MATTSPLAINED [] MSP83 [] The Chaos Factory

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

MATTSPLAINED [] MSP83 [] The Chaos Factory

We’re all products of the Chaos Factory. It’s time to shut it down and move if offshore. 

Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9


Episode Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/19/tim-cook-if-youve-built-a-chaos-factory-you-cant-dodge-responsibility-for-the-chaos

https://news.stanford.edu/2019/06/16/remarks-tim-cook-2019-stanford-commencement/


EPISODE EXCERPT


When you look at the world around you, it can seem like we’re living in dark and dangerous times. World leaders who order and abort missile strikes. Technology companies that depict a world of calm and orderliness - as long as you follow their rules - and then there’s Matt, a man who can find a sliver of darkness at the end of every tunnel. 


I believe our topic for today is the chaos factory. What do you mean?

  • Today’s show comes from a slightly unusual source.

  • Plenty of MSP shows begin with something weird or silly that some tech supremo has muttered in the press.

  • But those are usually negatives.

  • The chaos factory is a term that Apple CEO Tim Cook used for Silicon Valley in his commencement speech to the class of 2019 at Stanford University on 16 June.

  • That seems to encapsulate a lot of the shows we do.

  • IT goes back to what we were talking about in the disruption series.


The idea that chaos or disruption is intrinsically good?

  • Yeah. The idea of scorched earth creation.

  • That you have to burn everything that came before

  • And that there can only be one victor.

  • It’s not Highlander: “there can be only one” is not a mantra that we live by.

  • If it was it would be an incredibly boring life.


In what way?

  • Think about it.

  • Apply the same logic as the only search engine is Google.

  • So the only place we could eat would be McDs or KFC.

  • No other restaurants.

  • We could only shop at Giant.

  • The only car would be Proton.

  • The only trees would be pine trees.

  • The only flowers would be daffodils.

  • The only pet we would have are gerbils.

  • All of those things are fine.

  • Our lives are more interesting and improved because of variety.


Not to mention the fact that gerbil videos are pretty dull…

  • I know. Seen one, seen them all.

  • They’re like vanilla hamsters.

  • Oh, I can use a drip bottle and a wheel…

  • But it’s a point that Tim Cook also makes in his speech…


He’s not a fan of hamsters?

  • I’ve really no idea.

  • No, the variety part.

  • He makes the point from the point of view of privacy.

  • Essentially that we exercise self-censorship at the same time that we’re fed the same drip feed of information and influences.

  • And the chilling effect that it has on imagination.

  • Which is the ultimate irony: disruption is the product of imagination.

  • But the net effect of that imagination is to stifle it in others.


Not that we’re opposed to esoteric arguments. It wouldn’t be MSP without them, but why should we care?

  • We should care because the ultimate aim is to make us not care.

  • The aim is to make us accept.

  • In the same way that we’re supposed to be glad that the US president averted a missile strike on Iran.

  • It overlooks the fact that he ordered it in the first place.

  • Despite its name, it’s all too easy to normalise chaos.


To confuse the hero with the villain?

  • In a sense. It’s like watching one of those Marvel shows on Netflix when the hero appeals to some underlying sense of decency in the arch villain.

  • And you cheer because he doesn’t flood Hell’s Kitchen with sarin gas or whatever the big denouement that series was leading up to.

  • But you lose sight of all the chaos that led to that moment and that realisation.

  • It’s why we have that phrase, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

  • Or the notion that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

  • But in the chaos factory the hero and the villain are one and the same.

  • And they’re switching the light on and off to decide when it’s dark and when the dawn breaks.


In the speech, Tim Cook does mention the positives that Silicon Valley has brought…

  • And those are undeniable.

  • But a lot of those developments have been brought about because of competition.

  • Apple and Microsoft fought to develop the best graphical user interface.

  • Microsoft went the OEM route and made computing truly affordable for pretty much everyone.

  • It’s easy to forget that the smartphone wars were initially fought on three fronts.

  • You had the PDAs - Windows, Palm, Psion all had competing OS. And companies like Dell and Sony were duking it out.

  • Over with the pre smart phones Nokia and Ericsson, Motorola and Alcatel were fighting a really tight battle, and Nokia was the far and away leader.

  • And there really was no one in the blackberry space but Blackberry for a number of years,

  • If email was your thing, then it was the default.


And now we have Android and iOS?

  • By and large. And it’s really not even a battle between those two.

  • It is Android’s world. Apple is for those trapped and boxed in early adopters like me, and people who earn too much money.

  • Facebook and Amazon have tried to dip their toes into the smartphone crocodile pit.

  • Now they have fewer toes.

  • Huawei will probably have to concentrate on its own operating system, which, if you’re a government worried about the ownership and influence of the company, is probably a worse scenario than having it use it own custom version of Android, an OS that is widely understood from a programming POV.

  • That’s what chaos brings you.


Is Apple any better than the companies that Tim Cook is taking aim at?

  • Here’s the thing.

  • Cook kind of channels his chaos factory argument along the privacy route.

  • We’ve talked so much this year about tech companies being self-serving.

  • And this is a prime example.

  • Last week we talked about health devices and how Apple wants its Watch to be at the centre of our discussions about health.

  • That’s great. Apple’s attitude to data sharing is a boon.

  • But the company is hardly at the forefront of cooperation and interoperability.


You’re still locked into Apple’s walled garden?

  • Yes, and that walled garden is increasingly looking a little overgrown, poorly tended and tired.

  • The phones are a couple of generations behind Android now. The computer and tablet updates are less frequent and very uninspiring.

  • Siri is personable, but when you compare it to what Google and Amazon are doing with voice, it’s a bit like comparing a Trabant to a Tesla.

  • It took what seemed forever for the Apple Watch to achieve the feat of being waterproof.

  • Something you take for granted as a feature in a 10 dollar watch you buy from the filling station.

  • And as for the company’s attitude to proprietary ports and dongles. It sometimes feels like I need a suitcase of chargers, adapters and headphone cables to get through the working day.

  • For all this, Apple is still convinced that we should pay two or three times the price its rivals cost.

  • That’s an enormous premium to pay for not needing anti virus software, which is pretty much the only advantage I can think Apple has these days.


So, the commencement speech has an element of sour grapes to it?

  • I don’t think so but I think this is maybe where Cook kind of loses control of his argument.

  • Continuity and progression are great but the Apple of 2019 seems about to lapse into stagnation.

  • The big announcement at their developer conference this year was the separate OS for tablets that gives its ipads a more computer like functionality.

  • I’m sorry, but Microsoft has been pushing the successful marriage of these formats for years.


Especially as we’re on the verge of throwing the computer away…

  • Precisely I downloaded the public beat that came out a couple of days ago.

  • It’s good, but it’s as good as Android was a couple of generations ago.

  • That’s not enough when we’re at the precipice of a voice activated, largely screenless revolution and Apple is still trying to make its tablets do half the job its laptops have always done.

  • It reminds me of that moment in the late 1990s when Microsoft decided that the Internet wouldn’t catch on.

  • And then a decade chasing its own tail.

  • In fact, I think Bill Gates commented this week that one of his biggest regrets at Microsoft was not developing its own Android.


But surely your argument is that outside Apple’s Castle Black there are only Wildlings and White Walkers?

  • Or the Walking Dead if you want another overused analogy.

  • I asked Jeff to use that overused GOT analogy btw - in case anyone thinks I’m being snippy.

  • Sure.

  • It’s almost like putting a trampoline against that wall so you can peer over it and the grass really does look greener in the next garden.

  • It might be fake grass, but the entrance fee is lower,

  • It might cost you more in the long run, even if you have to give up a kidney to actually leave.

  • But you’re still being lumped into Apple’s walled garden.


So, is it a good thing that Tim Cook gave this speech?

  • It was a great speech.

  • But it shouldn’t be coming from Apple.

  • Because, like it or not, the company is part of the problem.

  • I want to see Apple doing their part to solve the problem.

  • Throwing shade at your competitors is easy.

  • Solving problems is hard.


After the break, what exactly is Matt’s problem. Stay tuned to MSP…


BREAK


Before the break we were talking about the chaos factory, a term used by Apple CEO Tim Cook in a speech to Stanford University a few weeks ago. 


Now I get to ask my very favourite question: Matt, what is your problem?

  • How long is an indeterminate quantum loop?

  • I was listening to a completely unrelated podcast today.

  • Called White Lies, from NPR. It’s about the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s and an unsolved murder in Selma, Alabama.

  • And one of the interviewees on the show said a really interesting thing.

  • Without empathy, there’s chaos.

  • And that’s what Silicon Valley seems to lack. Empathy.

  • It’s why their vision of disruption is not innovation and empowerment

  • It’s destruction and entitlement.

  • It’s deliberately breaking something, telling you they have the solution to fix what they broke and it’ll probably cost you more than before.


Are you still including Apple in this?

  • It’s interesting. Tim Cook touches on it in his speech.

  • Cook says that companies have to take responsibility, and I agree.

  • But this goes way beyond privacy.

  • It’s about the techno-equivalent of nation building.

  • Take Libra for example.


Facebook’s new crypto-currency?

  • Yes. We’ll do an episode in a week or two specifically about Libra.

  • That Facebook wants its own payments system is not unexpected.

  • If I were FB, I would too.

  • We’ve mentioned before that e-wallets are kind of stealing a march on the social media providers.

  • They have a core service that is useful - paying for stuff - and are adding all kinds of other elements to their ecosystems.

  • Gaming. Which of course, you can pay for.

  • Buying food, ordering cars. Online shopping.

  • Instant messaging that doubles as a peer-to-peer money transfer system.

  • And they’re increasingly offering banking and credit services as well as being a medium of exchange.


For the people, it’s not obvious for, why does Facebook want a piece of this market?

  • Companies like Facebook are constantly trying to make their core service compelling.

  • Their core service is the add-ons of the ewallets.

  • And think how many times a day you make transactions, either small or large.

  • Public transport, tolls, petrol, snacks, lunch, groceries, light shopping.

  • It goes on and on.


A bit like you?

  • But without the benefit of opting out or turning down the volume.

  • We talk about Internet addiction, and I’m certainly not saying that tech companies are trying to get us addicted.

  • But they do try to cultivate and develop our habits. So, any app you open dozens of times a day becomes your go-to.

  • How many times have opened Fb or Twitter, either because you’re bored or because that’s simply what you do when you open your phone?

  • And then you stare at it hoping it will do something to excite or entertain you?


And the go-to nature of e-wallets is a threat to companies like Facebook?

  • Look how tightly woven e-wallets and social media are in China, a country that Facebook doesn’t have access to.

  • There are huge swaths of the world where people are more likely to have a WA account than a bank account.

  • And WA is a great way to transfer cash. So much so that telcos across the African continent have been offering those services via SMS for years already.

  • So you have to ask whose needs FB is addressing: its own, or those of the banking disenfranchised.


Isn’t that one of the arguments for Libra: that it can extend banking services or functionality to people outside 

  • That’s something that a lot of blockchain based currencies can lay claim to.

  • And that’s where we come back to responsibility.

  • If Facebook’s goal was altruism it could have poured its resources into an NGO or open source system independent of its own ecosystem.

  • It certainly doesn’t need to be its own currency.

  • It’s easy for me to send sterling to friends or family in the UK.

  • Or to buy goods on Amazon.


I guess the argument is that an actual currency is easy for everyone to understand. 

  • Sure. If you don’t have a calculator or a currency converter.

  • Or a transaction receipt that automatically shows you the amount in both currencies.

  • Oh, wait a minute. If you’re using Facebook you have a smartphone.

  • So you have all those things already.


You see this as another virtual land grab?

  • This is why Tim Cook’s chaos factory speech is so true and yet so ironic.

  • We see this time and again, and it is very symptomatic of way the chaos factory works.

  • A tech leader - in this case, Mark Zuckerberg - tells us something that is true.

  • Blockchain is a great way to extend financial services to those in casual occupations or countries where regular banking is either for the middle classes or distributed too unequally to be useful.

  • But those facts exist independently of Facebook.

  • Facebook doesn’t own those facts. It doesn’t have anything to do with those facts until the moment it chooses to insert itself in that argument.


And we see the language shift?

  • Yes, then it becomes: Libra is a tool to enfranchise those outside the banking statement.

  • It’s not wrong, but you’re coopting ideas from elsewhere and making yourself look like the great saviour.

  • When actually it’s an act of self-interest.

  • it reminds of another story that came up this week.

  • Sidewalk Labs, which is described on Wiki as Alphabet - or as we still call it Google - Alphabet’s urban innovation project.

  • Which has a pending, billion dollar housing and retail project planned for Toronto.

  • One that it hopes will be a model of sustainable and environmentally conscious living.


All things that you bitterly oppose…

  • Oh yes, I’m totally opposed to affordable, good quality housing.

  • This is another one of those inserting yourself into the problem and calling it a solution issues.

  • Questions have arisen from some of the bodies involved in approving Toronto development projects.

  • Relating to business model and data usage. Those same chaos factory models that Tim Cook spoke about.

  • The Guardian reported that Venture Capitalist Roger Mcnamee wrote to the toronto city council labelling the project as highly evolved surveillance capitalism. And suggested that the company might use its algorithms to nudge human behaviour.


That’s assuming there’s bad intentions there.

  • In the chaos factory companies don’t help themselves.

  • Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff, a former Deputy Mayor of New York, is quoted in the same piece as acknowledging that if the project doesn’t meet SL’s goals then it will withdraw.

  • Now, I’m sure that isn’t intended as a threat.

  • But when you estimate that a project will create over 40,000 jobs, earn billions of dollars in tax revenue for the city, and add billions more dollars to Canada’s GDP.

  • And then you say that you’re comfortable with not doing it.

  • That makes you different from most real estate developers.

  • And then you hear that someone like Former Blackberry CEO Jim Balsillie has publicly called the project a grab for land, power and control. and in an email to the Guardian called it an assault on democracy.

  • When you hear stuff like that it does make you wonder: what is the intent here?


And what is the intent here?

  • Don’t ask me. That’s the point.

  • We should all be asking these questions of the tech companies we interact with.

  • Are these companies trying to replace or subvert our governments?

  • Why does Facebook need its own currency?

  • Does Alphabet intend to create and implement a social credit system similar to the one in China for residents of its developments?

  • Chaos clouds clarity.

  • Governments, for all that we abuse them, are generally accountable to us.

  • If we’re lucky, we can throw them out of office if they get too shady.


Something we can’t do with companies?

  • No, especially countries that start behaving like nation states.

  • And that brings us back around to Tim Cook and Apple.

  • Yes, Apple is better at handling its users data and privacy, because it has the luxury of us paying for everything.

  • But I want to see Apple, and Facebook and all the other big tech companies helping to solve problems.

  • We’re talking about companies that are richer than many developing nations and who claim to be committed to building a progressive vision of the future.

  • I want to see them Helping to solve the inequality they’ve created in California and elsewhere.

  • Spreading their resources out across the world.

  • Paying their contract workers a decent, living salary.

  • Support employees in their efforts to unionise.

  • Stamp out the gender or racial disparities that their products and tools are reinforcing.

  • To stop offshoring their revenues and finding ever more creative ways to structure holding companies and accounting entities.

  • Like Rutger Bregman said - taxes, taxes, taxes.


Do you think they’re listening?

  • Not to me.

  • But they should be listening to all of you.

  • Operating a Chaos Factory is a great way to divert our attention from all these issues.

  • And it’s so easy for us to become tired by all that endless churn and simply to switch off.

  • But switching off and blindly accepting their vision of our future is exactly what Silicon Valley is banking on.

  • And we’ve seen what happens when someone tells them no. they’re not used to it and they throw a tantrum.

  • But as any parent who has lived through the horrors of a three year old can tell you: It’s something we have to force them to get used to.

Just a quick note: I’ll be speaking at the Archidex design conference on Saturday 6th July at KLCC at 3pm. My topic is the Perfect Society, so I’ll be letting off plenty of metaphorical bombs. Entrance is free, but you have to pre-register at archidex.com.my.