Artificial intelligence is making its entry into our lives right now — and, as with so many other innovations, it isn’t coming in through the door everyone expected. Sure, eventually we’ll all ride in self-driving cars on our permanent vacations from our jobs that are being done by machine intelligences. But for now, the AIs in our lives are going to be very busy with far more mundane work: delivering — and blocking — ads.
You already know that the ads you see in your browser and on your phone are selected via the complex interaction of bidding algorithms working from targeting data. You may also already be running an ad blocker that tries to speed the loading time of pages you want to read by bypassing all of that advertising machinery.
NewCo’s Shift Forum raised some loud alarms about what could happen at the crossroads where business and society stand today. But as it proceeded, the event, which we just wrapped up, began to build some roll-up-your-sleeves momentum, too. Speakers — more than 75, all on one track — gave attendees a generous helping of creative, risky, sometimes improbable ideas for breaking our economic, political, and social logjams.
Here’s a whirlwind tour of some of these we heard at the Forum heard—prototypes and proposals for institutional, personal, or collective adaptation to our disrupted times.
We’re deep in the middle of NewCo’s Shift Forum in San Francisco. The theme is “capitalism at a crossroads.” That intersection looks pretty dangerous right now. Virtually every speaker here seems to share the view that this is a moment of great risk: Profound new technologies are scaling up quickly, while political and social change roils. Old certainties are vanishing before our eyes, while new ones contend for adoption by a deeply divided public.
In each of the past 50 years, you could say all of that, too. But this time around, we’re feeling it, in our hearts and our guts. Many of the easy problems that technology can solve have been dealt with. The remaining challenges — in areas like government, education, healthcare, and international trade — involve gnarly knots that tech alone can’t untie. We’re going to need every skill and every field to pitch in.
As 2016 comes to a close, we wanted to share the most popular stories from the year. These stories cover a range of topics, but the overall theme is hard to miss: capitalism is undergoing the greatest shift since the industrial revolution, and it’s time for us all to work together and chart a new course forward. Driverless cars were a big topic, but so was basic income, an increasingly popular proposal to deal with job loss from automation. In politics, both the election of Donald Trump and the popularity of Bernie Sanders demonstrated that the status quo of neoliberalism is falling apart, and that government, business, and the social sector needs to rethink what it means for them as these changes become too real to be ignored.
Without further ado, here are the top stories from NewCo Shift in 2016:
A fully universal, long-term pilot of a basic income has never been rigorously tested, so GiveDirectly, a non-profit, intends to do just that. At minimum, their money will shift the life trajectories of thousands of low-income households. At best, it will change how the world thinks about ending poverty. Read more.
As tech leaders huddle with president-elect Donald Trump today, many of their employees — the developers and designers who are creating the products at their companies and in their ecosystems — are signing a pledge to work against some of Trump’s key policies. As of Wednesday morning, 624 people had signed the “Never Again” statement, which commits them not to help build a Muslim registry or other database based on race, religion, or national origin, not to facilitate mass deportations, and not to misuse data in ways that could facilitate a repressive government (Buzzfeed). That’s a 10X increase in signatories from the original statement, which launched just yesterday with 60 or so engineers.
As with the rebellion of Facebook employees against Mark Zuckerberg’s initial dismissal of complaints about “fake news” during the election, “Never Again” pits the yearning of tech companies’ rank and file workers to take ethical stands against the pragmatism and caution of their bosses. Anyone alarmed by Trump’s plans faces an age-old dilemma: Do you play an inside game and hope you can steer a potentially erratic and destructive administration off the rocks? Or take a public stand, outside the conference rooms, for principles and issues that are too important to compromise?
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, most businesses have made long-term decisions based on the assumption that global trade was on an irreversible arc toward greater freedom. That era is now over.
In the short term, the Trans Pacific Partnership is dead, and China will move into the vacuum it leaves behind (The New York Times). This won’t end up “bringing jobs home.” It means more trade and more jobs will remain in Asia, where China and its trading partners will move forward with their own business. Progressives feared that TPP would open the door to foreign countries suing to overturn environmental rules in the U.S. Ironically, under a Trump administration, those rules are now in far greater danger closer to home.
Not all business leaders view the economy as an I-win-you-lose arena. But that’s the latest scary mutation of capitalism animating Donald Trump’s world-view, and he applies it most prominently in his approach to trade. Economists generally view trade as a win-win kind of thing, and Trump’s hostility to it puts him at odds not only with mainstream economists but also, or even more, with neoliberal free-market advocates on the right.
For Trump, every deal is a face-off in the ring, an opportunity for domination. This vision of the nature of human exchange — John Paul Rollert dubs it “sociopathic capitalism” or “capitalism as zero-sum combat” (The Atlantic) — has captivating dramatic appeal. But it locks us into a mindset that makes growth impossible: If every gain I make is at your expense, the pie we share never expands.
Never mind the disruption — giants run the world. Now more than ever, The Economist writes, colossus companies rule the global economy. Some, like GE, are old-line standbys that have reinvented themselves; others are upstarts like Samsung; others are the familiar kings of the Silicon Valley hills, like Apple, Google, and Facebook. All have become experts at giving customers what they want and improving their lives, often (particularly in the digital economy) for free. But there are two big problems with their ascendancy: First, they’re awfully good at squashing competition, and second, their scale gives them extra leverage to evade taxes and manipulate governments and global bureaucracies. Much of the populist noise you hear from different points around the world stems from resentment at these outsize advantages. If we want to keep such revolts from turning ugly, we need to devise a digital-age update for the principles of antitrust. “The world needs a healthy dose of competition to keep today’s giants on their toes and to give those in their shadow a chance to grow,” the Economist says. Amen.
That census report? It’s even better than you think. Last week’s economic report from the U.S. Census Bureau, with its news of rising household income and reduced inequality, gave cause for cheer. But if you really want to understand the numbers and why they may actually underreport the economic progress we’re beginning to make, read Matthew Yglesias’s analysis in Vox. Yglesias points out a number of flaws and problems with the census numbers: It measures inflation too harshly, it gauges income too strictly (missing out on increases in healthcare coverage), it fails to take into account changing norms in what makes up a “household,” and more. Yglesias’s conclusion: If we corrected for these issues, we’d have an even rosier picture of where the economy stands. In particular, we’d find that median household income has in fact surpassed its 1999 peak, meaning that “The American middle class is richer than it’s been at any previous point in history.” Something to ponder as you listen to the next election-season jeremiad.
Jimmy Guterman — We lost the author of this newsletter (and NewCo’s Executive Editor) last week, a terrible blow to family, friends, colleagues, and NewCo. Read more about him here.
Uber Rides Shotgun With Didi in China — Maybe partnership is the new black. After spending billions trying to win at all costs, Uber has decided to work with its Chinese rival (Bloomberg). The company will combine its Chinese business with Didi Chuxing (China’s version of Uber), and by default the Chinese government, which just so happened to legalize ride sharing the week before. Didi will also invest $1 billion into Uber globally. Oh, to be a fly on that particular Chinese wall….