If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?
Urban anthropology may not be top of mind for most people (or most anthropologists for that matter), but I’m here to argue it is the key to creating livable cities for people. In fact, applying this concept to the management and design of our urban environments could be the single most important thing to ensure the livability of our urban future. This may sound outlandish, but I assure you it’s not so radical as it seems. Believe it or not, the methods used by urban anthropologists are surprisingly similar to a far more common staple of the design world: user experience research and design.
In the world of tech and product design, user experience (UX) is key. You basically can’t design something efficient for humans without it. From your favorite app to your web browser, that chair you’re sitting on to an egg beater, nearly everything goes through some kind of user testing before it’s ready for launch. Whether that’s by playtesters ahead of a video game release, or focus groups giving feedback on product messaging, vast amounts of research is being conducted in order to create the best product for “users” of all sorts.
Rockefellers To Big Oil: Thanks For The Memories “There is no sane rationale for companies to continue to explore for new sources of hydrocarbons.” And with that flourish, the Rockefeller Family Fund, which owes its largesse to oil, is divesting its holdings in fossil fuels, including in Exxon Mobil, a descendant of the Rockefeller-founded Standard Oil. Divestment doesn’t always have an economic impact on the entities being divested, but it does send a signal, sometimes a loud one. In a statement, the family explicitly called out the “morally reprehensible conduct” of ExxonMobil. When we hear about active investors, we often think of big egos and boardroom battles. It’s heartening to be reminded how investors can aim to make change for the good, too. This isn’t just a one-family thing, either. The Guardian famously divested, as have a number of universities and religious organizations. The overall divestment movement hasn’t had apartheid-level impact yet (even though it has Desmond Tutu’s support), but you can sense things moving that way. When the chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute says the movement “truly disgusts me,” you can tell he’s worried.
Culture Trumps, Well, Pretty Much Everything There was unnecessarily risky trading going on Credit Suisse Group and CEO Tidjane Thiam didn’t know about it (Bloomberg). That led to its markets business reporting a first-quarter loss. You’d not be alone if you rolled your eyes after learning that Thiam is shocked that risky trading is going on at a trading firm, but what’s more interesting — and welcome — is what Thiam identified as the problem. “There needs to be a cultural change because it’s completely unacceptable.” There’s no reward without risk, but the top dogs at a firm like Credit Suisse need to make clear what is acceptable and what isn’t. “A lot of the problems in the investment bank have been that people have been trying to generate revenue at all costs,” Thiam said. Now that he’s recognized it, let’s see what he does to create a culture that won’t stand for it.
This post is a book review, but it starts with a story from my past.
Way, way back, before San Francisco begat hip startups with nonsensical names, I found myself on the second floor of a near-abandoned warehouse on South Park, now one of the priciest areas of SF, but then, one of the cheapest. I surveyed the place: well lit in the front, but a shithole in the back. Detritus from years of shifting usage littered the ground — abandoned construction materials lurked in the poorly lit rear recesses, toward the front, where a wall of dusty industrial windows overlooked Second Street, a couch faced outward, and it was in this space I first met Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired and for all I could surmise, Willy Wonka’s twin brother from another mother.