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The WTF?! Economy Paperback – January 1, 2017
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However it came into being, this is a thorough, if not exhaustive, review of the history of digital. At 448 pages, it is quite literally a tome of a book. And while the author is clearly a competent documentarian, I wouldn’t call it a quick read. I would have accepted his references with less supporting documentation but engineers, admittedly, may be more demanding on that front.
For me, the book is really two books. The first book is all about the history of Silicon Valley and its creations. When he noted “…the genius of TCP/IP” I considered putting the book down, as I don’t have a clue what that is and don’t really have any interest in learning as long as my Mac and Kindle work.
The Internet has also trained me in the value of “chapter learning.” There is a lot I don’t need to know because if and when I do I can turn to Google and YouTube. But I slogged through and it was undoubtedly good to get more informed. (We’re all a little lazy on that front today.)
The second book—the one about the metaphorical Silicon Valley’s place in the word—was pure gold. In this book the author takes an inquisitive scalpel to the frustrating world we now live in and, explains it, isolates some of the root causes, and offers some prescriptions.
While I am not a techie, I am a mathematician and philosopher of sorts and was fully engaged by “Part III: A World Ruled by Algorithms.” Algorithms drive the digital world but are little understood by the people who use its services. An algorithm is a recursive computation that provides, particularly when used in groups, informed answers to problems like how to rank data or answer a search. A computation, however, is not a calculation in the way that 2+2=4 is; least of all when context is factored in. Algorithms will give you an answer but not necessarily “truth.” That, more often than not, is a matter of perspective and your personal standard of precognitive conclusion.
Which is precisely why “fake news” will be impossible to ultimately prevent. Even Facebook’s vision of communities won’t help. It is community that is the problem to begin with. In the end, the news coming from the “other community” is all fake because, by definition, it is not substantiated if we are unwilling to accept that it is.
Algorithmic bias, I believe, is the biggest challenge our society and our economy faces at the moment. I dare say it is more immediate than climate change for the simple reason that the Internet has become integrated with our economy, our politics, and our culture to such a degree that if it fails our world will come tumbling down.
And it will fail, I believe, because of algorithmic bias, which will undermine trust in the Internet, or, more precisely, the Internet gatekeepers. Trust is pivotal to the Internet ecosystem and the gatekeepers, to date, have protected it with skill and determination.
The author actually lays out the argument quite well when he notes that traffic tickets handed out by intersection cameras are quite “fairly” distributed. Who can argue with the time-stamped image? And he’s right, of course. But what if the cameras are only installed in certain neighborhoods and not installed in certain other neighborhoods?
The problem is not the algorithm per se, it is its application. The author correctly notes, “The characteristics of the training data are much more important to the result than the algorithm.” Bingo. And that will be an impossible problem to fix to everyone’s satisfaction. (Compromise is not exactly the ideal of the day.)
And the courts, I predict, won’t help. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 exempted ISP’s from all copyright laws because they are, theoretically “neutral.” This protection, O’Reilly argues, is both warranted and critical. The warranted argument is moot, however, because ISPs will eventually lose that protection in the courts. Semantics are a double-edged sword in our legal system. Our legal system turns on semantics and the distinction between a “neutral platform” and a content provider will ultimate be erased once the mobs outside of SV turn on it.
The author’s solution to algorithmic bias is to double down—install more and more robust algorithms that are measured by the right results. (Google’s quest for “relevance” won’t do it.) And that will help. It will not, however, erase a problem that people are only now even becoming aware of. And the very psychological attributes that allow people to be hoodwinked also work in reverse. Once the tipping point is reached, convincing them that you now tell the truth is next to impossible.
In the end I couldn’t agree more with O’Reilly that the real problem we face today is the master algorithm of serving the shareholder. “It’s essential to get beyond the idea that the only goal of business is to make money for its shareholders.” As a former CEO, I believe he is absolutely right; we have hollowed out our economy and our souls and given it all to management and their investors, who now enjoy a very outsized portion of our miraculous economic output. And we are destroying our economic future in the process.
“People have a deep hunger for idealism,” O’Reilly notes. And I agree. We can survive, or, if we don’t survive in the short term, dig our way out. Our resilience is legendary.
I further agree with O’Reilly that the concerns about the robots putting us out of work are overstated. There will always be plenty to do.
Fixing algorithmic bias, however, will be painful. Some wealth will be lost. Some power will have to be redistributed. It won’t happen without a battle. Bravo to Tim O’Reilly, however, for putting this very important topic on the table for discussion.
This will, I believe, prove to be a seminal book on a topic of truly epic importance.
Tim O'Reilly draws on his established position as thought leader and publisher with ties to the increasingly broad range of the "alpha geeks" and entrepreneurs that have shaped our digital world. He richly explores the double-edged effects of technologies such as platforms, automation, algorithms, and AI, and how they seem to be making life worse in many ways, even as they work miracles.
Tim says "I am a strong believer in the social value of business done right. We should aim to build an economy in which the important things are a natural outcome of the way we do business, paid for in self-sustaining ways rather than as charities to be funded out of the goodness of our hearts."
Tim makes his case in terms of a fitness function, the quantified objective function that guides the evolutionary optimization of an organism (or a system) to fit an environment. Through a wide range of contexts and examples, he suggests that we need to change the rules and incentives of our markets -- not only markets for goods and services but also financial markets -- and the layers of internal and governmental rules that regulate them -- to better address the conflicts between people and profit, to turn the invisible hand to guide corporations fairly.
It will be hard to read this book and not take up Tim's charge to start building an exciting, hopeful, and prosperous future.
The book picks up an incredible amount of steam at the halfway point to about page 325 when economics is main point of discussion. Our politicians would do well to read this book.
There are moments of somewhat turgid, repeating prose, but that's a small quibble. This is an insightful book that will hold up well to multiple readings.
Top reviews from other countries
Trying to make sense of the future is difficult. To quote Tim O’Reilly, the author of “WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us”; “Everything is amazing, everything is horrible, and it’s all moving too fast. We are facing a set of paradoxes today.
It took me a long time to get my head around this book. It is a combination of “Thank you for being late” and “Machine, Platform, Crowd”. It will defintely make you think.
It is complex
The magical technologies of today, and choices we’ve already made, decades ago, about what we value as a society, are leading us down a path with complex contingencies, unseen dangers, and decisions that we don’t even know we are making.
No Ordinary Disruption
“No Ordinary Disruption” points out quite correctly that technology is only one of four major disruptive forces shaping the world to come. Demographics (in particular, changes in longevity and the birth rate that have radically shifted the mix of ages in the global population), globalisation, and urbanisation may play at least as large a role as technology. And even that list fails to take into account catastrophic war, plague, or environmental disruption.
The future comes in fits and starts, and it is often when times are darkest that the brightest futures are being born.
Everything is mapping
We need a map. When an entrepreneur or venture capitalist goes to work each day, he or she has a mental map of the technology and business landscape. They put the world in categories: friend or acquaintance, ally or competitor, important or unimportant, urgent or trivial, future or past. For each category, we have a mental map.
Each entrepreneur, each inventor, is also an explorer, trying to make sense of what’s possible, what works and what doesn’t, and how to move forward. Creating the right map is the first challenge we face in making sense.
Before you can understand how to deal with AI, on-demand applications, and the disappearance of middle-class jobs, and how these things can come together into a future we want to live in, we have to make sure we aren’t blinded by old ideas. We have to see patterns that cross old boundaries.
History is a map and is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Study history and notice its patterns. Look for repeating patterns and ask yourself what the next iteration is going to be.
Move to the fringes
It is almost always the case that if you want to see the future, you have to look not at the technologies offered by the mainstream but by the innovators out at the fringes. This is a key lesson in how to see the future: bring people together who are already living in it. Science fiction writer William Gibson famously observed, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
The map or the road
Train yourself to recognise when you are looking at the map instead of on the road. Mapping is difficult. Reality itself is fundamentally unknowable since what is, is always mediated by our nervous system.
Language itself is a kind of map. Our experience is shaped by the words we use. Recognising when you’re stuck in the words, looking at the map rather than looking at the road, is something that is surprisingly hard to learn.
Look at companies
Look at companies or group of companies that best exemplifies the next wave of technology. “Unpacking” the lessons of that company can help you draw your map of the future.
Spot the unicorns
1. It seems unbelievable at first. 2. It changes the way the world works. 3. It results in an ecosystem of new services, jobs, business models, and industries.
Tune in to the signals
Try to tune in to very different signals by watching the innovators who did what they do out of love and curiosity, not a desire to make a fortune. Radically new industries don’t start when creative entrepreneurs meet venture capitalists. They start with people who are infatuated with seemingly impossible futures. Find seeds of that future, study them, and ask yourself how things will be different when they are the new normal. What happens if this trend keeps going?
Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits
Consider Clayton Christensen’s Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits. When one thing becomes commoditised, something else becomes valuable. You must ask ourselves what will become valuable as today’s tasks become commoditised.
“What happens if this goes on?”
Look at restaurants, food, artisans. Look at what rich people do today.
Moore’s law and government
Moore’s Law has an alarming consequence for governments. If government’s slow, change-resistant technology procurement processes mean that it is five or six years behind the private sector, the three or four exponential generations of Moore’s Law that have passed will make its capabilities ten times worse.
Whole sectors of the population are now led by vastly divergent maps. How are we to solve the world’s most pressing problems when we aren’t even trying to create maps that reflect the actual road ahead, but instead drive toward political or business goals?
The famous IBM CEO remarked that he saw no need for more than five computers worldwide. He was wrong by 4. For all practical purposes, there is now only one computer. Google is now running on well over a million servers, using services distributed across those servers to deliver instant access to documents and services available from nearly a hundred million other independent web servers—to users running on billions of smartphones and PCs. The Network is the Computer.
Collective intelligence applications are no longer being driven solely by humans typing on keyboards but, increasingly, by sensors. Our phones and cameras are being turned into eyes and ears for applications; motion and location sensors tell where we are, what we’re looking at, and how fast we’re moving. Data is being collected, presented, and acted upon in real time. The scale of participation has increased by orders of magnitude.
Google’s search engine is the pervasive neocortex of the information economy, a critical component of the global brain that the Internet has become, connecting billions of humans with the data and documents we collectively create.
Some of the questions from the book
What happens when products to cost less every year but do more?
Is the smartphone is becoming “a remote control for real life?
What happens when on demand is becoming a universal consumer expectation?
What happens when you augment people?
Is jobless the same as workless?
What happens when you are managed by algorithms (and you don’t understand the algorithm)?
Are we becoming an “algocracy”?
Whose black box do you trust?
What happens to companies when everything becomes digital?
What are the combinatorial effects of new technology (without digital photography, would there be Amazon, eBay, Etsy, or Airbnb)?
What is the impact of “thick marketplaces,” a critical mass of consumers and producers, readers and writers, or buyers and sellers?
Does an online service and the organisation that produces and manages, need to become inseparable?
Are we all inside the application? Are we all the new synapses for the global brain?
Will the labour market become like Lyft and Uber or Wallmart and McDonalds? Why do we regulate labour?
What does history tell us about winner-take-all (the French revolution might be worthwhile studying)?
What if, an AI was more like a multicellular organism, an evolution beyond our single-celled selves?
What if we were not even the cells of such an organism, but its microbiome, the vast ecology of microorganisms that inhabits our bodies?
What happens if we ban “thin value” and business exist to serve human needs?
Why do we treat purely financial investments as equivalent to real business investment (only around 15% of the money flowing from financial institutions actually makes its way into business investment)
What happens startups are beginning to turn away from the financial market casino and trying to build real businesses again?
What happens if we move from measure ourselves on shareholder value to metrics around job growth or income growth?
What happens if we dampen the impact of super money?
Are we measuring the right things? For example, if you take down your clothesline and buy an electric clothes dryer, the electric consumption of the nation rises slightly. If you go in the other direction and remove the electric clothes dryer and install a clothesline, the consumption of electricity drops slightly, but there is no credit given anywhere on the charts and graphs to solar energy, which is now drying the clothes.
What will the impact of basic income on the creative economy?
When technology moves far faster than the education system, what happens? Read “Robot proof“
Should we introduce a golden share? In The Entrepreneurial State, Mariana Mazzucato details the role of government in funding the innovations that are embodied in products such as the iPhone, pharmaceutical and agricultural innovation, and the new private space race. She makes the case that startups commercialising government-funded research should pay royalties into a “National Innovation Fund” or issue a “golden share”—an undilutable percentage ownership to the public—precisely in order to capture a portion of the value as and if created.
What is the essence of the Maker movement? Making for the joy of exploration. Making to learn. The idea is that if we really want to have mastery over our tools, we have to be able to get inside them, understand how they work, and modify them.
The role of social capital (contextually dependent know-how, which is valuable when shared by a critical mass of people)
Should you forget about disruption, and instead to work on stuff that matters.
Should you pursue something so important that even if you fail, the world is better off for you having tried.
Should you create value for your communities and your customers as well as yourself?
Should you create a self-reinforcing value loop with and for others?
Who will have the money to buy tomorrow’s products in an increasingly automated world?
Should we mitigate against the enormous economic losses from pollution? (China has estimated these losses to its economy as 10% of GDP)
Should we radically change our economy to cater for 9 billion people?
Should we change from “we need jobs” to “we have a job to do”? What happens when “work,” not “jobs,” becomes the organising principle for our map of the future labour economy.
Ultimately is all about this
Moral choice, not intelligence or creativity, is our greatest asset. Things may get much worse before they get better. But we can choose instead to lift each other up, to build an economy where people matter, not just profit. We can dream big dreams and solve big problems. Instead of using technology to replace people, we can use it to augment them so they can do things that were previously impossible.
I would recommend reading "Machine, Platform, Crowd" or "The Second Machine Age" by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee right before or right after "WTF".
Most people writing about technological change fall into one of two camps -- those who think that nothing but good can come from it and those who hate it.
I expected the former from this veteran Silicon Valley insider, but the founder of O’Reilly Media, the U.S. technical publishing powerhouse, doesn’t stoop to such simple-mindedness.
He has a message of hope, but also a warning.
Before reading this book, for example, I just assumed massive permanent unemployment would be the inevitable consequence of the looming automation revolution. But now I have to ask: If that's the case, then wouldn't the invention of machines such as bulldozers, cranes, trucks and forklifts have had the same effect?
Using many examples, O'Reilly describes how technology can make life better, but he isn't predicting a utopia. In fact, he isn't predicting at all, as the "it's up to us" part of the title makes clear, though he is warning. Progress can be reversed and great civilizations do collapse.
“After the fall of Rome, the ability to make monumental structures out of concrete was lost for nearly a thousand years,” he writes. “It could happen to us."
He later adds: “The rise of a billion people out of poverty in developing economies around the world at the same time that the incomes of ordinary people in most developed economies have been going backward should tell us that we took a wrong turn somewhere.”
“We are at a very dangerous moment in history,” he writes in the introduction.
O'Reilly warns of the dangers of treating human labour simply as a cost to be eliminated, of a shrinking middle class amid a booming stock market, and of the financialization of the economy.
But he has faith in humanity's ability to rise to great challenges: “Moral choice, not intelligence or creativity, is our greatest asset.”
The book is packed with insights about innovation in general but most importantly the way our current capitalist system works (and doesn't work). It's no news that this system is dysfunctional and in need of new ideas. While O'Reilly is hardly a prophet or sage, he points the way to many ways of seeing the current situation in ways that solutions seem possible.
If you are tired of the old divisions between "left" and "right" and feel we need to see the world differently, this is the book for you.