Let Them Eat iPhones!


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Blake Patterson | Flickr

The healthcare debate had its Marie Antoinette moment yesterday, as GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz told Americans to stop buying smartphones so they could afford health insurance under the new Republican proposal. “Rather than getting that new iPhone, that they just love and want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care,” Chaffetz said.

The race was on for pundits and publications to calculate just how many iPhones one would need to forego in order to pay your insurer. For most of us, you’d have to be getting a fancy new phone every month or so to even come close (Lifehacker). But Chaffetz’s comment didn’t only prove his ignorance of the basics of both healthcare and telecommunications economics. It suggested he was fundamentally unaware of how essential a working smartphone — i- or otherwise — is for navigating everyday life and work in America 2017 (Brian Fung in The Washington Post).

“Smartphones are no longer a luxury,” Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation told the Post: they’re how less affluent people access the internet when they can’t afford anything more. Like the right-wing politicians who bemoaned the fact that welfare recipients in the 1970s and 1980s actually had TVs in their homes, Chaffetz just hung an “out of touch” sign around his own neck — and gave us a good reason to doubt whether the politicians aiming to rewrite our healthcare system’s foundations have a clue about how people get by today.

Women Strike For Lots of Different Reasons

Today is International Women’s Day, and also a day of global protest for women following up on January’s Women’s March on Washington. Many participants are taking the day off from work. Others are marching, or avoiding shopping, or wearing red.

One goal is to keep up the momentum of the January protest. Another is to use the “Day Without a Woman” to demonstrate the essential roles women perform in society and highlight disparities in wages and rights (Phoebe Lett in The New York Times). Taking a day off from work, of course, is tougher the farther down the ladder of pay and privilege you sit (Danielle Paquette in The Washington Post).

The larger question the day’s protests raise is (to steal the lead from a thoughtful backgrounder in Elle by Sady Doyle): What is the work of being female? Making women’s work visible was a clearer goal in an era when women’s work was more confined.

One novel protest tactic is to urge women to drop the fake smiles that they are so often told to put on as part of their work routines, from Hillary Clinton on down to the checkout counter. That sort of “emotional labor” is “unnoticed and undervalued” and assumed to just come with the female territory (The Washington Post). But it isn’t just sexist at heart; it takes a toll on those of whom it’s demanded. Which is why “stop telling women to smile” is good advice for everyone, 365 days a year.

Most of What We Call “AI” Isn’t

Artificial intelligence is hot, but maybe we’ve gone too far in applying the label to all sorts of things that don’t deserve it. That’s Ian Bogost’s argument in The Atlantic: “ in most cases, the systems making claims to artificial intelligence aren’t sentient, self-aware, volitional, or even surprising. They’re just software.” Pattern-matching algorithms aren’t AI, and neither are decision-tree bots.

To be sure, today’s machine learning technology — code that’s fed mountains of data and then teaches itself from that “corpus” — is impressive. But calling every machine-learning-based program “AI” devalues the term’s promise and falls down a slippery slope toward hucksterism.

Georgia Tech’s Charles Isbell gives Bogost two criteria that technology could meet to earn an AI label: “it must learn over time in response to changes in its environment”; and “what it learns to do should be interesting enough that it takes humans some effort to learn.” If it’s just routinizing drudgery, that’s automation, not AI.

Why Companies Need to Stay in Touch With Their Roots

Regis McKenna, the grand old PR man of tech, was helping shape the reputation of companies in Silicon Valley back when all they made was chips. Today he has one message for executives at BigCos and startups alike: Know your history! You can’t run a company, or build one, without it (Fast Company).

At an existing company, McKenna says, “You need some history, so that you can always dig back down and say, ‘What is our story?’” At a new company, you need to know the past so you can avoid your predecessors’ mistakes and study their wins.

Established companies ignore their own past at their peril. That, according to McKenna, is what happened at Hewlett Packard: It forgot what it was. “They put people on the board who had no connection to the history of the company… The people that came in weren’t connected to the history in any way, shape, or form.” At startups, the danger is letting your story run so far ahead of reality that you lose credibility — making history up, essentially. (See: Theranos.)


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