Categories
Current Events: 2021 Humility

Slate Star Codex and the State of Things

If you, like I, came of professional age in the earliest days of the Internet boom (we’re talking the early ’90s), you might have been exposed to the overwrought sense of intellectual entitlement and rationalization endemic to the San Francisco Bay area. This has mushroomed in recent years to the point of ridiculousness. And you, like I, might have walked away from it.

I grew up in the New York Metro area, and am no stranger to Regional Superiority Syndrome. Like-minded people in large metro areas, living a balls-out Darwinian oval track race, trying their best to out-think one another, all the while shrouding their self-esteem varia with a veil of civic pride. “We’re a great city, filled with the best minds, surrounded by the best culture the world has to offer. Not here? Sucks to be you!”

Generations of people in Silicon Valley (and in the New York Metro) have produced important things; this is not up for dispute. But starkly missing from this sort of culture is a genuine appreciation for, and sense of, humility.

It is this lack of humility that I find myself responding to in the work that I do. An important part of a CIO’s job is to protect the companies they work for from the incredible amount of bullshit that is threaded through our industry. Promises of AI; new features that are always on the way; so much software that is apparently so great, so easy to use; anything can be solved with an integration or an API; Object Linking and Embedding is architecture of the future (or maybe it was ActiveX); Citrix is good; Cisco is great; Access is wonderful; SAP is amazing; Electron is groundbreaking; Apple is doomed; blockchain can solve issues with tracing lettuce from farm to table; every report is valuable. If you are a CIO, add your own bullshit to this list. I will not disagree.

In this vein, part of our jobs as technology leaders is to pay attention to the culture from which these issues emanate. You might be like me, and you might fail to drag yourself out of bed to do this once as often as you should. I tired of it long ago, but there are moments where I take a deep breath, dive in, and catch up.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is my latest diving board. Once I came up for air, I realized that I need to share this: If you are a technology leader, this piece is worth your while.

But…TL;DR:

“Silicon Valley’s Safe Space” focuses on Scott Alexander Siskind, creator of Slate Star Codex, a (now-preserved) blog-cum-support-group for Silicon Valley intellectuals who shared thoughts related to rationalism in technology. In the echoes of the dialog from these Bay Area rationalists, you get the sense that these people felt that they were doing something new and different. The naïveté of that notion is amusing.

It would be fair to say that Slate Star Codexers practice (technology-) applied rationalism in the same vein that I practice (technology-) applied rhetorical theory, the principal difference being that rationalism has been regularly and predictably applied to technology throughout history, whereas rhetorical theory has definitively not.

What’s clear from reading the Times article is that many of these folks would like to shelter their discussions from scrutiny and counterpoint from less-than-likeminded individuals. This is why, despite my short summary, I think you should take the time to read the entire Times article, as well as many of the links within. Many folks might be tempted to focus on some of the right-wing versus left-wing issues in the article and in the blog’s content; that would be a waste of time, because there is little notable to be found in that aspect of the story. The bigger story is one of perspective lost to self-importance.

I particularly recommend perusing the Slate Star Codex post titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due To Offensive Attitudes,” a carefully self-disclaimed, pseudoscientific attempt to dissect gender representation in special interest groups.

The post highlights a dividing line between “humanities/empathizing/intuitive” people and “sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people (the rationalists), and treats the former with a predictable and carefully-buffered dose of contempt.

Next up is a link to a TechCrunch article titled “Geeks for Monarchy: The Rise of the Neoreactionaries.” The Times piece cites angel investor/Andreesen-Horowitz General Partner Balaji Srinivasan opining that he and his cohort “could not let that kind of story gain traction,” ostensibly because it might prove to be perfect fodder for the outsiders, providing a tad too much insight into who these people really are.

Lest you have lost track of how far along we have come, this circle of people includes Mark Andreesen, creator of the world’s first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, as well as its commercial offspring, Netscape Navigator. Mark was the archetype of the perky, Internet wunderkind of the 1990s. Today, his goals are scarier, more divisive, and more threatening than his earliest work, targeting the Bay Area rationalists through a media outlet via his a16z brand.

You also should not overlook Scott Alexander Siskind’s response to yesterday’s Times article on his Astral Codex Ten blog, in which he defends himself in awkward ways, evoking rationalization rather than rationalism.

Ultimately, what the Times piece helps us see is that the Bay Area technologists’ rationalism is a powerful underpinning for yet-another-inwardly-focused media empire, as if the world needs more of that sort of thing. Poynter’s David Cohn summarizes this point nicely.


Rationalism is helpful. Anything remotely involving science benefits from it. What I find troubling about this era of Bay Area Philosophy is that its philosophers’ rhetoric is regressive, rather than progressive. It is Plato vs. Aristotle all over again. Recall the first line of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.” In that single phrase, Aristotle acknowledges the need for dialectic, but warns us that there is more to life than logic. In Aristotle’s world, we consider not just logos, but pathos and ethos in equal measure.

Scott Siskind’s “sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people may have a hard time with “humanities/empathizing/intuitive” because it is more comfortable to suck the safe teat of logic. But humans are rarely logical, and we are fools to believe that we are rational. Only through humility can we come to terms with this. “Sciency/systematizing/utilitarian” people sometimes like to label matters of ethos and pathos with a dismissive epithet: “soft skills.” These cannot be empirically evaluated through rationalism, therefore they are not worth the time to pursue. What the rationalists fail to see is that this philosophy itself is a logical fallacy: an enthymeme, better-known as “a syllogism where one or more of the premises are implied rather than stated.” You can thank Aristotle’s Rhetoric for that.

As Times author Cade Metz put it:

“Slate Star Codex was a window into the Silicon Valley psyche. There are good reasons to try and understand that psyche, because the decisions made by tech companies and the people who run them eventually affect millions.”

If the people who run our tech companies fail to nurture humility, vulnerability, and empathy, then they will never be able to solve humans’ thorniest problems. What we see in the Times article is a classic imbalance between objectivity vs. subjectivity, and a call to do more. All fields need to consider the relationship between these two viewpoints; one is not more relevant than the other.

Will our profession allow these Bay Area rationalists alone to define what gets said, and what gets funded? Or will we (hopefully) promote a more balanced discussion? Read the Times article. Get up-to-speed. Please do your part to contribute to a balanced conversation.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://vimeo.com/70051022.

[Logo]
Categories
Current Events: 2021

I Told You Once Before, I Will Tell You Again

December 2020.


Intel 1996: $111 billion market cap.

Apple 1996: $3 billion market cap.

Intel 1996: Mac? Whatever.

Apple 1996: PC stinks.


Intel 2021: $258 billion market cap.

Intel 25-year market cap change: 128% increase.

Apple 2021: $2 trillion market cap.

Apple 25-year market cap change: 66,567% increase.


Intel 2021: Mac stinks.

Apple 2021: Intel? Whatever.


Once more: December 2020.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Bd-dDZMoX4.

[Logo]
Categories
Current Events: 2021

Blockchain Bunk

Seth Godin on NFTs. Thank you, Seth.

I cannot think of a technology with more nerdy complexity that has been popularized as brainlessly as blockchain. Even the best technology communicators remain challenged to concisely and adequately explain blockchain and its attendant dynamics to the average person. It might actually be easier to explain relativity than it is to explain blockchain.

In a world where soundbites rule, this is a problem.

In the industry I serve as a technology professional, people routinely opine that blockchain is a solution to food supply chain traceability. It’s not. Here’s an interaction I had with a university professor last year, who had written a major scholarly article supporting blockchain in the food supply chain:

Dear Dr. {name withheld},

Happy new year! During the holidays, I got caught up on a bunch of journal reading that had been piling up over the fall, and I happened upon your thoughtful article in {journal withheld}.

I’m very much in the middle of the food supply chain, and my feelings about the use of blockchain are perhaps a bit different from others’. The idea of blockchain for the food supply chain has baffled me. In my estimation, blockchain can only truly safeguard digital products and transactions, not physical ones, which are subject to human tampering that is difficult to prevent in many product categories. I honor and respect blockchain’s ability to provide a ledger, but since the digital metadata for physical product can so easily be severed from that product in a variety of ways, I am not sure that blockchain’s robustness is as meaningful as it is with fully digital assets. Surely a less resource-intensive ledger method can provide a level of assuredness that is on par with what blockchain could provide, without wrongly implying that there is a 0% chance that product could have been tampered with by interstitial handlers.

Do you have any thoughts on this matter, and what I might be missing?

Thank you for your thoughts!

Drew

His response?

Hi Drew: You are right — there is no 100% certainty that food products are not tampered. Blockchain deployment in food supply chain may increase the costs of engaging in fraudulent activities. Combining with other technologies such as AI, robust QR codes might help . . . . Other benefits of blockchain may include brand reputation (consumers’ better perception of the brand), efficiency, speed, reliability and reduction in paperwork with digitization.

Who cares if the food is tampered with? Blockchain is good for consumer brand perception. Makes sense.

This stuff is all over the place:

“…the ledger is considered immune to tampering.”

https://www.zdnet.com/article/alibaba-and-auspost-team-up-to-tackle-food-fraud-with-blockchain/

But what about those boxes?

Blockchain is useful for a few things, but its true and original value proposition is in the protection of digital things that need to pass from entity to entity. Bitcoin? Of course. Food? Not so much.

None of this even takes into account people’s misunderstanding of how much power blockchain takes to do what it does.

Thankfully, Seth did that.

Do you have stories about people employing blockchain in senseless ways, guided by their misunderstanding of it all? Join the discussion at the links below.

April 5, 2021 update: More bunk.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-zhjJatmpA.

[Logo]
Categories
Current Events: 2021 Empathy

It’s The Great Recalibration, Charlie Brown

(It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’m sorry. One of the books that I was editing this year finally came out this past weekend. Now I can get back to life as normal. Whatever that is!)

I shared the following this past January 1st:

2021 will be a year filled with job changes. People who have lost their jobs, who have relocated to a city that they don’t care for, who need to get out of a city that isn’t what it once was, who were treated poorly during the pandemic, or who are more or less burned out, will all be eager for change. 2021 will be a year filled with an incredible number of people switching jobs.

This was easy to predict.

Wake up. Poop. Shower. Eat. Get the kids to school (or daycare). Get to work. Work. Work. Work. Get out of work. Get the kids from school (or daycare). Get the kids to soccer. Eat. Pick up the kids. Get the kids to eat. Get the kids to do their homework. Do some more work, or other work. Get the kids to bed. Go to bed.

Work itself is not the highest form of living. It’s work, after all. If it were something else, we wouldn’t be paid for doing it.

Our human form of work is a tortured affair compared to the work of our non-human brethren, who wake up, browse for food, rest, defend themselves, mate, rest, and generally have more time to ponder in the sun, rain, wind and other elements than we do.

Why do we treat pondering and resting as something reserved for the elderly? Aren’t we well-served by both things on our entire route to retirement?

The past 18 months have helped us answer those questions. Vast numbers of people want more time and space to do non-work things. To ponder. To rest. To spend time with families doing “non-productive” things. And as the world turns and we feel this so acutely, your work is probably the most challenging it has ever been. I don’t know anybody who isn’t experiencing work or life impact from global supply chain issues.

Many executives believe that traditional work lifestyles are immutable, underpinned by a natural desire to compete and win and earn money. Many want to ignore the consequences of coronavirus because of the threat to those traditions. They have lost the ability to empathize with people who work merely to get by. They judge people based upon how “productive” they are, and value those who value the same things. This is not a sustainable approach, and 2021 is helping us come to terms with that.

It is time to tend to our collective mental health. As we reinvent the world of work — which we must do — we need to find ways to provide space that allows employees to ponder, and to rest.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO5dcW0P75M.

[Logo]
Categories
Current Events: 2021

Job Description for the CIO, 2021 Edition

The CIO role has arguably been around for 40 years this year. Even four decades on, I don’t see many CIO job descriptions that capture the requirements in a way everybody can understand. Too many aspects of the typical CIO job description are written by a technical audience for a technical audience. (Imagine requiring your senior management teams to comprehend this Deloitte white paper.) That’s a problem, because we serve our CEOs, our Boards, and our people. If they don’t have a way of defining what they expect from us, then how can they measure us?

Forty years in, I think it’s possible to define the CIO job in a way everyone can understand. The past 18 months of COVID work have made this possibility eminently clear to me. If I were a CEO or a Board hiring a CIO today, here’s how I would frame the job.

Responsibilities

You understand our business in all of its dimensions — people, processes, and technologies — and you actively address gaps in your understanding as these dimensions change.

You ensure that we react effectively to exigencies that change the shape of our work, enabling us to be the best we can be through the worst of times and the best of times.

You recognize that not all information flows through technology…that people communicating with one another at the right junctures in our processes are what makes our company special and relevant to our customers.

You recognize that for information to be effective, we must understand communication in all of its dimensions: language…visual design…signs and symbols…orality…literacy…context…audience…sociology…psychology…history.

You and your team routinely identify areas for us to differentiate ourselves in the face of the myriad forces that we face, from competition through global cultural change.

You help us comprehend the complex technological world around us, from identifying B.S. to translating things to human terms…from communicating risks to crafting opportunities.

You protect us from technology-borne threats.

You coach and condition our technologists to be great listeners and empathizers, so that they can bring us solutions that meet our needs.

You “manage up” to challenge our CEO and our Board when you develop a sense that a new way of working will be better than the status quo.

You provide leadership and comfort to our associates on any journey in which we face the unknown, helping us take steps forward, even when we might exhibit fear.

You nurture a team of people with an aim to help them do all the above.

Qualifications

A career of experiences that provides demonstrable ability to perform all these responsibilities exceedingly well.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_9UgrFGafM.

[Logo]