February 15, 2017

Chaos Monkeys: Pay No Attention to the Scam Behind the Curtain

I've spent half my working life trying to convince anyone who would listen that the utopian promises of technology enthusiasts are now, as they always been, a bunch of hooey. The odor of grandiose self-regard emanating from Silicon Valley has been especially noxious. For the last thirty years or so the digerati have been proudly proclaiming that their products will save the world while their main achievement has been to harness the power of their tools to the engines of capitalist greed.

Those of us who have taken on the role of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes have been, with a few exceptions,* outsiders. Last year, however, a book called Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley provided perhaps the most revealing insider look so far at the true character of the digital revolution as practiced in that rarified corner of northern California.

Antonio García Martínez
Written by Antonio García Martínez, a veteran of the startup wars who became a product manager at Facebook, Chaos Monkeys shows, not surprisingly, that just beneath the Valley's idealistic pronouncements (which, as García Martínez points out, are taken quite seriously by those who utter them) lie far more self-serving ambitions, pursued with degrees of amorality directly in proportion to the scale of riches to be won. 

Unlike other insiders who have written critiques of Silicon Valley culture, García Martínez doesn't exempt himself from the cupidity he describes. He is a willing participant in the scramble for wealth as well as an observer of its internal contradictions and ethical vacuities.

But why not let García Martínez himself tell the tale? What follows are selected quotes, mostly from Chaos Monkeys (CM) with a few comments from post-publication reviews and interviews.

"I mean, the book isn't nice because Silicon Valley isn't a nice place. That's the reality." 
      (From Kara Swisher's interview with García Martínez for Recode Daily.)

“I was wholly devoid of most human boundaries or morality.” 
      (From CM, quoted by David Streitfeld in the New York Times.)

On García Martínez's negotiations with potential buyers of his startup company, AdGrok: "I lied…I still can’t believe the investors believed my numbers, but they did." (CM, p. 142)

“Anyone who claims the Valley is meritocratic is someone who has profited vastly from it via nonmeritocratic means like happenstance, membership in a privileged cohort, or some concealed act of absolute skullduggery." (CM, p. 229)

“I marveled at a world in which well-meaning, industrious, but naïve engineers are routinely manipulated by the glib entrepreneurs who seduce them into joining their startups, then relinquish them when they are no longer useful.” (CM, p. 73)

Truth is "a rather rare commodity" in the tech world, García Martínez says, and those he met who most vigorously declared their principled adherence to truth were "unusually attached to whatever well-groomed pack of lies they held dear.” (CM, p. 457-458)

“Even at the rarefied heights of economic elite, [the players you meet in Silicon Valley] are in truth scared, needy children playing at dress-up and pretending to be grown-ups.” (CM, p. 196)

“As I observed more than once at Facebook, and as I imagine is the case in all organizations from business to government, high-level decisions that affected thousands of people and billions in revenue would be made on gut feel, the residue of whatever historical politics were in play, and the ability to cater persuasive messages to people either busy, impatient or uninterested (or all three).” (CM, p. 8.)

"Everyone in Silicon Valley lives in what I like to call 'the eternal present.' It’s the urgent now of the next start-up, or the next cool technology or the next fundraising round or the next media event. No one ever pulls back and thinks: "What are they going to think of us in ten years or a hundred years?" 
      (From an interview with journalist Steven Levy, published on Amazon.com.)

"For all their presumptions of being subversive and bohemian and counterculture, whatever, Silicon Valley people actually maintain these very well-manicured exteriors, and frankly everybody has too much to lose. At the end of the day no one wants to pay the opportunity cost of saying the truth and missing out on, you know, being employee 70 at the next Pinterest or whatever. And so, yeah, they've just got too much skin in the game and they really don't care about posterity...They are complete reactionaries, very conservative and not nearly as liberal and tolerant as they think they are." (Recode Daily)

“Morality, such as it exists in the tech whorehouse, is an expensive hobby indeed.” 
      (CM, quoted by Bloomberg Business Week)

* Among the exceptions, Clifford Stoll, Allucquére Rosanne Stone, Ellen Ullman and Jaron Lanier come to mind.

February 8, 2017

Beware the Drone Invasion!

Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl
As the world knows by now, Lady Gaga had 300 mechanical backup dancers for the opening of her whiz-bang performance at the Super Bowl: a fleet of drones, produced and programmed by Intel. They appeared at first to be a constellation of stars before morphing into a giant pixelated American flag. The drones reappeared at the end of the half-time show to spell out the name of its sponsor, Pepsi.

The progression of those images is revealing. The technological achievement of Intel's Super Bowl stunt (which viewers subsequently learned was pre-recorded) was impressive, but the money paying for it was, not surprisingly, driven by more prosaic impulses, namely, commercialism and profit. Also not surprisingly, the same can be said of the drone industry as a whole, which is hoping to convince members of the general public to welcome its product into their midst. That means overcoming fears that drones might crash into passenger jets or be used as a weapon by terrorists. Cool displays of drone dexterity are a step toward ameliorating those concerns. As the headline in the online magazine Quartz put it, "Companies want to make drones less terrifying —before they're flying everywhere."

Amazon's "Finger Lick" teaser 
A more direct drone promotion appeared during the Super Bowl's fourth quarter, in a teaser ad for Echo, Amazon's new voice command appliance. Echo connects to Alexa, Amazon's version of Apple's Siri. The spot shows a man and woman seated together on a couch watching the game, a bowl of Doritos between them. We see the man licking his fingers while the woman, sensing an imminent crisis, tells her nearby Echo, "Alexa, reorder Doritos from Prime Air." Alexa replies, "Ok, look for delivery soon," and immediately a drone is seen hovering outside the window.

Prime Air is Amazon's drone delivery service, which, given the anti-regulatory proclivities of the Trump administration, could quickly win federal approval. The Super Bowl teaser promised the ultimate consumer dream: anything you want, delivered instantly, without ever having to move off the couch. But will we never learn there's a price to be paid for convenience? Should their presence in our lives become anywhere near as pervasive as the industry hopes, drones will be delivering something else the ads and entertainments won't show you: massive amounts of noise and clutter.

In their public statements, drone boosters tend to focus on all the things drones will do to benefit humanity. They'll help us find lost hikers, hunt criminals, inspect bridges and track storms. All great. What they don't talk about are the times drones interfere with fire fighters, kill civilians in military strikes or hit infants on the street. Even those who worry about drones tend to focus on their threats to privacy, jobs and the safety of air travel; the aesthetic and psychological impacts of filling the relatively open space above us with swarms of buzzing machines are never mentioned. 

These may sound like trivial concerns, but they're not; the cumulative effect could easily become the spatial equivalent of information overload. For those of us who live in cities or suburbs, planes and helicopters provide plenty of noise and congestion as it is. Drones flying over our houses at all hours of the day and night, dispatched not only by package delivery behemoths like Amazon and UPS but by every pizza parlor, real estate agent, TV station, 7/11 store and CVS within flying distance, will up the ante exponentially. We're talking about a major change in what academics call "the surround." 

Ubiquity on the road
A problem we seldom think about in the honeymoon stage of new technologies is ubiquity. We gush over the advantages they offer in our individual lives without considering what their impacts will be collectively, when almost everybody has one. Cars and mobile phones are examples of this pattern; drones are likely headed in the same direction.

The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner coined the term "technological somnambulism" to describe our habit of sleep-walking through the introduction of new technologies, ignoring the problems they create until they're too entrenched to do much about them. If we continue to ignore the nightmare we're opening ourselves up to with drones, somnambulism won't be a problem. They'll be keeping us awake, literally.

©Doug Hill, 2017