Some days you look behind the headlines and all you see is trouble. Today, two cautionary tales. First: Ten million jobs were created in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015. But nearly all of them, according to a study by Princeton economists, are in the “alternative work” category — part-time, freelance, or contract work rather than steady full-time jobs (Quartz). That’s a boon to people who value gig-economy flexibility but bad news for people who seek or need the security and benefits of more traditional employment. It’s also something lawmakers ought to keep in mind as they prepare to dismantle Obamacare: The need for attractive alternatives to employer-based health insurance is only going to grow.
But new ideas will help us weather this transition, right? Not so fast, says Greg Ip in The Wall Street Journal, who argues that we’re in an “innovation slump.” In recent decades, “outside of personal technology, improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary,” Ip writes, and that’s why productivity growth has slowed to a crawl. In most areas outside of infotech — the one innovation bright spot — we’ve grown risk-shy, and we’re spending more on undoing damage caused by past innovations (e.g., fossil fuels) than on introducing new ones.
If Ip is right, we should be worried enough to do something about this stasis. He offers a few prescriptions for jumpstarting the flow of new ideas: spend more on R&D, pay more attention to developments in other countries, and loosen the restrictions on new realms like drones and self-driving cars. Also: Maybe figure out how that “alternative work” boom can benefit more of us.
Comma.ai is a startup that set out to build autonomous driving tech for hackers and hobbyists. In October, when regulators sent stern warnings to founder George Hotz — known for his exploits cracking iPhones and PlayStations — he shut down the announced product. But now he’s reviving it as an open-source effort (The Verge).
Yesterday, the code for self-driving software called Open Pilot, along with plans for complementary hardware called Comma Neo, went up on Github. Like so many open source projects, this one doesn’t provide a finished product; it’s more a framework for makers to build on. Right now, Comma’s tech works only with selected models of Acura and Honda vehicles — and only at certain speeds. At the start, at least, it will take a special kind of open-source true believer to turn the wheel over to collaboratively developed software. But longer term, Hotz says he’s laying the foundation for a kind of Android for self-driving cars.
“Platform” used to mean things like: A railway station waiting area. A soapbox from which one addressed the world. Or a set of positions and policies that a political organization embraced. In the NewCo universe, it means something different — but what, exactly? Paul Ford (Track Changes) takes a stab at defining the word as it has evolved in the tech-internet-sharing economy.
In Ford’s formulation, a platform is any system that handles transactions: financial transactions like buying and selling stuff, communications transactions like sending an email or a text, data transactions like saving an image or tracking an ad. When platforms work well, they lower the individual cost of these transactions the more people use them.
We often talk about the ways that Silicon Valley is selfless. How we improve lives with world changing technology. How we spend our time helping other, younger entrepreneurs. But we rarely spend time talking about the ways that Silicon Valley is selfish.
I must admit that most of my last decade building and investing in tech companies has been spent trying to figure out how to make my businesses work for me. How do you get users to click on more things? How do you get them to spend more time or more money? How do we raise more money, increase our value, sell our company, enrich ourselves? Silicon Valley is the Wall Street of the 80s: Greed is good. For us, the market has been the ultimate arbitrator of value: if you make a product lots of people use and give you money for, you’ve definitionally done something that has made a positive impact in the world. Because here it has been possible to make an incredible fortune so quickly, clearly Silicon Valley must be changing the world!
This week was an eye opener for me. In coastal bubbles a Trump presidency was literally inconceivable. Silicon Valley was optimizing around the margins; the main battle finished, it was picking new battles (sometimes with Thiel affiliates who were pro-Hillary!). The election results showed something completely different: 50% of voting Americans, and the majority of the electoral college sent a giant Fuck You to the establishment and went Trump.
Trader Joe’s, the cut-price gourmet grocer, is known for paying and treating its workers better than a lot of other retailers. We always assumed that explained the good spirits the staff there usually displays. A New York Times story suggests that the smiles and friendly chatter are more of a job requirement — and at least one worker is complaining to the National Labor Relations Board that he was fired for being too negative.
Company enforcement of an upbeat vibe is nothing new, of course. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild long ago dubbed the practice “emotional labor,” and it takes a toll on employees, not only because it’s exhausting but also because it erodes workers’ sense of personal integrity.
It’s hard to tell how widespread the problem is at Trader Joe’s, or whether the issue the Times airs is simply a problem with a single poorly managed outlet. One salient point: Trader Joe’s started in sunny Southern California, but the labor problems it’s beginning to face are emerging in the scrappier Northeast.
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.
When I first learned to drive, every mile I spent on the road was crucial. It was only through practice that I learned how to move with the flow of traffic, anticipate people’s behavior, and react to unexpected situations. Developing a truly self-driving car is no different. A self-driving car that can get you safely from door to door has to understand the nuances of the road, which only comes with experience.
That’s why our team has been focused on gaining real-world experience, and this month, we’ve reached a major milestone: we’ve now driven more than 2 million fully-autonomous miles on public roads. Put another way, if you consider the hours we’ve spent on the road, our cars now have the equivalent of 300 years of human driving experience.
Sometime last week, commit id 0078753328a37 wound its way through our deployment infrastructure and was deployed to our production servers and with it brought about a paradigm shift in the way we work.
We now run our whole fleet operations for 75 buses with one human and one bot.
Rules for the driverless road. Federal regulators have finally issued long-awaited guidelines for self-driving cars, including a 15-point safety standard (The New York Times). The manufacturers and services kickstarting this industry have advocated a set of national rules to pre-empt a state-by-state patch quilt. Safety advocates have been eager to keep the government a step ahead of companies that are rushing to test-drive new systems without waiting for regulations. The new guidelines are work-in-progress vague, but they do provide guidance for how autonomous driving systems should handle failures and protect passengers in a crash — and they ask the states to agree on one set of rules rather than 50. Is this approach tough or lax? Dueling headlines suggest the jury’s out: TheTimes has “Self-driving cars gain powerful ally: the government,” but in The Washington Post, it’s “Federal officials plan aggressive approach to driverless cars.” Of course, any regulation is only as strong as the intent of the people responsible for enforcing it. Right now, the Obama administration sounds pretty fired up about the self-driven future. Next year? Stay tuned to the polls. Whatever happens, the rise of autonomous vehicles will mean we need to rethink the whole notion of a DMV (The Atlantic) — as we figure out how, exactly, a piece of software gets its driver’s license.
Liberalism is so last century. Britain may be a lap or two ahead of the U.S. in crossing the threshold of what a commentator in The Guardian calls “the post-liberal age.” In approving its massive new Hinkley Point nuclear plant, the U.K. government insisted that it would retain a share in the project and apply a national security test to ownership of the plant (and similar assets). These conditions aren’t unusual or outrageous — but they do run counter to the strain of laissez-faire neoliberalism that has dominated Western governments since the 1980s. Meanwhile, social liberalism’s credos of tolerance and inclusion are being tested, if not broken, under the pressure of terrorist attacks and fear of radical Islamism. It’s hardly time to write an obituary for liberalism — the term means too many different things and has deep roots in so many policies and institutions. But we are clearly beginning to leave one era behind without knowing just what we’ll find in the next one.
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.