Startups Behaving Badly: Why the Technolgical Cutting Edge is Inhabited by Jerks

Some stories have come out recently about the new cab company Uber, suggesting that it might be run by scumbags. It has been objectifying its female drivers, blaming passengers for assaults, harassing critical journalists, and generally operating according to a business philosophy that would be best described as Machiavellian. This has resulted in people making a bit of a song and dance about deleting the company’s app.  Of course, this thing seems pretty par for the course for tech startups by now. Consider Spotify, which has recently received some criticism from Taylor Smith, and others who allege that the royalties it pays its artists are far too low. Spotify Ceo Daniel Elk issued an unconvincing retort in which he essentially argued that artists shouldn’t complain because they receive more royalties from Spotify than they do from piracy. This kind of stuff is all over the tech sector. From Facebook’s creepy ways of generating revenue, to Amazon’s brutal abuse of its workers, anybody who follows the tech sector knows that this has become normal. This isn’t new, either. Britain’s railway system-a technological marvel at the time it was built-was largely constructed by gangs of “navvies“, who moved heroic amounts of dirt every day on muscle power alone, but were very little and exploited with company stores. In the high-tech world, nice guys finish last.

Uber’s horribly sexist French promotion, “Avions de Chasse”. This kind of scumminess seems pretty normal in tech startups. Image from Buzzfeed.


There are a few exceptions to this rule. I’m enough of an optimist to think that Elon Musk might qualify, and if you want to look a bit further back in history, then maybe so does Henry Ford’s $5 wage, although that’s probably mitigated by Ford’s rampant antisemitism. In general, however, it seems as though he fast-moving world of technological change does not wait for people’s scruples. The people with the fewest moral qualms are going to rise to the top, and, crucially, they get to be the ones who define the future shape of a new technology. Today, the technological future is being shaped by people like Mark Zuckerberg and companies such as Uber. That’s bad news for the rest of us.

But does this have to be the case? Obviously the people most willing to take big risks to change an industry in pursuit of profit are more likely to be bad actors. But there are more motivations to change the world than just profit. There have, in fact, been some big positive changes brought about by what you might call entrepreneur activists: The cooperative movement is one, as is the remarkable recent rise in the consumption of organic food, and some car sharing businesses. If you look closely at these things, they often don’t come off as very high-tech. Sure, there are technological innovations involved, but innovations such as organic agriculture or cooperative ownerhship are more likely to take advantage of technological countercurrents than to be on the cutting edge of new technology. That’s not always a bad thing, of course, especially if the cutting edge is unsustainable. But maybe ethical entrepreneurs are missing out on a big opportunity to change the world.

Imagine, for example, if an alternative to Uber was created, but rather than being run by a ruthless San Francisco Startup, it was created by taxi drivers themselves, as a cooperative enterprise that would allow them to bypass the middlemen, to the benefit of both them and the customer. Or what if workers’ co-ops took a gamble on introducing some new automation technologies? If the experiment went well, they could potentially cut their own costs, attract more customers, earn more profit for their members, and draw earnings away from the less ethical mainstream businesses to boot.

I suspect that the reason we haven’t seen this happening has something to do with the kind of culture that has informed these startups. These kinds of activists are a diverse bunch, of course, but left-wing cultures, but are more likely to be technophobic than technophilic. Labour unions have a vested interest in securing employment for their members, which gives them an uneasy relationship with labour saving technologies. And environmentalists come from a tradition that is deeply suspicious of technology and technocracy, and prefers to aim for simpler lives more connected to the earth. There is the recent development of left-wing hacktivism, in the style of Anonymous, but it’s a marginal movement that often attacked by other left-wing activists and critics.

Indeed, when a new and as yet undefined technology appears on the horizon, the most common reaction in the left-wing press is suspicion. Bloggers and newspaper columnists will worry about what this will mean for labour, the environment, for marginalized communities, and for a whole other range of causes. The question that is always asked is “is this new technology good or bad”, and the articles tend to suggest the latter. Bitcoin is an excellent example of this dynamic: Some initial excitement over the potential for a currency beyond the control of the banks quickly gave way to paranoia over the currency’s libertarian origins. Rather than imagine how cryptocurrency could be used for social objectives while curbing its potential misuses, activists simply settled on demonising it.

The problem with this is that, with a few very obvious exceptions, technologies are neither inherently good nor bad. Technologies are inert until people step in to define them. Internet-powered taxi services and social media are taking a nasty turn because we have allowed them to be defined and developed by nasty people. The alternative is obvious: Well-meaning people need to step in and seize the initiative. Every time a new technology emerges on the horizon, we should not be asking “is this good or not?”, but “how can we shape this to make it good?” And then we should get to work shaping it. This will require some rethinking of activist cultures. But it’s worth it. Because what’s at stake is not just the technological relevance of activist movements, but also control of technologies that, one way or another, will define the future.


Net Neutrality, Monopolies, and Innovation: Deciphering Ted Cruz

US Senator Ted Cruz posted a baffling tweet last week:

The media response to this tweet was mostly confusion. The Oatmeal drew a cartoon attempting to explain net neutrality to Cruz in The Onion’s usual bombastic style, and a bunch of other blogs have reacted with either confusion or dismay. The underlying theme of many of these seems to be, “what the hell does that even mean?” Columnists often seem to interpret Cruz’s comments as completely detached from reality, either due to ignorance or cynicism.

Is this true? Or is Cruz making an actual argument, even a bad one, with this tweet? At first glance, it certainly seems to be the former. Obamacare and net neutrality, superficially, have very little in common. Obamacare concerns a service delivery industry essential for the survival and quality of life of millions of people, while net neutrality one concerns an infrastructural system that is essential for a handful of important things and a lot more unimportant things, such as cat videos. Obamacare imposes controls to ensure that everybody has access to health care, while net neutrality imposes controls to make sure that internet providers can’t privilege their own content on the internet. Perhaps the thing that unites them the most is as cartoonist Matt Bors pointed out, that they are both good things.

But for all the silliness of his comment, I don’t think Cruz was just spouting random Republican gibberish. His social media staff are probably too well-paid for that. In order to understand what the comparison actually meant, you need to look at some other Republican talking points to see how it fits into general American right-wing narratives. Republican discussion of Obamacare is a good place to start. Consider this Wall Street Journal article about Obamacare:

“Of the many unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act, perhaps the least noticed is its threat to innovation. Although most discussions center on the law’s more immediate effects on hiring, insurance rates and access to doctors and care, attention should also be paid to its impact on U.S. research and development and health-care technology. “

I’m not going to address that article in detail, because I don’t know very much about health care innovation. If you do, I’m sure you can pick the article apart. But when you consider that basic understanding about innovation being vulnerable to government interference and apply it to the issue of net neutrality, the parallel between the two in Republican discourse instantly becomes clear. Here’s a statement on net neutrality by Republican Speaker John Boehner:

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the Obama administration continues to disregard the people’s will and push for more mandates on our economy.   An open, vibrant Internet is essential to a growing economy, and net neutrality is a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Now we can see what Ted Cruz was actually getting at. To him and other Republicans, Obamacare and net neutrality are similar because they are both liberal-supported government interventions into a business sector that thrives on innovation. What Boehner was saying with his tweet, then, was that just as Obamacare will hurt the health care industry’s ability to innovate, so will net neutrality hurt the telecommunications industry’s ability to innovate.

So then the question becomes: Is this actually true? Will government enforcement of net neutrality harm the telecoms’ ability to innovate? The evidence suggests it’s pretty unlikely.

The problem with Cruz’s view can be summed up in just three words: Monopolies don’t innovate.

This is obvious when you give the matter any thought. Why would a monopoly innovate? Innovation is expensive. It requires research and development labs, uncertain pilot projects, legal wrangling, labour negotiations, and all kinds of difficult and expensive stuff. There is a slight incentive for monopolies to innovate on the supply side to keep their own costs down, of course, but if you want them to work on innovations that could benefit the consumer, then you’ll have to appeal to the goodness of their heart. I’ll leave it up to you whether that’s a viable strategy.

And of course internet service providers, like any other provider of infrastructure, are monopolies. In order for ISPs to compete in any meaningful way, there would have to be duplicate internet infrastructure connected to most houses. Maybe one day that will be possible with wireless internet, but as things currently stand, ISP competition would require a lot more dug-up streets and front lawns in order to lay completely superfluous cables. With the exception of completely new transmission technologies such as Google Fiber, it simply makes no sense to do that.

So if monopolies don’t innovate and ISPs are monopolies, then any first-year philosophy student can deduce that ISPs don’t innovate. And, for the most part, that is true. That’s why we need to have regulations, to make sure that ISPs and other natural monopolies still act in the best interests of their customers, including by innovating. In fact, net neutrality is completely essential for innovation of a different sort. Many of the most exciting innovations we have seen in the past ten years have been introduced by websites. Netflix, for example, has completely changed the way many people watch TV and movies. But, as we have already seen, the Internet Service Providers, who also frequently happen to own cable companies, have been hostile to Netflix; charging it additional fees for access to the network and even throttling its service to get it to pay more. Infrastructureal monopolies are not only reluctant to innovate themselves; they are also both willing and able to block any other innovation that disrupts their business model.

This is all pretty obvious stuff, and I’m not the first person to make these points. But there are a few broader takeaway messages. Firstly: Don’t be blinded by the word “innovation”. The word has lost a lot of meaning lately, and is just as likely to describe new methods of price-gouging or labour exploitation as is is to describe a better mouse trap. Secondly, it’s important to go beyond mere mockery when somebody like Ted Cruz says something like ridiculous like “net neutrality is obamacare for the internet”. There are often hidden dog-whistle messages in statements like that which need to be answered. And finally, this is just further evidence of why we should be working towards a public internet: It would mean the end of lobbyists paying people like Cruz to say things like “Net neutrality is obamacare for the internet”. Maybe net neutrality, like Obamacare, doesn’t go far enough. Maybe in both cases we need a public option.

Of Giraffes and Trade Deals: Why the TTIP might be bad for innovation

If you get excited about the politics of regulation and international trade (and who doesn’t?!), then you’ve probably heard by now about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, also known as TTIP; a trade deal being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. The general consensus about TTIP, which I am inclined to agree with, is that it is a Bad Thing, due to the fact that it would weaken labour and environmental protections, expand internet surveillance, and impose a little clause called Investor State Dispute Resolution which would allow foreign private companies to sue governments for lost profits due to regulation.

I’m going to write here about the effect of this treaty and others like it on technological innovation and transitions. A few have already looked on how these kind of beyond-the-border regulatory harmonisation treaties empower patent trolls, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead, I’m going to look at one of the central justifications for the treaty, namely the idea that regulatory harmonisation will create jobs and prosperity. I went to a panel discussion about the TTIP last week, where the treaty’s one supporter; argued that differences in standards and regulations between countries cost money, and that a lot more money could be made if companies didn’t need to devote resources to meeting these mismatched regulations when selling worldwide. That sounds like a pretty common-sense argument, and even if you dislike the TTIP more generally, you might agree that that is a silver lining (Although the math suggests it’s a pretty small one). I want to argue that even if regulatory harmonisation does save money, it could still be a bad thing.

But before I do so, I need to address how we think about technological progress, using a biological analogy. Technological development is often imagined as an evolutionary process, roughly analogous to the biological evolution of organisms. But in at least some popular and political discourse, this is based on a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinian model of evolution. These diagrams describe the difference between the two:

Darwinian vs. Lamarckian evolution: According to Lamarck, the giraffes strive to grow taller. According to Darwin, the shorter ones simply starve to death.

According to Lamackian evolution, creatures grow stronger, faster, smarter, and generally better through intentional striving. The classic example is that giraffes started with short necks, but by reaching to get higher and higher leaves, they forced blood into their necks, causing them to grow longer. These gains were passed on to the next generation, which grew in turn until giraffes became the long-necked creatures we know today.The popular model of technological development is quite similar: The willful exertion of engineers’ and entrepreneurs’ energies supposedly leads to products getting better over time, while new and superior products are developed.

Today, however, we know that evolution is a more complicated process. The giraffes’ necks got longer because the short-necked giraffes can’t reach their food, and therefore starve. It gets more complicated than that, however. In most species, the gene pool is too big to allow even a beneficial mutation to survive very long-it will simply be diluted. Furthermore, the fossil record does not usually show slow, gradual changes-species seem to evolve in short, rapid bursts. So biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed punctuated equilibrium. The gist of the idea is that occasionally, a small population of a species gets separated and isolated in a new environment, where the small gene pool allows rapid adaptation. In the case of the giraffe, then, giraffes evolved when a handful of short-necked giraffe-like ancestor species got lost in a place with a lot of tall trees, and had to adapt quickly.

When you look closely at it, techological evolution is much more like Darwininan evolution than Lamarckian evolution. It’s full of false starts, while supposedly antiquated technologies fight to compete with new ones new ones. We can even speak to some extent about a technological ‘gene pool’: New technological ideas have to survive in a larger market full of established players who may resist new ideas, even if they have major advantages over the status quo.

And so the natural conclusion is that, just like in biology, technologies rely not just on variability in the gene pool (created by engineers and entrepreneurs working on diverse ideas), but also variation in selection environments, to be a driver of change. So where does variation in technological selection environments come from? There are a few places. The basic physical environment is one; it’s unlikely that Mexican engineers would have developed the snowmobile, for example. Another one is culture. It’s been argued, for example, that Scottish Presbyterian values might have had an impact on that country’s shipbuilding industry in the 19th century. We could list a few more. But an obvious one is regulation. If one country has different regulations from another governing technology, then its engineers will develop different innovations, while its entrepreneurs will fund different technological models. The result is greater technological diversity, which allows us more freedom in selecting the best option.

There are concrete examples of this. A great one is California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. In 1990, to deal with increasing pollution, the state required all car makers wishing to sell cars there to produce and market a certain percentage of zero emission vehicles. The mandate was changed over the years due to lobbying and a series of court cases, but it did successfully lead to the development of some electric and hybrid vehicles, and probably played at least a small role in the current promise of companies like Tesla. The TTIP, or some future beyond-the-border trade deal like it, could lead to these kinds of regulations being challenged, creating a globally homogeneous regulatory environment and therefore far less technological diversity.

Columnist Thomas Friedman has become famous in part for declaring that now, in the neoliberal era,  “The world is Flat”. The TTIP essentially follows that logic by proposing to flatten all the different regulatory frameworks that shape technology around the world. But even if you ignore all the economic, social, and environmental objections to globalisation, however, a flat world is not necessarily a good thing. Topography creates diversity in cultures, policies, and economies. And these differences can be a big generator of change. So even if you take its proponents completely at their word, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may very well still be a Bad Thing.

Regulating the Future: A few thoughts on the dark side of moon-shots.

Elon Musk is in the news again. He gave a talk at MIT recently, where he had a few words about artificial intelligence:

“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and it’s like yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out…I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish”

This isn’t the first time Musk has gone on record expressing his fears about artificial intelligence. And indeed, he isn’t alone in his concerns about the demonic technologies we might summon in the future. Stephen Hawking agrees, and some prominent AI researchers have said that his concerns are “not completely crazy.” But what is new, at least as far as I know, is Musk’s proposal for regulatory oversight. It’s also an extremely challenging and intriguing proposal. How do you regulate something that doesn’t exist yet?

This could be our future if we’re not careful with AI research, Elon Musk has warned.

There might be a good case for Musk’s proposal. If the choice is between a bit of government oversight today, and a future in which we are chased from our homes by squadrons of malicious quad-roters with the brains of malfunctioning supermarket checkout machines, then I’ll go for the oversight. But regulation, at least ideally, proceeds with some knowledge of the thing that is being regulated. Imagine trying to create a highway code with no detailed knowledge about the capabilities of cars or the people handling them. They tried exactly that in nineteenth-century Britain, and the result was the infamous Red Flag Act, which required a man to walk in front of every car carrying a red flag to warn people of its approach. Regardless of its future potential, AI currently exists only in our imagination. So it is certainly possible to go too far.

But this problem of regulating the future is going to be increasingly important during the coming century. Moonshot projects are a very big thing right now. On this blog alone I’ve covered such utopian projects as hyperloops, space mining, self-driving cars, and delivery drones. But utopian visions are always unrealistic. New technology brings upheval with it. And the upheavals we can expect if even one of the technologies I just cited becomes reality are absolutely massive. And so, it is entirely reasonable to want some kind of oversight to deal with the potentially very nasty consequences of these innovations.

As soon as you start thinking through the practicalities of such regulation, however, you run into dozens of unanswered questions. How do you make sound predictions about future technologies to base your regulations on? How do you get research and development labs, many of which are small and mobile, to abide by your regulations rather than just packing up and moving to another country? How do you strike the balance between the permissiveness necessary to allow radical technological change, and the cautiousness necessary to make it safe? How do you even define the technology in question? What, exactly, counts, as AI? And so on.

I have a somewhat radical proposal here: Let’s get the public sector involved in moonshot developments. That means government-funded research into the (peaceful) development of things like space commercialisation, AI, virtual reality, and self-driving cars. This could be done directly through a government research body, such as the Canadian National Research Council, or though funding given out to private companies.

There are a few reasons why I think that this is a good idea. Firstly, there is a strong precedent for it. Contrary to popular belief, governments have virtually always been involved in innovation. Think of all the new technologies that came out of the space program, or the two world wars. And think of all the cutting-edge technology that comes out of universities. There is a good reason for us to want our governments to be ambitious and entrepreneurial, and work on new technology for the public good, rather than just for private profit. Secondly, by giving governments a stake in the actual development of moonshot technologies, rather than merely regulating them, we give them an incentive to not hamper them too much with regulations. Thirdly, this gets over the problem of jurisdiction. If we offer funding and assistance to firms working on radical new technologies, rather than merely rules, then we give them less incentive to pack up and move to a foreign country if they don’t like the regulations we hand down to them. Lastly, this places these questions in the political realm, which explicitly invites the public to comment on the competing visions of the future-both utopian and dystopian-that are involved in various moonshot projects. We still won’t know exactly what to expect from things like AI or space commercialisation, but we can debate more honestly about the possibilities if the debate takes place in the political, rather than the commercial, realm. Assessing competing visions of the future is what politics is fundamentally meant to do.

More fundamentally, however, this asks the question of who really has the right to decide which risks, and which benefits, we pursue with things like AI. Why should this be left entirely up to the private sector? If we are headed into a future in which artificial intelligence makes all our lives easier, with the slight risk of us winding up in a Terminator movie, then shouldn’t we have some kind of democratic say in that? When we’re dealing with technologies with the potential to permanently change the human condition, we should really ask whether a few boards of directors should get to call the shots. Especially when, as Musk has pointed out, not all science fiction futures are necessarily very desirable. Let’s all fight for a say on which demons we choose to summon.