MSP39: A PROBLEM SHARED...

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MSP39: A PROBLEM SHARED...

Bad ideas. Technology creates at least as many of them as it does good ideas. What happens when the bad ideas slip through and the good ones drift away? It’s time to Mattsplain.

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Problems. The things that science and technology are supposed to solve. That the solutions are themselves problems is not an original thought – which is good, because Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage isn’t very good at originality – but are we slipping into an era of bad ideas with great execution? I don’t know. I’m not sure I care. But someone does and he’s here to Mattsplain.

 

You’ve been a bit under the weather this week?

·      That’s right. Nothing major – bit of a cold.

·      But it does mean there’s a couple of small changes to the show.

·      Instead of 20 mins of unrelenting misery punctuated by a couple of jokes, this week we just have the misery.

·      My SOH is the first thing to go when I’m feeling sick

Play Clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0QWspt6PLE(0m06s to end)

·      Well, that’s all the production crew gone. 

·      Jeff, you still here?

 

I’ve been doing this for too long to get spooked because you’re feeling grumpy. I believe we’re starting with librarians. Not often we do that on Mattsplained.

·      That’s true. People don’t make an obvious link between libraries and technology, so they don’t often come up on this show.

·      But they did this week. 

·      An economist at Long Island University wrote a piece for Forbes that suggested that the US replace its public libraries with Amazon.com run bookshops. 

·      Before we get to that. Remember how you spent a lot of last show trying to stop me talking about the nitty gritty of positional navigation systems like GPS and LORAN?

 

Yes. Didn’t work though.

·      This week I thought I’d reward you by dedicating the first half of the show to explaining one of the technological miracles of our age: the Dewey Decimal system and how it revolutionised the library system.

PAUSE for about 3 seconds

·      I didn’t think you’d have a comeback to that one.

·      Anyway, maybe my SOH isn’t as damaged as I thought.

·      Just kidding. 

·     Play Clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOiOaEW2wsc(0m04s to 0m05s)

·      Getting back to the libraries and Amazon.

·      A professor of economics at LIU, Panos Mourdoukoutas, whose name was designed to trip me up, wrote a piece for Forbes that hit the web-waves last weekend.

·      The gist of the article seems to be that libraries are archaic: in a digital world they don’t have the same value that they used to in an analogue world.

 

I guess that’s the question we need to answer: do libraries have value in a digital world?

·      Precisely. At first glance it’s quite a compelling argument.

·      That other public and semi-public spaces like school auditoria are available for community events.

·      And that for-profit companies like Amazon would do a better job at running this kind of information service and without the drain on the public purse.

·      I have to admit I’m not quite going on hearsay here, I can only quote from other reports on the article. I couldn’t read its source because it seems to have been removed sometime between Monday and Tuesday. 

 

That’s kinda weird, right? Why would an article about libraries disappear?

·      We talk about conspiracies and the Deep State and it seems that the line is drawn with the libraries. And it would seem that you don’t take on the librarians unless you’re gearing up for a major fight.

 

I saw that there was a lot of pushback online…

·      Loads. My favourite putdown was from the Harris Country Library in Texas, as quoted in the Guardian:

·      “No offense to y’all at Forbes, but a little research would prevent you from publishing this kind of twaddle”

·      I love that. It manages to be down home and folksy and uses the word twaddle. 

·      Easily one of the best words in the English language.

 

We cover a lot of stories like this on BFM and tech Talk particularly. Isn’t this another area that technology could be used to disrupt an industry that is probably quite immune to innovation?

·      I think that’s the real issue.

·      It’s not that library systems are immune to innovation. It’s that we’re immune to library systems.

·      They could well be the most progressive and forward thinking institutions in the world – after all, they’re where we keep knowledge – but most of us don’t know because we don’t use them.

·      How do we know that libraries need disputing? Maybe we should be learning from them rather than talking down to them

 

And you think that’s why Forbes pulled the piece?

·      TBH, I don’t know why they pulled the piece. I do hope that they repost it.

·      It doesn’t really matter if it’s wrong-headed or looks at libraries down a very narrow lens.

·      That’s something that we’ve talked about in terms of the technology industry over the last few weeks.

·      That the focus of the technocrats is very narrow.

·      But opinion pieces like this are still worthwhile. 

 

Maybe Prof Mourdoukoutas was dashing off a few hundred words and wanted to be provocative?

·      Sure. He’s a regular Forbes writer.

·      This is the time of the year when not much is happening. The editor could have said, give me 800 hundred words on anything.

·      Equally, maybe he genuinely believes that Amazon would do a better job. And stands by his comments.

·      In any case, the article is useful in two ways. Firstly it shines a light on how relevant and necessary libraries still are. And secondly, it illustrates that shallowness of vision that we were talking about.

 

We can Google most information in a few seconds. Some people probably think that the idea of going to a building and scrolling through some dusty books is a bit last century. Isn’t it better to spend public money on services like better Internet access that connect them to that information?

·      I’m sure that’s part of the argument.

·      I think we’re all a little guilty of misunderstanding the purpose of libraries.

·      We get caught up on the books. But they’re much more than that. 

·      They’re a publicly owned meeting and learning space.

 

I think that Prof Mourdoukoutas mentions in his piece that there are other spaces that can be used for meetings: school auditoria or a Starbucks.

·      But it’s also important to note that those spaces aren’t public.

·      In the case of schools, people can’t walk in and out at will, because the students have to be safe and free from disruption.

·      As for Starbucks, well, we’ve already seen the kind of reception that a couple of their US customers received earlier this year. 

·      Arrested for the crime of waiting for a friend.

 

What you’ve described is a community centre…

·      That’s part of the function of libraries.

·      We have to remember that not everyone can afford or has access to high speed Internet.

·      So libraries are the place where people can come to use free computers and Internet.

·      To write job applications or term papers. 

 

So they serve a purpose in connecting people to technology?

·      Not just that. Educating people about technology too.

·      We forget that there are generations of people who struggle with the concepts of the technology we take for granted on this show.

·      We’ve all been behind someone at an ATM who looks as though they’ve been presented with Da Vinci Code to crack.

·      A lot of libraries run courses that help people with phone and computer operating systems, how to use the Internet, setting up Wifi

·      We take it for granted that these are easy skills to pick up, but for a lot of people when something goes wrong with their Wifi they have no idea what to do.

·      Libraries can help to bridge that skills gap 

 

And presumably, as more government services move online, library staff can help customers to connect to those services?

·      Exactly. In a lot of ways libraries have always been advice centres. That’s what books are: information.

·      And the librarians are human search engines. 

·      They help people get legal advice, connect them to local services and support groups. 

·      Help immigrants who are struggling with the language or people with vision problems who can’t go online.

·      They connect people with the information they need and help them to understand it, just like the Internet does.

·      Some countries, like Finland, are actually expanding their library systems and investing in state of the art buildings.

·      They treat them as social centres. There are cafes and restaurants.

·      Meeting rooms. Courses, talks. And of course, there are books.

·      Finland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and its people are proud of it.

 

I’m sure Matt’s Finnish citizenship is in the mail as we speak. As well as his Platinum library card. After the break, less about libraries.

 

BREAK

 

Before the break we were talking about engaging in a tech-fuelled war of words with librarians. Where are we heading with this?

·      A couple of weeks ago we were talking about the Visionary Deficit: the way our technology leaders are letting us down.

·      Let me read another quote from Prof Mourdoukoutas Forbes piece, via The Guardian:

·      “At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.”

·      You can see the issue with that, right?

 

Why we give a darn about Amazon’s share price?

·      Precisely. I know it was from Forbes, but it assumes that we’re all from the investor class. That Amazon’s share price is our first concern rather than the well-being of our  communities.

·      We make this assumption that the private sector does everything better, because there’s a profit motive.

·      Increasingly, in the real world, where people with limited incomes are forced to live, we see that the profit motive is shorthand for customers and employees being short-changed. 

·      As other economists and technologists and librarians quickly pointed out via social media, library systems are generally profit making.

·      Their net contribution to society, I’m expressing it here in terms of dollar value because apparetnly that’s the only thing that counts – 

·      Their net contribution to society… 

o  That’s doing things like helping people into work and off benefits, in providing alternative routes to education and a million other things – it far outweighs the tax dollars put in.

o  Libraries are a great social investment.

 

I originally wanted to talk about a piece that author and tech journalist Douglas Rushkoff wrote for Medium.com for Geeks Squawk. But you wanted to connect it to this topic, is that right?

·      Yes. I hijacked your story. Sorry.

·      For those of you who don’t know Rushkoff, he writes widely on the implications and inequalities that SV creates. Check out his most recent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus for a statement of where he’s at.

·      The title of this article is 100% Mattsplained clickbait

o  “How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse.”

·      I’m not going to summarise the whole thing, but here’s A little backstory:

·      Rushkoff was invited to speak at one of those rich people events that Jeff gets invited to speak at all the time.

·      And they put armed guards in towers to prevent me from attending.

·      So he turns up at luxury private resort ready to talk about the future of technology. 

·      Instead of talking to a bunch of investment bankers, as he imagined, a group of 5 super rich guys come into a small room and pepper him with questions rather than waiting for his presentation.

 

I’m sure it’s not that weird for him to be giving advice to business leaders?

·      What he found weird was the nature of the questioning.

·      These guys were preoccupied with societal collapse, The Event as they called it.

·      And they were concerned with how they could survive it.

·      We’ve talked about the uber rich techies and their boltholes before.

·      Rushkoff mentions people like Peter Thiel and his attempts to live forever, and we’ve talked about Thiel’s boltholes and attempts to set up his own Pacific island utopia.

·      There’s good old Elon and his plans to colonize Mars, and Sam Altman (Ycombinator) and Ray Kurzweil (futurist) trying to upload their consciousness into supercomputers.

·      And then there’s all these VC and SV types buying up land in NZ.

 

Because they think the end is coming?

·      It’s weird isn’t it? These are the guys with their hands on the tiller of the global economy.

·      You find yourself wondering:

o  Are they just paranoid or do they know something we don’t?

·      This is my own half-baked theory, so please don’t blame Douglas Rushkoff for this.

·      I’ve said on the show before, that though technology is making a lot of money for people, it’s also upending the system it’s built on.

·      That disruption we love to talk about is also disrupting capitalism.

·      It’s chipping at way at the foundations of the consumer class and concentrating the wealth upwards.

 

And they think that at some point there will be a total meltdown?

·      Yes. Either technology puts everyone out of work, and the economic order breaks down.

·      Or we see growing political chaos and the economic order breaks down.

·      Or there are a series of climate or environmental disasters and… guess what?

 

Shot in the dark: The economic order breaks down?

·      Yes. That’s what I was talking about in our Visionary Deficit episode.

·      Our thought, and business and technology visionaries aren’t really engaged in building a better tomorrow.

·      Because they think that the day after tomorrow, everything’s going to fall apart.

 

Is it?

·      If this was an explicit rated show I’d give you a much stronger answer.

·      What I can say without the station being fined is: Who knows?

·      But we’re certainly not going to get anywhere if the pilots of the craft think that all hope is lost.

·      It’s a bit like a ship’s captain deliberately sailing into an iceberg because he’s watched Titanic.

·      There is another option: sail around the iceberg.

 

And where does Douglas Rushkoff fit in?

·      Apart from having lots of good ideas himself…

·      It’s the weirdness of what he reported that these global visionaries - who I presume he can’t name because of some confidentiality agreement - were asking him.

·      What would happen when money wasn’t worth anything and couldn’t be used as a tool or leverage?

·      How could these guys ensure that their own security personnel wouldn’t turn on them and choose their own leader?

·      Could they restrict access to food supply?

·      Could they make the guards wear some kind of weaponised collar to control them?

·      Could robots and AI be built to do the job of guarding them and how long would it take to get that technology?

·      They were looking at a future where everything breaks down and the only way they stay in control is with an army of willing or coerced slaves.

 

How does this relate back to today’s topic of bad ideas?

·      Because we’re relying on people like this to come up with the good ideas to steer society.

·      To create that future we talk about.

·      But what future will they push us towards?

·      We talk about the nightmare vision of super-clever Ai wiping humanity out.

·      What if some tech billionaire decides to wipe out humanity to save himself from an AI that might destroy him?

·      As Rushkoff points out, these things are all about escape. Escaping the confines of this world, or our bodies or death.

·      You know what it sounds like?

 

I know you’re going to tell us…

·      It sounds like the fantasies of a 10 year boy.

·      To go and live beyond the stars, to live forever, or to be a castaway on a desert island.

·      Building your own utopia is something you do with Lego.

·      Yet somehow, we’ve gotten to a point where a bunch of immature boy-men think they’re running the world.

 

Playing Devil’s Advocate here: don’t you think that the more reasoned and sane voices will prevail?

·      Despite the nightmare visions we sometimes paint on the show, generally I do lean towards the hopeful side. 

·      But those dreams and that sense of hope, if they come true, could be the worst nightmares of the tech elite.

·      Because it means the likes of us taking back power and control. 

·      Let’s not forget: one of the things that this group of people is most fearful of: us.

·      That’s why they’re so desperate to replace us with machines. We scare them. We’re like poorly trained puppies. 

·      We’re meek most of the time, but we can give you a nasty bite when you least expect it.

·      That said, I think we have plenty of bad decisions ahead of us.

·      There was another one this week.

 

I think I know where you’re headed with this one. The US State Department has cleared the way for 3D printed guns to be legal in the US.

·      Absolutely. It had earlier been argued that the blueprints contravened US arms export regulations because they would be used to manufacture weapons across national borders.

·      The gun lobby in the US rallied behind the US student, Cody Wilson, who first proposed the idea and came up with the plans for a single shot pistol called The Liberator.

·      Which is a little bit odd, because the last thing most gun-makers want is for people to shortcut them and make their own assault rifles.

 

Weren’t those blueprints available on the Dark Web?

·      Sure. But everything is available somewhere.

·      The point is to red flags and restrict the things we want to make as hard as possible to find.

·      Otherwise we’d have landmine vending machines on street corners.

·      And Xmas crackers with white phosphorous grenades in them. 

·      It might be a huge victory for gun activists in the US but it makes control much harder in countries with much stricter gun laws.

·      Would possessing the gun blueprints be a crime in Malaysia, for example?

·      Of course, printing the gun would be.

 

On the other hand, the gun isn’t complete. It still needs a metal firing pin.

·      Sure. But it’s only a matter of time before technology catches up with that, too.

·      We can already 3D print in metals as well as plastics, it’s just that technology isn’t as accessible to home users.

·      Or someone will come up with something using a strong composite material like graphite and the entire gun will be undetectable and untraceable and you can make it in minutes from your suitcase.

 

Is there any good news on the horizon?

·      A venture capitalist called Tim Draper has spent the last few years fighting to have California split into 6 and then 3 states.

·      An early investor in things like Skype, bitcoin and Theranos, the house of cards blood-testing company we talked about a couple of months ago, Draper managed to get his proposal to split the US wealthiest state in 3 onto the ballot for this November.

·      He’s Arguing that California has become ungovernable.

·      Of course, no one argues that California isn’t in the middle of a huge number of challenges: income inequality, resource depletion, drought and plenty more.

·      What no one can quite understand is why cutting it in 3 would solve the problems.

·      Why not cut it in 2. Or into 100 different pieces. It’s arbitrary.

 

How is this good news?

·      Because California’s state supreme court is holding it up for further examination. 

·      It could be cleared to appear on a ballot in the future but a lot of folks are sceptical, not least because it would potentially fall into the category of a revision to the state’s constitution, rather than an amendment, so it would require a different regulatory approach.

·      Even if it did succeed, it would require approval from the US national congress for the new states to effectively secede from one another.

·      So, despite the fact that there are reports that Draper paid canvassers up to US$3 per signature acquired and has spent millions of his own money on this and his 2014 division campaign…

 

The billionaires and their money don’t always get their way?

·      Exactly. I’ve got a suggestion.

·      We crowdsource some catastrophic event. 

·      Zombie apocalypse. Alien invasion. We seed it through social media as though it’s real.

·      The techno-babies get scared and retreat to their underground bunkers.

·      Once they’re there we can keep up the act.

·      Put the cloverfield movies on loop on giant screens in front of their video cameras.

·      Keep the loops rolling for a couple of hundred years while we get on with building a better society and they get to live out their little boy fantasies underground.

Matt Armitage