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Graeber and DiDonato: Imagine Technology for Nothing

David Graeber’s recent interview on puts a spotlight on an uncomfortable fact about the economics of our working world. The more you care about something, the less you will be paid for it. Art is for art’s sake, and therefore monetary compensation is subsidized by the worker’s own care. The more you care, the lower the monetary reward required to get you to take on certain kinds of work. If you are truly passionate about something, you should expect no financial reward at all. This is especially true if you care about directly helping and educating other people. We’ve set up the incentives so that it’s almost impossible to care for another person without extreme sacrifice.

In her recent commencement speech for the 2014 graduating class of Juilliard, the great American diva Joyce DiDonato delivered a similar message. “You aren’t going to make ‘it'” and that’s because there is no “it”. The lives of these students of art, drama, dance and music will be dedicated to service within their respective arts. There’s no point in thinking about the financial rewards beyond what it takes to keep body and soul together. It’s as though DiDonato is talking to a room filled with religious martyrs about begin their journeys. Given the state of our culture, DiDonato is dispensing very practical advice.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the wealthy technology giants are learning the meaning of noblesse oblige. In an era of vast income inequality, these technologists have to learn how to care about the neediest among us. Of course, they learned long ago that there’s no percentage in “caring”. The people who “cared” ended up burned out and barely scraping by. It’s only by extreme focus on technologies that will “help all of humanity” (but no person in particular), that they’ve amassed these large fortunes. Only a loser would focus their energies directly on helping the people around them. To avoid the label of vampire squids of the West coast, the technology and venture capital giants must become less focused, must use their excess capacity on something completely outside of their corporate mission statement — helping the people sleeping on their doorstep.

In some alternate universe I imagine DiDonato giving this talk to a class of computer science students. Telling these young technologists to focus on, not monetary rewards or groundbreaking technological achievement, but on the ability to meaningfully touch the lives of people in need. No doubt they will face hardship and days when they’ll ask themselves if it’s really worthwhile. Only their passion for making a difference in people’s lives will carry them through.

For DiDonato it’s crucial to focus on the moments of joy along the way. That’s how a passion for the work can be sustained. For some reason that brought to mind a video of opera singers Rene Barbera and Wayne Tigges backstage in a dressing room singing “More than Words” by Extreme. In the mirror you can see Joyce DiDonato lip syncing and dancing to their impromptu performance. Sometimes those moments of joy aren’t under the lights of the main stage in front of a full house. Other times, they are.


Transparent: Believing is Seeing that Believing is Seeing

“We've almost made ourselves transparent in reaction to the fact that we know we're being watched.”

Annie Clark, St. Vincent

You are what you eat. You are what you wear. You are the music you listen to, the audio and video you consume. You are the investments you make, the work you do, the space you live in. You are the furniture that decorates your living space, especially the knick knacks on your mantle. You are the photos you share, the snarky comments you make on social networks, the political commentators you choose to listen to. You are the software you chose, the operating system, the device, the cloud that holds your stuff. You are the car you drive, the public transportation you take, the footwear you select for any particular walk. You are the cocktails you order, the craft beer you quaff and the espresso you sip.

You are the bill that was left unpaid this month. You are the parking ticket for parking in a handicapped spot. You are the bad report from a dentist. You're the person who doesn't floss enough. You're the person who raised his voice in anger. You are the phone call you forgot to make. You are the person living beyond her means. You are the person working two jobs and collecting food stamps. You are the person whose marriage didn't work out. You're the person who's too tired to read and too tired to sleep. Staring at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to ring signaling the start of another day. You're the person obsessively checking email, even though there's only ever spam. You're the person who can't afford to eat lunch today. You are the person who forgot the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

You're the person whose essence is never completely captured by a sentence, or even a paragraph. You're the person who is represented by thousands of entries in hundreds of corporate and government databases. But the pieces never seem to add up to a solid picture. You're the person whose potential isn't represented by your test scores. You're the person who can't be summed up analyzing your web search history. You're the person whose taste can't be modeled with an algorithm.

You're the person who's become transparent. You're the person who is watched but unseen. You're the person who is present, but unrecorded. You're the person who leaves a trace that is never fully comprehended. You're the person with wholly unexpected depth. You're the person filled with unknown unknowns.


I Like to iWatch

For some reason we're looking for a computerized wrist watch. I guess it's because everyone, at least before smart phones, used to buy a watch. The market for wrist watches appears to include just about everyone, but good quality watches are rarely replaced. It's becoming a niche market steeped in nostalgia.

A watch is for telling time. A computer isn't necessary for that function. No one needs an iWatch to tell time. The current networked wearables are small feature-reduced smart phones that can be strapped to the wrist. Not that phones are still telephones.

The etymology of the word “watch” isn't entirely clear, but it seems to have something to do with a schedule for keeping watch, for instance on the deck of ship. An iWatch would be a device for keeping an eye on the wearer. The schedule can be discarded because it's always on, although the batteries need to be recharged now and then. “Wearable” means attached via a strap or some other means–it's a device not meant for the hand or the pocket.

These new devices, if they actually appear, are personal data collection devices that will send information for analysis to a personal or feudal cloud. The devices themselves will have limited read-out capability. They are sensors. They're meant to suck in data, not to display it. And once it's “in,” there's little chance it will remain private.


Pity Would Be No More: Google The Human Abstract

The public relations profession was created to repair the reputations of the 1%. The robber barons who consolidated control over industry in the United States needed to boost their numbers in the polls, and thus began the professional publicizing of acts of charity. The technology industry and its titans have finally taken that lesson to heart.

Fighting tooth and nail, then threatening to leave San Francisco for more accommodating tax havens, technology companies have negotiated big tax breaks. They're special. Not the sense that they need an extra helping hand to get their business of the ground. It's just that they want to use every piece of leverage they have over the city. When what they've wrought becomes plain for everyone to see, the oldest public relations plan in the book is trotted out. They'll participate in the community, but only on their terms. Here it comes, sweet charity.

Instead of public services coming organically through our tax base and distributed through a public political process, the tech company decides what cause gets money and how much. The money they donate creates capacity within the public budget which is then redirected to other needs. In a few years when the corporations stop giving and the public budget can't accommodate the programs, they're eliminated. What seems to be a windfall is really a death sentence.

Criticism of charitable acts is a rare thing. That's why it's a classic public relations play for the 1%. Google funds a transportation program for low-income youth, Facebook buys a police officer, etc. PR firms are paid big bucks to make sure we all know about it. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

William Blake wrote “The Human Abstract” as part of his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Put this poem on the “experience” side of the ledger. His criticism of pity and charity continue to ring true. Out of the pity of the technology giants comes charity for the poor and disadvantaged. Blake shows us that it's not “pity” and “charity” you want to put up on a pedestal. It's a difficult case to make, but Blake does it. These virtues are symptoms, born of inequalities.




by William Blake

Pity would be no more

If we did not make somebody poor,

And Mercy no more could be

If all were as happy as we.


And mutual fear brings Peace,

Till the selfish loves increase;

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.


He sits down with holy fears,

And waters the ground with tears;

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.


Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head,

And the caterpillar and fly

Feed on the Mystery.


And it bears the fruit of Deceit,

Ruddy and sweet to eat,

And the raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.


The gods of the earth and sea

Sought through nature to find this tree,

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the human Brain.


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