Category Archives: The Glass Cage

What algorithms want

abacus

Here’s another brief excerpt from my new essay, “The Manipulators: Facebook’s Social Engineering Project,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

We have had a hard time thinking clearly about companies like Google and Facebook because we have never before had to deal with companies like Google and Facebook. They are something new in the world, and they don’t fit neatly into our existing legal and cultural templates. Because they operate at such unimaginable magnitude, carrying out millions of informational transactions every second, we’ve tended to think of them as vast, faceless, dispassionate computers — as information-processing machines that exist outside the realm of human intention and control. That’s a misperception, and a dangerous one.

Modern computers and computer networks enable human judgment to be automated, to be exercised on a vast scale and at a breathtaking pace. But it’s still human judgment. Algorithms are constructed by people, and they reflect the interests, biases, and flaws of their makers. As Google’s founders themselves pointed out many years ago, an information aggregator operated for commercial gain will inevitably be compromised and should always be treated with suspicion. That is certainly true of a search engine that mediates our intellectual explorations; it is even more true of a social network that mediates our personal associations and conversations.

Because algorithms impose on us the interests and biases of others, we have not only a right but an obligation to carefully examine and, when appropriate, judiciously regulate those algorithms. We have a right and an obligation to understand how we, and our information, are being manipulated. To ignore that responsibility, or to shirk it because it raises hard problems, is to grant a small group of people — the kind of people who carried out the Facebook and OKCupid experiments — the power to play with us at their whim.

What algorithms want is what the people who write algorithms want. Appreciating that, and grappling with the implications, strikes me as one of the great challenges now lying before us.

Image: “abacus” by Jenny Downing.

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The Uncaged Tour

uncaged

I like it when bands name their tours, like Dylan’s Why Do You Look At Me So Strangely Tour in 1992, or They Might Be Giants’ Don’t Tread on the Cut-up Snake World Tour, also in 1992, or Guided by Voices’ Insects of Rock Tour in 1994.* So I’ve decided to give a name to my upcoming book tour. It’s going to be called The Uncaged Tour. (Actually, the full, official title is The Uncaged Tour of the Americas 2014.)

Here are the dates so far, with links to more information:

Sept. 30: New York: The Glass Cage: Nicholas Carr in Conversation with Tim Wu (92nd St Y event)

Oct. 1: Washington, DC: Politics and Prose

Oct. 2: Cambridge, MA: Harvard Book Store

Oct. 6: Seattle: Town Hall Seattle

Oct. 8.: Mountain View, CA: Authors at Google

Oct. 8: San Francisco: Commonwealth Club (with Andrew Leonard)

Oct. 14: Boulder, CO: Boulder Book Store

Oct. 16: Calgary: Wordfest

Oct. 17: Salt Lake City: Utah Book Festival

Oct. 23: Denver: Tattered Cover Book Store

Oct. 25: Boston: Boston Book Festival

Nov. 5: Boulder, CO: Chautauqua

I hope to see you at one of the events.

Now I’m off to design the official tour t-shirt.

_____

*The early nineties appear to have been the golden age for tour names.

Image by Sebastien Camelot.

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There will always be spare change

nobeggars

“There will always be change,” wrote Thomas Friedman in his 2012 column “Average Is Over.” “But the one thing we know for sure is that with each advance in globalization and the I.T. revolution, the best jobs will require workers to have more and better education to make themselves above average.”

Economics professor and blogger Tyler Cowen borrowed Friedman’s title for his most recent book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, but his emphasis, in surveying the opportunities opening up in today’s labor scene, is not exactly on more and better education. “I see marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy,” Cowen writes:

We can expect a lot of job growth in personal services, even if those jobs do not rely very directly on computer power. The more that the high earners pull in, the more people will compete to serve them, sometimes for high wages and sometimes for low wages. This will mean maids, chauffeurs, and gardeners for the high earners, but a lot of the service jobs won’t fall under the service category as traditionally construed. They can be thought of as “creating the customer experience.” Have you ever walked into a restaurant and been greeted by a friendly hostess, and noticed she was very attractive? Have you ever had an assistant bring you coffee before a meeting, touching you on the shoulder before leaving the cup? Have you gone to negotiate a major business deal and been greated by a mass of smiles and offers of future friendship and collaboration? All of those people are working to make you feel better. They are working at marketing.

I would just like to interject here that I am feeling better.

It sounds a little silly, but making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future. At some point it is hard to sell more physical stuff to high earners, yet there is usually just a bit more room to make them feel better. Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved.

Welcome to the mendicancy economy.

Cowen uses a happy metaphor to sketch out the contours of interpersonal competition in this new world:

The more that earnings rise at the upper end of the distribution, the more competition there will be for the attention of the high earners and thus the greater the importance of marketing. If you imagine two wealthy billionaire peers sitting down for lunch, their demands for the attention of the other tend to be roughly equal. After all, each always has a billion dollars (or more) to spend and they don’t need to court each other for favors so much. There is a (rough) parity of attention offered and received. Of course, some billionaires are more important than others, or one billionaire may court another for the purpose of becoming a mega-billionaire, but let’s set that aside.

Compare it to one of those same billionaires riding in a limousine, with open windows, through the streets of Calcutta. A lot of beggars will be competing for the attention of that billionaire, and yet probably the billionaire won’t much need the attention of the beggars. The billionaire may feel overwhelmed by all of these demands, and yet each of these beggars will be trying to find some way to break through and capture but a moment of the billionaire’s attention. This in short is what the contemporary world is like, except the billionaire is the broader class of high earners and the beggars are wealthier than in India.

That’s an awesome analogy, really felicitous, but it has one big flaw. What billionaire is going to drive through Calcutta in a limo with the windows open? I’m sorry, but that’s just nuts.

UPDATE (9/6): Cowen offers an even sunnier speculation today: “It is an interesting question how much that will prove to be the equilibrium more generally, namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment. After all, capital is more productive today than in times past, so evolution might now produce more slaves.”

Remember back when we were beggars? Those were good times.

Image: “undesirables” by shannon.

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The Glass Cage: early reviews

automationandus

I’ve been encouraged by the comments on The Glass Cage that have been coming in from early readers and reviewers. Here’s a roundup:

“Nicholas Carr is among the most lucid, thoughtful, and necessary thinkers alive. He’s also terrific company. The Glass Cage should be required reading for everyone with a phone.” —Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

“Written with restrained objectivity, The Glass Cage is nevertheless scary as any sci-fi thriller could be. It forces readers to reflect on what they already suspect, but don’t want to admit, about how technology is shaping our lives. Like it or not, we are now responsible for the future of this negligible planet circling Sol; books like this one are needed until we develop an appropriate operating manual.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience; professor of psychology and management, Claremont Graduate University

“Nick Carr is our most informed, intelligent critic of technology. Since we are going to automate everything, Carr persuades us that we should do it wisely — with mindful automation. Carr’s human-centric technological future is one you might actually want to live in.” —Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants

“Carr brilliantly and scrupulously explores all the psychological and economic angles of our increasingly problematic reliance on machinery and microchips to manage almost every aspect of our lives. A must-read for software engineers and technology experts in all corners of industry as well as everyone who finds himself or herself increasingly dependent on and addicted to gadgets.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Artificial intelligence has that name for a reason — it isn’t natural, it isn’t human. As Nicholas Carr argues so gracefully and convincingly in this important, insightful book, it is time for people to regain the art of thinking. It is time to invent a world where machines are subservient to the needs and wishes of humanity.” —Donald Norman, author of Things that Make Us Smart and Design of Everyday Things; director of the University of California San Diego Design Lab

“Most of us, myself included, are too busy tweeting to notice our march into technological de-humanization. Nicholas Carr applies the brakes for us (and our self-driving cars). Smart and concise, this book will change the way you think about the growing automation of our lives.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Little Failure

“Nick Carr is the rare thinker who understands that technological progress is both essential and worrying. The Glass Cage is a call for technology that complements our human capabilities, rather than replacing them.” —Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus

“I read it without putting it down. I think it is a very necessary book, that we ignore at our peril.” —Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary

“This sweeping analysis from journalist Carr outlines the various implications of automation in our everyday lives. He asks whether automating technology is always beneficial, or if we are unwittingly rendering ourselves superfluous and ineffectual, and cites examples where both might be the case, such as fatal plane crashes attributed to an overreliance on autopilot; the deskilling of architects and doctors caused by occupational software; and the adverse mental effects of GPS. … The book manages to be engaging, informative, and elicits much needed reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications of over-reliance on automation. Carr deftly incorporates hard research and historical developments with philosophy and prose to depict how technology is changing the way we live our lives and the world we find ourselves in.” —Publishers Weekly

“Important.” —Kirkus

The U.S. edition of The Glass Cage will be published on September 29; other editions will be published simultaneously or in the coming months. I’ll be out talking about the book throughout October and will be posting a schedule of events soon.

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Taking measurement’s measure

rulers2

“What can’t be measured can’t be managed” goes the old saw. But what Peter Drucker is reported to have actually said was “What gets measured gets managed,” which is altogether different and altogether wiser. The wisdom becomes clearer when we get the rest of Drucker’s remark:

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.”

It’s dubious and dangerous, Drucker is saying, to take what’s measurable for what’s important. But he’s also saying something much more radical, even subversive: Some things that can be measured shouldn’t be.

A whole counterculture could, in our big-data moment, be constructed on that one thought. Can you imagine Google or Amazon or Facebook announcing, “We have decided to stop measuring stuff in order to spend some time considering what’s actually worth measuring”? No, today’s ethos is simpler, easier to execute: “If you measure it, the meaning will come.”

“Measure” itself has a few meanings, and it’s worth keeping them all in mind. Consider something Robert Frost said, in speaking to college students in 1956:

“I am always pleased when I see someone making motions like this — like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness, measure in unselfishness.”

Measure in measurement, too, would seem advisable.

Image: Marcin Wichary.

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The other dude in the car

newuberdriver

In “How Uber Explains Our Economic Moment,” MIT’s Andrew McAfee describes a short trip he recently arranged with the big ride-sharing company:

My driver said he’d been with Uber ever since he’d graduated from his master’s program in IT project management last year. This profession was, according to him, going through hard times. In the wake of the great recession steady jobs had been replaced by short-term contracts, and there weren’t even a lot of these to be had. As a result he was now competing against much more experienced people for each new gig that came up, and he hadn’t had a lot of success since graduating.

So to cover his monthly fixed costs of student loan payments (on more than $100k in debt), rent, and health care he was driving for Uber. A lot. He estimated that he spent more than 60 hours a week behind the wheel. This allowed him to pay his bills, but not to build up any real savings.

McAfee emphasizes the bright side of this poignant tale:

To which I say good for him, and for Uber. This is a guy who could be sitting around waiting for the dream job he’d gone to school for, collecting unemployment, defaulting on his loans, and/or dropping out of the labor force for good. Instead, he was working hard at a job that was available.

That’s true, and worth noting, though I would guess the driver is paying a high opportunity cost in spending so much time driving a gypsy cab in order to make his school loan payments. It seems like a tough squeeze, and as McAfee goes on to point out, the ongoing automation of sophisticated jobs, including much of the traditional work done by IT departments, doesn’t exactly brighten the guy’s career prospects.

It’s worth remembering, too, that one of Silicon Valley’s dreams is to use self-driving cars to replace the nation’s taxi fleets. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has made it clear that that’s his company’s plan, as The Verge recently reported:

Kalanick was visibly excited at the prospect of developing a fleet of driverless vehicles . . . “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.” Asked about what he would tell the Uber drivers who will some day [get] replaced, Kalanick said that day was still a long way off. But it’s also inevitable, he said. “I’d say ‘Look, this is the way of the world, and the world isn’t always great.’ We all have to find ways to change with the world.”

I suppose when Uber deploys its autonomous cabs, McAfee’s driver will be grateful to have been freed up to find other fulfilling work in the sharing economy—walking people’s dogs, maybe. You have to change with the world.

“Sharing” is a nice word, but, as Kalanick’s remarks reveal, there’s a deep current of cynicism running just under the surface of the sharing economy. The companies that operate the clearinghouses, and skim the lion’s share of the profits from the aggregate transactions, present a very different face to the folks driving the cars and renting out the rooms than they do to their investors and entrepreneurial peers. It seems revealing that Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community at room-sharing company Airbnb as well as chairman of Peers, a lobbying outfit for sharing companies launched last year, wrote a book titled The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers. He argued that cults provide excellent models for marketers looking to establish a deep bond of loyalty with customers:

Cults will flatter you. They will make you feel special and individual in a way that you are unlikely to have felt before. They will celebrate the very things that make you feel different from everyone else; the members will get to know you deep down, and they will love you for what they find. And you will love them.

This is the marketing strategy that underpins the sharing economy, as Mike Bulajewski explains in a thoroughgoing critique of the practice at his Mr. Teacup blog:

What’s crucial to realize is that proponents of “sharing” are reinventing our understanding of economic relations between individuals so that they no longer imply individualism, greed or self-interest. Instead, we’re led to believe that commerce conducted on their platforms is ultimately about generosity, helpfulness, community-building, and love. It’s what enables TaskRabbit to claim that hiring a stranger to do your laundry, perhaps for less than minimum wage, is really about “neighbors helping neighbors,” as they put it. The company’s mission is to “revolutionize the way people work — by redefining what it means to be neighborly.” … The marketing of almost every startup in this space is saturated with this mood.

But, as Bulajewski goes on to point out, the neighborly sharers are, to the companies running the clearinghouses, contract laborers. They represent a vast and ready pool of workers, like McAfee’s struggling driver, who don’t qualify for the extensive and expensive benefits and protections provided by law to regular employees:

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have created businesses that provide contract labor not covered by the federal regulations that employers find so burdensome. As Uber general manager Ilya Abyzov put it, “A driver contracting with Uber is not a bona fide employee.” … What would happen if the dreams of the investors and executives at these startups came true, and large parts of the economy became dominated by their business models? Employers that hire full- or part-time workers today—paying them minimum wage, overtime and unemployment, disability and social security taxes, and unable to discriminate against them—would switch to a cheaper, less regulated and more vulnerable workforce to do those same jobs. Having lowered their labor costs, they’re able to offer lower prices to consumers, forcing their slower competitors who rely on regular wage labor to adopt the same practices or go out of business. … The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least.

And, as Uber’s Kalanick made clear, if an even cheaper labor model comes along—robots, say—the contract workers will get the boot, without “any real savings” to fall back on. The other dude in the car is dispensable. The spirit of neighborliness goes only so far.

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Promoting human error

wheel

From a report on a prototype of a self-driving tractor-trailer developed by Daimler as part of its Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 project:

For Daimler, the truck driver of the future looks something like this: He is seated in the cab of a semi, eyes on a tablet and hands resting in his lap …

The Daimler truck retains a steering wheel as a safety measure. This allows a driver to intervene for critical maneuvers …

The experience of guiding a self-driving truck is far less stressful than the vigilance required from a human to respond to traffic conditions. This means that drivers could have enough free time to speak with their families or employers, take care of paperwork or make travel plans …

“It’s strange at first,” said Hans Luft, who sat in the truck’s cab during the demonstration on Thursday. He waved his hands to show observers that he did not need them on the wheel, tapping at his tablet while taking advantage of the 45-degree swivel of his driver’s seat. “But you quickly learn to trust it and then it’s great.”

So you create an automated system that actively undermines the vigilance and situational awareness of the operator while at the same time relying on the operator to take control of the system for “critical maneuvers” in emergencies. This is a textbook case of automation design that borders on the criminally insane. And when an accident occurs — as it will — the crash will be blamed not on “stupid design” but on “human error.”

Image: Randy von Liski.

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