Hubris And The Cry For A Digital Nanny State

For some time now social media platforms have been hearing the footsteps of Ms. Mea Culpa as more and more evidence surfaces indicating that many of these platforms carried propaganda intended to shift the outcome of last November’s presidential election.

Propublica and other journalism organizations have reported that Facebook, and, most likely other social media platforms sold ad space to foreign entities for use in promoting propaganda and other ‘information’. Social media platforms when challenged as to whether or not foreign sources took out ads foreign entitles took out and used space to influence our elections responded emphatically no!!!!, and one, Facebook, by way of it’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg went so far as to not only minimize the scale on which Facebook was used, but to maintain that the practice was NOT wide spread and that thinking this tactic had influence on the election was crazy. This, even after President Obama personally pulled him aside at a meeting abroad and tried to give the leader a heads up. Zuckerberg’s response was especiall galling given that President Obama had access to information from our intelligence communities’ that Zuckerberg did not and would not ever have.

In my opinion, this was due both because of Zuckerberg’s hubris  (and that of the valley in general) his lack of knowledge around regarding how the entirety of Facebook works. The latter is forgivable given the size of the system underpinning Facebook. The former less so given that Zuckerberg, and other social media platform execs have little if any experience in foreign affairs, intelligence gathering, or other related activities. Unfortunately, in this culture, making money is more often than not attributed to being smart or smarter than someone else.

The funny thing about Zuck’s “crazy” denial regarding the impact of social media on elections is that in the abstract, he is also unwittingly discounting the actual value of ads placed on facebook by it’s clients. In short, he is undermining the very value his company provides to paid advertisers. Is this what he intended with his “crazy” refutation ?

To date, it seems that the concensus approach has been to push back on the Social Media platforms and demand they provide more scrutiny (and transparency) around account usage, the people resonsible for political ads of any ilk and to to monitor if not block  hate speech as best they can. I guess I should acknowledge the kindess of social media lords to take time out and actually take care of we , their consuming minons

It is is easy to what-if and therefore indrectly blame the social media industry. If only the social media industry had not rushed to be so ubiquitous, or to have least found a model in which good well crafted, depndable, reasoned journalism could have co-existed outside of their platforms instead of sucking all of the money it possibly could have into its coffers. If only people like Zuck had managed their hubris and ambition and just admitted there are in fact unintended consequences to their actions…

Or maybe, this:

What if the rest of us, the reading thinking, general public had not fallen asleep, become intellectually lazy, cheap at our own expense. Imagine if we had actually continued to develop our critical reading and thinking skills. Maybe we wouldn’t be wimpering while at the same time asking the social media industry to change our digtially soiled diapers.

Yes, if only, indeed

How Political Correctness Failed Us

Some time ago I was watching the news and noticed trump using the phrase “politically correct”. I hand’t heard that phrase in quite a while and upon hearing it, I reflected on what, if anything it might or might not mean in today’s Silicon Valley.

The phrase “politically correct” showed in up in the late 80s. By my reckoning it became part of the the 90’s zeitgeist know as diversity. While there was some progress made in 90s around diversity and multiculturalism- another linguistic blast from the past -I’d argue that political correctness, especially that part of it which spent time policing language contributed to the slow withering on the vine of any meaningful progress the real diversity work attempted in the 90s might have secured.

Yet again, in 2016, here in Silicon Valley we find ourselves yet again in a similar situation.Words like retention, implicit bias, growth mindset, level playing field, are all terms that pop up in an around what is now called diversity work in the valley. 

The sad thing is even with all of this work around linguistic precision we seem to be manufacturing, that same rigor has been lost in identifying and being specific about what the real challenges are in the valley, and who they affect. 

Yes, language is important, however until we decide to come to terms with the underlying concepts and problems our linguistic gymnastics are trying to describe. We will always find ourselves left with nothing more than a collection of important sounding words. That is the failure of political correctness

Why Twitter Reminds me of the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon

First, resuming traditions established previously on this blog. The musical selection for this post is Beck’s Round The Bend

For some time now, the business model for Twitter has been falling short in providing a sustainable future for the company. Over the course of the last the last month or so, Twitter has found itself in the unenviable position of having to cut costs in the only way most companies know how to. The “axe”. Further evidence of Twitter’s new economy maturity can be seen in this comment from Dorsey during a conference call  “our board is committed to maximizing long-term shareholder value”. 

In the real world the laws of physics are a hard to violate, last I checked, you still can’t travel faster than the speed of light AND gravity still works. Similarly, in the business world, there are some fundamentals which cannot be ignored without consequence. The most fundamental is that a company HAS to produce revenue and profit.

I remember early on in the social media space how the most important objective was growth, not revenue growth, just growth. How to actually make money was always something to be determined afterwards. No one, myself included- a jaded HW -guy would dismiss the importance of cultivating market share. And yes, using the social media model of growth before revenue there have been some SIGNIFICANT successes. Unfortunately for the legions of entrepreneurs flooding our tech media and conscious those successes are relative far and few in between

What comes too mind for me in all of this are the Roadrunner cartoons I watched as a kid some 40 years ago. The coyote was always dreaming up all ploys intended to catch the roadrunner. Some were were marginally plausible, some were not. Always constant was the fact that the coyote NEVER caught the roadrunner. Usually, at the end of the show, there was one last grand attempt by the Coyote which as you might guess, also failed usually with much pain and some sort of long distance fall which ended up in a puff of dust at the base some canyon.

In unsuccessfully shopping itself around for a possible owner Twitter seems to have taken that final step and found it’s inner coyote. The question now is whether or not Twitter, like that coyote, will go over cliff and become that puff of dust.

 

The Valley’s Thiel Problem ?

Earlier this year venture capitalist Peter Thiel his announced support for Donald Trump and his run for the presidency. Mr. Thiel subsequently showed up as a speaker at the RNC in support of Presidential ticket. If you read the text of his remarks you he really wasn’t saying much that we haven’t heard before from a business leader here in the valley.

It’s funny the number of eyebrows that raised upon hearing Thiel’s position; that he believes policies in and around supporting business and innovation are more important when compared to the things he finds objectionable in both Trump and the Republican party.

Since Thiel’s sharing of his political leanings there have been grumblings as to whether or not he should be allowed to continue as a member of the Facebook board. Those grumblings managed to increase in volume such that Zuckerberg felt it necessary to address the issue directly. Zuckerberg argued the importance of diversity in thought and opinions. It’s certainly a valid- albeit hard to swallow – line of reasoning in this instance.

Zuckerberg and Thiel whether you agree with them or not, have decided to make compromises and prioritize the things they find are important to them. And that is not a bad thing, at least, let’s give them the benefit of using sort of of values based process to arrive at their positions.

The point in all of this is that both individuals think and act in ways  consistent with perceived values and norms at work in Silicon Valley. To be sure, it is reasonable to ask whether or not everyone (Zuck and Thiel included) is aware of and in agreement with these unspoken, informal norms. Based on the response from some in the valley when hearing  of Thiel’s (and subsequently Zuckerberg’s) position it’s reasonable to conclude that not everyone received and subsequently signed on to the values memo.

If we want to live in a place where there are certain non-negotiables around civility, if we want to live in a place where how we speak of, treat and act towards members of our community originates from a place of reasoned behavior. We will need to reconsider how aligned our perception of self is with our reality. That consideration may result in some discomfort. Assuming we can get past that discomfort, we then will need to articulate exactly what it is we want from members of this community. Finally, in order to hold ourselves accountable each of us will have agree to these values we perceive this community is collectively aspiring.

Self reflection is not a strong suit for communities like the valley. We might be well advised to investigate how other communities have managed their changes of sentiment in these areas. Before we do that however, we might be well served to admit that as part of the US business culture. We aren’t all that exceptional.

Grab your fork, and get ready for a little humble pie with some cod liver oil topping thrown in for taste. It won’t taste all that good, however, as those who have preceded us have admonished us, it will be good for for somebody ?

A Grand Circle Jerk

I have neglected including a song at the beginning of each of my blog posts. For this post please consider this tune.

The rise and recent fall of the bio-tech firm Theranos is yet another example the challenges inherent in the valley’s startup business culture and the media echo chamber which supports it.

Theranos, founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes while she was a student at Stanford became  a poster child for both disruption and all that that is insanely great about the valley. Theranos was going change the world. Hmmm where have we heard that before ?

Under Holmes’ leadership Theranos was developing a more efficient blood test. The test could reportedly provide the requisite chemical analysis in support of 30 or more  different blood tests using only a single drop of blood obtained through the pin prick of a finger. This test was supposed to enable blood testing services in just about any location. These efficiencies in turn were going to empower the average consumer with information which could ultimately lead to better health and wellness outcomes.

There were early signals that Theranos’ technology may not have been delivering the results originally claimed. The company, mid to late last year admitted to backing away from the technology upon which it’s original value proposition was predicated. For some reason these early signals did not result in any serious re-evaluation of the company.

Entrepreneurs by nature, are  optimistic and fiercely committed to their ideas. Holmes was no exception. Unfortunately she also believed her company could ignore common practices around peer reviewed work in the health and science fields. This thinking finally caught up with Theranos. Earlier this year, the FDA and The Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), the organization which certifies providers for the Medicare and Medicaid determined the company’s claims and lab practices questionable. CMS has taken actions to de-certify the company. The FDA and CMS  have gone as far as to ban Ms. Holmes and others in the company from running any sort of lab for two years effectively removing Theranos from any sort of relevance in the near term.

Going forward it’s not clear what is to become of Theranos. Maybe lady luck will strike and Theranos will survive to prove the value and efficacy of its original technology. Maybe not. Ms. Holmes in all likelihood will lay low and find herself a gig as an  EIR at one of the VC firms here in the valley. Certainly this is not the last we will see of Ms. Holmes in the valley based on her ability to raise capital alone.

What is certain is the more Silicon Valley (and the industry friendly press which writes about it) claims to be the purveyor of only the best,  ideas, best in breed  “power of the market and merit” community, and ethically evolved in contrast to the rest of the U.S.  business sector the less it seems to ring true.

 

A Simple Yes Would Do

It is unfortunate that this past May Facebook felt compelled to invite members from conservative media leadership to join a discussion  of  bias against conservative content. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are a demonstrably impressive duo when it comes to leading technology driven companies. In this space however, I believe both Zuck and Ms. Sandberg are operating outside of their wheelhouse. It’s not their fault.  Silicon Valley has a history of accomplished folk leaving the relatively safe and focused confines of the tech sector to insert themselves into others.

Those of us in the peanut gallery see that more often than not these folks by way of their resources have significant voices and/or roles in areas including education and feminism. It is not always the case that they should have these voices.

Silicon Valley is a community chocked full of the smartest – a universal definition of smart would be helpful here – people in the room.  At least that is what we are repeatedly told. Furthermore, they are so smart it only makes sense to for them to branch out into other areas, to bring their smarts to bear on those areas and resolve issues within them, e.g. to change the world.

It is true that in certain areas of ability there are incredibly smart people at work here in the valley. The challenge for these folks however, is to recognize where mastery of subject matter in a space is a pre-requisite to actually solving problems – there are those spaces where there is no problem as we think of them, they are what they are – in those spaces.  Many times immersing one’s self in a space for a brief but intense period is not enough. In some cases, considerable time observing over the course of years, and deliberation should occur before jumping into the fray.

In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg, armed with money and good intentions  donated 100 million dollars to the Newark, New Jersey school district in the hopes of improving schools there. The outcomes after this announcement are well documented  (Russakoff). Similarly,  Sandberg with her 2013 book Lean In, and subsequent organization of the same name found herself in the center of a dialogue around feminism as it was relevant both in and out of the workplace. Some from the academy weighed in with their critiques (Hooks) and (Rottenberg).

I mention these examples because education reform and feminism are social issues obvious in their need for improvement; they are also incredibly complex once you look behind their respective curtains. They need more than good intentions, interest in the space, and financial resources. Actual experience, and ability in large system transformation is required.

Then there is the political media space kerfuffle Facebook found itself involved in. In political media there are no simple immutable issues around which to rally. Everything is highly subjective and in the end, it is a space where there is no pleasing anyone.

After his meeting with the conservatives Zuckerberg indicated there would be an investigation. What the hell for ? In that moment, the right had already won or at least already scored before Zuckerberg and Sandberg had even suited up.  I have to assume that for an instant the Facebook folks forgot to recognize the fact that their company is a publicly traded one.Surely, the market would reflect its desires for Facebook to become more friendly to the right by way of the stock price no ? Maybe this was a loss of what Hemingway called “grace under pressure”.

To no one’s surprise the investigation that Zuck said would go forward came back and declared there was no bias. Again, Facebook missed the point of this exercise.  All the right wanted with this shot across the bow was to draw some attention to their complaint. The conservative right of the last 3o years or so has become quite adept at playing the long game when it comes to media (Lakoff). Furthermore there has been and will always be bias in media. We need to get past thinking all media HAS to be ideologically neutral. In Europe, the Far East,  Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world the media and news don’t hide the fact that they have biases. It is the responsibility of the consuming public to account for these  biases . Goodness, Zuck has heard of Fox News hasn’t he ?

Just for fun let’s imagine for a moment  that we were in the room during the meeting. Zuckerberg and Sandberg are asked directly if there is any bias in how they curate content. Instead of setting the expectation they would twist themselves into knots determining  whether there was any, and, to prove a true understanding of  real-world media. Both should have visualized Occam’s Razor in their mind’s eye and simply answered yes.

Works Cited

Russakoff, DaleThe Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Hooks, Bell. “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In.” The Feminist Wire. N.p., 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 June 2016.
Rottenberg, Catherine. “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.” Cultural Studies 28.3 (2013): 418-37. Print.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe, 2005. Print.

Post Script:

Zuckerberg and Sandberg have, to their credit, continued their evolution. Zuckerberg and his wife have started a school in Menlo Park working with educators, we’ll see. Sandberg, after the sudden loss of her husband last year, has begun seeing feminism through the lens of be being a single mother.

The 2016 Oakland Book Festival

While it doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Oakland can still put on a gathering which  reminds me while I have been living here virtually non-stop since 1992.

Last weekend’s Oakland Book Festival held downtown was a true local pleasure. It isn’t the largest book festival. It didn’t attract all of the A-list literati, and there were scheduling conflicts. I suppose the latter is a good thing because it means there lots of interesting topics.

My only misgiving regarding the festival was the lack of us. Where “us” means my black community. That’s not to say there weren’t any black folk in the house. I just wish more of us would show up at these things. These sorts of events take their programming cues from the communities which attend them. Know what I mean ?

Given the current climate around race.We can’t always stand aside aloof legitimately criticizing the oppressive racial climate which exists.If a genuine, grass-roots opportunity to be in community with a broad spectrum of the Oakland racial landscape makes itself available. It’s worth our while to take advantage of it. Most of the countries’ issues around race are BECAUSE we don’t spend time together. Not to mention that a day in community around books and interesting ideas is good day. No matter who you are.

Finally, unlike our neighbor who shares a northern border with us. We are the Oakland Book Festival, and  being about Oakland is way more valuable to me than being about the Bay area sometimes.