Tagged: essays Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • feedwordpress 23:02:06 on 2018/11/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , essays, , ideas, , , ,   

    When Tech Loves Its Fiercest Critics, Buyer Beware 

    Detail from the cover of Harari’s lastest work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

    A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”

    Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”

    Well, I’m not sure if I qualify as one of those elites, but I have a theory, one that wasn’t quite raised in the Times’ otherwise compelling profile. I’ve been a student of Harari’s work, and if there’s one clear message, it’s this: We’re running headlong into a world controlled by a tiny elite of superhumans, masters of new technologies that the “useless class” will never understand. “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm,” Harari writes in Homo Deus. A new religion of Dataism will transcend our current obsession with ourselves, and we will “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.” In other words, we humans are f*cked, save for a few of the lucky ones who manage to transcend their fate and become masters of the machines. “Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class,” the Times writes, paraphrasing Harari’s work, “and a teeming, furious “useless class.””

    So here’s why I think the Valley loves Harari: We all believe we’ll be members of that tiny ruling class. It’s an indefensible, mathematically impossible belief, but as Harari reminds us in 21 Lessons, “never underestimate human stupidity.” Put another way, we are  fooling ourselves, content to imagine we’ll somehow all earn a ticket into (or onto) whatever apocalypse-dodging exit plan Musk, Page or Bezos might dream up (they’re all obsessed with leaving the planet, after all). Believing that impossible fiction is certainly a lot easier than doing the quotidian work of actually fixing the problems which lay before us. Better to be one of the winners than to risk losing along with the rest of the useless class, no?

    But we can’t all be winners in the future Harari lays out, and he seems to understand this fact. “If you make people start thinking far more deeply and seriously about these issues,” he said to the Times, “some of the things they will think about might not be what you want them to think about.”

    Exactly, Professor. Now that I’ve departed the Valley, where I spent nearly three decades of my life, I’m starting to gain a bit of perspective on my own complicated relationship with the power structure of the place. I grew up with the (mostly) men who lead companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, and early in the industry’s rise, it was heady to share the same stage with legends like Bezos, Jobs, or Page. But as the technology industry becomes the driving force of social rupture, I’m far more skeptical of its leaders’ abilities to, well, lead.

    Witness this nearly idea-free interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, also in the Times, where the meticulously media-prepped executive opines on whether his industry has a role to play in society’s ills: “Every generation is worried about the new technology, and feels like this time it’s different. Our parents worried about Elvis Presley’s influence on kids. So, I’m always asking the question, “Why would it be any different this time?” Having said that, I do realize the change that’s happening now is much faster than ever before. My son still doesn’t have a phone.”

    Pichai’s son not have a phone, but he is earning money mining Ethereum (really, you can’t make this shit up). I’m not sure the son of a centi-millionaire needs to earn money – but it certainly is useful to master the algorithms that will soon control nearly every aspect of human life. So – no, son, no addictive phone for you (even though my company makes them, and makes their operating systems, and makes the apps which ensure their addictive qualities).

    But mining crypto currency? Absolutely!

    Should Harari be proven right and humanity becomes irrelevant, I’m pretty sure Pichai’s son will have a first class ticket out of whatever mess is left behind. But the rest of us? We should probably focus on making sure that kid never needs to use it.

    Cross posted from NewCo Shift. 


    By the way, the other current obsession of Valley folks is author Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All – The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Read them together for a one-two punch, if you dare…

     
  • feedwordpress 11:39:41 on 2018/10/24 Permalink
    Tags: , commerce, , essays, , , , , , , retail, walmart   

    This Is How Walmart Beats Amazon 

    A scenario from the future

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

    In my last post I imagined a world in which large data-driven platforms like Amazon, Google, Spotify, and Uber are compelled to share machine-readable copies of data to their users. There are literally scores, if not hundreds of wrinkles to iron out around how such a system would work, and in a future post I hope to dig into some of those questions. But for now, come with me on a journey into the future, where the wrinkles have been ironed out, and a new marketplace of personally-driven information is flourishing. We’ll return to one of the primary examples I sketched out in the aforementioned post: A battle for the allegiance – and pocketbook – of one online shopper, in this case, my wife Michelle.

    ***

    It’s a crisp winter mid morning in Manhattan when the doorbell rings. Michelle looks up from her laptop, wondering who it might be. She’s not expecting any deliveries from Amazon, usually the source of such interruptions. She glances at her phone, and the Ring app (an Amazon service, naturally) shows a well dressed, smiling young woman at the door. She’s holding what looks like an elegantly wrapped gift in her hands. Now that’s unusual! Michelle checks the date – no anniversaries, no birthdays, no special occasions – so what gives?

    Michelle opens the door and is greeted by a woman who introduces herself as Sheila. She tells Michelle she’s been sent over by Walmart. Walmart? Michelle’s never set foot in a Walmart store, and has a less than charitable view of the company overall. Why on earth would Walmart be sending her a special delivery gift box?

    Sheila is used to exactly this kind of response – she’s been trained to expect it, and to manage the conversation that ensues. Sheila is a college-educated Walmart management associate, and delivering these gift boxes is a mandatory part of her company training. In fact, Sheila’s future career trajectory is based, in part, on her success at converting Michelle into becoming a Walmart customer, and she’s learned from her colleagues back at corporate that the best way to succeed is to be direct and open while engaging with a top-level prospect.

    “Michelle, I know this seems a bit strange, but Walmart has identified you as a premier ecommerce customer – I’m guessing you probably have at least three or four packages a week delivered here?”

    “More like three or four a day,” Michelle answers, warming to Sheila’s implied status as a premium customer.

    “Yes, it’s amazing how it’s become a daily habit,” Sheila answers. “And as you probably know, Walmart has an online service, but truth be told, we never seem to get the business of folks like you. I’m here to see if we might change that.”

    Michelle becomes suspicious. It doesn’t make sense to her – sending over a manager bearing gifts? Such tactics don’t scale – and feel like an intrusion to boot.

    Sensing this, Sheila continues. “Look, I’m not here to sell you anything. I’ve got this special gift for you from Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart. You’ve been selected to be part of a new program we’re testing – we call it Walton’s Circle. It’s named after Sam Walton, our founder, who was pretty fond of the personal touch. In any case, the gift is yours to keep. There’s some pretty cool stuff in there, I have to say, including La Mer skin cream and some Neuhaus chocolate that’s to die for.”

    Michelle smiles. Strange how the world’s biggest retailer, a place she’s never shopped, seems to know her brand preferences for skin care and chocolate. Despite herself, she relaxes a bit.

    “Also inside,” Sheila continues, “is an invitation. It’s entirely up to you if you want to accept it, but let me explain?”

    “Sure,” Michelle answers.

    “Great. Have you heard of the Token Act?”

    Michelle frowns. She read about this new piece of legislation, something to do with personal data and the right to exchange it for value across the internet. In the run up to its passage, her husband wouldn’t shut up about how revolutionary it was going to be, but so far nothing important in her life had changed.

    “Yes, I’ve heard of it,” Michelle answers, “but it all seems pretty abstract.”

    “Yeah, I hear that all the time,” Sheila responds. “But that’s where our invitation comes in. Inside the box is an envelope with a code and a website. I imagine you use Amazon…” Sheila glances toward an empty brown box in the hallway with Amazon’s universal smiling logo. Michelle laughs. “Of course you do! I was a huge Amazon customer for years. And that’s what our invitation is about – it’s an invitation to see what might happen if you became a Walmart customer instead. If you go to our site and enter your code, a program will automatically download your Amazon purchase history and run it through Walmart’s historical inventory. Within seconds, you’ll be given a report detailing what you would have saved had you purchased exactly the same products, at the same time, from us instead of Jeff Bezos.”

    “Huh,” Michelle responds. “Sounds cool but…that’s my information on Amazon, no? I don’t want you to have that, do I?”

    “Of course not,” Sheila says knowingly. “All of your information is protected by LiveRamp Identity, and is never stored or even processed on our servers. You maintain complete control over the process, and can revoke it at any time.”

    Michelle had heard of LiveRamp Identity, it was a third-party guarantor of information safety she’d used for a recent mortgage application.  She also came across it when co-signing for a car loan for her college-aged daughter.

    “When you put that code into our site, a token is generated that gives us permission to compare our data to yours, and a report is generated,” Sheila explained. “The report is yours to keep and do with what you want. In fact, the report becomes a token in and of itself, and you can submit that token to third party services like TokenTrust, which will audit our work and tell you if our results can be trusted.”

    TokenTrust was another service Michelle had heard of, her husband had raved about it as one of the fastest growing new entrants in the tech industry. The company had recently been featured on 60 Minutes – it played a significant role in a story about Google’s search results, if she recalled correctly. Docusign had purchased the company for several billion just last year. In any case, Michelle’s suspicions were defused – may as well check this out. I mean, why would Walmart risk its reputation stealing her Amazon data? It was worth at least seeing that report.

    Sheila sensed the opening. “The reports are pretty amazing,” she says. “I’ve had clients who’ve discovered they could have saved thousands of dollars a year. And here’s the best part: If, after reviewing and validating the report, you switch to Walmart, we’ll credit your account with those savings – in essence, we’ll retroactively deliver you the savings you would have had all along.”

    “Wow. That almost sounds too good to be true!” Michelle says. “But… OK, thanks. I’ll check it out. Thanks for coming by.”

    “Absolutely,” Sheila responds. “And here’s my card – that’s my cell, and my email. Let me know if you have any questions.”

    ***

    Michelle heads back inside and places the gift box on the table next to her laptop. Before opening the box, she wants to be sure this thing is for real. She Googles “Walmart Walton Circle Savings Token”  – and the first link is to a Business Insider article: “These Lucky Few Amazon Customers Are Paid Thousands to Switch – By Walmart.” So Sheila wasn’t lying – this program is for real!

    Michelle tugs on the satin ribbon surrounding her gift box and raises its sturdy lid. Nestled on straw inside are two jars of La Mer, several samples of Neuhaus chocolates, two of her favorite bath salts, and various high end household items. The inside lid of the box proclaims “Welcome to Walton’s Circle!” in elegant script. At the center of the box is an creamy envelope engraved with her name. Michelle opens it, and just as Sheila mentioned, a URL and code is included, along with simple instructions.

    What the hell, may as well see what comes of it. Turning to her laptop, Michelle heads to Walmart.com – for the first time in her life – and enters her code. Almost instantaneously a dialog pops up, informing her that her report is ready. Would she like to review it?

    Why not?! Michelle clicks “Yes” and up comes a side-by-side comparison of her entire Amazon purchase history. She notices that during the early years – roughly until 2006 –  there’s not much on the Walmart side of the report. But after that the match rates start to climb, and for the past five or so years, the report shows that 98 percent of the stuff she’s bought at Amazon was also available on Walmart.com. Each purchase has a link, and she tries out one – a chaise lounge she purchased in 2014 (gotta love Prime shipping!). Turns out Walmart didn’t have that exact match, but the report shows several similar alternatives, any of which would have worked. Cool.

    Michelle’s eye is drawn to the bottom of the report, to a large sum in red that shows the difference in price between her Amazon purchases and their Walmart doppelgangers.

    $2,700.

    Holy….cow. Michelle can’t believe it. Is this for real? Anticipating the question, Walmart’s report software pops up a dialog. “Would you like to validate your token’s report using TokenTrust? We’ll pay all fees.” Michelle clicks yes, and a TokenTrust site appears. The site shows a “working” icon for several seconds, then returns a simple message: “TokenTrust has reviewed Walmarts claims and your Amazon token, and validates the accuracy of this report.”

    Michelle is sold. Next to the $2700 figure at the bottom of her report is one line of text, and a “Go” link. “Would you like to become a founding member of the Walton Circle? We’ll take care of all your transition needs, and Sheila, who’ve you already met, will be named as your personal shopping concierge.”

    Michelle hovers momentarily over “Go.” What the hell, she thinks. I can always switch back. And with one click, Michelle does something she never thought she would: She becomes a Walmart customer.

    Satisfied, she turns her eyes back to her work. Several new emails have collected in her inbox. One is from Doug McMillon, welcoming her to Walton’s Circle. As she hovers over it, mail refreshes, and a new message piles on top of McMillon’s.

    Holy shit. Did Jeff Bezos really just email me?! 

    ***

    Is such a scenario even possible? Well, that question remains unexplored, at least for now. As I wrote in my last post, I’m not certain Amazon’s terms of service would allow for such an information exchange, though it’s currently possible to download exactly the information Walmart would need to stand up such a service. (I’ve done it, it takes a bit of poking around, but it’s very cool to see.) The real question is this: Would Walmart spend the thousands of dollars required to make this kind of customer acquisition possible?

    I don’t see why not. A high end e-commerce customer spends more than ten thousand dollars a year online. Over a lifetime, this customer is worth thousands of dollars in profit for a well-run commerce site like Walmart. The most difficult and expensive problem for any brand is switching costs – it’s at the core of the most sophisticated marketing efforts in the world – Ford spends hundreds of millions each year trying to  convince customers to switch from GM, Verizon spends equal amounts in an effort to pull customers from AT&T. Over the past five years, Walmart has watched Amazon run away with its customers online, even as it has spent billions building a competitive commerce offering. What Walmart needs are “point to” customers – the kind of people who not only become profitable lifelong buyers, but who will tell hundreds of friends, family members and colleagues about their gift box experience.

    But to get there, Walmart needs that Amazon token. Wouldn’t it be cool if such a thing actually existed?

     
  • feedwordpress 16:16:33 on 2018/09/24 Permalink
    Tags: , essays, , , , , ,   

    Governance, Technology, and Capitalism. 

    Or, Will Nature Just Shrug Its Shoulders?

    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?

    Nearly two years ago I predicted that the bloom would fade from the technology industry’s rose, and so far, so true. But as we begin to lose faith in the icons of our former narratives, a nagging and increasingly urgent question arises:  In a world where we imaging merging with technology, what makes us uniquely human?

    Our lives are now driven in large part by data, code, and processing, and by the governance of algorithms. These determine how data flows, and what insights and decisions are taken as a result.

    So yes, software has, in a way, eaten the world. But software is not something being done to us. We have turned the physical world into data, we have translated our thoughts, actions, needs and desires into data, and we have submitted that data for algorithmic inspection and processing. What we now struggle with is the result of these new habits – the force of technology looping back upon the world, bending it to a new will.  What agency – and responsibility – do we have? Whose will? To what end?

    • ••

    Synonymous with progress, asking not for permission, fearless of breaking things – in particular stupid, worthy-of-being-broken things like government, sclerotic corporations, and fetid social norms – the technology industry reveled for decades as a kind of benighted warrior for societal good. As one Senator told me during the Facebook hearings this past summer, “we purposefully didn’t regulate technology, and that was the right thing to do.” But now? He shrugged. Now, maybe it’s time.

    Because technology is already regulating us. I’ve always marveled at libertarians who think the best regulatory framework for government is none at all. Do they think that means there’s no governance?

    In our capitalized healthcare system, data, code and algorithms now drive diagnosis, costs, coverage and outcomes. What changes on the ground? People are being denied healthcare, and this equates to life or death in the real world. 

    In our public square, data, code and algorithms drive civil discourse. We no longer share one physical, common square, but instead struggle to comprehend a world comprised of a billion Truman Shows. What changes on the ground? The election results of the world’s most powerful country.

    Can you get credit to start a business? A loan to better yourself through education? Financial decisions are now determined by data, code, and algorithms. Job applications are turned to data, and run through cohorts of similarities, determining who gets hired, and who ultimately ends up leaving the workforce.

    And in perhaps the most human pursuit of all – connecting to other humans – we’ve turned our desires and our hopes to data, swapping centuries of cultural norms for faith in the governance of code and algorithms built – in necessary secrecy – by private corporations.

    • ••

    How does a human being make a decision? Individual decision making has always been opaque – who can query what happens inside someone’s head? We gather input, we weigh options and impacts, we test assumptions through conversations with others. And then we make a call – and we hope for the best.

    But when others are making decisions that impact us, well, those kinds of decisions require governance. Over thousands of years we’ve designed systems to insure that our most important societal decisions can be queried and audited for fairness, that they are defensible against some shared logic, that they will  benefit society at large.

    We call these systems government. It is imperfect but… it’s better than anarchy.

    For centuries, government regulations have constrained social decisions that impact health, job applications, credit – even our public square. Dating we’ve left to the governance of cultural norms, which share the power of government over much of the world.

    But in just the past decade, we’ve ceded much of this governance to private companies – companies motivated by market imperatives which demand their decision making processes be hidden. Our public government – and our culture – have not kept up.

    What happens when decisions are taken by algorithms of governance that no one understands? And what happens when those algorithms are themselves governed by a philosophy called capitalism?

    • ••

    We’ve begun a radical experiment combining technology and capitalism, one that most of us have scarcely considered. Our public commons – that which we held as owned by all, to the benefit of all – is increasingly becoming privatized.

    Thousands of companies are now dedicated to revenue extraction in the course of delivering what were once held as public goods. Public transportation is being hollowed out by Uber, Lyft, and their competitors (leveraging public goods like roadways, traffic infrastructure, and GPS).  Public education is losing funding to private schools, MOOCs, and for-profit universities. Public health, most disastrously in the United States, is driven by a capitalist philosophy tinged with technocratic regulatory capture. And in perhaps the greatest example of all, we’ve ceded our financial future to the almighty 401K – individuals can no longer count on pensions or social safety nets – they must instead secure their future by investing in “the markets” – markets which have become inhospitable to anyone lacking the technological acumen of the world’s most cutting-edge hedge funds.

    What’s remarkable and terrifying about all of this is the fact that the combinatorial nature of technology and capitalism outputs fantastic wealth for a very few, and increasing poverty for the very many. It’s all well and good to claim that everyone should have a 401K. It’s irresponsible to continue that claim when faced with the reality that 84 percent of the stock market is owned by the wealthiest ten percent of the population.

    This outcome is not sustainable. When a system of governance fails us, we must examine its fundamental inputs and processes, and seek to change them.

    • ••

    So what truly is governing us in the age of data, code, algorithms and processing? For nearly five decades, the singular true north of capitalism has been to enrich corporate shareholders. Other stakeholders – employees, impacted communities, partners, customers – do not directly determine the governance of most corporations.

    Corporations are motivated by incentives and available resources. When the incentive is extraction of capital to be placed in the pockets of shareholders, and a new resource becomes available which will aide that extraction, companies will invent fantastic new ways to leverage that resource so as to achieve their goal. If that resource allows corporations to skirt current regulatory frameworks, or bypass them altogether, so much the better.

    The new resource, of course, is the combination of data, code, algorithms and processing. Unbridled, replete with the human right of speech and its attendant purchasing of political power, corporations are quite literally becoming our governance model.

    Now the caveat: Allow me to state for the record that I am not a socialist. If you’ve never read my work, know I’ve started six companies, invested in scores more, and consider myself an advocate of transparently governed free markets. But we’ve leaned far too over our skis – the facts no longer support our current governance model.

    • ••

    We turn our worlds to data, leveraging that data, technocapitalism then terraforms our world. Nowhere is this more evident that with automation – the largest cost of nearly every corporation is human labor, and digital technologies are getting extraordinarily good at replacing that cost.

    Nearly everyone agrees this shift is not new – yes yes, a century or two ago, most of us were farmers. But this shift is coming far faster, and with far less considered governance. The last great transition came over generations. Technocapitalism has risen to its current heights in ten short years. Ten years. 

    If we are going to get this shift right, we urgently need to engage in a dialog about our core values. Can we perhaps rethink the purpose of work, given work no longer means labor? Can we reinvent our corporations and our regulatory frameworks to honor, celebrate and support our highest ideals? Can we prioritize what it means to be human even as we create and deploy tools that make redundant the way of life we’ve come to know these past few centuries?

    These questions beg a simpler one: What makes us human?

    I dusted off my old cultural anthropology texts, and consulted the scholars. The study of humankind teaches us that we are unique in that we are transcendent toolmakers – and digital technology is our most powerful  tool. We have nuanced language, which allows us both recollection of the past, and foresight into the future. We are wired – literally at the molecular level – to be social, to depend on one another, to share information and experience. Thanks to all of this, we have the capability to wonder, to understand our place in the world, to philosophize. The love of beauty,  philosophers will tell you, is the most human thing of all.

    Oh, but then again, we are uniquely capable of intentional destroying ourselves. Plenty of species can do that by mistake. We’re unique in our ability to do it on purpose.

    But perhaps the thing that makes us most human is our love of story telling, for narrative weaves nearly everything human into one grand experience. Our greatest philosophers even tell stories about telling stories! The best stories employ sublime language, advanced tools, deep community, profound wonder, and inescapable narrative tension.  That ability to destroy ourselves? That’s the greatest narrative driver in this history of mankind.

    How will it turn out?

    • ••

    We are storytelling engines uniquely capable of understanding our place in the world. And it’s time to change our story, before we fail a grand test of our own making: Can we transition to a world inhabited by both ourselves, and the otherness of the technology we’ve created? Should we fail, nature will indifferently shrug its shoulders. It has billions of years to let the whole experiment play over again.

    We are the architects of this grand narrative. Let’s not miss our opportunity to get it right.

    Adapted from a speech presented at the Thrival Humans X Tech conference in Pittsburgh earlier this week. 

    Cross posted from NewCo Shift. 

     

     
  • feedwordpress 14:40:18 on 2018/09/18 Permalink
    Tags: essays, , ,   

    Dear Marc: Please, *Do* Get Involved 

    The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.

    I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)

    I toured The Washington Post as a teenager, and saw the desks where Bernstein and Woodward brought down a corrupt president. I met Katherine Graham once, at a conference I hosted, and I remain star struck by the institution she built to this day.

    And every seven days, for more than five decades, Time magazine came to my parents’ home, defining the American zeitgeist and smartly summarizing what mattered in public discourse.

    Now all four of my childhood icons are owned by billionaires who made their fortunes in technology. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. During the Gilded Age, our last great era of unbridled income inequality, many of America’s greatest journalistic institutions were owned by wealthy industrialists. William Randolph Hearst was a mining magnate. Joseph Pulitzer came from a wealthy European merchant family, though he came to the US broke and epitomized the American “self made man.” Andre Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., and Henry Flagler all dabbled in newspapers, with a healthy side of politics, which drove nearly all of American publishing during the Gilded Age.

    Which brings us to the Benioffs, and to Time. This week’s announcement struck all the expected notes – “The Benioffs will hold TIME as a family investment,” “TIME is a treasure trove of the world’s history and culture,” “Lynne and I will take on no operational responsibility for TIME, and look only to be stewards of this historic and iconic brand.”

    Well to that, I say poppycock. Time needs fixing, not benign stewardship. While it may be appropriate and politic to proclaim a hands-off approach, the flagship brand of the former Time Inc. empire could use a strong dose of what the Benioffs have to offer. Here’s my hot take on why and how:

    • Don’t play down the middle. What the United States needs right now is a voice of reason, of strength, of post-Enlightenment thinking. Not a safe, bland version of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. As Benioff well knows, politics is now the biggest driver of attention in the land, and taking a principled stand matters more than ever.
    • Learn from Bezos. Sure, the richest man in the world didn’t mess with the editorial side of the house, but then again, he already had an extraordinary leader in Marty Baron at the helm. But Bezos did completely shift the business model at the Post, implementing entirely new approaches to, well, pretty much every operating model in the building. New revenue leadership, new software platforms and processes, even a new SaaS business line. He thoroughly modernized the place, and if ever a place needed the same, it’s Time.
    • Invest in the product – editorial. But thoughtfully.  First and foremost, the Benioffs should force the Time team to answer the most important question of any consumer brand: Differentiation that demands a premium. Why should Time earn someone’s attention (and money)? What makes the publication unique? What does its brand stand for, beyond history and a red band around the cover? What mission is it on? If anyone understands these issues, it’s Marc and Lynne Benioff. Don’t hold back on forcing this difficult conversation – including on staffing and leadership (I’ve no bone to pick with anyone there, BTW). American journalism needs it, now. I can imagine a Time magazine where the most talented and elite commentators debate the issues of our day. And what issues they truly are! But to draw them, the product must sing, and it must also pay. Abolish the practice of paying a pittance for an argument well rendered. It’s time.
    • Related, rethink the print business. Print isn’t dead, but it needs a radical rethink. There isn’t a definitive weekly journal of sensible political and social discourse in America, and there really should be. The New Yorker is comfortably highbrow, US News is a college review site, Newsweek is rudderless. Time has a huge opportunity, but as it stands, it plays to the middle far too much, and online, it tries to be everything to nobody. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing anyone can do at a struggling print magazine is to cut circulation (the base number of readers) and find its truly passionate brand advocates. The company already did this a year ago, but it may not have gone far enough. Junk circulation is rife in the magazine business. It’s also rampant online, which leads to…
    • Please, fix the website. A  site that has a nearly 10-month out of date copyright notice at the bottom is not run like a lean product shop. Time online is a poster child for compromised business decisions driven entirely by acquiring junk audience (did you know that Time has 60mm uniques? Yeah, neither do they). Every single page on Time.com is littered with half a dozen or more competing display banners. The place stinks of desperate autoplay video, programmatic pharmaceutical come ons, and tawdry link bait (there are literally THREE instances of Outbrain-like junk on each article page. THREE!). Fixing this economic and product mess requires deep pockets and strong product imagination. The Benioffs have both. Invent (and or copy) new online models where the advertising adds value, where marketers would be proud to support the product. I’ve spoken to dozens of senior marketers looking to lean into high-quality news analysis. They’ve got very little to support at present. Time could change that.
    • Move out of Time Inc’s headquarters. Like, this week. The original Time Inc. HQ were stultifying and redolent with failure, but even the new digs downtown bear the albatross of past glories. It’s soul crushing. As an independent brand, Time needs a space that reclaims its pioneer spirt, and encourages its staff to rethink everything. Move to Nomad, the Flatiron, West Chelsea – anywhere but a skyscraper in the financial district.
    • Finally, leverage and rethink the cover. One of the largest single losses in the shift from analog to digital publishing was the loss of covers – the album cover (and its attendant liner notes), the book cover (and its attendant social signaling), and the magazine cover (and its attendant declarative power). The magazine cover is social artifact, editorial arbiter, cultural convener. The digital world still lacks the analog cover’s power. Time should make it a priority to invent its successor. Lock ten smart humans in a room full of whiteboards and don’t let them out till they have a dozen or more good ideas. Then test and learn – the answer is in there somewhere. The world needs editorial convening more than ever.

    There’s so much more, but I didn’t actually set out to write a post about how to fix Time  – I was merely interested in the historical allegories of successful industrialists who turned to publishing as they consolidated their legacies. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Benioff claimed his purchase of Time was aligned with his mission of “impact investing,” and that he was not going to be operationally involved. Well, Marc, if you truly want to have an impact, I beg to differ: Please do get involved, and the sooner the better.

     

     
  • feedwordpress 17:53:30 on 2018/07/22 Permalink
    Tags: , , , essays, , , , ,   

    The Tragedy of the Data Commons 

    Before, and after?

    A theme of my writing over the past ten or so years has been the role of data in society. I tend to frame that role anthropologically: How have we adapted to this new element in our society? What tools and social structures have we created in response to its emergence as a currency in our world? How have power structures shifted as a result?

    Increasingly, I’ve been worrying a hypothesis: Like a city built over generations without central planning or consideration for much more than fundamental capitalistic values, we’ve architected an ecosystem around data that is not only dysfunctional, it’s possibly antithetical to the core values of democratic society. Houston, it seems, we really do have a problem.

    I know, it’s been a while since I’ve written here, and most of my recent stuff has focused on Facebook. I’ve been on the road the entire summer, and preparing to move from the Bay area to NYC ( that’s another post). But before you roll your eyes in anticipation of yet another Facebook rant, no, this post is not about Facebook, despite that company’s continued inability to govern itself.

    No, this post is about the business of health insurance.

    Last week ProPublica published a story titled Health Insurers Are Vacuuming Up Details About You — And It Could Raise Your Rates.  It’s the second in an ongoing series the investigative unit is doing on the role of data in healthcare. I’ve been watching this story develop for years, and ProPublica’s piece does a nice job of framing the issue. It envisions  “a future in which everything you do — the things you buy, the food you eat, the time you spend watching TV — may help determine how much you pay for health insurance.”  Unsurprisingly, the health industry has  developed an insatiable appetite for personal data about the individuals it covers. Over the past decade or so, all of our quotidian activities (and far more) have been turned into data, and that data can and is being sold to the insurance industry:

    “The companies are tracking your race, education level, TV habits, marital status, net worth. They’re collecting what you post on social media, whether you’re behind on your bills, what you order online. Then they feed this information into complicated computer algorithms that spit out predictions about how much your health care could cost them.”

    HIPPA, the regulatory framework governing health information in the United States, only covers and protects medical data – not search histories, streaming usage, or grocery loyalty data. But if you think your search, video, and food choices aren’t related to health, well, let’s just say your insurance company begs to differ.

    Lest we dive into a rabbit hole about the corrosive combination of healthcare profit margins with personal data (ProPublica’s story does a fine job of that anyway), I want to pull back and think about what’s really going on here.

    The Tragedy of the Commons

    One of the most fundamental tensions in an open society is the potential misuse of resources held “in common” – resources to which all individuals have access. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay on the subject, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” explores this tension, concluding that the problem of human overpopulation has no technical solution. (A technical solution is one that does not require a shift in human values or morality (IE, a political solution), but rather can be fixed by application of science and/or engineering.) Hardin’s essay has become one of the most cited works in social science – the tragedy of the commons is a facile concept that applies to countless problems across society.

    In the essay, Hardin employs a simple example of a common grazing pasture, open to all who own livestock. The pasture, of course, can only support a finite number of cattle. But as Hardin argues, cattle owners are financially motivated to graze as many cattle as they possibly can, driving the number of grass munchers beyond the land’s capacity, ultimately destroying the commons. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” he concludes, delivering an intellectual middle finger to Smith’s “invisible hand” in the process.

    So what does this have to do with healthcare, data, and the insurance industry? Well, consider how the insurance industry prices its policies. Insurance has always been a data-driven business – it’s driven by actuarial risk assessment, a statistical method that predicts the probability of a certain event happening. Creating and refining these risk assessments lies at the heart of the insurance industry, and until recently, the amount of data informing actuarial models has been staggeringly slight. Age, location, and tobacco use are pretty much how policies are priced under Obamacare, for example. Given this paucity, one might argue that it’s utterly a *good* thing that the insurance industry is beefing up its databases. Right?

    Perhaps not. When a population is aggregated on high-level data points like age and location, we’re essentially being judged on a simple shared commons – all 18 year olds who live in Los Angeles are being treated essentially the same, regardless if one person has a lurking gene for cancer and another will live without health complications for decades. In essence, we’re sharing the load of public health in common – evening out the societal costs in the process.

    But once the system can discriminate on a multitude of data points, the commons collapses,  devolving into a system rewarding whoever has the most profitable profile. That 18-year old with flawless genes, the right zip code, an enviable inheritance, and all the right social media habits will pay next to nothing for health insurance. But the 18 year old with a mutated BRCA1 gene, a poor zip code, and a proclivity to sit around eating Pringles while playing Fortnite? That teenager is not going to be able to afford health insurance.

    Put another way, adding personalized data to the insurance commons destroys the fabric of that commons. Healthcare has been resistant to this force until recently, but we’re already seeing the same forces at work in other aspects of our previously shared public goods.

    A public good, to review, is defined as “a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society, either by the government or a private individual or organization.” A good example is public transportation. The rise of data-driven services like Uber and Lyft have been a boon for anyone who can afford these services, but the unforeseen externalities are disastrous for the public good. Ridership, and therefore revenue, falls for public transportation systems, which fall into a spiral of neglect and decay. Our public streets become clogged with circling rideshare drivers, roadway maintenance costs skyrocket, and – perhaps most perniciously – we become a society of individuals who forget how to interact with each other in public spaces like buses, subways, and trolley cars.

    Once you start to think about public goods in this way, you start to see the data-driven erosion of the public good everywhere. Our public square, where we debate political and social issues, has become 2.2 billion data-driven Truman Shows, to paraphrase social media critic Roger McNamee. Retail outlets, where we once interacted with our fellow citizens, are now inhabited by armies of Taskrabbits and Instacarters. Public education is hollowed out by data-driven personalized learning startups like Alt School, Khan Academy, or, let’s face it, YouTube how to videos.

    We’re facing a crisis of the commons – of the public spaces we once held as fundamental to the functioning of our democratic society. And we have data-driven capitalism to blame for it.

    Now, before you conclude that Battelle has become a neo-luddite, know that I remain a massive fan of data-driven business. However, if we fail to re-architect the core framework of how data flows through society – if we continue to favor the rights of corporations to determine how value flows to individuals absent the balancing weight of the public commons – we’re heading down a path of social ruin. ProPublica’s warning on health insurance is proof that the problem is not limited to Facebook alone. It is a problem across our entire society. It’s time we woke up to it.

    So what do we do about it? That’ll be the focus of a lot of my writing going forward.  As Hardin writes presciently in his original article, “It is when the hidden decisions are made explicit that the arguments begin. The problem for the years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory of weighting.” In the case of data-driven decisioning, we can no longer outsource that work to private corporations with lofty sounding mission statements, whether they be in healthcare, insurance, social media, ride sharing, or e-commerce.

     

     

     
c
compose new post
j
next post/next comment
k
previous post/previous comment
r
reply
e
edit
o
show/hide comments
t
go to top
l
go to login
h
show/hide help
esc
cancel