Technology Can Help or Hurt – Part 3: Large-Scale Deaths or History-Altering Events Enabled by Technology

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.

Silicon Valley Continues to Be #1 Technology Hub; Why Not Boulder, CO or Ithaca, NY?

Despite our repeated reminders that the multiple woes—especially housing prices, traffic gridlock, and long commutes—of tech companies’ building large staffs in the San Francisco/San Jose area, nearly all of these mainly-software organizations continue to ignore the logic of setting up new operations in other cities in the U.S. And these other cities would love to have them locate their operations in their respective cities. This phenomenon, coupled with the September 13 opening of the vaunted Cornell Tech in New York City, is so noticeable that Bloomberg Businessweek went to considerable effort to prepare a pictogram for its September 11 issue that includes about 300 metro areas (but they do not appear to be the 300 most populous cities in the U.S.) is so detailed that they couldn’t include it in their online version and an article apparently so basic that they couldn’t include it in their print version. On the horizontal (“good stuff”)axis it combined nine positive ways: rates of college education, science and engineering majors, top universities, headquarters of big tech companies, venture capital investment, share of jobs in computer-systems design and related services, broadband subscription rates, independent coffee shops (huh??),and commutes by bike/public transportation/on foot. On the vertical (“bad stuff”) axis it combined three negative ways: high home prices, lots of income inequality, and long drive times. It weighted these 12 ways equally (what else could they do?) and plotted a scattergram with city names as labels. In the upper lefthand corner (high on both good stuff and bad stuff) is the San Francisco/San Jose area (Silicon Valley), which is in the biggest “quadrant” (the quadrants are quite unequal in area) called “Both the good and the bad of Silicon Valley”. The upper righthand quadrant is “Unequal and expensive, but not techie”, the lower lefthand quadrant is “Tech without the downsides”, and the lower righthand quadrant is “ Least like the Bay Area”. The authors highlighted Boston (not surprisingly, due to its many good universities and Route 128 tech companies), Boulder, Co (high percent of households with broadband access), and Ithaca, NY (low housing cost). Ithaca??!! Well, it’s home of Cornell University which, together with partner Israel’s Technion, created Cornell Tech, and it’s the most techie of the Ivy League. (It’s also our home town, with nice summers, but awful winters … especially compared with Silicon Valley.)

Social Media, Especially Facebook, Unfortunately Hijacks Users of the Web … But “Better Web” May Reverse That

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)”.

Sports More Important Than Technology Business in Silicon Valley Newspaper

The Mercury News’ demoting its business coverage to the back pages of the Sports Section was a populist victory even before Trump’s election. Or does this situation simply derive from the biblical truism “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”? In any case, the rest of the world—including major newspapers—seems more entranced with the goings-on in San Jose and surrounding cities. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have permanent staff in Silicon Valley who seem to turn out significantly more column-inches of reporting and opinion about technological accomplishments in this geography than do the valiant-but-outnumbered technology staffers at the Mercury News.

This demotion came a few months after the April 2016 renaming of the San Jose Mercury News to to reflect its merger with the San Mateo Times. But the spirit of San Jose, which some years ago was dubbed “the USA’s largest truck stop”, lives on in the focus of its printed media. (Apparently a number of other cities in the U.S. claim that theirs is the largest, and a number of locations have subtitled themselves “Silicon XXXX”, like “Silicon Prairie” which can refer to Dallas-Fort Worth or the Chicago area or a multi-state area of the upper Midwest.) We are a bit baffled because the advertisements in the Mercury News don’t seem to be for products and services that the typical sports fan would buy.

Facebook and Google Create New Homeless People in Silicon Valley in 2016

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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.

Can Thoughtful U.S.-Wide Economic Planning Enable Orderly Growth?

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Skyrocketing house prices and apartment rents, long and slow commutes, overcrowded schools, etc. not only dramatically diminish peoples’ quality of life but can choke off economic growth in places like Silicon Valley. (And Silicon Valley is not unique; e.g., Boston has a similar problem.) What can be done about it? We need to think bigger, in terms of geography. Every sizable city or cluster of nearby cities has some form of LOCAL regional economic development authority. But those authorities are sub-optimizing. We believe that what is needed is a nationwide advisory council AND a change in thinking by large companies. Germany is a good example of what is possible. We can understand to some extent the economies of scale of microchip manufacturers for examples, but it especially baffles us that technology giants like Facebook, Google, Oracle, eBay, and LinkedIn, which are principally software companies, insist on building mega-campuses in Silicon Valley. Seems to us that—using their own technology and realizing that software can be written anyplace—they could do large portions in regional centers. Even Apple, who farms out much of their manufacturing to Chinese companies like Foxconn, very likely would benefit if their employees spent more time working and less time commuting to their new giant building (which will almost certainly exacerbate the already horrendous traffic jams in that area).

There are lots of other attractive cities in western states with a critical mass of local services and attractions that would welcome an influx of well-paid, well-educated employees: for example, Austin, TX; Denver, CO; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR, Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; Sacramento, CA; and Phoenix, AZ. Similarly for eastern states.

N Y Times: “Let’s Get Back to Work”

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“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!

“Anti-Social Networks”?

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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.

NSA and Information Industry Giants: On Speaking Terms Again

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You have to admire the chutzpah of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in complaining about the NSA’s invading Facebook’s or the populace’s privacy. It seems that Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and every other social networking site is doing that in spades, and has been doing it for years. So how did he get off venting to President Obama about the abuse by the NSA? And didn’t the NSA hack into Facebook so shouldn’t he be saving some of his anger for his own IT staff who let this happen? (The CIO and CEO of Target lost their jobs over such breaches.) Anyway, during July both sides have been getting friendlier, according to an article and a video by Bloomberg Businessweek.

Will Solar-Powered UAVs be Cost-Effective to Bring the Internet to Unserved Areas?

Facebook’s launch of its Connectivity Lab and hiring of the team that formed UK-based UAV maker Ascenta and Google’s acquisition of Titan Aerospace are aimed at putting long-life UAVs into the air that can transmit and receive Internet signals to locales currently lacking Internet service. While bringing the benefits of the Internet to developing regions is an admirable activity, we wonder if those regions offer attractively high purchasing power that would justify the advertising that will be beamed to them.