Handelsblatt – The Silicon Valley Skeptic

Read this piece at Handelsblatt Global Edition

The prize-winning American media theorist, in an interview with Handelsblatt, questions the basic assumptions of the Silicon Valley-driven digital economy, which he warns is more concerned about concentrating wealth than improving the world for humanity.

What is the reason you chose this provocative title for you book? Do you want people to throw rocks at Google?

No, I wanted people to know that someone identifies with their frustration. Obviously I’m not telling people to throw rocks at the Google bus, but people are throwing rocks at Google buses. For me Silicon Valley has appropriated the ethos of San Francisco as a brand value for companies that don’t really do that. Silicon Valley’s rapid growth seems to be displacing instead of enriching people’s lives. They lose their jobs. They can’t afford a living and have to move away.

Google started as a small company with the slogan “Do no evil.” How did it become a company that some people in San Francisco hate so much?

There is something wrong about the way Google is impacting the world, but neither its buses nor the people in them are the core problem. Sergey Brin and Larry Page (the Google founders) didn’t recognize that they were running their company on an operating system that’s all about growth. Since they did the IPO, there’s this pressure to grow, faster and faster.

What’s wrong about growth?

We created an operating system that’s not helping anyone anymore. It’s grow or die! See what is happening to Twitter right now! Why isn’t it enough to have a company with $2 billion in revenue? Why does it have to be more?

Wasn’t it also a problem that Twitter didn’t think about a business model from early on?

Right, they had enough money, so they didn’t need to do the IPO. It’s not that Twitter isn’t successful, it’s just not successful enough to justify all the money investors have pumped in.

You seem angry.

Yes, Twitter always felt like a company that was more (about) creating; it didn’t ask for too much of me like mining the data for example or creating a filter bubble like Amazon.

iTunes sells the music, Netflix sells the movies and Amazon sells the books and almost everything else. Everyone passes through the same digital turnstiles, sees the same lists and recommendations, and is subjected to the same algorithms.

But can’t you just argue that Amazon takes money from one market to create a new market? Like with all the investments in rockets with Blue Origin (a rocket-building company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) for example? And what about Tesla?

Yes, Elon Musk (the Tesla founder) created a new market with electronic cars. But when I look at Amazon I just see this large colonial style and how they destroyed a whole book business.

 

Don’t you just say that because you are from the book industry?

Well, but I also look at the way they employ people. It reminds me of Uber’s vision to replace humans through robots over the long term.

What’s your opinion on the sharing economy in general?

Uber or Lyft (another ride-sharing app) are not about sharing space in a car. These apps make their money by encouraging people to engage in freelance versions of previously regulated industries. A taxi medallion, required by law, can cost several hundred thousand dollars. So can a hotel license. The investors behind it can extract the lion’s share of the revenue.

Many regulations pertaining to the hotel and transport businesses are old. Don’t we need reforms to drive innovation?

Many founders are libertarians. “Let the market rule!” They believe that any kind of regulation, of property or zoning, is an impediment to nature. I would say that no, we have government and these things were created not just out of corruption.  These costs and regulations are not implemented out of spite, but in order to maintain fair pricing and a minimum quality of service. Human skill is undervalued. At some point soon, the software won’t need the human being any more.

But when you talk to anybody in the industry who works on robots and artificial intelligence, they would say when robots replace humans, humans could become more creative. Are they just telling us that to make us feel better?

It’s probably mostly a lie. Let’s say theoretically we see automation replacing jobs, for example with Amazon’s large warehouses, so the sales person is gone or you have the algorithm, so the stock broker is gone.

Google showed in their study on autonomous vehicles that robots might be better drivers. Do you think we will still be allowed to drive in the future? What will happen to German “Fahrvergnügen”?

Yes, I think so, or there will be special “human roads” for people. One for the humans, three for the robots.

What’s so wrong about that robots will drive our cars?

I’m OK with going into a world where robots do all the work. But then we have to value the human being for something else, but we don’t … beyond our utility value.

This is a major argument of many Silicon Valley investors, for example of Peter Thiel, a partner in the venture capital firm Founders Fund. 

It’s a kind of a fascism. Everything has to go away, the old history, tradition. It’s just “disrupt, disrupt, disrupt.” They would always argue it’s better because it wins. This is Donald Trump’s argument: “I’m winning and therefore I’m winning.” I don’t think that everything can be solved by technology. It negates the human reality.

In your book, you are also talking about Ray Kurzweil (an American futurist who plans to be frozen after death with liquid nitrogen in the hopes of being revived later) and his vision of singularity when we all connect ourselves with a computer and could live forever.

Ray Kurzweil is a dangerous cat.

What’s wrong with living forever?

I don’t like that these guys talk about human ability as a defect as if they had to be replaced by robots. The aim of mankind should be team human — to discover and to expand what it means to be human.

Are we not doing that?

No, we are building AI (artificial intelligence) for corporations whose plan it is to get rid of humans. Is that a happy story?

No.

It’s a really scary story. This why Stephen Hawking (the Nobel Prize-winning physicist) is saying: This is the big threat.

Google does one of the largest marketing campains for AI in computer history to show that AI is not a threat but the next big thing.

Maybe it is. Maybe humans will be the last big thing.

Don’t you exaggerate a little bit? Isn’t this cynical?

No. I’m not cynical, I’m an Internet fan. I don’t think it’s apocalyptic to say let’s think twice before we program AI. I think we have to program technology conciously and to promote the human agenda, not that corporate nonsense. It’s just not making anybody happy.

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