Algorithms are the perfect tool for delivering individualized exploitation to billions. They may yet have potential for mobilizing collective power at scale.
Buy Me a Sandwich
Out in California, my friend is working on a new kind of energy storage startup. Here’s what they do. They buy electricity from the grid when it’s cheap (middle of the night), and store it in a battery in your house for you to use during the day, when demand is high. Participants will be able to save 20%-30% on their energy bills. And the best part is you don’t even have to do anything. The whole thing runs on algorithms.
Customers in the UK will soon find out. Recent reports suggest that three of the country’s largest supermarket chains are rolling out surge pricing in select stores. This means that prices will rise and fall over the course of the day in response to demand. Buying lunch at lunchtime will be like ordering an Uber at rush hour.
But what if an algorithm bought it for you at midnight instead?
Amid the infinite churn of natural and political terrors— juxtaposed with photos of babies made by people I love — blowing up my Facebook feed, I keep seeing a hipster hostage video selling me something called Paribus.
“Stores change their prices all the time — and many of them have price guarantees,” explains Paribus’ App Store description. “Paribus gets you money when prices drop. So if you buy something online from one of these retailers and it goes on sale later, Paribus automatically works to get you the price adjustment.”
Most likely the reason Facebook expects I’d be interested in this service (more on this later) is because I already have an app duking it out with Comcast to lower my bill.
It sends me updates via Facebook Messenger to let me know its progress:
And I message it back choose-your-own-adveture style responses:
This feature is part of a service called Trim, which positions itself as “a personal assistant that saves money for you.” (It makes money by taking a cut of the recovered charges.)
Trim calls its Comcast negotiator bot, knowingly:
And, indeed — we should all be thinking about the possibilities for algorithm defense.
Buy Me A Monopoly
The day Amazon announced its purchase of Whole Foods, shares in both Kroger and Walmart — which generates more than half its revenue from grocery sales — went into free-fall. Kroger’s in particular fell 8% in a matter of hours.
“Amazon has demonstrated that it is willing to invest to dominate the categories that it decides to compete in,” said Mark Baum, a senior vice president at the Food Marketing Institute. But the way Amazon “decides to compete” is to actually make the category uncompetitive, driving other players out until it has become the category.
Amazon isn’t abandoning online retail for brick-and-mortar. Rather, it’s planning to fuse the two. It’s going to digitize our daily lives in ways that make surge-pricing your groceries look primitive by comparison. It’s going to expand Silicon Valley’s surveillance-based business model into physical space, and make money from monitoring everything we do.
Concepts like Paribus, or Trim’s “Comcast Defense” are still primitive now, too, but extrapolate the possibilities out at scale. Imagine hundreds of thousands of people on a negotiation platform like this. That becomes the ability to exert real power. To pit Comcast and Verizon and AT&T against each other for who will offer the best deal, and have the leverage to switch all your members over en masse.
Reading Trim’s about page, it seems possible the thought could have crossed their minds:
So far, we’ve saved our users millions of dollars by automating little pieces of their day-to-day finances.
Now we’re starting to work on the hard stuff. Will I have enough money to retire someday? Which credit card should I get? Can my car insurance switch automatically to a cheaper provider?
Maybe Trim’s already thinking of the power of collective negotiating. Or maybe someone else will. The idea isn’t even all that new. It’s essentially how group insurance plans work. And unions. We’ve come up with it before. But we’ve never really tried it with code.
Buy Me A Pen
art by Curtis Mead
“When mass culture breaks apart,” Chris Anderson wrote a decade ago, in The Long Tail, “It doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.”
On this new landscape of “massively parallel culture,” as Anderson called it, hyper-segmentation has become our manifest destiny.
Now we atomize the universal, dividing into ever nicher niches. We invent new market subsegments where none previously existed, or need to. We splash pink onto pens to create “differentiated” product lines:
Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made. Facebook sees you, everywhere. Now, thanks to its partnerships with the old-school credit firms, Facebook knew who everybody was, where they lived, and everything they’d ever bought with plastic in a real-world offline shop. All this information is used for a purpose which is, in the final analysis, profoundly bathetic. It is to sell you things via online ads.
Buy Me Clicks
All day long, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm “is mapping your brain, seeking patterns of engagement,” writes Tobias Rose. “It can predict what you’ll click on better than anyone you know. It shows you stories, tracks your responses, and filters out the ones that you are least likely to respond to. It follows the videos you watch, the photos you hover over, and every link you click on.”
And Facebook follows you even when you’re not on Facebook. “Because every website you’ve ever visited (more or less) has planted a cookie on your web browser,” writes Lanchester, “when you go to a new site, there is a real-time auction, in millionths of a second, to decide what your eyeballs are worth and what ads should be served to them, based on what your interests, and income level and whatnot, are known to be.”
Facebook’s algorithms can create not only a private, personal pipeline of media, but an entirely individualized reality where information is repackaged for you — like pink pens — dynamically, in real-time, to whatever color, shape, or price point will extract the most value out of you specifically.
Four researchers based in Spain creat[ed] automated [shopper] personas to behave as if, in one case, ‘budget conscious’ and in another ‘affluent’, and then checking to see if their different behaviour led to different prices. It did: a search for headphones returned a set of results which were on average four times more expensive for the affluent persona. An airline-ticket discount site charged higher fares to the affluent consumer. In general, the location of the searcher caused prices to vary by as much as 166 per cent.
An anti-Clinton ad repeating a notorious speech she made in 1996 on the subject of ‘super-predators’… was sent to African-American voters in areas where the Republicans were trying, successfully as it turned out, to suppress the Democrat vote. Nobody else saw the ads.
“As consumers,” Tarnoff writes, “we’re nearly powerless, but as citizens, we can demand more democratic control of our data. The only solution is political.”
I’ve had the same thought. In an article last year about how technology has gotten so good at degrading us even some of its creators are starting to have enough, I wrote, “We take it for granted now, that cars have seat-belts to keep the squishy humans inside from flying through a meat-grinder of glass and metal during a collision. But they didn’t always. How did we ever get so clever? Regulation.”
We’ve been classified and stereotyped and divided and conquered by algorithms. Lines of code deliver custom-targeted exploitation to billions of earthlings at once.
Can our individual fragments of power be scaled towards something bigger by them as well?
“Addressing our biggest issues as a species — from climate change, to pandemics, to poverty —” (to Jesus Christ, have you tried ever canceling your Comcast account?) “— requires us to have a common narrative of the honest problems we face,” writes Rose. “Without this, we are undermining our greatest strength — our unique ability to cooperate and share the careful and important burdens of being human.”
As individuals we are indeed basically powerless, and algorithms have proven a stunningly effective tool for extracting ever greater value out of our atomization. We have perhaps yet to imagine the potential of what algorithms deployed to concentrate our individual power into a group force can achieve at a global scale.
One thing is for certain — we ned to start thinking about defense.
Technology has gotten so good at degrading people, even its creators are starting to have enough.
Last year I had what you could call an existential crisis. This psychological hangover was induced by the dissolution of an app I’d launched, which had amassed millions of users but not enough money to keep it alive, a divorce from a second startup I co-founded that cost me layer’s fees and the price of a dear friendship, and topped off finally with a roofie of heartbreak.
It felt for a while like I had fallen through the trap door of the universe. I had discovered what everyone up on the floorboards above, walking noisily about, convinced they were going somewhere, was too blind to see: nothing mattered.
While in the void, I saw Apple unveil the Apple Pencil and thought about how vehemently opposed to a product like this Steve Jobs had been during his lifetime. “God gave us 10 styluses,” proclaimed a man not known for a belief in a power higher than himself, “let’s not invent another.” This prophetic aversion had led directly to the invention the iPhone, a touch-screen device that in a few years had wholly remade the world in its self-images.
“As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead,” Jobs had famously declared. But, of course, at 56, Steve Jobs was dead, and as soon as he was, Apple had a stylus.
“Think about that when you’re fighting for some creative idea at work today,” I’d tell people.
All meaning we ascribed to anything we did with our lives seemed ridiculous; an absurd delusion. I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to pursue nothing. I wanted to create nothing. There was no point to any of it.
All of this felt compounded — and if I stared too long into the glare of the digital sun, perpetuated — by an increasingly paralyzing rupture I was watching run down the fabric of the culture.
“Our technology is turning us into objects,” I’d written in a 2013 post titled Objectionable, tracing the trajectory from selfies to self-objectification to dehumanization. In a ubiquitously mediated environment, I argued, re-conceiving ourselves and one another as media products was inevitable. “We are all selfies. We are all profiles. We are all objects. And we can’t stop. And the trouble is, it doesn’t matter how you treat objects,” I wrote. “It’s not like they’re people.”
Then came Tinder.
“By reducing people to one-time-use bodies and sex to an on-demand exchange, dating apps have made what they yield us disposable and cheap,” I wrote in an An App For Love. “From swipe to sex, the relentless, grinding repetitiveness inherent in every aspect of the ‘swipe app’ experience sabotages the very mechanics that trigger the brain system for romantic love,” I wrote, referencing Helen Fisher’s extensive neuroscience research on the phenomenon. “Love knows what it likes. And we could be building tech engineered for it — creating a match between the research and the product experience, as it were. But we aren’t. Love has been, literally, written out of the code for a generation afraid to catch feelings. Instead we swipe through thousands of instant people. We learn nothing of them and share nothing of ourselves to be known. We strip ourselves down to anatomy and we become invisible.”
We had succeeded, I wrote in the summer of 2015, in disrupting love. That would be the last thing I’d write before nothing became worth writing about.
In the fall of 2016 there is a toxic sense pervading the culture that no one is deserving of dignity anymore. You can feel it too as you sense your own being swiped away. It’s not just in our politics. It’s in our pockets. It’s in the nameless dread we feel of our devices now. Their myriad manipulations invading our attention, degrading our autonomy, making us sick. One third of us would rather give up sex than our smartphone. The rest of us can’t even get out of bed in the morning without first tapping the black, glass syringe. We have accepted our addiction to digital dopamine so thoroughly we take its unrelenting coercion for granted. We all live under the tyranny of technology now. It’s gotten to the point that even some technology creators are recoiling at the results their creations have wrought on our brave new world, and trying to find ways to design different.
The capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed is now the engine of Las Vegas’s economy. Over the last 20 years, roulette wheels and craps tables have been swept away to make space for a new generation of machines: no longer mechanical contraptions (they have no lever), they contain complex computers produced in collaborations between software engineers, mathematicians, script writers and graphic artists.
The casinos aim to maximise what they call “time-on-device”. The environment in which the machines sit is designed to keep people playing. Gamblers can order drinks and food from the screen. Lighting, decor, noise levels, even the way the machines smell — everything is meticulously calibrated. Not just the brightness, but also the angle of the lighting is deliberate: research has found that light drains gamblers’ energy fastest when it hits their foreheads.
But it is the variation in rewards that is the key to time-on-device. The machines are programmed to create near misses: winning symbols appear just above or below the “payline” far more often than chance alone would dictate. Losses are thus reframed as potential wins, motivating [players] to try again. Mathematicians design payout schedules to ensure that people keep playing while they steadily lose money. Alternative schedules are matched to different types of players, with differing appetites for risk: some gamblers are drawn towards the possibility of big wins and big losses, others prefer a drip-feed of little payouts (as a game designer told Schüll, “Some people want to be bled slowly”). The mathematicians are constantly refining their models and experimenting with new ones, wrapping their formulae around the contours of the cerebral cortex.
Gamblers themselves talk about “the machine zone”: a mental state in which their attention is locked into the screen in front of them, and the rest of the world fades away. “You’re in a trance,” one gambler explains to Schüll. “The zone is like a magnet,” says another. “It just pulls you in and holds you there.”
Of course, these days we’re all captive to a screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximize time-on-device every waking moment, everywhere we go. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own, private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower. It’s engineered.
“There’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain,” explains Tristan Harris, formerly Google’s Design Ethicist.
Designers, technologists, product managers, data scientists, ad sales executives — the job of all these people, as Harris says, “is to hook people.”
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical,” wrote the beat poet Alan Ginsberg in his 1956 magnum opus, Howl.
There is a huge incentive for technology companies to keep us in thrall to their machine zone. From small startups to the massive, public corporations that are now America’s most valuable companies, the dual motivators of reward from advertisers, and punishment from stockholders or investors compel them to make sure they keep you, me, and everyone we know constantly and increasingly engaged.
The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws.
When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on. Facebook gives your new profile photo a special prominence in the news feeds of your friends, because it knows that this is a moment when you are vulnerable to social approval, and that “likes” and comments will draw you in repeatedly. LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine — how important I must be! — even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a menu of suggested contacts. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.
The same month as the article above came out, Briana Bosker wrote in The Atlantic:
Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts — what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra. Checking that Facebook friend request will take only a few seconds, we reason, though research shows that when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task. The “friend request” tab will nudge us to add even more contacts by suggesting “people you may know,” and in a split second, our unconscious impulses cause the cycle to continue on the recipient’s phone.
Food companies engineer flavors to exploit our biological desire for sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Social technology taps into our psychological cravings. We are social creatures, after all.
The trend is toward deeper manipulation in ever more sophisticated forms. Harris fears that Snapchat’s tactics for hooking users make Facebook’s look quaint. Facebook automatically tells a message’s sender when the recipient reads the note — a design choice that activates our hardwired sense of social reciprocity and encourages the recipient to respond. Snapchat ups the ante: Unless the default settings are changed, users are informed the instant a friend begins typing a message to them — which effectively makes it a faux pas not to finish a message you start. Harris worries that the app’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji, seems to have been pulled straight from [Stanford experimental psychologist B.J.] Fogg’s inventory of persuasive tactics. Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts — to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead. “To be honest, it made me sick to my stomach to hear these anecdotes,” Harris told me.
For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time.
I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
In an essay on contemplation, the Christian writer Alan Jacobs recently commended the comedian Louis C.K. for withholding smartphones from his children. On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”
He recalled a moment driving his car when a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio. It triggered a sudden, unexpected surge of sadness. He instinctively went to pick up his phone and text as many friends as possible. Then he changed his mind, left his phone where it was, and pulled over to the side of the road to weep. He allowed himself for once to be alone with his feelings, to be overwhelmed by them, to experience them with no instant distraction, no digital assist. And then he was able to discover, in a manner now remote from most of us, the relief of crawling out of the hole of misery by himself. As he said of the distracted modern world we now live in: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”
“When you’re feeling uncertain,” says Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, “Before you ask why you’re uncertain, you Google. When you’re lonely, before you’re even conscious of feeling it, you go to Facebook. Before you know you’re bored, you’re on YouTube. Nothing tells you to do these things. The users trigger themselves.”
Technology’s relentless intrusion isn’t just hijacking our attention, it’s being deliberately designed to disrupt another kind of human experience:
Endless distraction is being engineered to prevent us from experiencing emotion. A form of, literally, psychological abuse.
What is this doing to our mental health?
The American College Health Association’s Spring 2016 survey of 95,761 students found that 17% of the nation’s college population has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year. 13.9% were diagnosed with or treated for depression. Up from 11.6% and 10.7% respectively just five years ago.
Ohio State has seen a 43% jump in the past five years in the number of students being treated at the university’s counseling center. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the increase has been about 12% each year over the past decade. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demand for counseling-center services has increased by 36% in the last seven years.
There is a mental health crisis of, literally, epidemic proportion going on.
The Wall Street Journal suggests it is “unclear why the rates of mental-health problems seem to be increasing.” Anxiety and depression rising in tandem with cohorts of young people who have spent more and more of their lives enmeshed in addictive technology with each successive year may simply be a coincidence.
Last year, Sales’s Vanity Fair article, Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’ provided an ethnography of the dystopian dating app culture, but unlike her other subjects, McLeod wasn’t just another helpless user at the mercy of dating app technology. He is the founder of the dating app Hinge.
“It was crazy,” McLeod said. “I had $10 million in the bank. I had resources. I had a team. But as a C.E.O. I felt more powerless than I did when I had, like, no money in the bank and this thing was just getting started.”
“When your article came out,” McLeod had written to Sales back in August, “it was the first among many realizations that Hinge had morphed into something other than what I originally set out to build. Your honest depiction of the dating app landscape has contributed to a massive change we’re making at Hinge later this fall. I wanted to thank you for helping us realize that we needed to make a change.”
McLeod, 32, had launched Hinge in early 2013, fresh out of Harvard Business School, with the hope of becoming the “Match for my generation” — in other words a dating site that would facilitate committed relationships for younger people who were less inclined to use the leading and yet now antiquated (in Internet years) service. He was a bit of a romantic; last November a “Modern Love” column in the New York Times told the story of how he made a mad rush to Zurich to convince his college sweetheart not to marry the man she was engaged to (she and McLeod plan to marry this coming February). So nothing in his makeup nor his original plans for his company fit in with it becoming a way for Wall Street fuckboys to get laid. (“Hinge is my thing,” said a finance bro in my piece, a line McLeod says made him blanch.)
Sales’s article was a reckoning. Within a few months of its publication the Hinge team began conducting user research that, as McLeod writes, “would reveal how alarmingly accurate its indictment of swiping apps was.”
7 in 10 surveyed women on the leading swiping app have received sexually explicit messages or images.
6 in 10 men on the leading swiping app are looking primarily for flings or entertainment.
30% of surveyed women on swiping apps have been lied to about a match’s relationship status.
22% of men on Hinge have used a swiping app while on a date.
54% of singles on Hinge report feeling lonely after swiping on swiping apps.
21% of surveyed users on the leading swiping app have been ghosted after sleeping with a match.
81% of Hinge users have never found a long-term relationship on any swiping app.
Unsurprisingly, among the main design conventions McLeod and his team identified that have become standard in swipe apps are: a “slot-machine interface” that encourages people to keep swiping, and the dehumanizing representation of “people as playing cards.” These design choices not only “lead to the pathologically objectifying way many choose to engage with the real humans on the other side of the app” but also serve the business purpose of orienting users “towards engagement, not finding relationships.”
On the eve of Hinge’s relaunch as a completely overhauled product, (sans “swiping, matching, timers and games”), McLeod wrote:
The most popular swiping app boasts that users login on average 11 times per day spending up to 90 minutes per day swiping, and have accumulated on average over 200 matches. However, for the vast majority of users this has led to exactly zero relationships.
Like a casino, a swiping app isn’t designed to help you win; it’s designed to keep you playing so the house wins. Swiping is an addictive game designed to keep you single.
Given the current state of our culture, it’s now more critical than ever that there exist a service that helps those bold enough to seek real relationships find meaningful connections. With it, we hope we can pave the way for a new normal in dating culture that treats people with dignity and helps those seeking relationships find what they’re really looking for.
On October 11 the new Hinge launched on iOS in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and India.
“What responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people,” asks Tristan Harris. “Behavior design can seem lightweight because it’s mostly just clicking on screens. But what happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.”
Prior to his appointment as Google’s Design Ethicist, Harris worked on the Gmail Inbox app, which is where he began to think about the ways experience design choices can have ramifications on society at a mass scale. In 2016 Harris left Google to found Time Well Spent, a consultancy that works with tech startups proactively seeking to create more conscious user experiences, and to raise awareness for how digital technology is exploiting our psychology in ways we’ve come to take for granted.
As Bosker writes, Harris’s team at Google “dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more ‘delightful’ email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives — or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?”
Like McLeod and Harris these are questions technology creators seem to be starting to ask themselves.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform,” Dick Costolo, Twitter’s former CEO, wrote in a leaked memo in 2015. “We’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO…. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company.”
In February of 2015 Costolo was confident the platform would “start kicking these people off right and left,” but the problem might have proven too big for Costolo to solve. Before the end of year, he was out. Now, Costolo’s newly-announced post-Twitter venture, Chorus, is a fitness product aiming, unambiguously, to make people’s lives better.
Gabe Zichermann literally wrote the book on Gamification By Design. Now he focuses his energy on a new startup called Onward, which aims to “transform how people relate to addictive and compulsive behaviors in their lives, giving them more control and overall satisfaction.” The company is working with UCLA-based clinical advisors to design a software product to help people “achieve tech-life balance by reducing the pull from social media, porn, sex, gambling, games or shopping.” Not surprisingly, “Onward is designed and built by a team of expert technologists whose lives have been personally affected by addiction.”
“A new class of tech elites [is] ‘waking up’ to their industry’s unwelcome side effects,” Bosker writes. “For many entrepreneurs, this epiphany has come with age, children, and the peace of mind of having several million in the bank.” Bosker quotes Soren Gordhamer, the creator of Wisdom 2.0, a conference series about maintaining “presence and purpose” in the digital age: “They feel guilty,” Gordhamer says.
Perhaps. Or perhaps the realization of how much power they wield may, for some, eventually broaden their scope of what it is they can do with it. It is worth noting that this nascent trend has arrived as many of the technologists and entrepreneurs responsible for shaping the digital experiences of our lives have matured from scrappy upstarts with something to prove into established industry players. Has success felt as meaningful as they’d imagined it would? Did all their hard work and late nights actually create something of value? Has their impact on the world turned out to be what they’d hoped?
Confronted by this self-reflection some are discovering they have the power, and time yet, to make a change.
FLESH AND BONE BY THE TELEPHONE
Y-Combinator, the famous startup incubator that has helped create successes like AirBnB, DropBox, Instacart, Reddit, and more, has a motto —
This is an awesome mantra for founders of a commercial enterprise (and for VCs hoping to get a big return on their investment to preach to startups), but the trouble is, just because people want a thing doesn’t always mean that it’s all that awesome. People, for example, want heroin. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your company ought to make it.
What people want can be hacked. Addiction, in fact, changes the structure of the brain. There is a very fine line between making a thing people want and coercing our desires in the first place. By exploiting our psychological susceptibilities, as Harris says, technology companies “are getting better at getting people to make the choices they want them to make.”
Through Time Well Spent Harris is championing the adoption of design standards that treat users’ psychology with respect rather than as an exploitable resource, a concept he refers to as a “Hippocratic oath” for software creators.
Dating back to the physicians of Ancient Greece, the Hippocratic oath states the obligations and proper conduct of doctors. The pledge is taken upon graduation from medical school, oftentimes depicted in the shorthand: “first do no harm.”
But industrialists are not doctors — the psychological motivations that compel someone to go through years and years of grueling, expensive training in order to help heal people are often not the same as those of someone who self-selects to drop out of college to start a company that gives people what they want even if it’s kinda pretty bad for them — it turns out.
The biggest obstacle to incorporating ethical design and “agency” is not technical complexity. According to Harris, it’s a “will thing.” And on that front, even his supporters worry that the culture of Silicon Valley may be inherently at odds with anything that undermines engagement or growth. “This is not the place where people tend to want to slow down and be deliberate about their actions and how their actions impact others,” says Jason Fried, who has spent the past 12 years running Basecamp, a project-management tool. “They want to make things more sugary and more tasty, and pull you in, and justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of dollars [in] VC funds.”
In the Atlantic, Josh Elman, “a Silicon Valley veteran with the venture-capital firm Greylock Partners,” offers another analogous example. “Elman compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco.”
But the question is — who’s going to hold them accountable when, inevitably, they don’t? Big Tobacco did not decide to stop advertising to children, and fast food chains didn’t decide to start disclosing the caloric content of their products out of the goodness of their black lungs and arterially-sclerosed hearts. It seems unlikely that relying on the personal conscience of each individual app developer to guide them towards moral integrity is really going to be a scalable solution.
We take it for granted now, that cars have seat-belts to keep the squishy humans inside from flying through a meat-grinder of glass and metal during a collision. But they didn’t always.
How did we ever get so clever?
Regulation. It took legislation to make seat belts standard in cars. And more legislation to require their use. And it has saved lives. Regulation changes not only what’s legal, but what’s normal. Car manufacturers didn’t used to talk about seat belts because it made people think of the reality of car crashes, and cars were sold on the “fantasy” of driving. Now cars are sold on safety.
In the wake of a national mental health crisis and corporations setting out to explicitly exploit our psychology, it’s worth considering the options we have as citizens, not just consumers.
SOME COURTESY, SOME SYMPATHY, AND SOME TASTE
In the early 2010’s, Wired founder Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, became quite fashionable with a certain type of tech person for absolving himself of any moral or ethical responsibility in his creations. According to this mechanistic faith, technology just wants to, like, live its true self; who are its creators to have any say in the inevitable?
In this vision we are all trapped in a mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want and users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.
Yet it is the very power to create products used by millions, or billions of people that is the power to shape — or misshape—the world. Technology wants to irradiate us as much as it wants to cure us. Technology wants to bomb our cities as much as it wants to power them. Technology wants to destroy us as much as it wants to save us. Which is to say, technology wants NOTHING. Technology has no innately arising desires of its own independent of the desires of the people who create it.
At some point in the past 70 years we seem to have forgotten what we knew in the aftermath of WW2, which is that what technology wants is in the eyes of its creators. And engineering technology for objectification, addiction, psychological exploitation, mental abuse….is degrading. It’s degrading to the people who use it, and it’s degrading to the people who make it — it takes a certain kind of personality to feel good depriving people of their humanity, and not everyone has it. You might be one of those with a resistance.
From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates some of the most successful technology entrepreneurs, and humans, in history have ended up pursuing ways to contribute to the world after they retired from their commercial endeavors. Perhaps for some in the new generation the prospect of segregating the two is no longer quite as appealing.
In the end, after every single tech CEO alive today is dead, their company, should it outlive them, will make the product they never wanted to see in the world. Some, it seems, are starting to ask themselves whether it’s what they want to be doing while they’re still living.
5 Days & Nights With Startup Millennials in San Francisco.
THURSDAY MORNING: San Francisco’s Hottest Zip Code
“Our power was out this morning,” The text message from S, the 27-year-old CTO of a fashion startup in San Francisco reads, “And hopefully it is back on now but… ?”
In Los Angeles, I receive this information as I’m heading out the door to LAX on my way “upstairs” to San Francisco for the Chief Innovation Officer Summit and some meetings. The salient-seeming text arrives, and evaporates like rising steam, pushed into the abyss beyond my screen by more incoming iMessage bubbles of instructions about S’s street address, the lockbox code to get the keys to her apartment, how to locate her room, disclaimers about the room’s condition (Um, it’s a little bit of a disaster because basically every day I drop my clothes on the floor and grab new clothes to wear horizontal line mouth emoji), etc.
Last month fliers began appearing on certain blocks of San Francisco advertising open auditions for a television pilot about “six leading technology executives living, learning, and loving together in San Francisco’s Mission District.” The shlocky concept was named 94110 after the neighborhood’s zip code, and was roundlyridiculed online. Nonetheless, nearly 100 hopefuls showed up for the casting call this weekend, which was held at SFAQ, a dinged-up, lived-in little art gallery in the Tenderloin.
94110 is S’s zip code.
At this moment my return flight is scheduled for 2 days from now. When I eventually leave, nearly a week later, the power in S’s apartment will still not be fixed.
THURSDAY EVENING: What Is My Mother No Longer Doing For Me?
I arrive just in time to catch the end of day 1 of the Chief Innovation Officer Summit. It’s at the Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero and I can generally remember how to get there from the Mission even without the help of the Google Maps app.
The first time I came to San Francisco I was 12 and I fell in love. In high school, I’d visit every spring break, sitting on top of Nob Hill writing sprawling love poems to the gorgeous city, taking the 24 up Divisadero imagining which house the interview in Interview With The Vampire had taken place in, trying on hippie eyelet dresses in the stores on Haight, which still smelled of nag champa when I wore one to prom. The day after my last final freshman year of college I got on a plane and moved there. I was 18 and San Francisco was full of artists, musicians, dancers, and cultural rebels. It was a totally different city, peopled by totally different kinds of residents.
In the evening, I meet up with a friend who is a data scientist at an on-demand meal delivery app (think: Tinder for dinner). He tells me he is working on optimizing the food display options for conversion — making sure users would be more likely to see meals they were going to want to order more quickly as soon as they opened the app.
As early as 1977, when personal computers were expensive and impractical mystery boxes with no apparent utility or business prospects, the young Bill Gates and Paul Allen were already working toward a future in which we would see “a computer on every desk and in every home.” And in the late 1990s, when it was far from clear that they would ever make a penny from their unusual search engine, the audacious founders of Google were planning to organize every bit of data on the planet — and make it available to everyone, free.
These were dreams of vast breadth: The founders of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and many of the rest of today’s tech giants were not content to win over just some people to their future. They weren’t going after simply the rich, or Americans or Westerners. They planned to radically alter how the world did business so the impossible became a reality for everyone.
We are once again living in a go-go time for tech, but there are few signs that the most consequential fruits of the boom have reached the masses. Instead, the boom is characterized by a rise in so-called on-demand services aimed at the wealthy and the young.
With a few taps on a phone, for a fee, today’s hottest start-ups will help people on the lowest rungs of the 1 percent live like their betters in the 0.1 percent. These services give the modestly wealthy a chance to enjoy the cooks, cleaners, drivers, personal assistants and all the other lavish appointments that have defined extravagant wealth. As one critic tweeted, San Francisco’s tech industry “is focused on solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me?”
During dinner, S texts me. Her roommate, R, has “Somehow acquired this awesome house for the night. So… I’m going to go there to hot tub. Come. It’s like $1,000/night but he got it for free, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. ALSO the power is still fucked.”
“Ooofff,” I text back. “Mostly cuz my phone.”
“Fortunately, I’m an engineer. So I connected the light in my room to an extension cord. So you can swap the light for your phone maybe?”
“I like how you’re like, ‘Power is fucked. Oh well. We’ll go to another house.
“I mean we flipped all the breakers in our house. And the apartment upstairs. It’s like, fuck it. The door doesn’t close unless you kick it hard. Landlord is coming tomorrow. We have to hide the cat.”
“If you want to stop by to say hi, it’s — “
FRIDAY MORNING: How Do We Adapt To Millennials?
At The CIO Summit Day 2, Debra Brackeen, the head of the Innovation Network at Citi is talking about biometric integration with financial data, and I’m sipping grapefruit juice and eating a muffin and thinking — who could have predicted the sci-fi future would be so mundane when it arrived, you know?
Everyone is dressed like they’re running for office. I am definitely feeling like a spy; witnessing the ghost of Christmas future. “How do we adapt to Millennials,” someone asks during Heather McGlinn, Wells Fargo’s SVP, Strategy’s, presentation, “Leveraging Disruptive Technologies to Enhance Competitive Advantages,” in the way that you talk about a group of people when they’re not in the room. And, I mean, they aren’t. At the moment, the Millennials are stumbling into their startups after partying all night at Airbnb mansions on drugs from Silk Road.
All roads lead to discussions of disruption. Tim Sutton, the Global Head of Innovation at Clear explains how companies now need to grow their business minimum 4% every year just to maintain market share. If you’re really just maintaining, you’re actually falling behind. A dilemma since, as he puts it, “There is no white space in a consumer’s wallet.” And meanwhile, somewhere beyond the Hyatt’s glass walls, out there in the fog of war of San Francisco, an army of barbarians wages daily assault on the gates of the establishment, gaining ground even if they lose, simply through chaos.
Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent.”
A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.
On a panel about “Strategy Vs Execution,” Pat Conway, the Chief Knowledge Officer for the U.S. Army, is heard saying, “In battle, your biggest obstacle, aside from the adversary, is terrain.”
What must it have been like to awake each morning to an ever-unchanging world? For the majority of humans through the majority of human history this was reality. Today we wake up each morning in a war zone; a disrupted terrorscape where everything has shifted out from under us during the night.
FRIDAY EVENING: You Still Use Skype?
I wake up from a nap at 8:30 to a text from S letting me know a car is coming for me and to be ready in 20 minutes. Half of the apartment is still without electricity but an on-demand chauffeur summoned by magic is coming to whisk me off to a secret speakeasy.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I say to the Lyft driver.
“Do you know?”
“Um….. No? I thought you did?”
“When I pick up the next person,” he says noncommittally.
A few minutes later the other passenger gets in. “Do you know where we’re going,” I ask him.
He’s baffled. “Are you going to the same place?”
For a few moments literally no one in this car knows what we’re doing here.
Eventually the Lyft driver gets my destination coordinates and drops me off on a street corner in North Beach before driving off to deposit the other Lyft Line passenger. A few moments later S, R, and their respective dates appear. S has Uber (for them), Lyft (for me), and Luxe, an on-demand valet service (for her brother) all running on her phone at the same time.
At the speakeasy I’m telling a story about getting a Skype call on a Virgin flight a couple of years ago. “I was so bewildered I hit the green button without even thinking. And then immediately felt like an asshole and hung up.”
“You still use Skype?” R’s date, a Yale grad who works at Google, deadpans.
This is San Francisco now. Fueled by so much one-upmanship and relentless competitiveness and insecurity. It’s a social world designed, literally, by people who came up playing Dungeons and Dragons, who relish intensely complex systems and arcane rules. The trick to enjoying yourself in San Francisco is not to have very much at stake.
Saturday morning everyone is going to Napa and although this was not originally part of the plan, apparently, so am I.
R shows up at the apartment in the morning after You Still Use Skype’s place and while we are waiting for the Luxe valet to bring S’s brother’s car, he tells us a great app idea he’s just thought of: “So it’d basically be Tinder, but just for me. Like that’s all you can do. Is just swipe right on me.” He pauses his rapid-fire delivery to let the concept sink in. “TechCrunch would be all over that. I’d get wifed so fast.”
“Is that what you want, though,” I say.
He considers. “No.”
We spend a while drifting aimlessly as the wait for the Luxe valet lingers on and no one is exactly sure why. Since S ordered the service from her phone she’s the only one who knows the status of what is or might be going on, but S is already in Napa by this point and details are intermittent and sketchy at best. We wonder if perhaps the valet is driving the car out to Napa; is he following her GPS dot around from winery to winery?
The doorbell rings. An electrician arrives to inspect the power outage. A 20th century service while we wait for the 21st century one. Eventually information is absorbed in some kind of vaporous way that the Luxe valet has confused our address with one in San Mateo and after this gets resolved eventually the car arrives and R, S’s brother, and I go to Napa.
SATURDAY EVENING: The Human Centipede Economy.
“The Luxe valets use your car to be Lyft drivers,” S says.
“It’s The Human Centipede Economy,” I declare.
R jumps on this and proceeds to map out a full workflow diagram. “Let’s say you start with Airbnb at the top, right? Then below that you’ve got all the property management companies who then all use Homejoy to clean the houses, and Washio for laundry, and Lyft to get around,” and so on and on.
In Napa some people leave our group and new people appear. All day I am the only one who isn’t an engineer. R later explains the difference between engineers, programmers, and developers, but at the moment it’s all the same and we are LOLing and lolling around bucolic winery grounds, wasted on champagne.
“What class of drug is GHB?” Someone asks.
“Drano,” T answers. T is a new addition to our crew. He’s just moved to San Francisco from New York to start a job at a $500-million startup literally the day before. By the second winery he is explaining why he never engages with “torsos” — profiles of headless, chiseled, abdomen selfies — on Grindr, because one time he did, and quickly realized why the guy didn’t include his face.
“I’m actually bi,” he tells me when we go out into the vineyard to take drunken photos amid the leaves.
“Oh, you are?” I say, fiddling with photo filters. “But do you ever just feel like…. you know, paralysis of choice?”
He laughs and I realize this isn’t what he thought I was going to say.
Eventually it becomes evident that I am clearly not heading back to San Francisco tonight and somewhere between Napa and Sacramento I am calling Southwest and changing my return flight.
SUNDAY MORNING: Career Scoping.
We wake up in a Mongolian yurt. It’s sunny and warm out here in Colfax, and we are sitting by a pool waiting for breakfast as hawks fly overhead.
People are talking about working at pre / post IPO companies as different career strategies; “making money off the speculation;” “upside.” People are talking about deciding whether to work at Stripe, Slack, Reddit. People are talking about strategically deciding to work at a series B company; “career scoping.”
This is how people talk. And oddly it already feels less grotesque than it did yesterday. We become accustomed to things. These are just the elements of their actual lives. They can’t help it any more than you or I can help the inevitable echo chambers of our lives. We are all stuck in our own myopias.
“Where do you want to work in 25 years?” I ask.
Everyone goes quiet.
S shakes her head. “Oh, that’s not the plan.”
At some point someone says that they don’t really have to work at all.
“But I’m still interested in the power and the money,” R admits. “That’s an optimization scenario I have defined for myself.”
R says this phrase a lot. Life is all an endless string of “optimization scenarios” for maximizing happiness. I suggest that we all generally have a default happiness set point that we can’t really fux with too much; a personal baseline we’d return to eventually no matter if we win the lottery or become paralyzed.
“So, it might not even matter what I do?” He shrugs, grinning, his pink-tinted Aviators reflecting the aquamarine.
SUNDAY EVENING: An SF Trip.
“Oh, you’re from LA?” a friend of a friend is saying to me at dinner. I’m back in San Francisco now. It’s cold and dark and the weather feels like the city is spitting at you. “I’m so sorry. LA is terrible.”
“Yup,” I say. “Totally is. You should definitely NOT go there.”
The SF / LA relationship is like a bad breakup where one side never quite got over it. A strangely persistent, one-directional antagonism going back decades in California’s cultural history. “San Francisco is too smug and self-centered for LA,” Ellen Sanders wrote in Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties, “The worst implication you could put on something in or from San Francisco is to call it an LA trip.” Frank Zappa neatly summarized this tension in his autobiography: “No matter how ‘peace-love’ the San Francisco bands might try to make themselves, they eventually had to come south to evil ‘ol Hollywood to get a record deal.”
Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the blind faith many place in progress. The narrative of progress provides moral cover to the tech industry and lulls people into thinking they no longer need to exercise moral judgment.
The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith that rationality itself tends to be a force for good. This faith makes business easier because companies claim to be contributing to progress. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of [morality]; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our moral aspirations with rationality. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality.
There are alternatives to the progress narrative. Many people find meaning in their work through a narrative about making a contribution. Rather than thinking about contribution in a historic sense (i.e., progress), contribution can be thought in terms of specific groups of people.
My dinner companions tell me a story of a recent Airbnb adventure as support of new tech’s contribution. And I understand. I, myself, have just come back from a wonderful Airbnb adventure to a yurt, so, “I get it,” I say. “Airbnb is fun.”
“No, it’s not just fun,” ex-Googler insists. It’s bigger than that.
Downstairs our major cultural contribution is superhero movies. No one producing Avengers 17 or whatever thinks they’re “changing the world.” And that’s OK. Fun is OK. But upstairs it’s different. There is a palpable, existential need for innovation to be righteousness.
“One of the great triumphs of Silicon Valley is its success in framing its companies’ objectives as missions,” John Herman wrote on The Awl in Notes on the Surrender At Menlo Park:
There is a toxic mindset that permeates discussions about most accelerating, inevitable-seeming tech companies. It conflates criticism with denial and nostalgia. Why do people complain about Uber so much? Is it loyalty to yellow cabs and their corrupt nonsense industry? A word of caution about Facebook is not a wish to return to some non-existent ideal time. Worrying about the details of the coming future is merely taking that future seriously. People who insist otherwise? They have their reasons.
Anyway, what were we talking about? This is all going to seem so insane in twenty years. Or two years.
Monday Morning: Engineering Sex.
This particular Monday it’s Memorial Day, so no one is at work, and S is telling me while blowdrying her hair in the part of the apartment with power, “I have this thing that I do on first dates, where I tell them to meet me at this bar that I know is closed on Mondays, to see how they’ll react. Will they freak out? How will we solve problems together?”
And I’m partly horrified and partly fascinated and partly jealous. Some vital optimization scenario I feel I would have thought of if I was an engineer: how will we solve problems together? It’s like a job interview. “What do you want the reaction to be?” I ask. “Do you want them to pick a new place? Do you want them to ask you to pick?”
“I don’t really care,” S says, “So long as they don’t just freak out.”
I recall the Army’s Chief Knowledge Officer at the CIO Summit talking about “Mission Change;” being able to adapt when the objective suddenly shifts. “Get comfortable with uncomfortableness.” he said; a military zen koan.
R, who is 6’4″, has his own strategy. “My type is really tall girls. Like over 6 feet,” he says, because he knows up there he’s got way less competition.
Back in the car there was a lot of time to kill from Colfax to San Francisco, and we spent it user testing T’s updates to his various dating profiles, which he was retooling from a New York persona to a San Francisco look and feel with the methodical grind of coding. Photos of black Jack Spade jackets overwritten by green zip-up-hoodies.
Everyone was on Tinder of course. S mostly used Hinge. They knew of the League but no one was on it. R said recently he’d been meeting girls offline. “It just works better,” he said, “Cause in real life you get my personality, and that compensates.”
“Do you guys use Snapchat?” I asked.
“I use it to send dick pics to the girls I’m seeing,” R said.
“Do you include the face,” T wanted to know.
“Yeah. I’ve got a go-to angle,” R said, sliding down in the backseat, positioning his hand between his legs. “It makes my dick look huge.”
In Sacramento we saw the Capitol building and R and T took a selfie and sent it to a mutual ex who is a professional dominatrix. At one point she used to be T’s sexcam show partner.
She texted back: “:)”
When we came back to San Francisco, R was telling me a story about a girl he’d started seeing recently. It was nearly midnight and I’d plugged an electric kettle into an overflowing power strip in a part of the apartment with electricity and made some hot chocolate and we sat by the fireplace in the living room and tried to stay warm.
“She asked me, ‘What’s your favorite porn site?’ And I said, no, you write down yours on a piece of paper and then I’ll do the same, and when we swapped, it turned out we’d both written down the same one.”
“One night, we’re having sex and she says, ‘I think you’re bleeding.’ And I turn on the lights and I realize I’ve got a nosebleed and it’s bad. There’s blood everywhere. On the walls, pooled in the sheets. It’s in her hair, all over her face, her tits” — as he’s describing what I can only picture as a murder scene I realize he’s titillated. “We both came harder than we ever had before. She has this framed poster of the Black Dahlia on her wall and some blood got on that and she just never cleaned it off and when I come over it’s still there.”
“But you know,” he went on, “There is one girl…. I’ve known her a long time. She’s the sister of my best friend growing up. I’ve been in love with her my whole life. She’s not even super tall or anything. But she’s just got this look about her, you know? I’d ask her to marry me tomorrow if I thought that she would say yes. But I know she won’t. We still hook up sometimes when we see each other. But she’s, you know, dating some other guy, and she’s in LA…”
Then he got a text from one of the girls he was sleeping with and disappeared into that strange netherworld between the Lyft there and the Lyft back.
MONDAY EVENING: Mission Change.
On the flight back to LA I’m watching a Keeping Up With the Kardashians special about Bruce, pre-Caitlyn, Jenner, play silently on the iPad of the girl to my left. On my right, a woman is coordinating logistics for some kind of shoot tomorrow morning. “Get the releases for them,” she’s saying. “They’re in the second drawer. I have to go. We’re about to land.”
I guess this is what we do now. We talk on the phone on airplanes.
She is not using Skype.
San Francisco is like one of those ancient cities now — the kind that has an entirely new city built right on top of it. The people I knew in San Francisco as a teenager and in my 20s all moved out. And in their place, a new and different generation has moved in like fog, obscuring what was there before and transforming the analog into the Cloud. You have to abandon your memory, if you have it, of San Francisco the way it was, and approach it as a totally new American city that now exists on the map. A city with its own new set of social dynamics and value systems, peopled by systems nerds concerned with optimization scenarios not only for the products they create but, by extension, everything else: from dating to careers to transportation to dinner. This is their contribution to our culture (for better or worse).
As we descend into LAX I think about watching the hawks flying overhead on Sunday morning out at the yurt, as we stared up at the sky, looking up from the pool and being blinded by the sun. They circled us like prey as we ate poached eggs. Someone recited trivia about how hawks fly. They catch pockets of hot air, and glide. Predators don’t even flap their wings. They just rise.
The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.
Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.
Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:
We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.
The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.
Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.
Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.
Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”
In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.
“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):
One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.
Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.
“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.
But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —
Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.
One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.
Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”
I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”
Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.
“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.
“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”
There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?
I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”
The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.
Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.
Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”
When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”
It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.
If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?… Is he for sale?… 20 people… 4.2 years….
One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.
“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”
After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:
Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:
Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.
He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.
Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.
Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.
“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”
The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”
“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.
While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”
While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”
Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:
A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.
Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.
The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.
As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.
Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”
The Trends They Are A-changin’.
Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.
This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.
Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.
The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”
Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”
When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.
Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.
In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.
Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.
Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.
Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship.The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.
Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.
However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.