It has been said that we write about what worries and what puzzles us, and the tech world checks out on both counts. Having finished working for a few years in Montreal, I (David Gray-Donald) got on a train and headed out to the San Francisco Bay Area. It didn’t take much thought; all the tech giants are out there along and a slew of start-ups trying to make themselves into Goliaths. Also, I mistakenly thought it was on the way to Mexico, and rightly thought that it would be fun to see friends and family there. Having visited for a week in which I argued with seemingly everyone I met, I am slightly less puzzled, possibly more worried, and, of course, mulling over a few ideas. I by no means developed a nuanced understanding of the scene, and did not intend to. A sense of the general trends was what I wanted to gain and hope to convey here.
The San Francisco Bay Area has always been mysterious and enigmatic. The music scene in San Francisco, the free speech movement that grew from UC Berkeley, the insane fogs that roll into the bay, and innumerable other natural and human forces make it a hard place to get a handle on. While it may seem odd, I can’t help but compare and contrast it with New York City due to the attention it is getting and the people it attracts, which are arguably a result of how power seems to be shifting from Wall Street into the Bay Area.
San Francisco and Manhattan are both unable to sprawl, the former being at the end of a peninsula and the latter being an island, though their surroundings have stretched out extensively. San Francisco is more chilled out in pace and attitude than New York City, and reliant more on natural features than the immense Big Apple skyline to create an impressive landscape. Both have their grimy streets that get shaken up by macro-economic forces beyond their control, but people try to make it work nonetheless. New York has more of these streets, but “gentrification” is a conversation point seemingly equally in both cities.
Just as Wall Street is home to the finance and banking giants, the Bay Area is home to the tech players. As we lost confidence in the finance sector in recent years and it struggles to regain our trust, a lot of money and attention and social power has moved over to the tech giants. Not to say the investment community doesn’t still run much of the world, it certainly does and that is very worthy of attention, but something big is happening in the Bay Area. Facebook, Google, Wikimedia / Wikipedia, Twitter, and Apple are there. Amazon (Seattle) is the notable exception. Combined, they are the fabric on which our online interactions happen, and a lot of our interactions are happening online. Microsoft (Seattle suburbs), IBM (NYC suburbs), Oracle (Bay Area), and Samsung (Soeul, South Korea) are not of as much interest. The reason is the power of the giants:
- Facebook is our virtual online presence
- Google is how we find information
- Wikipedia is an open-source database of information humans deem relevant to one another
- Twitter is how he spread information and make social commentary in real time
- Amazon is how we buy and sell goods (along with Craigslist & Kijiji)
- Apple makes hardware and software to access these services with the best user experience, much better than Microsoft (though they could conceivably be displaced in this)
The first 5 of these are a platform for an entire system of human interaction. The hardware market seems less easily monopolized, though there may be parts that can. The new face of distribution and communication is a very important moment in human history. If I seem overconfident in predicting the future, it’s may be due to having attended a talk from Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future. While she claimed she would not predict the future, the talk certainly pointed to the natural direction of a lot of trends beyond the present. The platform that these tech giants have created for people to interact directly could be said to have been the thesis of the talk.
The argument goes that we no longer need the big corporate institutions to make goods and provide services. That is huge. These organizations have dominated our society, but only for the last couple hundred years or so, and suddenly they could appear obsolete. I heard a story over a sushi brunch (when in Rome!) of a group of people who took apart a DNA sequencing machine to figure out how it was made, and then they made their own. In a hackerspace, with no corporate funding. A guy in that space has made glow-in-the-dark grass with “homemade” equipment. People can find skilled labour online for specific tasks, with no corporation ever getting involved. If we want to make something, we don’t need General Electric to make it. Nor do they need to distribute it. It’s not far off that you could 3D print a bigger 3D printer and then print a household appliance like a dishwasher. We can just do things ourselves. The costs of production and transportation are moving in favour of the individual. Again, this is huge, and you can see bits of anarchy popping up in ways it hasn’t been able to before. Glow-in-the-dark grass and its engineered kin aren’t parts of corporate behaviour, they are the products of actions of individuals. While individuals are getting more control in some ways, the giants of the user-end experience have been developing monopolies on how we interact, and they have a familiar old underlying motive: corporate profit. With the exception of Wikipedia, the giants are all publicly-held, limited-liability, for-profit corporations. The basis of our social interactions is an odd combination of forces: distributed, giving immense power to the individual, and unapologetically acting in the best interest of shareholders first.
In fact, acting in the best interest of shareholders is the legal responsibility of the for-profit corporation. Not breaking the law in serving the user of the product is a responsibility, but treating the user well is not the goal, except as to retain loyalty to maintain a revenue stream. But in the monopolies that are emerging, it is hard not to be loyal to the platforms that all virtual interactions are based on. These companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon) are in what is for them a beautiful positive-feedback loop; people use their platform so they get to collect and analyze data about people, so then they can better offer products and services, and so people continue to use their platform and the cycle repeats and amplifies. Google, an organization made up largely of engineers, looks like it’s bumbling forward from one neat-o technological marvel to another into a position of unfathomable power without taking stock of its effects on our society. This makes sense; society is not it’s goal, the shareholders are. It is a fascinating case of corporate social responsibility; can the basis of the new order of human interaction be for-profit and also be socially responsible?
At the launch of the Berekely Institute for Data Science (a name that seems to indicate that we didn’t used to use data in science but now we will), the Director of Research for Google, Peter Norvig, dressed characteristically in a Hawaiian shirt, starting his brief talk by saying that companies like Google were guilty of worsening and embedding the divide between the 1% and the 99%, the statistical rallying cry of the Occupy movement. He offered no solution other than people need to get used to working in teams with computers, but it was interesting to hear the admission of complicity. The underlying theme of the event was that data is the new value. Data about people and about trends and about the earth or anything else, is what is going to be valuable. Bitcoin, which is “mined” by processing data on computers, is blowing up as a currency, and the frenzy this is creating is reminiscent of a gold rush. What is happening with all this data is hazy, and it is completely warranted that many people distrust what looks like a centralization of data and power (terms that some believe may become nearly interchangeable in the Orwellian future). People do have the ability to step off the platforms of the giants they have been faithful to, but it looks a bit lonely out there.
It is slightly ironic that this wave of technology that could destroy the old corporate order is simultaneously creating corporate giants of a scale not seen since entities like monarchies and religious institutions ruled over the masses. We may not rely on many big corporations, but a handful of them will own just about everything about us. And we don’t own these companies, their shareholders do (so if you’re a shareholder, you own a little piece of everyone, isn’t that cute or scary or something?).
Privacy and ownership aside, it is exciting that we have all these tools at our disposal, but I’m hesitant to rejoice in the glory of the power of these new instruments. It’s commonplace for academic papers to look like re-hashings and re-confirmations of conclusions that have been common sense for some time: the wealthy are too wealthy, corporations have held and continue to hold to much power over governments and citizens, we don’t exercise enough, we eat too much crap, racism and sexism are deeply embedded in our social structure and our culture, basic medicines don’t get to people who need it because there is no profit motive to do so, etc. I am skeptical of how big data, and it’s twin sibling analytics fit into this picture, and if they can fundamentally change the game. The question seems to be: how many of our fundamental problems persist because of lack of information? For instance: racism, sexism, poverty, income disparities, health, happiness, water, food, shelter, energy. For some applications, like storm and earthquake prediction and some medical uses, these technologies appear to be very useful. For the rest, I’d love to argue about it.
No matter the strength of a rhetorical argument, this game of data-driven tools is rapidly expanding in the real world, and as such it is very interesting to observe the shape of the game. The design of how we design tools is important and under-attended to. What is the social-organizational framework that people are using to design tools we interact with to purvey and access goods and services? What is the habitat in which apps are made, what do people care about there? To illustrate, I was at tech event and a Microsoft Developer Evangelist made a small announcement without a trace of inspiration about how Microsoft has free stuff, and has money if people need money, so people should develop stuff on the Microsoft platform. For no reason other than the prospect of marketshare and profitability, Microsoft was willing to throw money at random people and ideas. A couple people told mentioned that there are few people in the tech scene who inspire, that the app developers themselves are expected to be the ones with the ideas and direction and inspiration for the masses. The base on which the developers operate, the Microsofts and Googles and Apples, are cold uninspiring money-machines, and that is being polite. Is the basis of our social interaction something we want to be for profit and owned by a new aristocracy, the owners of virtual time and space?
Lots of people are running around with great enthusiasm and skill developing great applications, but it seems to be all disjointed and hard to understand what they are working towards. It looks a bit like anarchy, or the free market, they seem pretty similar. But I’m not sure yet that it’s a good direction; it seems too based on profit. There is so much brain power and ability and enthusiasm and money all over the place right now, and especially in the Bay Area, but it seems like what is missing is common direction. Marina Gorbis (of the Institute for the Future) mentioned that an understanding of core values is absent in all of these new developments. I agree. She seemed not to believe that in-person interaction would work as a primary facet of democratic process. I disagree. As digital interaction becomes even more pervasive (if that’s possible!), in-person conversations will become increasingly valued and treasured. Those moments likely offer the best opportunity to develop a shared understanding of what we are working towards, and to understanding the motivations, hopes, desires, and fears of others we are working and living with.
I think it would be really cool for a group like The Natural Step or MASS LBP or the McGill Vision 2020 team to be in the thick of the tech scene facilitating conversations, identifying problematic structures, strategizing how to dismantle those, and providing a hub of support for those doing such work. I also think it would be cool to get lost in thought for a while about how all of our personal information could be stored in a way that is not intented for profit. Is there a way that something like Facebook could be member-owned? Can member-ownership be different from government-controlled? I don’t have any ideas for apps (only for fancy mushroom appetizers, because food), but I will shout and scream about how we need to pay attention and be involved in shaping the platforms on which we are operating. It is a system worth leveraging because, put melodramatically, it is the fabric of our future.
I hope this has shed some light (from a biased) perspective on what’s up, and pointed to some valid concerns. Ideas on what the heck to do about the scene and its obscene amounts of money and influence are encouraged.
P.S. I had a great time being a vagrant reading and writing and sunbathing at UC Berkeley, seeing friends in San Fran, eating tacos on Mission Street, and surfing in Santa Cruz.