Random finds (2017, week 20) — On the decline of innovation (or not), accelerationism, and the useless class of the post-work world

‘deFlat’ in Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer is the 2017 winner of the EU Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

The decline of innovation (or not)

America has become so anti-innovation — it’s economic suicide, argues Ben Tarnoff, a San Francisco-based technology writer, in The Guardian.

You have probably heard of Juicero, a Silicon Valley-based start-up that sells a $400 juicer. “Here’s how it works,” Tarnoff writes, “you plug in a pre-sold packet of diced fruits and vegetables, and the machine transforms it into juice. But it turns out you don’t actually need the machine to make the juice. On 19 April, Bloomberg News reported that you can squeeze the packets by hand and get the same result. It’s even faster. The internet erupted in laughter. Juicero made the perfect punchline: a celebrated start-up that had received a fawning profile from the New York Times and $120m in funding from blue-chip VCs such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Google Ventures was selling an expensive way to automate something you could do faster for free. It was, in any meaningful sense of the word, a scam.”

“While risible, the Juicero fiasco is a perfect example of some of the most, er, pressing problems with the venture-capital way of thinking. These should be of concern to anyone who hopes that Silicon Valley will be the place to produce the solutions to future problems.” — Christine Emba in Juicero shows what’s wrong with Silicon Valley thinking

According to Tarnoff, Juicero isn’t an anomaly but one of the many examples of how profoundly anti-innovation America has become. “At the root of this problem is the story we tell ourselves about innovation,” he says. “Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurs typically make terrible innovators. Left to its own devices, the private sector is far more likely to impede technological progress than to advance it.” Real innovation is very expensive to produce. It involves pouring extravagant sums of money into projects that may fail, or at the very least may never yield a commercially viable product. In involves an awful lot of risk, which is actually something, mythmaking aside, capitalist firms have little appetite for.

Juicero tickled social media’s insatiable schadenfreude for rich people getting swindled — but it shed light on a bigger problem. (Photograph: Company handout)

So where does the money come from?, Tarnoff wonders.

“The government. As the economist Mariana Mazzucato has shown, nearly every major innovation since World War II has required a massive push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t.”

But, as a share of the economy, the funding for research has been falling for decades. Ironically, this has been sold as a measure to stimulate innovation, by unleashing the dynamism of the private sector, Tarnoff writes. But “VCs are anti-innovation by design. They want a big payday on a short timetable, typically looking for start-ups headed for an exit […] within three to five years. This isn’t a recipe for nurturing actual breakthroughs, which require more patient financing over a longer timeframe. But it’s a good formula for producing nonsense like the Juicero, or overvalued companies that serve as lucrative vehicles for financial speculation.”

But if not from VC’s, what about corporations?

“It’s not like they don’t have the money — monopoly profits and tax evasion have enabled Apple to amass a cash pile of a quarter of a trillion dollars. But the conquest of corporate America by the financial sector ensures that cash won’t be put to productive purposes. Wall Street is more interested in extracting wealth than creating it. It would rather companies cannibalize themselves by shoveling out profits to their shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and dividends than let them invest in their capacity for growth.”

As a result, we will not only see fewer innovations, but also a substantially weaker growth. Capitalism prides itself on allocating resources well, says Tarnoff. But increasingly, that’s no longer the case. “In its infinite wisdom, capitalism is eating itself alive. A saner system would recognize that innovation is too precious to leave to the private sector and that capitalism, like all utopian projects, works better in theory than in practice.”

For many of us, Steve Jobs is the quintessential ‘innovator entrepreneur’ — the lone genius who disappears into a garage, preferably in Palo Alto, and emerges with an invention that changes the world.

In Silicon Valley: A Reality Check, Scott Alexander takes a different stance. He believes there is much more going on in Silicon Valley than people making ridiculously overpriced juicers. The unique thing about Silicon Valley is that it’s got anything else.

“If a deeply good person crusading for a better world enters Silicon Valley, she’ll find herself surrounded by deeply good people crusading for a better world. She’ll see mobile apps that track tropical diseases, clean energy startups that fight global warming by directly sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, companies bringing microbanking to poor Nepalese villagers, and boutique pharmaceutical labs searching for cures for orphan diseases.

If a futurist enters Silicon Valley, she’ll find herself surrounded by futurists. She’ll see neural nets and deep learning, reusable rockets and flying cars, high-throughput genome sequencing and CRISPR, metamaterials and nanotechnology.

If a social-media-obsessed narcissist whose view of the world begins and ends with his own Instagram page enters Silicon Valley, he’ll find himself surrounded by social-media-obsessed narcissists whose view of the world begins and ends with their Instagram pages. He’ll see a bunch of streaming video services and Uber-for-hair-products apps and elite pay-to-play dating scams and people trying to disrupt the gymwear market.

And if one of those people who talks about ‘the cloud’ all the time enters Silicon Valley, he’ll find himself surrounded by people who talk about ‘the cloud’ all the time. I have no idea who these people are or what they’re doing, but they all seem really happy with each other and I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves.

They’ll all have their blind-men-and-elephant view of what kinds of things Silicon Valley ‘does.’ And they’ll all be sort of right.”

Designers obsess over “revolutionizing” products, but not everything has to be reinvented, writes Ian Bogost in Who Needs Convertible Slippers?

Alexander has a valid point. Silicon Valley is, of course, more than needless juicers and convertible slippers. Still, it’s easy to get the impression that the goal of many startup founders is “to provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do,” as Allison Arieff wrote in Solving All the Wrong Problems. Not to mention Elon Musk’s plans for saving humanity’s 0.014 and a bit percent, Silicon Valley’s obsession with flying cars (and also here), or its quest for immortality.

A Stoic’s view on this quest comes from professor of philosophy Massimo Pigliucci. In his recent book How to be a Stoic, he writes, after explaining Epictetus’ views on death and mortality, that some people aren’t persuaded at all by idea that “death itself is what gives urgent meaning to life.” Pigliucci writes:

“On the contrary, a number of techno-optimist think that death is a disease that should be cured, and they are investing good money in the effort. Broadly speaking, they call themselves ‘Transhumanists,’ and quite a few of them can be found among the white male millionaires of Silicon Valley, where many of the world’s most influential tech companies are located. Perhaps the most famous and influential of the bunch is Ray Kurzweil, a futurist (someone who thinks he can study and predict the future) currently working at Google to develop a software capabel of understanding natural language.

[…] Age sixty-eight at the time of this writing, he has been arguing for some time that the way to immortality will be to upload our consciousness into a computer, which he claims will be possible any day now. Indeed, we better manage that feat before the so-called Singularity, a term invented by the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam to describe the moment when computers outsmart people and begin to drive technological progress independently — and perhaps even in spite — of humanity itself.

This is not the place to explain why I think the whole idea of a Singularity is predicted on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence, or why ‘uploading’ our consciousness to a computer is extremely unlikely to be ever possible, since consciousness is neither a thing nor a piece of software. Here I’m more interested in the chutzpah displayed by people like Kurzweil as well as his almost cultlike following, who think themselves as so important that they ought to, godlike, transcend the laws of nature itself, never mind the fact that they are spending inordinate amounts of money and energy that could be directed toward ameliorating actual, urgent problems the world faces right now, or the disastrous ethical environmental consequences of their success (if it were possible). Who exactly, would have access to the new technology, and at what price? If we succeed in becoming physically immortal — the alternative to uploading hoped to some Transhumanists — will we keep having children? If so, how would an already diseased planet sustain the thirst for natural resources of a population that grows so relentlessly and manage its ever-escalating production of waste products? Ah, but we will expand beyond Earth! We shall colonize other worlds! Never mind that we still don’t know of any other inhabitable worlds in the galaxy, or that we have no clue about how to get to them, if they’re out there. The more I think about Transhumanism the more the word hubris, famously invented by the Greeks precisely for such a thing, seems awfully appropriate.

The likes of Kurzweil simply don’t want to leave the party, it seems to me, no matter what the cost, and regardless of how priviliged they have been while attending it.”

“I must die, must I? If at once, then I am dying: if soon, I dine now, as it’s time for dinner, and afterwards when time comes I will die.” — Epictetus, Discourses (Illustration: Jasu Hu for The New Yorker)

Back to Juicero …

In Juicero shows what’s wrong with Silicon Valley thinking, Christine Emba writes, “The first issue is the mind-set that produces a product such as the Juicero, a bias for always favoring the next new thing. Tech critic Evgeny Morozov uses the phrase ‘technological solutionism’ to describe the tendency to identify overly-simple answers before questions have been asked or problems fully articulated. Silicon Valley’s start-up scene increasingly seems to thrive on ‘optimizing’ and ‘disrupting’ things that actually don’t need any help at all.”

To Emba, Juicero’s response to the ‘hand-squeezing debacle’ sheds light on an even bigger problem endemic to the whole Silicon Valley mind-set. The statement made by its CEO is “a prime example of solipsism masquerading as benevolence, and a self-regard that makes it easy for those who think they have all the answers to avoid discussing actual problems and useful solutions,” she writes. “Rather than admitting what the Juicero actually is — an entirely unnecessary device targeted at the tiny segment of the population who, for some reason, need expensive juice gadgets that they can control with their cell phones — [Juicero CEO Jeff] Dunn claimed that his life’s work was in solving our nation’s nutrition and obesity challenges.

But “if Juicero really cared about solving issues of nutrition and obesity, or even helping stressed parents and overworked laborers, it might have used the $120 million dollars it received in funding to develop a product that did more than cater to one tiny market segment’s self-centered view of what the problem of nutrition looks like and the best way to solve it. It might be less glamorous and might not involve QR codes and WiFi, but it might also make a difference to those who live outside the affluent Silicon Valley bubble.”

“By pretending that a comically superfluous in-home juice press will Save the Nation from poor nutrition, [Juicero] is trivializing the real work that doing so would take. It’s the sort of self-congratulation that allows well-funded tech companies to signal that they care, distract from real problem-solving and absolve themselves of responsibility while doing nothing at all.” — Christine Emba in Juicero shows what’s wrong with Silicon Valley thinking

As Tarnoff argued in his article for The Guardian, innovation is too precious to leave to the private sector. “The advances that created what we’ve come to call tech — the development of digital computing, the invention of the internet, the formation of Silicon Valley itself — were the result of sustained and substantial government investment.”

But with governments dramatically cutting their research budgets — either due to austerity politics, or an unrelenting belief in the free market — and a private sector that is growing ever more bloated and predatory, the economy becomes a mechanism for making the rich richer, and the money that might be used to finance the next internet is spent on sports cars and superyachts. “Wealth has been redistributed upwards, where it piles up wastefully, while the mass of the people who created it continue their downward slide,” says Tarnoff. And therein lies not only Silicon Valley’s but innovation’s problem, and challenge, in general.

Accelerationism

Although the world is changing at dizzying speed, for some, things still don’t change fast enough. In Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in, Andy Beckett, a feature writer for The Guardian, wonders if ‘accelerationism’ is a dangerous idea. Or does it speak to our troubled times?

“Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified — either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative. Accelerationists favour automation. They favour the further merging of the digital and the human. They often favour the deregulation of business, and drastically scaled-back government. They believe that people should stop deluding themselves that economic and technological progress can be controlled. They often believe that social and political upheaval has a value in itself.

[…]

‘We all live in an operating system set up by the accelerating triad of war, capitalism and emergent AI,’ says Steve Goodman, a British accelerationist who has even smuggled its self-consciously dramatic ideas into dance music, via an acclaimed record label, Hyperdub. ‘Like it or not,’ argues Steven Shaviro, an American observer of accelerationism, in his 2015 book on the movement, No Speed Limit, ‘we are all accelerationists now.’”

Illustration above and below by Bratislav Milenkovic for The Guardian.

“In our politically febrile times,” Beckett writes, “the impatient, intemperate, possibly revolutionary ideas of accelerationism feel relevant, or at least intriguing, as never before. [Benjamin] Noys says: ‘Accelerationists always seem to have an answer. If capitalism is going fast, they say it needs to go faster. If capitalism hits a bump in the road, and slows down’ — as it has since the 2008 financial crisis — ‘they say it needs to be kickstarted.’ The disruptive US election campaign and manic presidency of Donald Trump, and his ultra-capitalist, anti-government policies, have been seen by an increasing number of observers — some alarmed, some delighted — as the first mainstream manifestation of an accelerationist politics. In recent years, Noys has noticed accelerationist ideas ‘resonating’ and being ‘circulated’ everywhere from pro-technology parts of the British left to wealthy libertarian and far-right circles in America. On alt-right blogs, Land in particular has become a name to conjure with. Commenters have excitedly noted the connections between some of his ideas and the thinking of both the libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and Trump’s iconoclastic strategist Steve Bannon.”

“‘In Silicon Valley,’ says Fred Turner, a leading historian of America’s digital industries, ‘accelerationism is part of a whole movement which is saying, we don’t need [conventional] politics any more, we can get rid of left and right, if we just get technology right. Accelerationism also fits with how electronic devices are marketed — the promise that, finally, they will help us leave the material world, all the mess of the physical, far behind.’

To Turner, the appeal of accelerationism is as much ancient as modern: ‘They are speaking in a millenarian idiom,’ promising that a vague, universal change is close at hand. Noys warns that the accelerationists are trying to ‘claim the future.’”

And this …

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades, writes Yuval Noah Harari in The meaning of life in a world without work. According to the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, the crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge — the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

“But the same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?”

Harari believes one answer might be computer games.

“If you have at home a teenage son who likes computer games, you can conduct your own experiment. Provide him with a minimum subsidy of Coke and pizza, and then remove all demands for work and all parental supervision. The likely outcome is that he will remain in his room for days, glued to the screen. He won’t do any homework or housework, will skip school, skip meals and even skip showers and sleep. Yet he is unlikely to suffer from boredom or a sense of purposelessness. At least not in the short term.”

Hence virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world.

Yuval Noah Harari.

According to Harrari, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, simply because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. “Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working. […]

But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.”


Dutch studios NL Architects and XVW Architectuur have won this year’s EU Mies van de Rohe Award for their innovative renovation of a dilapidated 1960s apartment block. deFlat, as it is now called, was originally designed by Dutch architect Fop Ottenhof as part of Siegfried Nassuth’s masterplan for the Bijlmermeer. Built in vacant farmland just outside Amsterdam, the Bijlmermeer was an ambitious social housing experiment, aiming to provide modern accommodation for people from deteriorating neighbourhoods in the city. Like most post-war housing, also Nassuth’s masterplan used level changes to separate pedestrians from cars, with different elevated walkways and roads suited to slow and fast-moving traffic.

Ottenhof’s design — it is the only apartment block that has maintained its original qualities — was inspired by the ideas of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). CIAM was set up in the 1920s by eminent European architects, including Le Corbusier, to solve the social problems through architecture.

The Bijlmermeer’s original masterplan by Siegfried Nassuth.

The do-it-yourself concept behind the project saw the architects refurbish structural and communal areas, but left the inhabitants to oversee the fit-out of 500 individual apartments. “The future residents could buy the shell for an extremely low price and then renovate it entirely according to their own wishes: DIY. Owning an ideal home suddenly came within reach,” said the architects.

Above and below: The Kleiburgflat, or ‘deFlat’ as it is now called, was originally designed as part of a masterplan for the Bijlmermeer — an ambitious social housing experiment built in vacant farmland south-east of Amsterdam.

Similar renovations of post-war housing estates include Sheffield’s brutalist Park Hill housing estate. Recently also British studio OMMX has teamed up with house-builder Naked House to develop an affordable housing model for London that taps into the DIY spirit of Londoners.

Above and below: The overhaul of the brutalist Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield, built between 1957 and 1961, was nominated for the 2013 Stirling Prize.

“I have nothing against technology in and of itself and I have nothing against A.I. in and of itself. What I do have a problem with is the uncritical stampede into that world without any thought about unintended consequence. With technology, there’s always something just around the corner — right now it’s deep learning — that will solve everything. And then we will have a machine that can watch over us in its wisdom and make choices for us so we don’t have to think anymore. And that is a problem.” — Christian Madsbjerg on the under-appreciated role of humanities in business