March 31, 2017

Richard Sclove on technology and social reform

"Technology is not the cause of social ills, but it contributes to all of them. To continue to neglect technologies' broad social dimensions virtually guarantees that we will remain ineffectual in addressing our deepest social problems and sources of personal malaise. It will not do, moreover, to imagine that other kinds of social reforms — be they conservative or radical — must precede significant reform in the technological domain, such that we must 'First transform society, then tackle technology.' That refrain overlooks ways that existing technologies help constitute the present social order and so constrain social transformation. Until technological concerns are fully integrated into programs of social transformation, such programs will be stunted or abortive."
                                                  Richard Sclove*

*From Democracy and Technology 

Edward Abbey on the ideology of growth

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

                                                               Edward Abbey

March 23, 2017

On Uber Aggression


1. having the specified property to an extreme or excessive degree

2. designating a person or thing that exceeds the norms or limits of its kind or class

It's no secret that Uber is having a very bad time of it lately. Embarrassing reports of internal sexual harassment, a software program designed to circumvent the law, a lawsuit over stolen corporate secrets, a viral video of the CEO berating one of his drivers, etcetera, etcetera.

It's also no secret that these incidents are byproducts of a self-consciously aggressive business philosophy that's played no small part in the company's phenomenal success. The saying goes that when it comes to following the rules, Uber would rather ask for forgiveness than for permission.

Jeff Jones
Travis Kalanick

As well known as Uber's modus operandi may be, the resignation statement released Sunday by the company's president, Jeff Jones, still stunned. “It is now clear," he said, "that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride-sharing business." 

It's not often that a corporate president suggests he's leaving a company — less than a year after joining it — because he finds it an unredeemable ethical sinkhole. Presumably the nasty run of negative news stories had something to do with Jones' decision; nonetheless his valediction cries out for elaboration. Customers and potential stockholders deserve to know what, exactly, he was talking about.

In any event, it's important to note that the business practices fostered by Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick differ from those employed by any number of leading companies more in degree than in kind. Indeed, Uber's take-no-prisoners style and its consequences tell us a lot about the character of technology and those who seek to exploit it.

Francis Bacon
Historians and philosophers have long identified aggression as a fundamental quality of technological enterprise. Martin Heidegger described modern technique as a process of “setting upon” the natural world. Lewis Mumford, following Milton, defined mining as the prototypical technological activity because it uses pick, ax, and shovel to dig deep into the earth and take valuable elements out of it, elements to be forged by fire and anvil into other tools of force and violation. Carolyn Merchant took this imagery a significant step further when she noted that technology is often discussed in language suggestive of rape. Francis Bacon, for example, advised not only that nature must be obeyed, but also that "she" would never give up her secrets willingly. The mechanical arts must be employed, he said, in order to "lay hold of her and capture her" to insure that she "betrays her secrets more fully."

Susan Fowler
Bacon's language anticipates the experience of Susan Fowler, the engineer whose devastating blog post exposed rampant sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber. It's telling that, according to Fowler, one of the justifications offered by Uber's human resources department for failing to discipline two of the managers who treated her abusively was that they were "high performers." The ruthless pursuits of efficiency and growth — values that have a habit of overcoming ethical niceties — are consistent with technology's aggressive nature. Those pursuits are also consistent, of course, with the characteristic behaviors of corporate capitalism, and it's no accident that the symbiosis of technology and capitalism is the force driving the global economy today.

The aggressive policies in place at provide another paradigmatic example. A New York Times investigation of the company described a brutal corporate culture where 80 hour work weeks are routine, where mountains of data are collected to measure employees’ every move, where ruthless evaluations by fellow employees are encouraged and used to justify terminations, where texts from superiors regularly arrive and are expected to be answered in the middle of the night, and where having a miscarriage is no excuse for canceling a business trip the next day. Many other reports have described similarly draconian tactics used by Amazon to extract maximum concessions from the suppliers of the products it sells.

The authors of the Times article, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, noted that Amazon is a model toward which much of modern business aspires. The strategies in place there, they said, represent “the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

This is a trajectory we've been following since the Industrial Revolution. The lust for power and profit isn't new, but the tools available to feed and satisfy it are. The culture as a whole is becoming harsher and less forgiving in the process.

©Doug Hill, 2017