JPB was a conjurer, a convener, a cipher and an empath
Barlow died this week and since hearing of it, 24 hours ago, I’ve struggled with what to do. Then I got a note this morning from the fellow managing his “BarlowFriendz” email list, informing thousands of us of Barlow’s death. Of course, most of us already knew, but getting a missive from that listserv was like a bolt from the grave — I half expected a post-mortem manifesto from the man, and god knows our world needs one. Instead it was a sad and perfunctory announcement of his passing from the fellow JPB had entrusted to manage his email list.
But you know how you think you’ve gotten over someone, but then something reminds you of how deep that person is entangled with your own sense of self, and you fall apart? Seeing a note from BarlowFriendz was like that for me. I realized a few things: First, I hadn’t gotten a note from Barlow in a while, I knew he’d been sick, but most of the news I had heard was pretty good, all things considered (he called his situation late in life “medical incarceration.”) He had taken on the American way of death, and so far, he seemed to be winning. Till now. Second, I realized how much I loved his occasional missives, filled as they were with Cassady-like calls to action (Dancemobs! BarlowFrenzys! Bikemobs!) and lucid outbursts of pure poetry. And third, I wondered if we’d lose all that wonderful prose (we won’t, I’m assured).
The White House’s List of Departures Keeps Growing. An Ongoing Tally…
Steve Bannon’s departure feels like business as usual in an Administration plagued by scandals. But there’s nothing normal about a White House that has seen so many departures — forced or otherwise.
One can easily lose track, so we compiled the list for our readers. The people below have either resigned, been fired or moved into reduced roles. There may be more — so we’ll keep the list up to date.
Sally Yateswas acting attorney general when fired on January 30th after refusing the enforce the Travel Ban.
State Department Official Patrick Kennedy resigned on January 25th after being asked to do so, along with three of his deputies. They represented decades of diplomatic experience.
Michael Flynn was the National Security Advisor when he resigned February 13th due to revelations around his relationship with Russia and Turkey.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was fired March 11th after refusing to resign.
FBI director James Comey was fired May 9th while on a trip in Los Angeles. He learned of the news from a nearby television broadcast.
Communications director Michael Dubke offered his resignation on May 18th after serving for three months. There have now been several communications directors, the current one — Sarah Huckabee — is pegged as “interim.”
Walter Shaub was the Director of the Office of Government Ethics when he resigned on July 17th after reported clashes with the administration. On his way out, he accused the administration of being a “laughingstock.”
Sean Spicer resigned on July 21st after missing out on new role as Communications Director left vacant by Dubke, and in objection to the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days.
Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, wasmoved onto a reduced role after attacking the press on July 21st.
Press aide Michael Short quits on July 25th before he could be fired by new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci.
Anthony Scaramucciwas let go after 10 days in the job on July 31st, shortly after a colorful interview surfaced.
Manufacturing and Business Advisory Councils disband August 15th after a bizarre press conference where Donald Trump appears to take back his condemnation of hate groups. The dismantling of the councils happens after several members leave.
Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is fired on August 18th. Or, as he put it, he was released to “go to war.”
The president’sArt Council dissolves August 18th, while sending a colorful “Resist” message to the White House.
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’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s not on the technology
Here in the Valley, we’d prefer our technology to be free of annoying social complexities. We’re extremely good at imagining a world where a particular innovation has won the day, but we’re also pretty talented at ignoring the messy transitions necessary to actually get there.
Our most current case in point is the autonomous vehicle. The received wisdom in the Valley is that the technology for self-driving cars is already here — we just have to wait a few years while the slowpokes in Washington get with the program. Within five years, we’ll all be autopiloted around — free to spend our otherwise unproductive driving time answering email, Snapchatting, or writing code.
Except, come on, there’s no way that’s gonna happen. Not in five years, anyway.
Is Facebook’s free internet a Trojan horse? Facebook’s free internet plan, Free Basics, didn’t work out well when it debuted in India, but now Facebook has given the project an overhaul and has its eyes on a new market: the U.S. (The Washington Post). Free Basics is a system that lets disadvantaged users get wireless access to certain services and content free — they’re not charged against the monthly data limit. The argument for this “zero rating” concept is: let’s do a better job of bringing the benefits of internet connectivity to people who can’t afford it. The argument against it is, let’s not create a two-tier internet where poorer users get subsidized access but only to services like Facebook that underwrite it. (Last year, Susan Crawford persuasively made the against case.) The devil will be in the details, and it looks like federal regulators are moving with care. But cross your fingers that someone is looking out for the long-term interests of users here, and not just those of the BigCos.
For women in business, it’s the same old same old. U.S. businesses are still failing to make any kind of headway towards gender equality, according to a new study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey. The review of 130 companies finds that women are “underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline,” get promoted less than men, and face extra resistance when they ask for raises. It’s even tougher for women of color. While none of this comes as a surprise, the sheer Groundhog Day-like familiarity of such results is getting painful. More than 70 percent of companies have made commitments to diversity, yet the needle has remained stuck. Less talk, more action.
An embattled blood-testing innovator struggles for a reboot. Theranos, the Silicon Valley company that once promised a health revolution, is beating a full retreat from the consumer blood-testing business on which it built its name (The Wall Street Journal). In an open letter, founder Elizabeth Holmes announced that from now on Theranos will shut down its partnership with Walgreens, shed 40 percent of its workforce (about 340 jobs), and concentrate on producing testing equipment to sell to doctors and healthcare facilities. The retrenchment follows Wall Street Journal stories earlier this year that raised troubling questions about inflated claims Theranos had made for its blood tests,and the company’s forthrightness with investors and the public. All along, the lesson from the Theranos affair has been that you can’t build public trust on a foundation of obsessive secrecy. Yet Holmes’ terse, opaque letter suggests that little at Theranos has changed on this front. Sure, she’s treading a legal minefield. But she offers the world no reason to give Theranos a second chance; she doesn’t even acknowledge the problem.
MailChimp is the anti-startup startup. It’s in Atlanta, not the Bay Area. It didn’t load up on venture-capital money early in its life. It grew slowly, and says it has always been profitable. That means that MailChimp, the popular email-list management tool, is still wholly owned by its two co-founders, even as it’s become a company with 550 employees and a projected $400 million in revenue for 2016. (We use it here at NewCo.) Profiling MailChimp in The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that this model deserves more glory than it gets, and might be eminently more sensible for many startups than the VC-backed model, particularly for the kind of small business that makes up MailChimp’s customer base. MailChimp is not immune to funky conference-room names or crazy decor (like a boardroom decorated with skate boards), but in most substantial ways it bucks every Silicon Valley trend yet seems to stay true to the core of the startup ethos — focusing on a mission and serving customers.
Last week policy shapers from Washington DC traveled to San Francisco to meet with representatives from across Silicon Valley to promote the Blockchain Trust Accelerator. The event was chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Albright currently serves as Chairman of the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that promotes democracy around the world. The initiative is also sponsored by New America, a technology think tank, and by Bitfury, a full-service Blockchain technology company.
Blockchain, the core technology behind Bitcoin, is receiving a lot of attention from the financial sector and beyond (both Debby Hopkins of Citi, and Bruce Aust of Nasdaq mention it in our Shift Dialogs series). Blockchain’s distributed encryption creates a public, audit-able transaction ledger without any intermediaries. The reason why blockchain works for a currency like Bitcoin is because it cannot be manipulated or gamed. In other words, it provides canonical records that cannot be corrupted.
This functionality has captured the imagination of policy makers because of the obvious benefits for tasks like property records, voting, health care records, identity, market clearance, etc. Blockchain can help assure these transactions are done with transparency and without manipulation.
Hey you kids, get on my lawn. On Monday 10,000 people attended a party in the White House’s yard celebrating tech, art, and changing the world. It was President Obama’s personal edition of a South by Southwest-style festival; called South by South Lawn, it featured virtual reality demos, social-media stars and conversations about climate change (The Daily Dot). Long lines waited to try out The Guardian’s 6×9, a VR creation that simulates the experience of solitary confinement. Slack founder Stewart Butterfield spoke about how to promote a more diverse startup universe and avoid creating a self-perpetuating system of exclusion. Obama himself chatted with Leonardo diCaprio and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe about accelerating efforts to cut carbon emissions. For a few hours, at least, you could forget that the 2016 presidential election is already a political and cultural train wreck and imagine a more hopeful future.
A man for all startups? Sam Altman took over as head of Y Combinator, the celebrated Silicon Valley startup accelerator, two years ago, and has presided over a period of rapid growth and escalating ambition. A lengthy profile of “startup Yoda” Altman (by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker) makes it clear that he’s sharp and talented. But when it comes to assessing Altman’s aims and ideals, the story offers a cornucopia of ambiguities. On the one hand, Altman wants to “move the world forward”; on the other, the organization he presides over is like a tech-industry version of a college old-boy’s network, filled with socially homogenous 20-something entrepreneurs. On the one hand, he’s pals with Trump supporter Peter Thiel; on the other, he’s brainstorming ways to muster tech-community power to defeat the GOP candidate. He is both a believer in singularity-style AI breakthroughs and a “prepper” who has made elaborate survivalist plans in case of global catastrophe. “Altman’s great strengths are clarity of thought and an intuitive grasp of complex systems,” writes Friend. “His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us.” Can you make social progress happen even if you “see people as chess pieces”? Keep an eye on Altman to find out.
Antitrust: It’s tanned and ready. A century ago, the progressive movement, reacting against the monopolies of the oil barons, established antitrust law as the government’s chief tool for restoring competition. But from the Reagan era on, we’ve defanged antitrust enforcement, and that allowed a new generation of monopolists to take hold (The Atlantic). The rate of new-business formation has dropped in each decade since. Despite our cultural infatuation with startups, markets are actually concentrating, and competition is evaporating. That’s why leaders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) advocate that the government brush off its antitrust arsenal. But today’s tech giants, like Apple and Alphabet/Google, are admired and beloved by consumers. Any newly invigorated antitrust enforcement that goes after them is likely to run into political resistance and face philosophical objections, too. Hasn’t the era of Big Tech also brought new efficiencies and lower prices? As one observer puts it in The Atlantic: “Where do we draw the line between ‘good’ bigness and ‘bad’ bigness?” Tough to say — but it’s useful to try.
It’s all Spotify’s fault. The global economy has behaved in confounding ways since the economic crisis of 2007–8: We have historically low interest rates and we’re awash in cash, but inflation remains vanishingly low, which is exactly the opposite of what conventional economics says should happen. Maybe our whole picture is askew because we’re failing to account for the production of “virtual goods,” like Spotify subscriptions (Business Insider). “What if deflation is not a sign of recession but rather a product of the relentless efficiency of tech services like Uber, Airbnb and Spotify?” In other words: Are we stuck in “a no-growth world” — or do we simply have a “measurement issue”? Sweden, Spotify’s native land, embodies this dilemma: With high growth and no inflation, it’s either an economic utopia or a bubble waiting to bust. A lot hangs on the answer, and no one really knows.
Over the last few years, much of the trailblazing, waste-busting progress against Food Waste in Europe has been taking place across the Channel in France, from impactful legislation changes to quirky campaigns and dancing (yes, dancing). Sacré bleu!
They have just banned plastic cups, plates and cutlery