The Din & Boom

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Waking up in Venice is unlike waking up in any other place. The day begins quietly. Only a stray shout here and there may break the calm, or the sound of a shutter being raised, or the wing-beat of the pigeons. How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to the stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of the traffic, with a mounting sense of panic. That, then, I thought on such occasions, is the new ocean. Ceaselessly, in great surges, the waves roll in over the length and breadth of our cities, rising higher and higher, breaking in a kind of frenzy when the roar reaches its peak and then discharging across the stones and the asphalt even as the next onrush is being release from where it was held by traffic lights. For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this dine that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.

–W.S. Sebald, Vertigo

The Din is an apt word for the onslaught of sound assaulting us in our urban life, and The Din one of the topics we mentioned in the last episode on my podcast, Should This Exist? on Boom Supersonic. The sound of the supersonic plane is in the name itself: the sonic boom the plane makes as it crosses the sound barrier, which I’ve never heard myself, but is a tremendous, earth-shuddering sound, and one of the many reasons supersonic flight did not thrive in its last incarnation.

I once walked in late to a lecture that was in progress, I didn’t know the name of the lecturer, I believe it was Peter Warshall. and he was talking about how the sounds of our world–the industrial sounds, airport noise, cars, traffic–were killing the animal life around us, by silencing animal communication. Birds couldn’t hear their babies tweeting, bullfrogs living in swamps near highways couldn’t hear each other’s mating calls.  How well we sleep in the country, far from the noise and stress of urban life. I was just in Japan, where we noticed how harmonious and gentle the street sounds were–the sounds guiding blind people through crosswalks, or the bell announcing an arriving train–compared to the alarming, jarring noises of the alarms in the United States and Europe. We’re not paying enough attention to sound.

Another interesting conversation that didn’t make it to the podcast–each episode would be an hours-long if we kept everything in!–was that the soul moves at the speed of a camel. Though I don’t remember where I learned this, I intuitively feel it to be true. The reason we have jetlag as we’re flying from, say, San Francisco to New York is that when we arrive we’re only there in body–our soul is trundling slowly through Utah, and doesn’t arrive until more than a week later, the time it would take to fully recover from jet lag.

We talked about flight, and dreams of flying, and how is the symbology of dreams flying is a metaphor for release, for freedom, for shrugging of whatever binds you and transcending it. We talked of Daedalus, the original inventor and entrepreneur of ancient mythology, who of course fashioned the wings for Icarus, his son, who flew too close to the sun and came crashing downwards, to Daedalus’s great sorrow. This can be a metaphor for what happens to many entrepreneurs, who see what they created lead to things they never intended.

And yet another interesting conversation we had was about being greeted at airports. When our planes landed, back when I was a kid, my entire Filipino family–and Filipino families are big!–were waiting for us at the gate when we arrived. Every grandma, cousin, baby, uncle. When someone came, especially from far away, it was a major event. There was exclaiming and hugging. We hauled out our balikbayan boxes. Sisters proffered flowers. Even now, I  see large Indian families, or Mexican families, or sometime even Filipino families standing at gates in a flurry of greeting, but I see them less and less. There are more business travelers, travel is more frequent, less special, and why go to the airport when Uber and Lyft are so easy and convenient? Being greeted at the airport is a terrible loss, my friend Anarghya and I agreed. You arrive and your soul may still be laboring, swimming camel-like across the Pacific. You arrive soulless and solitary without people who love you to embrace you at the end of your journey. There is no longer a tradition of human welcoming, just posters of beaming mayors welcoming you to their city, or a friendly Uber driving asking how your trip went. There is no longer a tradition of arrival, as a demarcation, or event.

Appalled by Sexism in the Valley? Meet the Tech Bros of Finland

 

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A job search ad by Vincit, a publicly listed tech company reads “A search for Vincit’s twenty-seventh Mikko. And hey: we’re not discriminatory”

 

While Silicon Valley labors to exorcise its bro culture–the widespread egregious behavior, sexist jokes, chauvinism, power plays, harassment and discrimination–you wouldn’t guess where sexism is business as usual. Yes! In the happiest country in the world.

Almost every year Finland wins the happiest country in the world award, and just this week Finland won again. Finland’s people have so much to be proud of: they’re the best educated people in the world, they have national childcare, healthcare and have almost eliminated poverty. Their laws guarantee equal opportunity for men and women. They house their homeless. Both mothers and fathers have equal parental leave and it’s the only country in the world where fathers spend more time with their children than mothers–it’s only 8 minutes, but still! It’s a start.

Nevertheless, their tech industry is full of sexism, bias and chauvinism, which I have experienced first hand. I’m both an outsider and an insider to Finland. I’ve spent the last decade going back and forth between Silicon Valley and Helsinki. Several years ago, I gave a talk at Aalto University for the technology students there, and after my talk I caught the beginning of the next talk by a very famous Finnish tech entrepreneur. “You too can reap the fruits of success as an entrepreneur,” he said. “Here’s some of the things you can get”. And he proceeded to show slides of a sports car, a private plane, and lastly, Netscape founder Jim Clark, in his 70s, in front of a boat, with his 25 year old wife. He pointed out their respective ages. He pointed at the wife.

Things you can get?! I was astonished and looked around so we could all share our outrage. No one met my eye. No one shared my outrage. This was my first experience of sexism as usual. But it was not an isolated case.

When some interns from Finland came to work at my company in the Valley, I was surprised to learn that in Finland it was OK to refer to women as “bitches” and “ho’s”–or maybe they just talked like that when they were in the U.S.? One passed around a magazine he’d worked on, which had quasi-pornographic pictures of more ho’s. Well, it was an internship program after all, there was a lot to learn.  

I noticed other things. I was invited to conferences explicitly because “they needed more women” not because I built great companies. Conference events centered around drinking and gambling, and when I pointed out that women may feel uncomfortable there, the conference organizers shrugged. Here in the Valley many companies have realized drinking is often correlated with harassment, and even assault, and no longer sponsor drinking events.

I found the incomprehension to be almost universal. Shut down, glossed over, and dismissed by Finns up and down the ladder, the conversation had been successfully smothered. When harassment was reported, the responses were oddly toothless. There was a sense of “Nothing to see here folks! Move along!” To my knowledge, no one has been fired, or suffered real consequences for their actions. Maybe everyone’s kept their pants on? The law of numbers says no. While there’s a lot of rah-rah for women, Happy International Women’s Day posts, and photos of the smiling minority of women at the tech companies on the front of every tech company’s web site, underneath it all, lies a strong bias. Finland is in denial.

Sexism reared its ugly head again this week with #ParempiMikko. A publicly traded company, Vincit, advertised that there were 26 men named Mikko working at their company, and they were looking for another Mikko. This is, mind you, a company which came in last in a survey of workplace diversity in Finnish Tech companies with only 11% women employees. So the young women working with the largest tech festival in the Nordics, Slush, spotted the bias and exclusion in the post, and they tweeted about it. The CEO of the company tweeted back at them that if they saw bias there it wasn’t his problem it was theirs–since they were the ones who saw bias there. And when a well-respected tech reporter, Senja Larsen, wrote about it in the business press, the CEO wrote her emails with a threatening tone.

It gets worse. Vincit is known for putting sexist jokes into their press releases, external communications–even in their financial statements. These have been reported by the pressTheir jokes are juvenile. ”Kympin pitäjä” which means “great village” turns into “pimpin kytäjä”  or “pussy place”. The Finnish Stock Exchange criticized them for this, but their response was to tell them to “lighten up a little”. On their quarterly results video they again made some appalling puns: ”surkea töihinottaja” became “obscene blowjob” and refers to the only woman on the management team–the head of HR!–as “cunt babbles”. People in Silicon Valley know that a CEO would be fired for that, but weirdly, nothing happened.

The Vincit CEO calls himself “the leading star of the future of leadership” on his Twitter profile. But he’s a leader who makes sexist jokes, who stands by them when called out, who doesn’t listen to women but dismisses them. The women at the company–which has paid to be entered into “Best Places to Work” type competitions–predictably leapt to its defense. Women have been complicit in maintaining the silence, heading up the HR departments, tweeting their support, covering up and ensuring that nothing is done. This also happens in the Valley and around the world.

So Finnish Tech Industry People, I know it’s tough, since some of your more admirable qualities are tolerance and agreeableness. I know you know that you’ll have to work with these people for the rest of your life in a country of 5.5 million people and an industry of thousands. But it’s important to do something. Treat women better, speak out, stand by and stand up for them. Because we look up to you. You know how to build a just society. You’re the secret leaders of the world.

Next up: Germany

 

Should This Exist? Woebot

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We can summon cars at the push of a button, we can video chat with our grandparents, and we can listen to any song, from any era, at any time.  Yet the same devices that enable those miracles have ushered in an epidemic of anxiety and depression, which has hit our kids particularly hard. Studies show a clear connection between technology use and feelings of loneliness and depression. We’re more powerful than ever, and our needs are instantly satisfied, but we are dying inside.

My guest on this episode of Should This Exist? Is Alison Darcy, PhD, clinical therapist and creator of Woebot, a friendly AI-powered chatbot that aims to change this by being there for you 24/7, and delivering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–or CBT– whenever depression descends and a black cloud of negative thoughts hovers over you. In its first day of operation it treated more people than a therapist could in a year.

For most people in the world, seeing a therapist isn’t practical or affordable, and having one just a tap away in your pocket can change your life. Because Woebot has had millions of chat sessions, it has also generated more data than a therapist will in a lifetime, and its algorithms can optimize its responses better.

But what if Woebot drives us even farther apart? We asked Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist, best-selling author, and host of her own hit podcast. She said:

“AI stands for artificial intelligence, but it also stands for artificial intimacy, the idea that a bot, app or machine will answer you the way you want to be answered, and suspend your awareness that it has actually been programmed.”

Perfectly human-like AI could lead to mass emotional dependency on technology, similar to how movies like Her and Blade Runner 2049 show dependency on virtual girlfriends. And there’s an entire industry growing around providing children with robot friends. 

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Pilvi Takala, a Finnish artist, recently had an exhibition at Kiasma called Second Shift showing her work around emotional labor. Emotional labor is the often unseen and unappreciated work required of employees, group members or family members beyond manual or mental labor, and the work that needs to be done to care for others. It’s responsible for a lot of female exhaustion. One of Pilvi’s works was Invisible Friend, which came from her experience working as a paid “girlfriend” over the internet. One thing that occurred to me was that women might be liberated from more emotional labor by apps like Woebot, and wouldn’t that be an amazing outcome. Watch the video here: Pilvi Takala: Workers Forum.

But in the end, it seems like a bad idea to use technology to solve a problem that technology has itself created. Shouldn’t we put down our phones and join the conversations around us? Shouldn’t people, not AI, bring us back to ourselves? Shouldn’t women be relieved of emotional labor by, say, men? But then again, is this the way out of the sorrows of the world? Join us on Should This Exist? to discuss this issue, and send us your feedback by posting a review! We read each one, and it really matters for the following episodes.

Should This Exist: Halo Neuroscience

Should This Exist: Halo Neuroscience

Memory palaces, cuneiform, kung fu–for millennia we’ve pushed ourselves to recall with greater precision, learn faster, perform better and achieve more. One new technology in particular we’re about to unlock—neurostimulation—may forever change what it is to compete as a member of society, and even alter our basic conception of what it means to be human.

Everyone has heard of the 10,000-Hour Rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It’s simply a matter of repetition: 20 hours of practice a week for 10 years will get you to mastery.

But what if by priming your brain to learn faster, you could accomplish the same in half the time and far surpass your “natural” abilities? Would you opt out? What about your kids? Would you zap your brain to become smarter faster? If I could learn Finnish or cello faster–especially at my age!––I would. Of course! 

 

My guest in the first episode of Should This Exist? is neuroscientist and entrepreneur Daniel Chao, co-founder and CEO of Halo Neuroscience. Halo Sport is their first product, a headset that enhances the neuroplasticity of the motor cortex in your brain. It could usher in a new golden age where millions of us  are virtuosos… or it could bring about the dystopia of Gattaca, where only a select few get superhuman abilities.

To a 1950s Olympic gold medalist, today’s Olympians would already seem superhuman. We all know they got there because today’s athletes train better. They use science, medicine, and technology (sometimes even pushing the boundary of what’s legal) to enhance their bodies and minds.

And it’s not just our top performers and dominant athletes. Normal people like you and me take it for granted we should be pushing ourselves to learn, perform better and achieve more at work and school. We tell our children how important it is to be resilient, try and try and try again until you make the cut.

We’re watching technology is being enthusiastically introduced into schools. STEM is seen as the most desirable focus for our kids, not the humanities. And there have been several well-publicized debacles which should give us pause.  Nowadays even pre-schoolers have to train to be smarter.

And another question: what if this technology is available to some and not others? Could the achievement gap widen? And what if instead it were given to the kids who had fallen behind, who were then able to catch up?

Cuneiform was restricted to the elites, and writing itself was the province of educated men–and only men–for centuries after its invention. Kung Fu wasn’t taught except to the lucky few. And sharing these technologies sometimes had dire consequences. Could Halo follow a similar trajectory?

Not on our watch! Daniel is a thoughtful, deep-thinking entrepreneur; we talked through its many possible permutations. Join us on Should this Exist?

 

Thoreau the Technophile

You know Henry David Thoreau, author, transcendentalist, author of Walden Pond, a celebrant of the simple life lived in nature? He seems an unlikely candidate for a technophile, but often the least likely among us are susceptible to the allure of technology. His diary entries in 1851 present quite a poetic view of the newest technology to come to New England: the telegraph:

1851, Sept. 3.  As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.

1851, Sept. 22. I put my ear to one of the posts and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain–as if every fibre was affected and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law. Every cell and change or inflection of the tree pervaded and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood! How much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that were, as it were, a manifest blessing from heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not add a tenth muse to the immortal Nine? And that the invention this divinely honored and distinguished–on which the Muse has condescended to smile–is this magic medium of communication for mankind!

I felt the same way about the internet when I first encountered it–a magic medium of communication for humankind! It’s often difficult for us to “see” this kind of magic anymore because we now know where it has ended up. Power lines, telephone lines–these are not a thing of great beauty, to us. They don’t look like harps to us. This has been beautifully illustrated by Robert Crumb in a drawing titled “A Short History of America”:

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Thoreau lived in frame 3, and we live in frame 12. We can see beauty and nature disappearing, and see that, maybe it would have been better to put those lines underground. And that it is up to us to make frames 13, 14, 15. Can we improve it? What will frame 24 look like? 

Not only the built environment, but the inner life has been changed by what Thoreau sees as the  “magic medium of communication for mankind”. This is what I first loved about the internet:  it connected us to each other. We love to connect!

But we’re not communicating any more. We went past Dunbar’s number, beyond the number of people we can meaningfully know, which makes our relationships brittle and thin. Fake news, platitudes, bias, and not seeing our friends anymore– just reading their updates–is what it’s come to. 

This passage from Thoreau tells me three things: One, we should not forget the wonder of being able to communicate with one another across great distances. All the wonders of the internet are still there: we should see it again with it’s magic. Two: we should pay attention to the past to learn for the present. And three, living as we do in Thoreau’s future, where we can see the future outcomes of those telegraph wires, we should think deeply about the future we ourselves are creating and guide it to a better, more beautiful, future.


 

 Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Many people now say that Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was more like an early example of performance art then any commitment to living permanently in simplicity.  Still, the virtues of living simply resonate in our overstimulated, trivia-filled lives. And this edition includes Civil Disobedience, his great ode to freedom, which inspired non-violent protest everywhere is a must-read for all of us. Libertarians and liberals alike have marched beneath its banner, and the fact that it can encompass so many diverse viewpoints is a testament to its depth and power.

America by Robert Crumb. Have Thoreau and Crumb ever shared a page? This may be a first.  Both are deeply American. Thoreau is easy for me to like, but I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Crumb. If you haven’t seen the fantastic Terry Zwigoff documentary about him, Crumb, you must, and it will help you understand where he’s coming from. But I have to work hard to get past the pornography, misogyny, racism and scab-picking ugliness of all he does, in order to appreciate the great things he’d done, like that comic above, and his nasty (NSFW) 1989 comic about Donald Trump.


 

 

The Anthrobscene

Through Stewart Brand’s work, beginning with How Buildings Learn (one of my favorite books) and his work with the Long Now Foundation, I learned to look at time differently, and technology differently, and to think about how time is cooked into everything we do today, especially as regards the ephemeral nature of all the time spent on computers and in online media.

I often refer to this diagram from Brand’s book, The Clock of the Long Now when talking about how we think about time and our world:

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So I was interested to learn of Jussi Parikka’s book The Anthrobscene. It is reviewed by Nora Khan, and explained on the Minnesota press site, its publisher:

“Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers all at one time held the promise of a more environmentally healthy world not dependent on paper and deforestation. The result of our ubiquitous digital lives is, as we see in The Anthrobscene, actually quite the opposite: not ecological health but an environmental wasteland, where media never die. Jussi Parikka critiques corporate and human desires as a geophysical force, analyzing the material side of the earth as essential for the existence of media and introducing the notion of an alternative deep time in which media live on in the layer of toxic waste we will leave behind as our geological legacy.”

— child labor and human trafficking is behind much of the labor providing the ores and minerals used in the making of our machines. The geology behind what we do is usually invisible to us, as so much is. It is important to be reminded. Time and responsibility, indeed.

Heidegger, Journalism vs. Trump, Translations

  • Journalism should stop “feeding the trolls”, as we’d say here in Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump and his flying monkeys are clearly trolls. A great strategy for this has been presented by Jay Rosen on Pressthink of how the press can execute it: report from outside the white house; don’t broadcast live events in order to protect your audience from lies; don’t amplify or repeat lies. Send interns, not top reporters, into press conferences.
  • I’ve been rereading The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger.  Technology’s essence is not technological: it is a way of looking at the world as if everything is “standing reserve”.Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. A tree is not a tree, it is subordinate to the orderability of cellulose; Humanity is reduced to what is calculable, manipulable, employable. Nature most of all. Viz:

    The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.

    Heidegger’s Black Notebooks were also translated into English a couple years ago, and I will probably never read them, as I’ve left off reading much Heidegger in the past couple decades. Have you read them? Here’s a primer in The New Yorker: Why does it matter if Heidegger was Anti-Semitic? Heidegger was a Nazi. This is especially relevant in the context of technology and the human, for obvious reasons.

  • I was shocked to learn how few books in translation Americans read. If you want to find some good reads, a good place to start is the long list from the National Translation Awards. I’ve got my eye on August, and already have a copy of Dandelions.