Monday, February 29, 2016

Bill, you’re pretty clever but I’m afraid you’re dead wrong about this one (against the dominant notion of "progress")

This interview with legendary Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates in Vox caught my attention, as it deals with a number of themes that have been occupying me of late: Billy's dreamworld
Any reader of this blog (as I tend to joke, all two of them) already knows that I strongly believe that technological advance has stagnated and is about to completely stop due to an utterly wrong and perverse incentive schema, so of course what I feel more strongly about is the contention by Gates that such view (most forcefully advocated recently by Robert Gordon, whom I cite admiringly with both gusto and frequency) is myopic, and that 20 years from now we will look at Gordon’s recent book (prophetically titled The Rise and Fall of American Growth) with irony and bemusement of how wrong he got it. On the contrary, I think it will be fully vindicated, and we will remember Microsoft as the harbinger of mostly bad things which befell society as a whole starting soon after it was founded. And I think Gates opinion paradigmatically illustrates the view, very extended between IT people (I should know, having been one of them for almost 20 years) that nowadays “every business is a digital business”, and that the little, growingly inconsequential innovation that still happens in IT can substitute for the stagnation in every other areas.

Like medicine (but don’t worry, great advances of really great significance are just around the corner, in the meantime life expectation keeps on asymptotically –that is, ever more slowly- approaching its biological limit as non-self-poisoning animals, roughly around 90 years) or energy production (ditto –sorry Bill, I work in an engineering firm specialized in the energy generation sector, so I’m a bit informed about it, and it doesn’t matter how much money any of your foundations throws at it, we are not going to witness any revolution that completely decarbonizes advanced economies in the next 15 years… so according to your quite clever equation we are essentially toast) or building (indeed, the shrinking populations of many European cities should allow for some interesting innovations in urbanism and how we create common spaces more habitable and accessible but what we see really happening is more colonization of the public space by corporate interests and more pollution and public squalor) or transportation (replacing all current internal combustion engines in 15 years with electric… nice dream, not gonna happen: Electric car revolution scheduled for 2022 note that a projection that still looks quite optimistic has the market share of electrics in 2040 being a paltry 25% of total sales… it doesn’t sound that revolutionary to me).

So we can take Bill’s delusions as another sign that, within the IT community the view that “Software is eating the world” is as prevalent as it was when Marc Andreessen said it for the first time back in 2011 (Software is eating the world). And why shouldn’t it? They are the only ones (with some bankers, we will get to that in a moment) reaping the benefits of the last discontinuity of how we produce and distribute wealth, so it behooves them to see all the world with not only rosy-colored glasses, but glasses which over emphasize the importance of what software does to our lives. It is telling that Gates has to resort to the now a bit worn cliché about the super beneficial effects of IT in the everyday lives of people not being properly measured in economic statistics (be them of available wealth, of income or of total factor productivity growth, all of which have been flat for 90% of the population for decades, doesn’t matter how many millions Microsoft has pocketed in that time): people before had a paltry set of vinyl LPs in their shelves, now with Spotify they can carry with them every track ever recorded! People had the Encyclopaedia Britannica occupying a lot of space (I wonder if Bill knows how many people had the whole damn thing back in the day… it was pretty influential, but because of price, never that much popular) and now they have Wikipedia for free! And, to top it off, gays can marry!!!!! How can we be so ingrate and not concede that humanity never had it so good, that technology (coincidentally, the technology that made him rich, that he is more acquainted with and that he feels he has had a significant role in advancing…) has vastly improved human lives and that, if we just let things run its course (i.e. if we don’t rock the boat and rest contented with the social compact that allowed for the appearance of such technology) we will have it even better and all will be good (again, thanks to software, energy will be somehow revolutionized, medicine will make us all, not only the rich in the 1% who can pay for it, live forever, and probably travel will also be greatly improved, and we will all tele-transport ourselves with no effort and –almost- no cost… and of course global warming will be magically stopped, or even reversed). It is telling that, when asked about the most significant book he would recommend, he mentions the almost ubiquitous between techno-utopians The Better Angels of our Nature, of the equally ubiquitous Steven Pinker… it is kinda becoming the bible of the movement, as much as my friend John Gray may be riled by it (John Gray really doesn't like The Better Angels).

But before thinking a bit about how plausible is the claim that software is “eating the world”, or that all of our technologies failing to advance more or less at the same time except for one (software) is no big deal, because better software is really all you need to have a better life, let’s turn for a second our attention to why it is that our tech visionaries seem to share that bizarre opinion. We can glimpse some of the reasons in this recent article at Wired: potential dark side of VR . It is surprising (I may have said shocking if my capacity for shock had not been blunted by  frequent observation of humanity’s follies) that in a society that seems to place so much importance in the exclusive possession of material things (remember that the dominant reason of our age assigns social precedence based almost exclusively in the amount of material things that one can exclusively command) seems to give so much credence to people saying that material things are not that important after all, and that their simulacra (that is what software is, isn’t it? Just a simulacrum of real experiences, but more on that later) can be just as satisfying, so people should really rest contented with their Spotify and their Wikipedia, and do not complain if their mattress is too hard, their houses too small, their means of transportation to get to work are shabby, their clothes made in Bangladesh are worn out after a couple of washings, the heating in their homes is insufficient, their food essentially trash which is killing them and the power plants that generate the cheap electricity they consume are in a state of disrepair and furthermore, burn great amounts of fossil fuels which is turning the planet’s climate into a hothouse…  But not to worry, soon they will have Oculus Rift and will be able to imagine they are basking in the sun in the porch of a Kennebunkport mansion (only there will be no sun in their filthy apartments, and the smell around them will be very different, and when at some point they have to take their VR glasses off they will be faced with a much less pleasant AR (Actual Reality).

In the end, such espousing of a universal income seems to be (unsurprisingly) tainted, as Evgeny Morozov argued in “The Guardian” this last weekend: Silicon Valley's support for Basic Income is a dastardly plot . Investors in tech companies, and Bill Gates, tend to see a brilliant future thanks to the ubiquity of software when software by itself does very little to improve people’s lives, as soon as we talk about actual people’s lives, as opposed to a tiny fraction of the time of a tiny fraction between them devoted to a specially perverse form of leisure. Ask an unemployed parent (out of work for years because globalization took overseas all the jobs he could aspire to perform), a single mom that has to work two shifts because she couldn’t afford day care if she didn’t, an elderly lady spending her days alone because her children had to move to different cities pursuing scarce job opportunities, ask any of them how happy they are because they have Spotify and Wikipedia and Uber and Airbnb, and gays can marry (well, some of them may have a gay relative, so at least the “progress” of History in the last decades has not  entirely gone down the drain). How excited they are for the soon-to-come launch of Oculus (or Sony’s Morpheus, or Playstation VR), and how their lives are about to be revolutionized for the better. Some revolution!

Our tech titans believe that Sw is all important because they feed from the very particular group for which software has been, indeed, a significant part of their lives: the cohort of American university students (or their European or Australasian equivalents) that started coming of age in the 90s, when videogames became good enough to keep people (some people, those with enough time or the peculiar mix of brain circuitry and hormonal chemistry to find spending hours on end in front of a monitor a satisfying enough way of using their time) hooked. The kind of people for which Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a major event in their biographies. Coincidentally, the same people that defined the hook up culture, so their life for four years was essentially reduced to study (more or less, depending on how demanding their future alma maters were), gaming and (mostly drunk) fucking. Not much in terms of creating strong emotional bonds or training oneself in the importance of stable relationships.

Because that’s what the opposite of videogames and VR is: real friends, real family and obligations. Deciding to work a bit more, or sleep a bit less (or a lot less!) to provide a better future for your offspring, or to help a friend out of a rough spot, is the exact contrary to spend a turn more (and then another one, and another one) at your Civilization IV game. In the first case, the consequences of your actions are everything. In the second, there are no consequences whatsoever. That is software in a nutshell: the realm of the fake, where you can always restart the game if the choices you made turn out bad. Even in the corporate realm, it has this nasty little secret: 80% of the corporate investment in new applications comes to naught, doesn’t produce any noticeable change in the bottom line, leaves the company that made the investment not better off. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any good effect: it definitely lines the pockets of the ones who built the software in the first place, and who worked (hard, I’m not denying that) to install it. The same ones that will produce papers, and studies, and news reports praising the extraordinary effect that their industry had in their clients (an elaborate scam is no less of a scam if a lot of apparently respectable people participate in it).

Of course, people that have made a living out of writing (and selling) software, and that hire mostly kids that have spent their best years lost in the software realm (playing videogames), think that  software is the most important product of human civilization, and that advances in software are the prodigy of the ages. They don’t get much involved with the moral valence of a matrix scenario of millions living in trailer parks and being fed semi processed refuse but feeling happy most of their waking time in some artificial paradise because neither them nor their progeny (if it exists, a number of them choose to go childless… as the kind of life they live is not worth living, much as they may resist being characterized like that) nor their friends or loved ones would ever have to make such choice or be forced to live such life.

So I’ll end this post (as so many of late) with what a friend of mine described as a "call to arms": do not let them fool you. Software is not “eating the world”, and the advances in software and information processing do not compensate for the stagnation in all other areas of society, and specially do not compensate for the lack of progress in the average income of 90% of the population. When someone tells you how happy you should be because you have Spotify and Wikipedia shout back to them that they can keep their virtual baubles, and that you would have his Mercedes, his first class plane tickets, his platinum American Express and his 10,000 square foot Mac Mansion any day of the week over hearing canned music (mostly of abominable quality) and finding really fast when Donald Trump was born.   

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