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  • feedwordpress 19:38:30 on 2017/05/31 Permalink
    Tags: , books, culture, essays,   

    Is Humanity Obsolete? 

    The post Is Humanity Obsolete? appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    image

    Upon finishing Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, I found an unwelcome kink in my otherwise comfortably adjusted frame of reference. It brought with it the slight nausea of a hangover, a lingering whiff of jet exhaust from a hard night, possibly involving rough psychedelics.

    I’m usually content with my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of the role humanity plays in the universe, and in particular, with the role that technology plays as that narrative builds. And lately that technology story is getting pretty damn interesting — I’d argue that our society’s creation of and reaction to digital technologies is pretty much the most important narrative in the world at present.

    But as you consider that phrase “digital technologies,” are you conjuring images of computers and iPhones? Of “the cloud” and Google? Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, Slack, Uber? I’ve always felt that this group of artifacts — the “things” that we claim as digital — the companies and the devices, the pained metaphors (cloud?!) and the juvenile apps — these are only the most prominent geographic features of a vaster and more tectonic landscape, one we’ve only begun to explore.

    Harari would ask us to explore that landscape with a new state of mind — to abandon our human-centered biases — our Humanism — and consider what our embrace of technology may augur for our species. Yet through most of the book, he failed to push me from my easy chair. It was comforting to nod along as Harari argued that the devices — the computers, the platforms and the networks — are nothing more than the transit layer in humanity’s inevitable evolution to a more god-like species. And cognizant of the inescapable baggage of the “digital technologies” tag, Harari has gifted his new state of mind with a name: Dataism. More on that in a minute.

    Homo Deus is the possibly too-clever-by-half continuation of the author’s masterstroke bestseller Sapiens, which the New York Times, despite crowning it as a runaway hit, acidly derided as “tailor-made for the thought-leader industrial complex.” If that made you snort the literary milk out your erudite nose, just wait for the other whiteshoe to drop: The same Times review charitably credited Homo Deus with having “the easy charms of potted history.”

    Oh, Snap!

    And look, the decidedly humanist Times is right to be offended by Harari’s assertions. For they are utterly unsettling, in particular to those most content in the warm embrace of Humanism, which Harari dismisses as a state of mind already past its prime. Dataism is its replacement — a reductive religion of algorithms, both biological and digital, driven by intelligence but decoupled from consciousness. It is therefore unconcerned with experience, the very bread which feeds humanist mythos. Net net: Let’s just say Dataism could really give a fuck about people in the long run. Harari’s money quote? “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm.”

    So yeah, the ideas prosecuted in the pages of these two works, which run collectively just under 900 pages, are unsettling. But unlike the Times reviewer, I’m not ready to dismiss them as so much armchair pottery. It’s not often a work of literary merit (and this is certainly that) forces our vaunted industry to consider itself.

    And did our industry consider it? After all, this is the follow on to Sapiens, a book celebrated by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barak Obama, for goodness sakes.

    Turns out, our industry has pretty much ignored Homo Deus. Ezra Klein did have a thing or two to say about it in a podcast, but…crickets from most everywhere else.


    Technology is having a crisis of self reflection. It’s understandable — we’re not the types to think too hard about the impact of our actions, because we’ve already anticipated them, after all. Creating new behaviors is the business we’re in, so we’re not surprised when they actually happen. We’ve developed a super-fast creative process on top of digital technologies — we come up with new plans as quickly as the old ones fail, and the act of doing this just proves our world view correct: We have a thesis, we prosecute it, and as we collect more data — including and especially data about our failure — we stare at it all, we rethink our approach, and we deftly devise a new algorithm to navigate around the damn problem. The better the acuity of our data, the more responsive our tools, the better the outcomes. Even when most of us lose, we’re always winning! Failure is just more data to fuel an eventual, inevitable victory.

    This approach to life and business doesn’t reward deep reflection. And we know it. That’s why we’re so damn obsessed with meditation, with yoga (guilty), with flying to South America and doing strange psychedelic drugs. But so far all those reflections center on the me, and not on the us, on the society we are building. How often do we — the Royal Technology We — consider the butterfly effects of our work? And don’t tell me Zuck did it for us with that manifesto. That thing could have used a touch more psilocybin, amiright?

    Perhaps Harari strikes us as a lecturing harridan — we know we have more homework to do. We understand we now rule the world, but we are reluctant leaders, because our industry has forever been in opposition, forever carrying a torch for a future state of humankind that the noobs and the squares and the company men didn’t get.

    Only, we’ve won. So now what?


    Well, that gets us to purpose. Why are we here? Why are you here? Why am I here? What are we here for?

    Remember when you were a kid, in that kid-like state of mind, when you whispered to a friend, a confidante — “Where’s the wall at the end of universe?” And if they bit, if they acknowledged there might be an end to it all, a place where the universe ebbs to finality, you ask them this: “Well, then, what’s on the other side of the wall!?”

    Remember that little pre-adolescent mind hack? Yeah, we’re about at that point now, Technology Industry. It’s time for us to come up with a better answer.

    My favorite response to this paradox is: “The unimaginable.” That’s what’s on the other side of the wall. The only boundary in the universe, for Homo sapiens anyway, is the fact that we need a boundary in the first place. We understand so much, but at the end of that understanding we face the unimaginable. In that dark gravity we first populated gods, then God Himself, then Science and its attendant Humanism, and now….well, Harari makes the case that our digital technologies have hastened our transition us to a new era — one in which we “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.”

    OK, I’m out of my armchair now. If all biology is algorithms, and science certainly believes this is so, then our fate is to join the church of pure information processing, driven by the inescapable end game of evolution.

    Checkmate! Humanity exists because algorithms exist, algorithms that predate us, algorithms that will outlive us, and algorithms that exist for one reason: to solve problems. If we embrace this, then perhaps we stand at the cusp of solving our biggest problem ever: ourselves.

    I”m not sure I buy all this — and even Harari, at the very end of his book, admits he’s not sure either (that felt like quite a hedge, to be honest). But the issues he raises are worthy of deeper debate — in particular inside our own industry, where self-reflection is far too absent.

    The post Is Humanity Obsolete? appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
  • feedwordpress 21:30:55 on 2017/05/07 Permalink
    Tags: essays, , , ,   

    Dear Facebook…Please Give Me Agency Over The Feed 

    The post Dear Facebook…Please Give Me Agency Over The Feed appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

    Like you, I am on Facebook. In two ways, actually. There’s this public page, which Facebook gives to people who are “public figures.” My story of becoming a Facebook public figure is tortured (years ago, I went Facebook bankrupt after reaching my “friend” limit), but the end result is a place that feels a bit like Twitter, but with more opportunities for me to buy ads that promote my posts (I’ve tried doing that, and while it certainly increases my exposure, I’m not entirely sure why that matters).

    Then there’s my “personal” page. Facebook was kind enough to help me fix this up after my “bankruptcy.” On this personal page I try to keep my friends to people I actually know, with mixed success. But the same problems I’ve always had with Facebook are apparent here — some people I’m actually friends with, others I know, but not well enough to call true “friends.” But I don’t want to be an ass…so I click “confirm” and move on.

    On my public page, I post stuff from my work. I readily admit I’m not very good at engaging with this page, and I feel shitty whenever I visit, mainly because I don’t like being bad at media (and Facebook is extremely good at surfacing metrics that prove you suck, then suggesting ways to spend money to fix that problem). But, if you want to follow what I’m up to — mostly stuff I write or stuff we post on NewCo Shift, well, it’s probably a pretty decent way to do that.

    However, on my personal page, I’m utterly hopeless. Except for the very occasional random post (a picture of my drum kit? a photo of my kids here and there to appease my guilt?), I don’t view Facebook as a place to curate a “feed” of my life. The place kind of creeps me out, in ways I can’t exactly explain. It feels like work, like a responsibility, like a drug I should avoid, so I avoid it. I’ve had enough work (and drugs) in my life.

    But unlike me, most of true friends put a lot of care and feeding into their Facebook pages. It’s become a place where they announce important milestones, like births, graduations, separations, deaths, the works. These insanely important moments, alas, are all interspersed with random shots of pie, flowers, cocktails, sunsets, and endless, endless, endless advertisements for shit I really don’t care about.

    Taken together, the Facebook newsfeed is a place that I’ve decided isn’t worth the time it demands to truly be useful. I know, I could invest the time to mute this and like that, and perhaps Facebook’s great algos would deliver me a better feed. But I don’t, and I feel alone in this determination. And lately it’s begun to seriously fuck up my relationships with important people in my life, namely, my…true friends.

    I won’t go into details (it’s personal, after all), but suffice to say I’ve missed some pretty important events in my friends’ lives because everyone else is paying attention to Facebook, but I am not. As a result, I’ve come off looking like an asshole. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I have become an actual asshole, because the definition of an asshole is someone who puts themself above others, and by not paying attention to Facebook, that’s what I’ve become.

    That kind of sucks.

    It strikes me that this is entirely fixable. One way, of course, is for me to just swallow my pride and pick up the habit of perusing Facebook every day. I just tried that very thing again this weekend. It takes about half an hour or more each day to cull through the endless stream of posts from my 500+ friends, and the experience is just as terrible as it’s always been. For every one truly important detail I find, I have to endure a hundred things I’d really rather not see. Many of them are trivial, some are annoying, and at least ten or so are downright awful.

    And guess what? I’m only seeing a minority of the posts that my friends have actually created! I know Facebook is doing its best to deliver to me the stuff I care about, but for me, it’s utterly failing.

    Now, it’s fair to say that I’m an outlier — for most people, Facebook works just fine. The Feed seems to nourish most of its sucklers, and there’s no reason to change it just because one grumpy tech OG is complaining. BUT…my problem with my feed is in fact allegorical to what’s become a massive societal problem with the Feed overall: It’s simply untenable to have one company’s algorithms control the personalized feeds of billions of humans around the world. It’s untenable on so many axes, it’s almost not worth going into, but for a bit of background, read the work of Tristan Harris, who puts it in ethical terms, or Eli Parser, who puts it in political terms, or danah boyd, who frames it in socio-cultural terms. Oh, and then there’s the whole Fake News, trolling, and abuse problem…which despite its cheapening by our president, is actually a Really, Really Big Deal, and one that threatens Facebook in particular (did you see they’re hiring 3,000 people to address it? Does that scale? Really?!)

    It’s time for the model to change. And I have a modest and probably far too simple proposal for you to consider.

    This proposal breaks all manner of Silicon Valley product high holy-isms, but bear with me. I think at the end of the day, it’s what we need to get beyond the structural limitations of trusting one company with so much power over our informational diets.

    The short form version of my solution is this: Give me filter control over my feed. I know — this probably breaks Facebook’s stranglehold on our attention, and therefore, impacts their business model in unacceptable ways. But I could argue the reverse is true (but this is already getting long, and that’s another post.)

    So, when I come to Facebook, here’s what I’d love: Ask me what I’m looking for, and present me with simple ways to filter by the things I want to see. As far as I can tell, the only way to filter your Feed today is to toggle between “Top Stories” and “Most Recent.” That’s lame. Here are some possible additions:

    • Close Friends. Let me see just posts from folks I’m truly close to. Facebook already lets you tag people as “close friends,” but you can’t see only what they post and nothing else. You can “see first” people, but that feels like a half measure at best.
    • Key Moments. Let everyone tag posts they believe are truly important — the deaths, the births, the divorces, the new job, the graduations. Sure, there will be spammers, but hell, Facebook’s good at catching that shit. I know Facebook lets you tag your posts as “Life Events” (did you know that?! I just found out…), but… why can’t you filter the Feed so you only see the ones that matter?
    • Outrage. This is a kind of a joke, but with a purpose: let me see just posts that are political rants. This kind of content has overtaken Facebook, so why not give it a filter of its own so you can see it when you want, or filter it out if you don’t?
    • Kittens. This is the fluff setting. Users, posters, and Facebook’s own AI/Algos can identify this stuff and filter it into a category of its own. This is where the funny videos and pictures of pets go. This is where the endless stream of food porn goes. This is where most of the content from Buzzfeed goes.
    • Bubble Breaker. Show me posts that present views opposite my own, or that force me to engage with ideas I’ve not considered before. This could become an incredibly powerful feature, if it’s done right.

    There are probably tons more, and most likely these examples aren’t even the best ones to focus on. And I am sure the smart folks at Facebook have considered this idea, and determined it’s a terrible one for all manner of fine reasons.

    But my point is this: Facebook does not really allow us to decide what the Feed is feeding us, and that’s a major problem. It leaves agency in the hands (digits?) of Facebook’s algorithms, and as much as I’d like to believe the company can create super intelligent AIs that nourish us all, I think the facts on the ground state the opposite. So give us back the power to determine what we want to see. We might just surprise you.

    The post Dear Facebook…Please Give Me Agency Over The Feed appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
  • feedwordpress 16:00:28 on 2017/04/13 Permalink
    Tags: environment, essays, , , Trump   

    Please, Let’s Not Go There Again 

    The post Please, Let’s Not Go There Again appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    cayuhoga-river-fire

    Here’s a top-of-my-head rundown of all the shit going down that promises to take us forty years back, to a time when, well…you decide what kind of time it was.

    • Women had to fight for basic rights. Anyone remember “women’s lib”? That movement found its voice in the 70s, and made steady if punctuated progress for forty years. Now Trump’s promising to repeal the iconic 1970s Roe v. Wade decision, has scrapped equal pay (unnecessary regulations, amiright?!), and, well, this.
    • Dirty, climate changing coal was king in the ’70s, powering nearly halfof US energy output. It’s now less than a third and dropping fast, mainly because of clean sources like solar and wind, which are starting to take power costs to zero, all while driving far more jobs than coal. Do we really want to go back? Well, Trump certainly does. WTF?
    • The EPA was established in 1970, when our rivers were on fire and kids had to hide inside from killer smog attacks (I was one of them). Now, Trump’s EPA has repealed decades of regulations, and it’s run by a guy who, well, hates the EPA. Oh, please, let’s go back to flaming rivers and unbreathable air, shall we?!
    • And then there’s climate change. After decades of science, inconvenient truths, and global disasters, the world’s leaders finally got their collective shit together and agreed to do something about our shared existential crisis. But not Trump, who thinks climate change is a hoax and has vowed to cancel the Paris accords. That sentiment might have flown in 1975. But now? Really?
    • Law and Order.” If you’ve not watched 13th, please add it to your NetFlix cue…or just take 90 minutes and watch it now. The phrase “law and order” is a semiotic stand in for systemic racism and state-driven racial injustice. It rose to prominence in the 1970s as a political reaction to the civil rights movement, and has been widely discredited as social policy. But, you guessed it, Trump wants to bring it back.
    • Oh, and war. Remember that long, Cold one? Forty years ago, it was the most critical foreign policy issue of the day. By last year, it was all but over. Then Trump got elected, and…well, it sure feels hot again.
    • Rampant capitalism/neoliberalism/financialization. This is a tough subject to detangle, but in essence, the past forty years have seen the rise, and recent decline, of unrestrained, Friedman-esque capitalism(note this new book on the topic, FWIW). The Great Recession gave our body politic pause, and while Dodd Frank was in many ways toothless, it did set a new tone. Trump not only put a gaggle of bankers in charge of his government, he also is committed to repealing Dodd.

    I could go on and on (immigration, creationism, public schools…) but I think I’ve made my point. We love to idealize the past, but forty years ago, women and minorities had vastly diminished rights, our environment was a mess, climate change was ignored, capitalism was unrestrained and destructive, and we were playing a terrifying game of nuclear chess with Russia. By last year, we had made massive progress on all of these crucial societal issues.

    And now we’re going back to the ‘70s. Anyone else want off this particular train?

    The post Please, Let’s Not Go There Again appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
  • feedwordpress 15:04:38 on 2017/04/07 Permalink
    Tags: advice, , communications, essays,   

    Pick Up the Phone and Call. 

    The post Pick Up the Phone and Call. appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    phone

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

    People in business who like to Get Shit Done fall in love with each version of The New. When I was a kid, new was the the Apple II. Then the IBM PC, digital phones and voice mail, the Mac — oh God, the Mac! — word processing, email, the cell phone, the Internet — mmmmm, the Internet! — and then the iPhone — oh…the iPhone!
    Well damn the iPhone, because I lay at its feet the death of the most efficient technology ever created for the speedy disposition of Getting Shit Done — the plain old telephone. But not just any old-school telephone. The high tech, multi-line, digitally switched telephone of the late 1980s — the kind of phone upon which you could conduct, merge, and manage multiple direct conversations with your peers, colleagues, partners and adversaries — a direct line of human expression brain to brain — the kind of shit it’ll take us decades to replicate (if we ever do).

    Why was that phone so perfect? It certainly wasn’t the technology, though it was pretty darn boss at the time. It was how our society adapted to it, optimizing direct, one-to-one communications in real time between a network of engaged colleagues. As a young reporter, and later as an editor and a CEO, my call list was my life. I’d spend hours a day calling sources, collaborators, even employees down the hall — and as a result, we’d Get Shit Done.*

    Because to Get Shit Done, you have to engage real time with the people who help define what it is You Are Actually Doing. And nothing, nothing at all, beats a conversation to move that ball along.

    For reasons I am sure will merit multiple PhD defenses some day, we’ve evolved to an almost apologetic relationship to the humble telephone. Through email or social media (ick!), we ask each other for a “quick call” — then we offload the rest to calendar apps with their annoying reminders — shitty simulacrums of our intent which pervert our goal: to connect and exchange, to respond and to act.

    But first, always to connect.

    At some point in the last ten years we replaced direct connection with technology-intermediated obsequity. And when we do “get on a call,” it’s fraught with a Moderator and an Agenda and Follow Up Action Items and … well, wait what the f*ck are we talking about?

    No more. It’s time to pick up the phone and start calling each other again.

    Hey — It’s John. You have a few minutes to bounce something around? Cool!…

    *Some industries continue to work this way — I’d love your input on which one you think still do.

    The post Pick Up the Phone and Call. appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
  • feedwordpress 14:40:09 on 2017/04/03 Permalink
    Tags: essays, health, , ,   

    Bad Policy Makes Us Sick. Business Must Lead Us Back. 

    The post Bad Policy Makes Us Sick. Business Must Lead Us Back. appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    WALL-E-382

    (Cross posted from NewCo Shift)

    Walking around Disneyland with my daughter the other night, I found myself face to face with one of our country’s most intractable taboos.

    (Disneyland is still awesome for me, as a kid from 1970s LA. Truly magical.)

    If you’re an observer of crowds, one of the more prominent features of the Disneyland crowd is how generally overweight our country has become (I live in the Bay area, and readily admit my interaction with folks on most days is not representative of a broad cross section of our population). I’d estimate at least a third of the folks at Disney are seeing Mike and Molly-level images in the mirror — and about 2–3% or so have more weight than they can carry around, and have therefore graduated to “mobility scooters.”

    These industrial strength scooters have become commonplace at the Happiest Place on Earth. I’m guessing from the name that they were initially created for disabled and elderly folks, but clearly they’ve been reinforced for more rigorous duty. For every one of them we saw piloted by a fellow with a knee brace or an elderly grandmother, there were ten requisitioned for moving Big People around.

    For a spell, I sat on a bench with my daughter and watched them wheel by.

    I fell into reverie, thinking about how our policy choices have led to a predictable and avoidable epidemic, and how that epidemic mirrors many others in what is increasingly feeling like a gravely ill society. Our maddening melange of libertarian individualism, technological (and medical) savior-ism, American exceptionalism, and steroidal capitalism has delivered us a health care horror show — one with an endless appetite for cheap food, expensive medicine, and hollow self-delusion.

    It strikes me nowhere can we identify how badly we need a new compact between business and society than right here on Disney’s Main Street USA. Libertarians and fanatical anti-regulation types love to claim that individual responsibility is paramount, and I suppose that means the growing percentage of obese people in our society are all at fault, and deserve the shame our culture heaps upon them. I tend to believe otherwise, that outcomes are driven by inputs, and right now, the inputs in our society are making us very, very sick.

    Can we face up to this fact without dehumanizing or victimizing the people who now comprise more than a third of the US population? Is talking out loud about this issue even allowed? (I think I’m about to find out…)

    It certainly feels taboo, because these are real human beings we’re talking about, and our society relentlessly shames overweight people as lacking will power and failing to conform to ideal body images projected in popular culture.

    But come on, America’s obesity epidemic has been building for decades, and it’s only getting worse. When will we call it what it really is: A public health crisis, driven by outdated and dangerous policies around food subsidies and health care?

    First and foremost amongst those failed policies is our society’s approach to food — how we grow it, how we market it, and certainly how we eat it. In short, we subsidize cheap calories — in particular sugar and corn syrup — and we’ve forsworn nutrition for convenience. Food companies, driven as all businesses are by profit and policy inputs, are literally rewarded for selling as much of their product to us as they can, regardless of the consequences. It feels an awful lot like our approach to energy — just as we’re hooked on cheap and environmentally damaging carbon-based fuels, we’ve built an entire economy on cheap and physically destructive food, and there are extraordinarily powerful forces at work insuring things stay that way.

    (I should note that I actually do not lay blame at the feet of these forces — I believe they exist because we’ve created a system that requires them to act the way they do. The only way to change that is to change the rules of the system, not to reactively punish large corporations for doing what our society incentivizes them to do.)

    Adding to the policy failure is our society’s approach to health care. Everyone seems to agree it’s a mess, but we have to think systemically if we’re going to fix it. Believe what you will about Obamacare, but they got one thing absolutely right: The new program instituted a historic shift from a reactive to a proactive stance. How? Through the economic lever of how payments were processed. The old government healthcare (and let’s not fool ourselves, the government is the single largest force in healthcare, period) paid set fees for service. This created a moral hazard in the market, as actors organized themselves around creating as many payment opportunities as possible. Need a knee replacement because you’re overweight? Check, there’s a fee for service. Knee replacement didn’t work, because you’re overweight and/or didn’t have proper follow up by your doctor? Check, we’ll do another one. Broke your hip because the second knee buckled? Check, there’s a third service to get paid for.

    Obamacare is in the process of shifting government payments away from fee-for-service and toward outcomes — doctors and hospitals are paid a certain amount for a positive health outcome, and that’s that. No more triple knee surgeries — you get paid when the patient’s surgery is proven to have worked. There’s a set amount for that outcome, and that’s it. This kind of economic incentive drives markets to optimize for proactive health care — the kind that creates early detection of potential obesity, supplying nutrition education so the knee replacement is never needed in the first place.

    It’s exactly this kind of thoughtful, informed policy we need right now if we’re going to solve our country’s obesity epidemic. And given the current administration, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see much of it coming out of Washington over the next four years. That means one thing: our country’s largest food and health care companies must get in front of this crisis, andlead. Whether or not they do, it’s abundantly clear is that our current crop of politicians will not. Meanwhile, our society is getting sicker, poorer, and more alienated. That’s not a recipe that’s good for anyone.

    The post Bad Policy Makes Us Sick. Business Must Lead Us Back. appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
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