In capitalism, we’ve built an artificial intelligence that’s badly in need of a reboot, argues longtime tech observer Tim O’Reilly.
Reading books is good for your head, at least that’s what my mother, a middle school English teacher, drilled into me as I was growing up. I was reminded of that maxim as I was finishing Tim O’Reilly’s WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us— not because the content of the book dramatically changed my point of view (I tend to agree with O’Reilly on most topics, we were partners for years) but because the act of reading WTF clarified certain foggy notions with which I’ve been wrestling, distilling them into more concise reckonings.
WTF is not a straightforward book. It’s part memoir (Tim’s career spans four decade of tech and policy), part tech business book (a review of technological disruption and its impact on society), and part diatribe (a rant against a broken capitalist system). As you might expect, I liked the diatribe parts the best.
I’m a permaculture farmer. My goal is to develop natural ecosystems that produce food. My dream is a world with ready access to a diet that nourishes the body of the consumer, provides a living for the producer, and leaves the Earth joyfully habitable.
I share that dream with a lot of people who call themselves permaculturalists, natural farmers, plantsmen, or foodies. I fear, however, that this doughty lot of green thumbs and stock-folk and food advocates is succumbing to tribalism; forgetting that saving the world means saving all of the people in it; even the ones that love cheap burgers and Coke. We’re digging foxholes and making monsters out of people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t understand, or who do understand but are powerless to act.
Sure, the biggest story in Switzerland is Trump. But the global elite don’t like tech much either, it turns out.
The scrutiny of technology platforms continues apace, and not just from your humble scribe. Silicon Valley narratives tend to have a predictable arc, and we’re near peak “Tech Is Bad For You.” I’d look for counter narratives to start to take hold over the next few weeks — there’s plenty of fodder for stories that remind us how much we love our digital lives. But this past few days, well, they’ve continued to be cruel ones for the titans of our global economy.
Marc Benioff is best known as a business activist on issues like LGBT rights. But this week he’s speaking out on Facebook and Twitter, lending his influential voice to the regulatory fervor that seems to be gripping Washington. MQ: “Here’s a product: Cigarettes. They’re addictive, they’re not good for you,” Benioff told CNBC while in Davos, Switzerland, after referencing Russian election interference. “I think that for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive and we need to rein that back.” By the way, Benioff throws one of the most sought after parties at Davos, FWIW.
For decades technology helped the industrial world work better; more and more, technology is replacing that world completely, and there will be pain. That, though, is precisely why it is worth remembering that the world is not static: to replace humans is, in the long run, to free humans to create entirely new needs and means to satisfy those needs. It’s what we do, and the faith to believe it will happen again will be the best guide in figuring out how.
Ever since key Apple investors challenged the company to address kids’ phone addiction, I’ve gotten a stream of calls asking me to comment on the topic. Mostly, I want to scream. I wrote extensively about the unhelpful narrative of “addiction” in my book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.At the time, the primary concern was social media. Today, it’s the phone, but the same story still stands: young people are using technology to communicate with their friends non-stop at a point in their life when everything is about sociality and understanding your place in the social world.
As much as I want to yell at all of the parents around me to chill out, I’m painfully and acutely aware of how ineffective this is. Parents don’t like to see that they’re part of the problem or that their efforts to protect and help their children might backfire. (If you want to experience my frustration in full color, watch the Black Mirror episode called “Arkangel” (trailer here).)
Edelman’s Trust Barometer is out, and it paints a rather dismal picture for everyone but business. Is that an opportunity?
Edelman’s annual “Trust Barometer” comes out today, and this year the normally staid report feels more like a fun house mirror. The Trust Barometer has been tracking global sentiment around four interrelated sectors — Business, Government, NGOs, and Media — for more than a decade. But never in its history have the numbers fluctuated as widely as they did in 2017, and overall, the report paints a rather unflattering portrait — in particular for the United States.
Let’s dig in. Here are the conclusions I found most startling:
The US and China are swapping places. Average global trust levels stayed pretty much the same year to year, but the real story is buried in the averages: Trust in the US went down a whopping 9 points, while trust inside China rose 7 points — one of many indications that China is on the rise globally, which the US is nosediving. Asked which institution they most trusted, the Chinese chose “government.” The US? Not so much. Believe it or not, in the US, NGOs came out in first.
Trust cratered in the “Informed Public” — the most educated and wealthy survey respondents. This was driven almost entirely by an unprecedented 23-point drop in US respondents. In short, US influencers have thrown their hands up and lost confidence in their institutions.
Platform companies like Facebook and Google lost significant trust in 2017. Led by an overwhelming concern around fake news, trust in “Media” dropped to last place (putting Media below Government or Business), but a closer look shows that the entire drop is driven by a lack of faith in technology platform companies, which are included in the Media category. Trust in “journalism” actually increased, but trust in “platforms” decreased, as you can see below. Trust in “Experts” also increased, which seems counterintuitive, but feels like a promising development.
By devaluing journalism, Facebook risks abandoning the public square. By becoming a true platform, it could *build* that square.
There was a time, about a decade ago, when for a brief moment I thought Facebook would become the platform underpinning the open internet. Such a platform was desperately needed — the open web was a wonderful but messy place that lacked structure and discipline. Facebook’s young CEO claimed he wanted to make the world more “open and connected,” and for a minute it seemed his company might provide the infrastructure to power a people-driven next generation of the web. I even asked him about the idea — a few times, in fact — during interviewson stage at the Web 2 Summit, an event I used to convene back in the early days of the web boom. At the time, he’d point to Facebook’s “Platform” as an initial response to my queries.
A bit of history. Ten years ago, Facebook announced “Platform,” an audacious attempt to corral the World Wide Web’s open, messy nature and funnel developer (and startup) energies into the Facebook universe. The move shook the startup world — most of which were focused on creating independent web sites. But after Facebook’s announcement, every company got busy developing a “Facebook Platform strategy.” Countless hours (and dollars) were expended by firms large and small, all attempting to create their own version of themselves in Facebook’s white and blue walled garden.
Our faith in the process of science is damaged, and it could be replaced by something worse
In a desperate attempt to curb the negative wave of attention it garnered in 2017, Facebook stepped into 2018 announcing its own resolutions. The big one is backing away from news publishers, and favouring content that user’s friends and family put out. Here are a few other alarming headlines from this past week:
Note: this article has the title “Farming While Black” because it’s part of a series about perspectives of people of color in the food and agriculture business. This particular story, however, is told from my point of view as an enrolled member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians — the indigenous people of southern and central Maryland.
As it often does, it started with a bumper sticker.
JM Stock Provisions — a butcher outfit with a location in Charlottesville — didn’t mean any harm when they posted this: