Mark Twain’s 1897 quote had it right: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” One possible Truth in the current fracas involving Russians, Trump’s campaign team for the 2016 presidential election, and social network companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter is that this is an early example of wars that are fought by hackers and the Internet rather than soldiers and guns. Numerous semi-fiction books could be written or movies created about this craziness. One possible plot is that the Russians knew how unusual (AKA weird) Donald Trump is, and preferred him to Hillary Clinton as president because they could exploit that unusualness (AKA weirdness). A bunch of congresspeople are calling for regulation of these giant Internet-based companies. So are the media, who are far more regulated than Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These are crazy times, and the Russians and other enemy nations must be enjoying all the gyrations that the US is going through.
Even more dangerous to individuals, America, and the whole world, are the loopholes in the processes at internet giants like Facebook and Google. Technology is evolving faster than it can be controlled by either man or machine. And since these companies make most of their money by selling ads, exciting events—whether or not correctly reported on—boost their revenues and profits.
The technology of rapid-fire firearms that are available to crazed murderers like Craig Paddock who murdered dozens and injured hundreds in Las Vegas on October 1, is the most serious recent example. That technology was not kept in check by proper rules (and their enforcement) regarding what firearms can be sold to whom. On the information side Facebook and Google allowed two known rightwing “hate news” sites to post incorrect information unfettered, for minutes in the case of Facebook and for hours in the case of Google. All the information gaps here can can ultimately be traced to errors by humans, either failures in the basic design and implementation of the laws/rules or in the software, or in the review by people. Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle, and is misusing its powers.
Beyond such “fake news”, which can be distributed widely and quickly, the very content of the ads can be hurtful. Facebook and Google (including YouTube) apparently accepted a considerable number of ads from Russia supporting Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Since those ads were paid for, which is how those companies make money, they were motivated to accept them. Apparently only in retrospect did they investigate, after which they reported on what happened, but Facebook, at least, didn’t tell the whole story.
Like the old saw “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it” (including President Trump, who refuses to recognize global warming), there doesn’t yet seem to be any consequences for these tech giants. But change may be in the offing from places like Stanford University, which has launched a new Global Digital Policy Incubator, with a speech by Hillary Clinton. We can only hope that we can get the genie back into the bottle, by getting these tech giants under control … if that is possible.
Anyone working in Silicon Valley (or reading local newspapers) cannot fail to be personally affected by issues of workplace diversity (at least vicariously). (Actually, anyone reading the Wall Street Journal these days could not avoid seeing the variety of prose on this topic from its chorus of reporters and columnists.) And during the last couple of weeks s/he could scarcely avoid hearing about the 10-page memo written by Google’s James Damore, his subsequent firing, and the furor both locally and nationally. There is a saying in Japanese that “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets pounded down”, and we are sure that he feels very pounded down these days. And his subsequent article published in the Wall Street Journal (in a nice touch the accompanying picture shows him wearing a T-shirt that says “Goolag”) has doubtlessly made Google management feel pounded down, too. (This appears to add insult to the injury already facing Google because the U.S. Department of Labor is already claiming that Google systematically pays women less than men.)
It is no secret that the tech industry in general employs a majority of white or Asian (mainly Indian) men, particularly in technical and leadership roles, which means that Google is no better or worse than other giant tech companies. But when one digs a bit deeper, it turns out that Damore’s belief that women are less capable at writing code than men is incorrect because Indian women CAN code too.
The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Kessler points out that there is limited proof that Google’s mandatory “Unconscious Bias” training has any merit, because of the fallibility of the numerous studies that have supported its inclusion.
Actually, it is meaningless to give OVERALL statistics about percents of male/female or race without also putting them in the context of compensation or managerial level or similar measure, as we have tried to do with the illustration above.
Facebook and a handful of other social media are so entrenched that few people think about life before them. But the Web was conceived 15 years before Facebooks’s founding in 2004. Facebook put a pretty face on the Web, and billions of people have flocked to it. And Google Search, YouTube, and a handful of other giants –fueled by tons of advertising revenues—exercise a lot of control over what people can see and do, so much so that there is growing sentiment about breaking up these monopolistic organizations. And delivering fake news or vicious propaganda from the likes of ISIS (ironically ISIS can even get PAID by YouTube while it disseminates its messages of hatred) adds further pressure for this breakup.
It will take more time, but help may be on the way from the original creator of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. He is working towards a “Better Web” where users’ control their own (private) data. One group that should benefit from greater control of their data is musicians. The title of Jonathan Taplin’s new book, “Move Fast and Break Things”, may even have caused Facebook to foresightedly replace their eponymous former motto with “Move Fast With Stable Infra(structure)”.
We at Technology Bloopers are not big fans of President Trump, but his administration’s putting pressure on tech companies’ hiring software engineers from India and China to replace Americans does seem to be consonant with his pre-election promises.
But apparently it is even worse than that. We heard a couple of days ago about one local company that not only hired a bunch of Indian H1B visa-holders, fired their American staff, and replaced them with these imported folks … after they were trained by the Americans. And this noxious practice has apparently been going on for some time, according to the Stateline folks at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Three months of coder school is not much training compared with that of the better-trained—often in American universities—and more-experienced visa-holders. But why are these American universities welcoming these foreign students? It’s because those students come bearing big funds for their education. (At state universities, it is simply that the international students must pay the same (higher) prices as out-of-state American students.) We have heard that among some of these students it is said that PhD stands for “Parents have Dough”. Interestingly, those international students are more prone to cheat on their exams. Hmmm … does that mean that their future code will be less trustworthy than that of Americans?
We wonder why the big Silicon Valley tech companies have not done a better job on their own of training software engineers. Couldn’t they be hiring “junior” software engineers from the coder schools and boosting their capabilities with on-the-job training. We suspect one reason is that it is more expensive to do that than to hire foreign help. And more time-consuming. And another reason may be that they didn’t do a good job of forecasting their growth and concomitant demand for those software engineers. Maybe the current visa flap will motivate them.
But it may not be the fault of these companies. Americans may too lazy, or too afraid to be “uncool”, to study STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) courses so there is not enough local talent to fill the needs of Silicon Valley. Graduates with strong STEM knowledge are polar opposites to “art history majors” , a term used derogatorily to connote enjoyable-but-low-paying jobs.
Why are we at Technology Bloopers going back centuries to use Greek and Latin to admonish Millennials to be careful how they use social networks? Just as physicians swear that they will “First do no harm”, the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Reddit are so powerful that they should also have such an oath … or risk legislation to prevent their doing harm. There are numerous examples of the harm they have already done. Most recently, the fake news posted by malevolent individuals and organizations had some impact on the U.S. presidential race, possibly to the extent that Hillary Clinton was unfairly defeated by Donald Trump. The importance of some of the harm being done is likely to result in legislation to limit their behavior, so these giant companies should police themselves before the government does so.
People are social animals, so the social networks can provide a ton of experiences that they crave. People like fatty foods and sugary drinks, but over-indulging can make them obese due to their lack of nourishing foods and drink. The same goes for social networks, which can distract them with amusing but mindless fare but deprive them of the solid information and communication they need to be productive. The web already provides effective ways to communicate with your friends, business associates, and other people organizations. Information is used to inform, educate, and entertain, but it appears that social networks overdo the entertain role and short the inform and educate roles.
All of the above goes double (or more) for teenagers, who usually have a lot of time and highly value being popular. Additionally, they haven’t yet developed a full set of values that allows them to distinguish good from bad, and avoid the bad. They might profit from a couple of pieces of homespun advice. Remember that much “Web Wisdom” is worth only what you pay for it. And “Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see”.
They may not be sleeping on park benches, but they’ll never be able to afford a house in Silicon Valley. That’s because the household-word high-tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Google, et al) in the San Francisco Bay Area are adding jobs but no one is adding commensurate numbers of housing units, and the prices of homes is skyrocketing.
The iconic independent bookstore in Menlo Park, Kepler’s Books, and Peninsula Arts & Letters, sponsored a well-attended public forum, “Housing Crisis Stories”, on August 18, 2016. The motivation for the meeting was the disconnect between the huge number of new jobs being created by the giant high-tech companies like Facebook and Google and the tiny number of new housing units being created. According to the local paper, The Almanac (which covers the tony cities of Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, and Woodside), San Mateo County added 55,000 jobs but only 2,000 housing units (homes plus apartments) between 2010 and 2014. The main source of new jobs is these high-tech companies, but other real estate development is also favoring offices at the expense of housing units.
Except for me (in my TechnologyBloopers persona), who dealt with the new jobs, everyone dealt with the housing shortage. There appeared to be NO representatives from the nearby, Menlo Park-based, Facebook. Many of the attendees were either personally the victims of the rapidly-rising home prices or apartment rents, or were recounting stories of other victims. The poster child for these victims is a Palo Alto planning commissioner—a tech lawyer with a software engineer husband—who is resigning and moving to Santa Cruz because they can’t afford to live in Palo Alto and raise a family there.
Unfortunately, individually they have no power to escape their victimhoods. They will have to band together to elect officials who DO have some power. City Councils in those cities affected will need to be very proactive in forcing the tech companies and real estate developers to deal with the housing shortage. And neighboring cities need to cooperate with each other so that jobs created in one city (which result in revenue both to that city government and to retailers in that city) do not force other cities to deal with housing those new employees.
The problem seems to be a failure to optimize the OVERALL combination of jobs and housing. The technology companies are a big part of the problem and they need to be a big part of the solution. And one way those companies, at least the ones like Facebook and Google whose principal activity is software development (which can be done most anyplace), can be a part of the solution is for them to locate large portions of their staff in regional offices in cities far away from Silicon Valley.
There were some creative solutions mentioned, which would help add housing units, IF the groups concerned would cooperate to change the rules for zoning and construction. One was to build several floors of housing above parking garages. Another was to replace single-story strip malls with multi-level buildings having the retailers at ground levels and housing at the higher levels.
There was one additional issue that seems unique to Palo Alto and Menlo Park (among the cities on the San Francisco Peninsula), namely the gentrification of (formerly) low-priced residential housing in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, and the related issues of racism because of the relatively high percentage of people of color living in those cities. Fortunately, those cities were well-represented in the meeting, and hopefully their inputs will continue to be carefully considered as solutions to the jobs/housing are implemented.
“The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away” is a truly flexible and useful concept. We can replace “Lord” by such notions as “Technology” or “Internet” or “Mobile Devices” or a whole host of other products and services. And those products and services can be used to teach us, to inform us, to entertain us, etc. How valuable they are depends on the objectives of the individual or group in question. We’d guess that a large fraction of the folks who read the New York Times either work pretty hard or respect others who do work pretty hard. On the other hand those who spend a lot of time looking at or posting to Tumblr probably are at the other end of the spectrum, as Tumblr itself serves up such suggestions as “5 ways to waste the rest of the day” (by the way, you can find lots of OTHER folks using that phrase when you surf) and counsels its members that “work can wait”, presumably while you read or write posts on Tumblr.
To put this in perspective we took a look at how Americans spent their day in 2014, thanks to some detailed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of the 24.00 hours in a day, we spend 10.75 hours taking care of basic needs (sleeping, other personal care, and eating and drinking), 3.59 hours working or doing work-related activities, a meager 0.42 hours being educated (a low average because the majority of Americans are not enrolled in educational institutions), a whopping 5.30 hours on leisure and sports (which includes 2.82 hours watching television), and a modest 0.14 hours communicating (telephone, email, and snailmail).
But even the most casual observer would likely object to the low communicating figure from the BLS because everywhere you look people are peering into their smartphones. One study found that smartphone users spend two hours each day using those devices. And what are they doing with those phones? It depends on whose statistics you believe, but it is interesting to note that it’s not all entertainment. And it is even more interesting to realize that a smartphone enables its user to seamlessly shift between work-related and personal activities, so they aren’t all just wasting the rest of the day a la Tumblr. Whew, the American economy may not be in danger!
The U.S. Supreme Court has just overturned the conviction of a man who posted on Facebook (in rap music form!) a set of threats to his estranged wife, law enforcement agencies, and local elementary schools, as described in The Wall Street Journal. This legal system reversal was justified on the basis that the earlier jury had not considered the man’s state of mind when he made these posts. Huh? Is this a journalistic or a legal error? Common sense would strongly suggest that his state of mind was murderous. Whether he would actually follow through and commit the heinous acts is the question, and it appeared that the earlier jury thought he would … though his couching his threats in rap music might suggest some softer attitude (unless it was gangsta rap). (And likely the longer he had been abused by the divorce courts, politically-motivated judges, and the like, the more likely he would have expressed himself in strong terms.)
This event seems to be one of an increasingly frequent series that takes the notion of freedom of speech to an extreme. And it underlines the ease with which anyone, sane or crazy, serious or just kidding, etc. can express their views to giant audiences via social networks such as Facebook. Facebook seems to have escaped unscathed this time, but if enough such events continue to occur, they may not escape over the longer term. And while the issues are not identical, hasn’t Google been forced to “forget” large quantities of search results in Europe? Pressure for reforms can only get more intense.