MSP35: VISIONARY DEFICIT

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MSP35: VISIONARY DEFICIT

Does society have the tech visionaries it deserves, or are we looking in all the wrong places? It’s time to Mattsplain.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Where is humanity heading? It’s a big question, and it’s one that philosophers throughout the ages have struggled to define. As the pace of technology continues to accelerate, Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage thinks the questions are too big to leave in the hands of our technological visionaries. Cheerily, it’s time to Mattsplain.

 

Whose vision are we talking about today? Yours? Wouldn’t it be simpler to get an eyetest than bother all the nice people at home?

·      Luckily for you and the listeners I’m longsighted, which is what makes me so good at looking into the future.

 

Do you consider yourself to be a visionary?

·      I think anyone who considers him- or herself to be a visionary probably isn’t.

·      Saying it doesn’t make it so.

·      I clicked on someone’s Insta profile yesterday and she described herself as a visionary artist.

·      Derivative and hackneyed, yes. Visionary, no. 

·      But this show isn’t about being a visionary, it about all the things that visionary people do and trying to thread them together.

·      So I guess I see myself as more of a quilt-maker than anything else.

·      It’s a Pretty messy quilt. Suited to someone short and fat, like me.

 

Is this another excuse to bash Elon Musk?

·      Yes. No. Not really. Maybe. 

·      It’s more about what the word visionary has come to mean. And with Steve Jobs out of the way, Elon Musk is kind of the world’s resident visionary pinada.

·      We have a major preoccupation with the technology sector.

·      And that’s understandable. When you look at the way all kinds of technology have developed over the last couple of decades, consumer technology has undergone an incredible transformation.

·      And it’s a transformation that still underway.

·      We need visionary people. But we need them in every part of society.

 

We’ve been too uncritical?

·      Whenever you see things that are innovative or novel, they tend to grab the imagination.

·      When you look at a traditional international conglomerate, say a Global food manufacturer, the breakfast cereals stay the same, it’s really just the packaging and the additives that change.

·      Apart from the introduction of genetically modified ingredients, which we discussed a couple shows ago, the biggest technological innovation in food in recent years seems to be coffee machines with proprietary pods.

·      Which is not to belittle that innovation. Coffee seems to be the new domestic chemistry battleground.

·      But it’s hard for it to stand its ground in the face of the expansion of broadband Internet, the development of the smartphone, commercial space travel, artificial intelligence and the development of self-driving vehicles.

 

And you think our fascination with innovation has turned into an obsession with the technology business?

·      Absolutely.

·      Because we seem to be focused on the CEOs.

·      And I do wonder if the CEOs are the wrong people to focus on.

·      You often hear the phrase that such as such is a real-life Tony Stark. 

·      But is he or she? Really?

·      What sets Tony Stark apart is not his incredible wealth, it’s his talent as an engineer and scientist.

·      He is an inventor in that true sense. He’s the guy tinkering in his garage, not afraid to put his own finger in the light socket to see what happens. 

·      It’s just that he’s got a really fancy garage. And his light socket is a plasma cannon.

·      When you look at a lot of technology start-ups, the people at the top on very often experienced and able businesspeople.

·      Running a successful company doesn’t automatically make you a thought leader. It makes you a successful business person.

·      You start to ask yourself: why are we so interested in CEOs?

 

Inventors aren’t necessarily the same as innovators…

·      Exactly. Which is why we should be looking at a broad range of visionaries.

·      I’m not saying that people like Musk and Steve jobs aren’t visionaries.

·      Quite the contrary. I’m trying to say that we’re narrowing our definition of visionary to mirror their vision.

·      In the case of Steve jobs, that vision was quite narrow.

·      It was all about creating incredible products for his company.

·      His vision wasn’t about creating cost-effective health solutions for the elderly or finding Solutions to a growing global housing crisis.

 

They make a lot of money…

·      And I think that’s one of the largest pitfalls. One that we’ve fallen into.

·      We’ve confused making money with being a thought leader.

·      We give more airtime to the thoughts of Mark Zuckerberg than Neil de Grasse Tyson.

·      Mark Zuckerberg repackaged Myspace and Friendster. And did it very well. That’s not a criticism.

·      I couldn’t even tell you what NDGT has done because I don’t understand even 1% of it.

·      Stephen Hawking was one of the rare exceptions of a contemporary scientist whose views weren’t marginalised. Someone who wasn’t in business but his views on the huge range of topics were sought and respected.

·      That’s quite saddening – the waste of all those other high powered brains.

 

You want to see us giving more weight to the views of experts?

·      I know this is an unfashionable view.

·      Experts, whether they’re scientists or good old fashioned philosophers and intellectuals have been downgraded.

·      It’s kind of part and parcel of the fake news epidemic and, in my opinion, the damage that the climate change denial lobby has done to people of knowledge.

·      We offhandedly label people who have knowledge as being part of an elite. We sneer at people with PHDs and applaud people with MBAs.

·      And we forget that in most instances, the Lone Ranger approach to human development really doesn’t work.

·      We’re back to learning from Tony Stark. Stark has an army of Iron Men at his fingertips, but he doesn’t go it alone: he know he needs the support of The Avengers when he’s in a jam.

 

So you see some invisible hand behind this?

·      Not at all. We’ll get to the conspiracy stuff later, I hope.

·      There are some lobbies that have a vested interest in damaging the reputation of experts – the political scenes in the UK or US are great examples of that.

·      But it’s broader than that. Scientists were the superheroes of the post WW2 era.

·      Now technology entrepreneurs are our heroes. I keep ssaying the word narrower.

·      This is a much narrower focal point than looking at all the scientific disciplines.

·      We’ve discussed this before. The media, of which you and I are a part, also bear responsibility for this.

 

And we haven’t been critical enough?

·      We get over-excited too. We get carried away with shiny trinkets and superfast messaging apps.

·      Look at BFM. It’s a business station. It’s supposed to speak to business leaders. And a healthy bottom line and a unique or differentiated product line generates better talking points than a scientist’s patent book. Or a philosopher’s latest attempt to reshape morality. 

·      Not that BFM ignores or overlooks those things, unlike some media outlets, but it’s not the station’s primary focus. 

·      I can hear most of the listeners saying ‘thank heavens’

·      But that doesn’t mean you can escape me - those boring patents and the ideas they contain may have more influence on the way society develops than the bottom line of a single company that probably won’t exist in 10 years.

·      Let’s be clear on this. The speed with which technology moves, winks companies into existence and then leaves them behind in the blink of an eye.

 

BREAK – When we come back, we’ll try and figure out exactly why Matt is having this brain burp.

 

Why do you think we – and you especially – are having this crisis of confidence?

·      A lot of reasons. 

·      Our previously unshakeable trust in technology companies has taken a beating. I’m not going to go into all the reasons for that again.

·      The media is looking into the sector far more critically now and some of the supposed visionaries are not reacting well to the harsher glow of this new spotlight. 

·      It’s a bit like we’ve turned off their selfie filter and we’re finally seeing what they really look like.

 

4m tall lizards?

·      No conspiracies yet! We’re not going to illuminate that discussion.

·      Another reason is that we’ve seen some pretty high profile cases of tech companies failing to deliver on their promises.

·      I’ve just finished reading Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up by Wall Street Journal investigative journalist John Carreyrou, which is about a company called Theranos.

·      We’ve covered Theranos, the blood testing start up on the show before.

·      Its founder Elizabeth Holmes, who idolized Steve Jobs, had a world changing idea, a sleek blood testing machine that could quickly, easily and cheaply take a tiny sample of blood from a pin prick and simultaneously conduct around 200 tests on it.

 

That is a genuinely revolutionary idea. Some blood tests can take weeks and cost a fortune.

·      Ground-breaking. It would have meant sophisticated testing technology would be available in GP surgeries, refugee camps, field hospitals, even people’s homes.

·      And that’s both the issue and the problem. 

·      Blood tests don’t take a long time because labs are slow or lazy. It’s because the procedures are incredibly complex, requiring massive machines and lots of time.

·      Some require larger volumes of blood than others. And the machinery and modes of testing methods for different illnesses and markers are not universal.

·      So, to make the Theranos vision a reality required a reordering of the science and the technology.

 

I think we can let people read the book or the WSJ for the full story…

·      Sure, I don’t want to repeat it all here.

·      It does seem that unlike Steve Jobs, Elisabeth Holmes didn’t surround herself with the best minds in bio-medicine and engineering to bring that vision to life.

·      And they relied on the culture of secrecy we’ve grown used to around tech companies to obscure their progress, signing multi-million dollar deals or agreements with US retail chains like Safeway and Walgreens, who trusted Holmes and bought the vision rather than the reality.

·      In fact, at one point, Theranos was such a venture capital darling that it was worth some US9bn despite never manufacturing a fully operational prototype.

 

Didn’t their board contain an incredible cast list? The ultimate guide to elder statesemen?

·      Their board included an array of geo-political luminaries including George Schutlz, Henry Kissinger and current US Defence Secretary and retired 4 star general James Mattis, all of whom bought into the company’s vision.

·      It’s thought that the association with Theranos contributed to Safeway’s CEO Steve Burd stepping down in 2013.

·      Even its investors We’re used to seeing people knock the media for its commitment to the truth – Rupert Murdoch made an investment of more than USD$100m in Theranos.

·      Murdoch valued the editorial integrity of the WSJ more than his enormous stake in the company, and it was the Journal and Carreyrou that broke the story that Theranos was a highly funded house of cards.

 

I can see that you’re working you’re way towards a point…

·      It’s really easy to have an idea.

·      One of mine this week was for frozen smoothies that use mushy peas instead of fro-yo.

·      That’s a freebie by the way. If you can monetise the world’s most disgusting food, you absolutely deserve it. I won’t even ask for free shakes.

·      That goes to show you that ideas on their own are useless. Bringing them to life and making them work is the important thing.

·      Elizabeth holmes idea for Theranos was a great one.

·      We rate EM as an ideas machine. Read the sci fi of Philip K Dick, or Asimov, or Iain M Banks. Or countless other fiction writers. They’re full to the brim with ideas waiting to be brought to life.

·      And numerous Scientists, brought up on those books, are trying to make some of those concepts a reality.

·      But we don’t talk about them half as loudly as we do these so called business visionaries.

·      In our start-up culture, we’re hyper focused on the ideas of entrepreneurs 

·      Visionary seems to have become shorthand for a great salesperson. And that’s sad and pretty demeaning to us all. 

 

I know I’m tempting fate with this question. Who cares?

·      Because it goes back to that comment I made about technology putting companies out of business as quickly as it creates them.

·      Technology is transforming the way the world at an incredible rate.

·      Whether for better or worse is another debate and not one that I’m going to get into today.

·      Technology is changing the way we work. More specifically, it’s reducing the number of people needed to produce the same amount work.

·      In some industries it’s replacing people completely.

·      In developed countries, people are living longer and birth rates are falling.

·      Housing, food and health costs are increasing.

·      Tax revenues are falling.

·      The pillars that hold up our economic systems are changing.

·      And income inequalities, war and social instability are fueling population migrations on a scale that we probably haven’t been seen since the last ice age.

 

You haven’t mentioned artificial intelligence.

·      Yes. Advancement in biotechnology and prosthetics, combined with the implantable neural networks may even alter definitions of humanity within a generation or two.

·      Don’t expect Elon musk or Mark Zuckerberg to have the answers to those questions.

·     It’s possible that Bill Gates does, and if my vision of the future scare you, Gates’ laser-like focus on dispassionate statistical solutions will probably put you on heart medication.

 

We need the experts?

·     We need experts. We need them possibly more than at any time in recent history, and we’ve beaten them into a retreat.

·     Our economic and political orders are changing far more rapidly and uncontrollably than anyone could have imagined.

·     In Malaysia we’ve seen the upside of this uncertainty and instability. In other countries we’ve seen a pivot towards authoritarianism.

·     We need real visionaries and thought leaders to help us chart a path towards a brighter future.

·     Visionaries who don’t have shareholders and quarterly profit targets to meet.

·     People who are willing to take real risks – not people who take fake financial risks with other people’s money.

 

There isn’t a cabal of billionaires trying to carve up the world?

·      I told you we’d get to the conspiracies.

·      No, I genuinely don’t think so. These guys have as much – in their opinion, probably more – to lose if we don’t fix the way we approach the future.

·      Which is why they’re trying to buy up southern New Zealand.

·      Their comapnies need consumers. People with money in the bank, or at least in the blockchain.

·      What there most definitely is, is jockeying for position and prominence.

·      And those guys are much more likely to have self-interest at heart, or at least the interest of the companies they represent, than they are the so-called greater good.

·      That’s why I mentioned earlier that I find it frightening the definition of visionary is so narrow.

 

Isn’t it human nature to want to have a single, simple source to digest?

·      Like ketchup?

·      Yes, and those are the traits in us that tend to lead us towards following demagogues.

·      We forget that organisations can be just as visionary as individuals.

·      Look at one of my favourite institutions: NASA.

·      Look at all the fantastic things that NASA has achieved for the world.

·      Not simply in terms space exploration. But all of the associated technological accomplishments that have come with those extra terrestrial advances.

·      Who would have thought of gravity independent ink so that pens would work?

·      Russian cosmonauts just used pencils.

 

You’d like to see a bigger role for independent or publicly funded institutions?

·      I said this before: We’ve allowed companies to whitewash the history of technology in a way.

·      The private tech sector seems to have seeded this implacable belief that the market will deliver the advances we need.

·      It’s rewriting the critical role that publicly funded innovation has played in creating much of the technology that this new generation visionaries is trying to commercialize.

·      I love space X but where would it be without the knowledge and patents developed by NASA?

·      We owe huge numbers of the vaccine and medical procedures that keep us alive to research by publicly funded universities and science institutes.

·      The telescopes that scan the Universe don’t have much in terms of commercial application.

·      But it’s how do you calculate their value in terms of their importance in understanding how our universe and human life evolved.

·      Or how those same discoveries find their way into the concepts for quantum computing.

 

Where do the philosophers fit in?

·      We need the philosophers and the economists and the behaviourists and the architects and all the other so called intellectuals to help us to rewrite the rules of the societies we’re living in.

·      I mentioned the challenges of employment and income: we need to have an idea of how the machinery of society will function in a world where machines do all the work and only the humans that own them make money.

·      I don’t think we want to allow the humans who own the machines to write those rules.

 

Can’t we just bumble along and figure things out as they come along? That’s the way we’ve generally handled things?

·      The difference is speed. You’re right, normally we can bodge or jury-rig it because the human experience hasn’t changed much from one generation to the next.

·      You have the odd technological leap, some natural disasters, and a liberal sprinkling of wars and pestilence. 

·      Plus a nice rainbow after a rainstorm.

·      Your children live and suffer much the way you did and History continues horribly from one day to the next.

·      Modern technology has upended that slow and gradual evolution.

 

So we have to ask ourselves how everything fits together as technology increases the pace of development?

·      How does the world fit together as populations bloom? Architects and planners will have to work with engineers and scientists to devise sustainable and affordable living environments.

·      How does a population that has more old people than young people continue to function? That’s an entirely new model in terms of human experience.

·      And what rules will need changing once AI is self-determining? We’ll need ethicists and lawyers and philosophers, not to mention the mathematicians and coders responsible, to put their heads together for an answer to that one.

 

Where does that leave the business visionaries?

·     It’s fine if our vision of the future starts with people like Elon Musk.

·     It’s about having the right ideas, not about where they come from.

·     We need to be able to do something with those ideas.

·     So other people have to jump in to broaden that vision.

·      I think this is the biggest issue for a lot of the business guys.

·     They don’t understand that The future isn’t an iphone. 

·     It isn’t something that Jonny Ive can design in a lab and sheer a couple of buttons off.

·     Reality is Linux, not iOS.

 

You mean it’s big, and it’s messy and it’s full of parts that don’t work very well?

·     Yes, because it’s been put together by a bunch of people who all want it to do different things.

·     That’s the issue with our world and our societies. 

·     We all have a different vision of them. We all want something different out of them.

·     If you asked the current generation, their priority might be to geo-engineer the sun to give their selfies a softer and more diffused light.

 

And you think that this is where the technopreneurs get left behind?

·     Yes, because things that are messy and don’t work are the things that irritate them.

·     They want to edit the messy bits out.

·     But the messy bits are the things that get biochemists and engineers excited. 

·     Those are the things that give philosophers a launchpad for insight and imagination.

·     The mess is the cue that fires the imaginations of artists and writers to design their own utopias and dystopias. 

·     Our world wasn’t built by business people. It was built by thinkers and activists. 

·      Not always well. Not always coherently. 

·     It’s the philosophers, inventors and conquerors of Rome that we remember, not its shopkeepers.

 

Are we looking at a future of Mattsperts?

·      No. You can thank whatever deity you believe in. R’amen.

·      We don’t need more people like me. There’s probably one too many, as it is.

·      But I do hope we will start trusting in experts and other informed voices again very soon.

·      Progress demands more than a slick PowerPoint presentation and a TED Talk.

·      In the really near future we’re going to have to start making some hard decisions and negotiating some far reaching compromises.

·      People like me are useful for making noise and pulling the different threads of the quilt together. 

·      We need the people who can imagine and actually engineer solutions to our problems. 

·      We may not need the privileged billionaires who can afford to give up and relocate their offshore companies to another planet.

Matt Armitage