personal bunker, some New Zealand real estate, or maybe a luxury condo carved out of a decommissioned Kansas missile silo (with a nearby landing strip for private jets, of course).

We’ve been here before, of course, in the nuclear-spooked ’60s and ’80s. But this time around, the doomsday terror is fueled less by geopolitical crises than by vaguer worries about breakdowns of civility and populist pitchforks. Silicon Valley’s nightmare shambles forth from the deranged substrate of libertarianism: If you start by assuming that selfishness trumps all other human motivations, you end up behind barbed wire with an arsenal, fending off the mob.

As Osnos points out, this kind of nihilistic selfishness is hard to square with the tech industry’s improve-the-world ethos. Fortunately, it’s not universal: Plenty of tech’s grandees are focused on fixing society rather than withdrawing from it.

Also, the end may not be so near as all that. For one thing, in Adam Smith’s famous words, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” and it will take more than one big network outage or political crisis to level our civilization. For another, there’s no law that says that people will revert to savagery the moment disaster strikes.

Disasters are also opportunities for outbreaks of communitarian idealism, as Rebecca Solnit has pointed out: They can bring out our best as well as our worst. If you look at the record from the San Francisco earthquake to the present, you find, amid the suffering and hardship, as Solnit writes, new “grounds for connection and joy” as well. If you’re cowering in a billionaire bunker, though, you’ll probably miss out on all that.

Could AI Help Find Jobs For the Workers It Displaces?

One reason tech elites are heading for the hills is that they’re reading the 2016 election as a negative verdict on them. Factory workers and manual laborers have already been disrupted straight out of the middle class, and their pain is driving at least some of the electorate’s discontent.

There’s more where that came from, writes Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal: As the Fourth Industrial Revolution we’re experiencing today — the one fueled by automation, artificial intelligence, and biotech — gathers speed, knowledge workers’ jobs will be next in line for elimination. A recent McKinsey study figures that half of all office work could be automated today using existing technology.

If we want to have any hope of avoiding massive social dislocation, Mims suggests, we should look for ways to deploy AI solutions to solve the problems AI creates. New tools could identify which workers’ jobs are most at risk and match them pre-emptively with training that will get them new work. Of course, someone — government? industry? Bill Gates? — will have to pay the bill for that.

Facebook Tries To Make Nice With the News Biz

With great fanfare, Facebook recently announced its Facebook Journalism Project, its latest effort to respond to outrage over “fake news” going viral on its network. The project promising collaborations with news organizations on new forms of storytelling and new tools and training for journalists and consumers. Sounds great as a fence-mending offering to the journalism business, which has begun to wake up to how much of its distribution it has ceded to Facebook. But no such small-bore effort is likely to make much difference, argues Frederic Filloux (The Monday Note), as long as Facebook’s essential nature rewards distraction and echo-chamber reinforcement.

Facebook is a wonderful tool in many ways, but it is a lousy way to get your news, if you actually want to know what’s happening in the world. The company can keep tinkering with its news feed and trying to mollify publishers whose business model it has undermined. But in the long run, it will take a mass change in user behavior to begin to solve this problem: We will need to start looking elsewhere for news. If that doesn’t happen spontaneously, it will happen generationally, as millennials who never saw Facebook’s appeal start running the world.

Uber Drivers Are Sleeping In Their Cars

Here’s the latest twist on the mobile workforce: Uber drivers seeking the best fares and the steadiest work are camping out in parking lots far from their homes (Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski in Bloomberg). At locations like the San Francisco Marina Safeway, or 7–11 parking lots near Queen’s JFK Airport or Chicago’s O’Hare, these drivers — whose beds are hours away in lower-rent towns — are catching up on sleep before putting in more lucrative hours behind the wheel.

A Stanford economist quoted by Bloomberg describes these drivers as “essentially immigrants searching for better wages that they then take home to their local economies.” And you could say this is exactly the kind of “flexibility” Uber promises its drivers. The same technology that makes Uber possible gives its contractors the tools to share info about the safest and most convenient locations to rest for a few hours. Still: Something is going wrong if the gig economy means passing out in a parking lot.

Why I Only Work Remotely

Open offices can be a disaster for people who want to concentrate and get things done. Engineer Yan Lhert says he’s drawing a line in the sand: Remote work is the only work he’s going to take (NewCo Shift). He’ll set his own hours and promise great results.

Lhert argues that employers should learn to trust their workers to deliver without demanding they be on the premises. To be sure, some jobs demand that you be there in person, and some kinds of work don’t give employees the leverage to set terms as Lhert does. But the cries of pain at the open-office standard are worth heeding.

Join us for NewCo Shift Forum, taking place Feb. 6–9 in San Francisco. We are bringing 400 of the best minds in business, technology, and government together for two days of focused, action-oriented dialog.

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