I Am Annoyed

When people ask me what this column’s theme is, my usual response is, tongue-in-cheek, “Whatever has annoyed me about the tech industry during the last week.” This is not always true. Often I celebrate things! But this week, my friends, this week is different; this week so much has annoyed me about the industry that I scarcely know where to begin.

I guess with Uber. It’s the obvious starting point, thanks to Susan Fowler’s scathing, brilliantly written memoir of her year there, during which sexist insult was piled upon misogynist injury ad nauseum. Travis Kalanick responded that what she described was “abhorrent,” and hired a former Attorney General of the United States to investigate — but Travis, were you really so surprised? Because nobody else was. This was hardly Uber’s first strike, or even its first strikeout, in ethical at-bats. It seems very strange that such a toxic culture could grow and fester without the CEO noticing until now.

At the same time, I am annoyed at the rest of the tech industry for being extremely eager to call out Uber for the log in its eye, while, in many cases, studiously ignoring the large stick in their own. Uber is merely the canary in the coal mine of toxic tech culture. I am sorry to report that there are asshole brogrammers everywhere. But I am heartened by Fowler’s memoir, the way it went viral, her support from the fine folks at her new employers Stripe, and especially her “this shit is completely ridiculous, as my readers will agree” tone. Let’s hope she’s right.

edit: the above was written before I read the below, which, if revealed as anything other than a misunderstanding, will cause me to move from “annoyed” to “incandescent” at mach speed:

I suppose one way Kalanick could have not known what he had wrought is by completely ignoring and/or erasing any criticism, which is another of the tech industry’s flaws. It’s true that we are often attacked unjustly! But that doesn’t mean you just turn a deaf ear to complaints. Alas, this is a lesson unlearned by Y Combinator and especially its Hacker News, which serves as an excellent source of interesting articles, a hit-and-miss source of sharp commentary on those articles, and brogrammer central. It also, to its shame, has a nasty habit of outright banning critics and criticism, even from such luminaries as Maciej Ceglowski (a YC critic who won a public vote to be accepted to Y Combinator, only to have them change the rules so he wouldn’t be accepted) and David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails. This isn’t abuse; this is thoughtful criticism, and deserves to be heard. For shame.

I am annoyed by the latest spate of not-so-deep thinking about automation. It’s true that comparisons to the Industrial Revolution are not actually comforting, when it comes to jobs; but it’s also true that such comparisons are incredibly misleading, because they assume that change and today’s all happen linearly, at a constant pace, whereas today’s change is nonlinear. (Exponential, in fact, until Moore’s Law finally dies.) We just went from critics pooh-poohing the iPhone as an overpriced toy to billions of lives worldwide transformed by smartphones in ten years, as of this July. Do you think widespread AI-driven automation is going to happen much slower than that? Do you really? Why? You may have a case. I don’t rule it out. But so do the people who think it will happen as fast if not faster. And:

…with such talk comes the discussion of a universal basic income, and the infuriating claims that such a thing would rob poor people of the dignity and purpose they get from work. First, every basic income proposal I’ve seen has been subsistence-level basic income; people would still have to work to get anything better than a thin shared roof over their heads and three cheap meals a day. The naked contempt for most of humanity by people who think most people won’t strive for anything better than that is breathtaking. Second, it’s funny how it’s always venture capitalists, CEOs, prominent journalists, etc., talking about the fundamental dignity and meaning that work provides. Weird how dishwashers, truck drivers, hotel housekeepers, slaughterhouse workers, etc., never seem to say it. It’s almost as if there are some kinds of work that degrade human dignity, rather than provide it; work that the puffed-up pontificating classes are fortunate enough to never even witness, much less try.

Speaking of degrading human dignity, let’s talk about 4chan, and that inexplicably viral piece calling them “the skeleton key to the rise of Trump.” That, and the profusion of associated “Cambridge Analytics mind-controlled the American electorate with Facebook data and deep learning!” nonsense. Come on, people. Can you learn a whole lot about someone from what they do on Facebook? You sure can. But can you use that information to actually coerce them to vote a certain way? Not (yet) in meaningful numbers. As for 4chan, please, look at the exit polls. 4chan millennials did not make Donald Trump president. Look at the exit polls. Hillary Clinton won a huge victory among voters under 45. Look not to online trolls and big data for blame, dear Horatio, but to baby boomers and white people, and especially to the union of those two sets.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving Facebook a pass. Neither is Mark Zuckerberg, judging from his remarkable 6,000-word backpedalling post-election post that dropped earlier this week. It’s good that he seems to be willing to consider the possibility that “making the world more open and connected” is not always an unalloyed good; along with its undoubted benefits, it clearly causes sociopolitical polarization and filter bubbles so extreme that they promulgate entire alternate realities. It’s good that he’s focusing his (and presumably Facebook’s) attention on more meaningful communities.

But at the same time, as Aral Balkan points out, Facebook doesn’t actually connect people to each other; it connects them all to Facebook. Not at all the same thing. And there seems little doubt that Facebook’s hunger for ever more pageviews, and ever more time-on-site, is only accelerating its filter bubbles and polarization. I suppose Zuckerberg can ignore that problem just as Travis Kalanick could ignore his company’s toxic culture; because it’s much easier to do so than to recognize and wrestle with them. Until, that is, they explode.