Dr. Dre versus the Big Bad Algorithm

We're seeing some new shapes among the feudal technology stacks. Apple has made a couple of moves that puts them on the human side of the ledger. Yahoo seems to be following in that direction. Google and Facebook remain fully automated, and they've placed their bet on male software engineers, big data and algorithms.

A few years ago, as the stacks were establishing their hold on networked computing, Nicholas Carr asked “Does IT Matter?” The question occupied the spot between home-grown corporate technical systems and the eventual outsourcing to professional cloud-based services. In most cases utility computing in central networked data centers turned out to be a better investment than a local IT team cobbling together a custom application. If the technology in question wasn't a company's core business, it didn't matter. Outsource everything possible to a vendor who counted that service as a core competency.

The networked computing platforms that have battled so fiercely to be among the few left standing have learned a bittersweet lesson. The platform is just a blank sheet of paper, a surface ready to be inscribed. Its worth is minimal, in fact, Apple has begun giving away its newest operating systems. There's no value in an individual installation of the platform, it's only the platform as a whole that has value.

When the technical press looked at Apple's acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre they didn't understand. The music service didn't have enough subscribers, the head phones weren't even among the best, nothing matched up with the dollar figures that were being thrown around. Non-engineers aren't acqui-hired, non-engineers are replaceable worker parts that merit commodity pricing. Sure these guys have “taste”, but that's not really worth anything. An algorithm can be built to easily reproduce something like their taste. In a reversal of Nicholas Carr's thought, the algorithmists asked “Do Human Factors Matter?”

Jimmy Iovine's response to the machine was that something was missing from the algorithmic output. Here's how Iovine put it:

“The sequencing of an album was very important. Music is made in bite-sized pieces, but you need an hour's worth of music for certain activities. The other guys have an algorithm. For some reason, these young people aren't understanding why they aren't getting the feel they're supposed to get. We said no, no, you're supposed to have the right sequence.”

What's the value of being able to create “that feel” across a networked computing platform? There doesn't seem to be an acknowledged economic value that can be applied to in creative people working at the platform level. The technologist and the financial analysts ask “where's the game-changing technology?” That's what Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Where's the iWatch? Where's that next big thing? No one creates a game changing technology. Steve Jobs said it best and very simply many years ago.

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

You choose the wave. You don't invent the wave. In this new era of feudal technology stacks, the technology should intrude less and less. The technology, if it's well designed, should start to recede into the background. If you're noticing it, generally that's because it's broken. Finding the feel, creating the feel of, and within, the platform, that's the thing a machine can't come up with on its own. Or at least that's what we're about to find out. Will creative people who can operate at the level of a large platform (Dre, Iovine, Ahrendts, Deneve) be more successful than an algorithm that crowd sources, sorts and filters?

 

Graeber and DiDonato: Imagine Technology for Nothing

David Graeber’s recent interview on Salon.com 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.

 

Driving the Map, Not the Territory

It's classic slight of hand. What's breathtaking is that it caught the entire country in its misdirection. Google demos its driverless car, the tiny one with no steering wheel and no brakes. The media shows us the pictures and then asks Detroit why this car is coming from the Silicon Valley and not the car manufacturers. Clearly another sign that U.S. manufacturers are hopelessly behind the times.

A few weeks ago Alexis Madrigal wrote an article for The Atlantic called “The Trick That Makes Google Self-Driving Cars Work.” In his piece, Alexis explains how the trick is done. Self-driving cars have very little to do with the machinery of the car itself. In case you hadn't noticed Google has an extremely robust mapping application. The self-driving car can only drive itself through a territory with a sufficiently fine-grained 3-D map. That's because the car isn't really driving on the streets, it's driving on the map. This is a story about virtual reality for cars. And it's not about who builds the cars, it's about who owns the virtual streets.

 

Imagine You’re Responsible for Everything

Whenever there's an outbreak of evil among us, we seek to understand what could have possibly caused it. One reason we do this is to figure out if anything can be done to stop that particular thing from happening again. The other reason we do this is to build a wall between us and evil. Evil is circumscribed and isolated, it's labeled insanity, it's called completely uncivilized. This wall allows us to make sure that we're untainted by evil, that our innocence is preserved.

The victims of evil want us to know that this isn't an isolated case. Evil has a broader purchase than is generally acknowledged. We hedge, and say that some, but not all are evil. And the “evil ones” — they're readily identifiable. This allows us to keep evil on the other side of the wall.

Imagine that you're responsible for everything. Imagine that I'm responsible for everything. The racism, the sexism, the hatred, the stupidity, the insanity, the crime, the violence, the addiction, the bigotry — all of it. Every time there's an injustice, it's not the “other” who acts. It's one of us. It's me. When my country commits atrocities, those are mine too.

The quarantine of evil allows us some measure of safety and assures us that we don't have to change our ways. But as we're learning with the garbage that our civilization generates, there is no “away” to which it can be sent. There's just here. We behave as though our individual speech acts could be separated out from the language we all share. Prisons and other facilities are where you go when you're sent “away.” Prisons aren't on another planet or hidden in another universe. There is no “away.”

We look in the mirror and imagine we're something good and pure. Sure we have our problems, but they're inconsequential. We're nothing like that nut-job who unleashed evil and death. In fact, it'd be a good idea to arm ourselves against people like that. The wall that keeps evil out should be outfitted with lethal defensive weaponry. Our place in the afterlife depends on maintaining a certain level of purity.

Or imagine this. Imagine that you have a skin in the game. Imagine that you're responsible — that you're both the perpetrator and the victim. Imagine that you can't build a wall around evil. Imagine that the last mass shooting, this mass shooting and the next mass shooting are simply expressions of who we are. It's not a war that belongs only to the other political party. It's not a cruelty that other people are inflicting on the poor. I'm all these things, and I'm not comfortable with all the things that I am. How could I be? Own all the the good things, own all of the bad things, and then decide whether we need to change.

 

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