Month: September 2017

See me on TV, getting mildly outraged about DNA grabbing, Softbank and Amazon

This past Sunday, I finally appeared as a panelist on NBC’s Press:Here, hosted by Scott McGrew.

I say “finally” because, while this was my first time appearing on camera for the show, I’ve hovered in the shadows behind those same for maybe twenty other episodes whenever Sarah has been a panellist.

In the unlikely event you’re unfamiliar with Press:Here, it’s a tech version of Meet The Press (hence its Sunday morning scheduling, right after MTP). Two reporters join McGrew to grill tech leaders, CEOs and other prominent figures.

Sometimes (i.e. when Sarah is on, and/or the subject is Uber) the grilling can be fierce, other times it’s a little more collegial. But it’s consistently the most entertaining and best informed tech-related show by a mainstream broadcaster.  (You’re welcome to add your own joke here about why such a distinguished show would want me as a guest.)

This week, my co-panellist was TechCrunch’s Katie Roof and the companies for discussion were: 1) InterGenX – a company, apparently named by Douglas Coupland, which builds a tool that lets police instantly run tests on suspects’ DNA; 2) Kabbage – the small business loans startup that just raised a quarter billion dollars from Softbank; and 3) Amazon.

Infuriatingly, clips from the episode are online but aren’t embeddable, so you’ll have to make do with the following summaries and links.

In the InterGenX segment, I was probably at my most aggravated. Surely, I suggested to founder Bob Schueren, easier DNA testing means more people (including many who turn out to be innocent) will have their DNA taken and stored. As you’ll see in the clip, Schueren insisted that was a matter for local lawmakers. All his device does, he argued, was makes the existing rules easier to enforce. Also troubling, though, was his explanation of the analysis process: While InterGenX can take an instant DNA reading, the results are still sent to the FBI for standard processing. This prompted McGrew to ask whether suspects would be left languishing in their cells in the meantime. You can see Schueren’s answer, and the rest of the discussion, here.

Kabbage is a company I know, and honestly care, little about. They seem to be doing fine, as evidenced by their windfall from Softbank. Softbank, on the other hand, fascinates me. You could copy and paste their corporate history, and investment strategy, as the prologue to a Michael Crichton book and nobody would think it out of place. Then there’s the matter of their insane valuations (WeWork is valued at $1bn per desk, I said, prompting Roof to assure viewers that I was exaggerating) and the fact they’re keeping companies from going public, thus further inflating the bubble. Aren’t they just bad for Silicon Valley? The full segment is here.

Finally, Amazon. Or specifically WholeFoodsAmazon – where now you can get cheap avocados from the same company that lets its workers boil almost to death. Huzzah! That segment here.

Abusing Ourselves To Death

I’ve just finished re-reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death.”

Published in 1985, the book quickly became one of the most famous and influential pieces of media criticism of all time, second only to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Postman’s thesis is simple: The age of television, and in particular television news, had obliterated our attention spans and turned information into entertainment. As such, our world – he argues – has more in common with Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s 1984.

The book also introduced Postman’s theory of the “information-action ratio”…

The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.

Postman died in 2003, a year before the launch of Facebook, three years before Twitter and more than a decade before the election of Donald Trump. It’s tantalizing to wonder what he’d have made of the age of Social Media trolling as politics.

Certainly he’d recognize Donald Trump as the natural (if terrifying) extrapolation of the politics-as-entertainment phenomenon that began with Ronald Reagan. Similarly, Twitter’s 140 character limits are the logical (d)evolution of Postman’s five minute news bursts. The information-action ratio remains a significant problem, but with the added wrinkle that Twitter gives the illusion of activism and involvement, allowing news consumers to kid themselves that they actually do have control over the information they’re drowning in.

And yet, while much of today’s media cesspool seems like a natural progression of Postman’s warnings, there’s one significant difference between Postman’s dystopia and our own.

Postman’s point about Brave New World was that American news consumers watch the news as entertainment. Serious segments were packaged to maximise spectacle and excitement, to give viewers an informational high akin to Huxley’s soma.

Today I defy any news consumer to say they feel good about their addiction. Compared to Reagan, Trump might be a circus clown — but that’s clown in the Stephen King sense as opposed Barnum and Bailey. Every day seems to bring another study or op-ed about how constant attention paid to social media causes stress, depression, and aggression. It also causes consumers to behave in the exact opposite was to Postman’s dulled, happily amused news consumers. Increasingly we’re a nation of outraged, enraged, trolls – quick to respond to even the most thinly-sourced tweet with anger and abuse of our own.

In other words, far from being passive, overwhelmed but ultimately fat-n-happy news junkies, we’ve been weaponized into the digital equivalent of Orwell’s five minutes of hate. And like in Orwell’s book, we can barely keep track of who we’re supposed to be angry at or why.


Sam’s Club, Calistoga

It’s 114 degrees in the shade and I slept from midnight til 10am. Two recipes for delight. Now Sarah and I are finishing our trip with eggs and coffee at Sam’s where they split the NY Times into individual sections; a kind of news buffet.

Today the Times shares the astonishing news that women’s employment in the US is down from its peak in 2000. This is the only developed country where women’s employment has dropped. By coincidence it’s also the only developed country where paid maternity leave is not a right.

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