On Entrepreneurs and Activists

If there’s one core message that I have wanted to convey in this blog, it is that. Not just in the sense that there is politics that takes place over technology, but also in the sense that technology is a way to do politics.
Let’s take an example from the news recently: Elon Musk has promised that Tesla will market partially autonomous vehicles in the United States as early as this summer. This is  major political moment in addition to being a technological one. As this article  points out, Musk’s plan opens up a lot of legal questions. There will be court cases about the political struggles over the legality of self-driving cars. The same thing happened during the early history of electricity: Proponents of alternating and direct current went to extraordinary measures to get support for their own system, even to the point of pushing the electric chair as a method of execution.

There will be the huge questions about labour Uber has already made substantive plans to introduce self-driving cars into its service. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and other people who are threatened by this, will also be watching this, for obvious reason, and will probably find themselves in some kind of legal or political struggle with Tesla and Uber before too long. There will be studies and counter-studies, and the question of whether or not Tesla’s cars are legal will become a referendum on the career prospects of everybody who drives a car for a living.

The account I just gave isn’t very novel. There are others who have thought of all this before me. But it focuses too much on the single question of whether or not we should have self-driving vehicles? There’s no discussion of exactly what form the self-driving vehicles might take. That, it is assumed, is the business of engineers and other people working in large and impenetrable technology companies, who are ultimately accountable to capital. If you make this assumption, then it seems pretty obvious that self-driving cars will take a form, and be implemented in a way, that is most useful for private capital intersts, and most destructive for workers.

What if, however, this was not the case? What if activists had just as much involvement in the development of technology as capitalists did, and could influence the actual form of new technologies to be more conducive to social, economic, and environmental justice? It would certainly change the discussion around self-driving cars. Rather than simply making it a yes-or-no debate, we might ask what degree of autonomy is acceptable. We might ask questions about who should own and control the self-driving units: Individual drivers, or scummy companies like Uber. We might ask what kinds of ethics your self-driving car should implement on your behalf. We don’t have these conversations right now because we assume that those who develop our technologies will always and only pay attention to the needs of their investors to turn a profit.

Here’s the thing, though: Any company pushing a new kind of technology is already a bit like an activist group. No new technology fits into society perfectly, and often the people whose interests are aligned with that new technology have reason to try and make changes to laws, or social practices, or infrastructures in order to be successful. That’s why car lobbyists re-defined the street as a place for cars during the 1920s. It’s why Tesla has had to fight a bunch of legal battles, not just over self-driving cars, but over its business model. The first railroads could not be built without a revolution in British property law which allowed the government to force landowners to accept the fact that trains would be running across their land.

This provides an opportunity for cooperation. Entrepreneurs pushing new technologies could use activists as allies, because activists can help them make the changes they need in order to better embed their technology into society. In return, the activists can make some demands about the form the technology will take, and the way it will be implemented.

So here’s my proposal: Let’s have activist groups get involved with entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs get involved with activist groups. For example, a coalition of environmentalists and labour unions could offer their support to Tesla in the upcoming fight over self-driving cars, but only if the cars are a) sustainable, and designed to be used in a way that minimizes vehicle-miles travelled; and b) licensed to companies that give a fair deal to cab drivers. This could be important for new start-ups, which are often desperate for publicity and support. If, say, Greenpeace started endorsing kickstarters for new technologies that promise to reduce our carbon footprints, it would be very good both for the people developing those technologies, and for Greenpeace’s goal.

There’s a lot of vagueness in the model I’ve proposed. That’s intentional. I don’t run any activist groups, and there are people who are better qualified than me to turn this vague idea into a specific program. Either way, though, it’s better than how we do the politics of technology right now. Currently, when we see a new technology on the horizon whose implications we don’t like the best response we can muster is a resounding ‘no’. Unfortunately, that is only effective if anybody cares what we think. Often, they do not. Automation, to take the most frightening example, will be a big deal in the next few decades. No amount of protest is going to make the robots go away. It’s much better, then, to try and direct technological change, and *manage* form the robots, and other new technologies will take. To do that, we need to see technology not just as something that politics acts on, but as an act of politics in and of itself; just one part of the same tool-kit that is currently limited to petitions, marches, and the odd city council meeting.

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A few thoughts about Elon Musk

CEOs are being explicitly compared to comic book characters. So it’s probably safe to say that we live in a period of technological enthusiasm.

We’re living in a period in which what might be called “moonshot thinking”, or a general enthusiasm for new futuristic technologies, is very popular. In the last few years, we have seen Google promise both artificial intelligence and radically expanded human life-spans, we have seen proposals for asteroid mining , and we now have a list of 100 finalists to be the first human residents of Mars. If you asked anybody who pays attention to this stuff to name one person they would most associate with it, they almost certainly mention Elon Musk. A few others, such as Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, and (shudder) Mark Zuckerberg might be mentioned, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of ambitious projects Musk has proposed and is currently working on. The guy is a kind of a big deal.

Tempting though it may be, we need to be careful not to fawn too much over people like Musk. First of all, because Musk’s perception as a selfless innovator who is interested in technical challenges and public service, is probably at least partly a PR creation. I’m inclined to believe that Musk probably is a decent human being, but we should still remember that he is a powerful billionaire, and therefore any discussion of him comes with a duty to be critical. Musk didn’t get to where he is by not earning a profit, after all. The other thing we have to keep in mind is that Musk didn’t get where he is without help. Tesla employs 10,000 people. SpaceX employs around 3,000. SolarCity employs more than 6,000 more. And many of those people are doing the hard research and design work for which Musk soaks up a lot of the credit. Musk is still almost certainly a clever guy, but the development of new technologies has been a large-scale team effort since at least Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

But people like Musk, Schmidt, Ford, and Edison are still a fascinating element of technological culture, because of the enthusiasm they seem to be able to generate for their ideas. If I proposed the hyperloop, nobody would listen and I would probably lose some professional credibility. But because Elon Musk has a reputation for building cool stuff, he can make international news by publishing a 58 page report on the same idea. And the tech media covers virtually everything he says. Why is this the case? One obvious answer is that, as I argued at the top of the page, we are in an era where moonshot thinking predominates, and as the progenitor of a bunch of moonshot projects, Musk is somebody who people want to pay attention to. But just as an experiment, let’s consider it the other way around. What if people like Musk (rather than merely the things they create) are the reason that we are currently so convinced that our immediate future looks like a science fiction movie.

At first glance, this theory goes against everything that science and technology scholars have been saying for the last few decades. Technology, they tell us, is not created by heroic individuals. Some trace the myth of the lone inventor to an obscure Victorian dispute about patent law. Scientists have long acknowledged that they see far by standing on the shoulders of giants, and it is probably time that engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs be willing to make the same admission. Tesla would be nowhere, for example, without the hard work of thousands of people working over the past few decades on better batteries for laptops and smartphones, to say nothing of the legions of people who mine the raw materials for these things, manufacture them, transport them, and sell them.

But what if we look beyond the technology itself, and pay a bit more attention to its public context and popular support? Could prominent, charismatic, and fascinating individuals make us more likely to give our endorsement to new technological ideas that would otherwise sound crazy? I think it’s plausible, mainly because we, as a species, seem to love colourful personalities. That’s why it makes national news when Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift. It’s why celebrities are paid exorbitant sums to endorse products. It’s why most history is understood in terms of big political and cultural personalities, form Louis Armstrong to Winston Churchill. And it’s why websites like Perez Hilton exist. We like to embody our ideas about the world in the form of people. That’s why we remember most of the big technological changes of the past by remembering the people who embodied them. Cars are represented by Henry Ford. Electrical infrastructure is represented by Thomas Edison. Computers are represented by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And so on. We find it much harder to relate to technology, which at the end of the day is a thing, than we do relating to people.

So, according to the hypothesis I’m developing here, sometimes an inventor or entrepreneur catches the public eye for one reason or another. By either an accident or a conscious effort, they cultivate their public image until they have a substantial media following. This becomes a major business asset, allowing them to generate major publicity for virtually any new idea they have. Because of their past successes, the public and media establishment are willing to consider proposals from them that they would reject out of hand if they were voiced by anybody less prominent. The result of this media coverage is that these ideas get financial and political support, as well as motivating research on the idea and perhaps an early market niche from technological enthusiasts. This in turn makes the success of the idea more viable. The result is that people like Elon Musk can serve as standard bearers, playing a big role in shaping future technology regardless of their role in actually developing it.

While I would like to do some detailed research on this idea one day, it remains just a hypothesis at this stage. But as a hypothesis, it has some interesting and important implications. Most important, perhaps, is that it suggests that prominent entrepreneurs and inventors can be extremely powerful people. Politicians come and go and most powerful business leaders are restricted by regulations and market forces. But if people like Elon Musk truly do have this kind of influence over the direction of technological development, then it could be that a small handful of people, most of whom are white men, have a very large role to play in shaping the future of human societies. It’s hard to vote down a transportation system that already has infrastructure in place, regardless of whether your votes come in the form of ballots or dollars. That means that we need to be very critical of these kinds of people and the ideas they propose. We need to really get to grips with their motivations, and be willing to think seriously not just about the viability of their proposals, but also about their long-term social, political, economic, and environmental effects.

But the news isn’t all bad. The power of technological standard bearers can also be a force for good, if we find ways to influence the kinds of people who we give this technological credibility to. We need big technological changes to solve a whole host of very scary social, economic and environmental problems, and if it is possible for one prominent person to play a big role in pushing those kinds of changes, then so much the better. We should, of course, fight the tendency to put people on pedestals. But maybe there is a role for social activists in helping societies think critically about the people to whom they give technological power. And maybe if we can help boost the public exposure of the right kinds of people, then we can help push the kinds of technological change that will make the world a better place rather than a worse one.

Tesla, Patents, and Ideology

Next time the world is getting you down, just remember that there’s a major car company that uses internet memes from the 1990s in its publicity.

You may have heard that Tesla Motors recently released all their patents to the world for free. Here’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s explanation for why he took this somewhat unorthodox move:

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

When it comes to the charging infrastructure, there is a very good reason why Tesla might want to do this. By allowing anybody to build a supercharger station on their own initiative and on their own dime, Tesla is effectively downloading the risk of building their infrastructure onto other people. Given the growing popularity of and excitement around Tesla cars and electric cars more generally, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a significant number of people who saw a local electric car charging station as a good investment. This will help reassure potential buyers that they can count on having charging stations available nearly anywhere, which will in turn help Tesla sell cars.

The decision to release all the patents on the cars themselves is a bit more puzzling. I’m not going to presume to fully understand its reasons or its implications. I’m not a patent lawyer, and while the efficacy of patents is discussed in the academic circles in which I travel, it’s not really my topic of expertise. It will be interesting, however, to see whether this leads to more electric vehicles being built using Tesla technology, to compete with Tesla. Maybe this will open the door for specialized electric vehicles such as buses, delivery vans, or construction vehicles. Maybe a bigger ecosystem of competing electric vehicles will give Tesla an edge by further legitimizing the technology, which Tesla will retain their lead in due to their considerable experience making them. Or maybe they will be awash in cheap knockoffs within 10 years and be driven out of all but the luxury car market. It’s probably a good move for the planet, but as for what it means for Tesla, it’s probably too early for me, or anyone, really, to say.

But one thing that is interesting about this is the language that Musk uses to justify the decision. He is using the anti-intellectual property language which has been developing for some time now in opposition to the software and entertainment industries. Musk is, at least apparently, putting this language into practice in a very big way. In fact his blog post makes explicit reference to the open source movement. Of course, it’s possible that Musk is just paying lip service to the idea of open source, while he is actually releasing his patents for purely business reasons. Political figures like Musk always attempt frame their actions by reference to whatever ideology or symbolism is trendy at any given point in time.

But even if Musk is merely posturing, there is still something interesting here. The ideology of the open source movement is becoming increasingly important. Virtually anybody who knows how to program a computer and doesn’t stand to make a lot of money from patents will say that it’s a good idea. Google and Mozilla both make liberal use of open source software, and creatives, such asAmanda Palmer and the guys behind Cards Against Humanity all openly encourage the pirating of their work.

Maybe the recent development at Tesla is a signal that this ideology is starting to effect how the technology business works. If more technology companies follow the example set by Google and Tesla, then it could mean a big change in how technology gets developed. It would fundamentally change the rules by which engineers and entrepreneurs play, the effects of which are probably too complicated for anybody to realistically predict. And that would have some kind of effect on the kinds of technologies that get developed, the speed with which they get developed, and the ease with which they diffuse into society.

If that’s the case, then this is evidence of something that is constantly ignored in discussions of business and technology: ideology matters. Economists and policymakers like to assume that firms and engineers are perfectly rational calculators who follow their business sense and whose behaviour is basically predictable. But who could have predicted the rise of the open source movement? Ultimately, Engineers are people. And so are entrepreneurs. And like all other people, they filter their perceptions about the world through a lens of ideas, assumptions, and principles, and that changes how they act, and has a profound impact on the technologies they develop. That means that technology, like anything else, is susceptible to the influence of culture. Most intriguingly, it means that we can influence technology purely through ideas.