surveillance won’t be obvious and overt like in Orwell’s classic totalitarian novel 1984 — it’ll be covert and subtle (“more like a spider’s web”)
social networks use persuasion architecture — the same cloying design aesthetic that puts gum at the eye level of children in the grocery aisle
AI modeling of potential Las Vegas ticket buyers
The machine learning algorithms can classify people into two buckets, “likely to buy tickets to Vegas” and “unlikely to” based on exposure to lots and lots of data patterns. Problem being, it’s a black box and no one — not even the computer scientists — know how it works or what it’s doing exactly.
So the AI may have discovered that bipolar individuals just about to go into mania are more susceptible to buying tickets to Vegas — and that is the segment of the population they are targeting: a vulnerable set of people prone to overspending and gambling addictions. The ethical implications of unleashing this on the world — and routinely using and optimizing it relentlessly — are staggering.
Profiting from extremism
“You’re never hardcore enough for YouTube” — YouTube gives you content recommendations that are increasingly polarized and polarizing, because it turns out that preying on your reptilian brain makes you keep clicking around in the YouTube hamster wheel.
The amorality of AI — “algorithms don’t care if they’re selling shoes, or politics.” Our social, political, and cultural flows are being organized by these persuasion architectures — organized for profit; not for the collective good, not for public interests, not subject to our political will anymore. These powerful surveillance capitalism tools are running mostly unchecked, with little oversight and with few people minding the ethics of the stores of essentially a cadre of Silicon Valley billionaires.
Intent doesn’t matter — good intentions aren’t enough; it’s the structure and business models that matter. Facebook isn’t a half trillion dollar con: its value is in its highly effective persuasion power, which is highly troubling and concerning in a supposedly democratic society. Mark Zuckerberg may even ultimately mean well (…debatable), but it doesn’t excuse the railroading over numerous obviously negative externalities resulting from the unchecked power of Facebook in not only the U.S., but in countries around the world including highly volatile domains.
Extremism benefits demagogues — Oppressive regimes both come to power by and benefit from political extremism; from whipping up citizens into a frenzy, often against each other as much as against perceived external or internal enemies. Our data and attention are now for sale to the highest bidding authoritarians and demagogues around the world — enabling them to use AI against us in election after election and PR campaign after PR campaign. We gave foreign dictators even greater powers to influence and persuade us in ways that benefit them at the expense of our own self-interest.
There are a lot of Silicon Valley engineers guzzling soylent in dark holes who ought to get out more and read a book that has lots of words in it and hasn’t been published by O’Reilly.
More people should stop and ask themselves if they even truly believe they’re “creating value,” or just furiously constructing Rube-Goldberg devices to fleece the last remaining dollars from the formerly middle class.
For every thoughtful, measured perspective on the gigantically thorny problem of Diversity in the Valley, there has to be at least 10 angry white dudes who feel entitled to take a shit all over the idea that being more inclusive has to involve, like, actually learning to be inclusive — or really, making any changes at all.
There are “values” far more pressing than equality, they say — EFFICIENCY! ALPHA ELITISM! SHAVING OFF ANOTHER 5 MINUTES OF SOME FULL STACK ENGINEER’S TIME (by outsourcing it to someone poor who should feel lucky to have the opportunity to schlep around the dirty laundry and fetch the burritos of Today’s World-Saving Heroes — preferably someone brown) so that someone, somewhere else (outside of the Valley, one presumes) can do all the theoretical Morally Good activities that serve as the philosophical prop that is supposed to justify the tech industry’s frantic, breakneck pursuit of getting filthy fucking rich the mission critically important “time-saving efficiency” that has literally the rest of the world economy scrambling to catch up in its wake.
Ergo, in response to an interview with Slack engineer Erica Baker — whose 20% work-time role in contributing to company diversity strategy later in the thread apparently renders completely invisible her 80% role Writing Code with the Big Boys — this fellow feels he has an obligation to weigh in:
Yes, Kevin. TELL ME MORE about how I would be treated in an interview with you as hiring manager. One thing’s for sure, I could be completely confident that you lack a shred of skepticism about whether my qualifications make me “The Best” candidate in the self-fulfilling prophecy of your own perception.
Nevermind all the actual data that is finally beginning to show what the reality of nature already knows: DIVERSITY WINS. Being inclusive of a multiplicity of experience and perspective (which come along as a byproduct of the heuristic we can make use of — demographical appearance — as a rough approximate solution to our complete inability to objectively measure anything meaningful about the internal complexities of real people) makes companies stronger and more resilient.
Diversity makes companies moreantifragile by embracing the comparative disorder that is counterintuitive to the homogenous systems and societies we keep inanely trying to collectively build despite all the evidence of their abject failure throughout history. Our friend in Idaho is proof of this point: the dominant assumption that diversity definitionally reduces efficiency, thereby reducing profit.
Beyond being flat out wrong when you look at the data (which, curiously, diversity always seems to be a special case where otherwise ruthlessly data-driven engineers don’t dare to tread), this carries with it the hidden assumption which is the self-fulfilling prophecy that actually proves Erica’s point: the fundamental skepticism that people who aren’t white and male can possibly be The Best. That the only way they ever get a seat at the communal, lunch-ordered-by-bot-and-hand-delivered-by-poor-non-alpha-elite-coder-people table is by the magnanimous grace of some Do Gooder hiring manager or recruiter slavishly following regulatory orders from the government — and not by their own merit.
The plank in our own eyes
Part of this has to do with the historically definitional white male privilege that, for some reason, we’re still arguing about in our supposedly enlightened and modernized society whose blinders prevent the deep self-examination of our human past required to truly make progress. As if the human tendency to Other were somehow wiped away with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) Fourteenth Amendment (1868) Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Civil Rights Act (1964) Voting Rights Act (1965) Loving v. Virginia (1967) Fair Housing Act (1968) Community Reinvestment Act (1977) end of the carceral state (TKTK).
Having grown up a person saddled with two X chromosomes my whole life with almost no choice but to wrestle with this reality from every single angle intellectual and emotional, I at least finally understand the fundamental psychological biases that lead to this kind of abject refusal to deal with our own skewed perspectives — opting instead for ratcheting up ever more impressive shouting matches to peacock about how our dizzying intellectual prowess is surely proof enough of our obvious objectivity.
We are all wrong. And I’m no different.
I know that we desperately want to believe in our own superiority, both to everything that came before us throughout history (the “illusion of progress” we cultivate — despite no such guarantee existing in the natural world — only adds to this effect) and to our fellow humans. Elitism is the ultimate -ism.
It subsumes racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, and all forms of tribalism that each have, at their roots, the core premise that whatever group I’ve chosen to join up with (or been allotted to by random lottery) is clearly and objectively The Best Group. It’s the undeniable tautology of naive realism that leaves us trapped in the pathetically, perennially distorted view that “I know best, and by the transitive property of awesome, all the groups I consider myself a part of are therefore clearly also The Best (else, why would I be part of them?!).” This automagically relegates all the groups with which we don’t identify to the bottom of the heap: obviously inferior, as anyone can see!
Combine this native human bias with the delirious modern cocktail of vicious neoliberalism and aggressive techno-utopian libertarianism, and it’s a formula in which People Who Don’t Appear White and Male are definitionally suspect because of the statistics we’re blanketed with ever day that tell us they are under-represented in fields like technology.
“If this is so,” says the mind of a brilliant and inarguably logical engineer, “it can only be because their Rugged Individualism hasn’t endowed them with the skills to pass muster. It’s a shame, really — at least Other People, somewhere else who care about human beings more than machine learning are concerned with this dilemma (so I don’t have to be: after all, I’m really fucking busy saving the world so STOP BOTHERING ME with this irrelevant claptrap distraction already! AND WHERE IS MY GODDAMN BURRITO?!?! It’s my Soylent off day!!!) — but honestly I have no choice but to treat The Next Brown or Curvy Data Point I See with some measure of statistical skepticism.”
Lack of diversity is a self-fulfilling prophecy
Therein lies the rub. When we take an observation about the “way things are” and leap to the moral conclusion that this is rightly so — that things ought to be this way, because clearly they are this way for some reason — we commit the logical fallacy that so consumed Hume: the idea that we can derive what ought to be from what is, also known as the fact/value problem.
I don’t think most white male engineers would go quite so far as to claim that their industry must remain homogenous to succeed (although clearly some do, like our friend Kevin, who apparently believes that diversity is definitionally both inefficient and a straight ticket to the business failure shitter — and that our only moral interest in the problem is spurred by the meddlesome interference of that old bugaboo The Government). Instead, in Silicon Valley it tends to take the form of justifying inaction: they might provisionally admit (over an artisanally-prepared, locally-sourced (from a Tenderloin window box herb garden) cocktail at Bar Crudo, or perhaps a Blue Bottle americano) that the problem of diversity may warrant some moral scrutiny, but not by them. They are just way too busy swimming for the shores of a Better World (so long as a Better World enriches them and their investors, natch) to be bothered with this issue that they perceive as not having the slightest effect on them. In times like these (which seems to be All Times), we simply can’t afford the moral luxury of anything but lifeboat ethics.
Right? Well, wrong — unless we’re not troubled by the absurd logical paradox of making ourselves subject to both the zero-sum philosophy this requires and the free market ideology of infinitely available value creation that is supposed to be driving the entire economic party bus (with karaoke) we’re riding in. So, we have to decide: which is it? Is there economic opportunity for all, or do the pathetic losers who fail to become startup founders get left at the curb? And if so, who will sing the songs of their people?!
Our own worst enemies
A reference to the old saw that “attitude is everything” is appropriate here. Because one of the few things more exasperating than the unexamined privilege of ignoring the issue is the endless infighting that those of us in marginalized groups do with each other over what the solution should be.
…where to even start? Let me explain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up: this comment from some random white dude who loves extreme sports begins and ends with the outrageously outsized entitlement of trying to tell Slack how to run its own goddamn business, from atop his lofty perch of Somewhere That Is Not Anywhere Even Remotely Near being an actual employee of Slack with some potentially arguable skin in the game, much less a leader or decision-maker within the company.
I mean, Jesus. This is what we’re dealing with. A worldview so vehemently opposed to the idea of apparently even discussing the matter of diversity (in case some terminology or phrase or godforsakenly challenging idea might be construed as controversial and somewhere, someone might possibly be offended — like the entire LGBT community he tries to lump me in with and in a follow-up comment — without a shred of irony! — attempts to claim he was only “speaking for himself” when demanding both a public apology and insinuating that Erica Baker the Slack engineer should literally lose her job for daring to state an opinion while black (p.s. we’ve truly come full fucking circle now, haven’t we?!)) that people feel compelled to spend their time offering free, unwarranted, and undoubtedly unwanted “business advice” to the company THAT PRESUMABLY KNOWS BETTER ABOUT WHAT IT IS DOING than Richard Fucking Burton The Third of His Name!
How can you even hold such a logical paradox in your head, much less lay it out in a single paragraph: the idea that somehow, bizarrely, Slack itself not only lacks the control over whether or not Erica Baker may be “let go for similar remarks” (I mean, who would be doing the firing in this case?! Is there some vigilante regulatory-required Anti-Social-Justice-Warrior in tights and a cape flying around Silicon Valley waiting for bat signals sent from comments on TechCrunch to swoop in from outside the company and authorize her termination?!), but may also be on such shaky ground from some available success metric (I assure you it’s not. It’s one of the few blindingly amazing success stories of recent memory and continues to be one of the fastest growing enterprise startups Of All Time) that they might just have to resort to taking the advice of some Totally Irrelevant Troll about what their fucking brand should be?!?
I. JUST. CAN’T. EVEN!!! (can you?! if so, better abandon all ye hope of ever working at Slack.)
Just goes to show: we’ll cling to whatever flimsy life raft of privilege we think we’re on, even as the Leaky Lifeboat (not to mention the Queen Friggin’ Mary) sails past, breathing a sigh of relief that we don’t seem eager to hop on and capsize it.
Everyone calm down. But be prepared to leave through the eastern gate
Now let’s ask ourselves: if we believe we’re striving ever more harriedly toward a Better World, then what the heck does that world even look like? Close your eyes and picture it: what do you see? Are people happy in this world? Do they seem to go about their lives effortlessly and with graceful purpose in the human-connected face of god (for lack of a better term… so far), or are they still scurrying to and fro in the franticness of Trying To Get There?
Do people treat each other well, and with respect despite their differences, and in the face of overwhelming obstacles and risks we will have an impossible time solving from within isolated bunkers — or are they still spewing vitriol at each other over their gleefully intentional mischaracterizations of each other’s intentions?
Do they exhibit peace in the struggle, or are they still trying to shout each other down inside of every comment thread and social media exchange on the internet just to win a tiny provincial shadow of an urgently important argument about who has The Best Idea on how we can live in peace and harmony with each other, and how to impose it on the rest of those poor, lazy suckers who simply aren’t as gifted as the elite leaders who so grudgingly bear the wearisome heavy burden of Saving The World whilst being rewarded ever-so-handsomely with Real Non-Inflation Eaten Wages, lucrative stock options and liquidation preferences, artisanal cocktails, and Magically Appearing Burritos?
If we don’t even know what it looks like, then how will we know what values we should be working for, or recognize if and when we’ve arrived?
Both are subject to an extra heaping of criticism, skepticism, and scorn because there is some culturally-validated argument to be made about how they are different from some perceived status quo. And in modern mercenary America, the mythology is “win at all costs” whether it’s politics, business, religion, education, or Returning That Thing You Broke even though it’s out of warranty because goddammit we’re entitled to All The Things!!!!
To gain or preserve power, you need to win
It is acceptable — even laudable — to win by any means necessary (legal, ethical, loophole, grey area, “disrupting” or otherwise)
To win you must be good and work hard, but plenty of winners take shortcuts, cheat, break rules/laws, harm others, and/or fraud their way to the top — so in order to stay on the field, you need to become open to those tactics whether you believe it’s right or not (see: Lance Armstrong). Meanwhile internally, you have built-in psychological mechanisms that enforce your justification and carve out a special view of yourself as being ultimately a good person (see: Jonathan Haidt) and even, more twistedly, a “good person who does bad things” (see: BTK serial killer) — whereas other people who do bad things are not simply constrained by their environments (as you are); they are just bad people.
In the struggle for power, those who have (or want) it aggressively seek out any thread of weakness, real or perceived, in whatever individuals or outgroups appear to threaten their dominance.
Difference from the norm is widely and cross-culturally perceived as weakness and carries a negative connotation socially.
Anyone who suggests or espouses difference is subject to derision and confrontation, as a matter of course.
Those who have “outward difference” characteristics — i.e. women, members of different races, religions — therefore tend to be the subject of derision and confrontation as a matter of course: because it leads the Normal to winning, and therefore preserving power.
Any method of fomenting confrontation and contempt is acceptable in the noble pursuit of power, even including vociferously denying and decrying the unethical tactics used by other Normals championing for the same outcome (see: Gamergate).
The age of Political Correctness took some tactics off the table, namely the overt invocation of gender or race (to a lesser extent, religion) to “name” the difference and call out the offending anti-Normal, immediately discrediting any perspective they put forth via ad hominem attack.
…but the underlying game remains the same. Identify and publicly shame a perceived difference — they “kill the buzz” or they “aren’t aggressive enough” or conversely are “too pushy” or they don’t lean in enough or they don’t have the mind of a hacker. Whatever the red herring is, it’s often a derivative of a stereotype we apply to a marginalized class — but it’s trumped up and re-packaged, perhaps with some shoddy, easy to find pseudo-evidence in support — not terribly dissimilar from the way Wall Street made subprime mortgage loans appear like the bedrock of America’s financial future via complicated and inscrutable re-branding.