Delete This Chapter, Steve Case

Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.
— Arthur Miller, playwright and essayist (17 Oct 1915-2005)

Steve Case has proven me correct again: the tech community shouldn’t write about government until they actually understand it.

You remember Steve Case, right? He was the guy we used to get mad at when AOL would change their Terms of Service to prevent cussing or stating it would own everything you posted (or something) back when dial-up internet and charge-by-the-hour internet service was the norm. In the new book he’s writing, he claims this is part of the “First Wave” of the internet (“the foundation for people to connect”). Or maybe he’s talking about late-20th century technological innovations. Hard to tell.

He posted a chapter on Medium, asking for edits. I can’t believe I read the whole thing. But I didn’t leave any comments. I figured I’d save them for here (plus, I was reading on my phone). My one edit is: Delete the chapter.

Since he’s not going to, let’s continue.

I would argue the “First Wave” was back in the ’80s when the only person I knew who had online access was my uncle (and, apparently, Misty, though I didn’t know her then). The “Second Wave,” according to Case, is search engines and social media (“search and social capabilities”).  Now, we’re entering into the “Third Wave,” which is where tech and government begin to interact (finally). (Note that he uses private corporations to describe the first and second waves.)

I want to start by pointing out the Case is really late getting to the game on this one. People have written about the intersection of technology, design and government, and I’ve responded to such pieces, for a years. In fact, back in 2014, Dominic Campbell, who does have some experience in government, wrote:

A purposeful design-led approach is fundamental to re-thinking the role of government in the 21st Century, creating the conditions for innovation and change in a world of embedded power structures, vested interests and powerful organisational immune systems programmed to snuff out any threats to the status quo.

. . .

We must bring together the politics of change management, the thoughtful human centricity of design and the power of tech to hardwire change and scale impact.

And I responded to it at the time.

The idea that technology can solve all our problems is a blinkered worldview techno-libertarians completely buy into. Not that Case is self-aware enough to know that such a worldview and its assumptions about government are, well, false[1].

Let’s look at some of what he has to say. He begins by positing some “Third Wave” of the internet that will bring together the tech community and government. Believing such will happen is rather deterministic in and of itself. What he’s really saying is that if the U.S. state, local and national governments don’t roll over for the tech community, the country will be “disrupted” by other countries. As an example, he uses the movement of manufacturing overseas:

This may sound overblown. But it wouldn’t be the first time other countries challenged American dominance. There have been numerous occasions in our history when a great industry, born in the United States, ended up relocated elsewhere. In 2015, none of the top five automakers were American companies, and not a single American company manufactured television screens in the United States. These are industries that were born in America. We have a way, it seems, of ceding opportunities rather than seizing them. If the same holds true during the Third Wave, the most significant economic transformation of the next two decades could be the great achievement of others.

He does know, of course, that such manufacturing moved not because of the U.S. government but because corporate owners decided it would be more profitable for themselves to build cars and TVs in countries cheap labor and lower human rights standards (see: Apple and Foxconn), right?

Indeed, “ceding opportunities rather than seizing them” in the manufacturing field is little different from Case’s argument that Americans should be happy to have uber-ized gigs[2] while tech companies bring Indians over on H1B visas, which allow them to be paid less than an American worker doing the same job, to work in our “knowledge” fields[3]. There are many unemployed engineers, developers and others who are American citizens yet, contra Case, find themselves driving for Uber and Lyft right now because the wealthy tech owners want cheap over American-skilled[4]. Manufacturers beat Case to the punch in taking advantage of the, in Case’s words, “global talent market.”

But they’re still doing a good job. As John Miano, an attorney, former computer programmer and co-author of a book about the H-1B visa, testified before Congress:

“In 1998, Congress made it explicitly legal to replace Americans with H-1B workers,” he said. Then, “in 2004, Congress changed the H-1B prevailing wage system to allow employers to pay these workers extremely low wages. Normally, the prevailing wage is the median wage, the 50th percentile,” but for the H-1B program, “the normal prevailing wage is the 17th percentile.” In normal-wage areas, this creates a wage differential with domestic workers of about $20,000 per worker, and in high-wage areas like Silicon Valley, it creates a differential of about $40,000, with “predictable result[s],” he said.

Case gives as an example the growth of the financial technology (fintech) market in London. He blames it on the U.S. government. He does know that London is the world financial center, though, doesn’t he? It only makes sense startups focused on fintech would locate in the capital of capital (that is, financial services).

When it comes to taxes, Case repeats the familiar neoliberal trickle-down policies. Cut taxes on the rich so they’ll create startups and, thus, jobs (that I assume will end up staffed by low-paid temporary workers from India). Our current economic situation proves his proposal completely false. Indeed, what if we provided a universal basic income to all Americans? That would allow many of those currently unemployed to create their own businesses. Or we could make healthcare universal, so potential entrepreneurs can leave their jobs and start a business while remaining covered should they have to go to the hospital. These initiatives, however, would not give clear direct subsidies to the tech community, though, so they aren’t mentioned.

But while he wants us to cut taxes, he also wants the U.S. government to increase spending on research and development (R&D). He admits that the government (which, remember, isn’t innovative) has created many world-changing “products.” He also admits that the government usually hands over those research findings to private companies, which then make massive profits off selling products to taxpayers. So, he wants the government to increase its subsidies to businesses (or, more specifically, startups).

Why can’t companies invest in their own R&D? Given Case’s belief in startups’ and technology’s ability to disrupt and improve government, why should the young, speedy, flexible upstarts rely on taxpayer funds to build their companies?

Despite his and other techno-libertarians’ perspective of government as merely a lumbering beast that only slowly reacts to innovations in the market, in reality, local governments have responded quite quickly to the emergence of Uber and Airbnb within their city limits. Were Airbnb and Uber actually interested in taking part in the policymaking process, things would move even faster. Instead, such corporations would rather file suit, stonewall and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) shaming local government officials and breaking the law. Clearly, the issue here isn’t with government – it’s with self-righteous business owners who believe they’re above the law.

In other areas of his chapter, Case fails to note – or likely doesn’t know about – important government initiatives like the United States Digital Service and 18F. They are tasked not only with improving government’s use of technology but also improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the hiring, contracting, planning and other processes. Moreover, they are meant to have the authority to make rapid and creative changes to what, admittedly, can be stagnant and slow-moving government agencies. The USDS is currently located within the Executive Office of the President – giving its head great access to the president.[5]

He warns that countries, including Nigeria, are catching up with us. Really, Steve? Really? Nigeria?

Finally, Case has a fundamental misunderstanding of what government is and does. It isn’t there to just promote business interests (believe it or not). It’s there to protect citizens – be that from foreign adversaries or uncaring and unscrupulous corporate executives. While it hasn’t been doing a good job of it lately, the government is ultimately there for the people (in fact, it is the people), and its organization is meant to reflect its citizens’ generally agreed-upon values and norms. If government moves slowly, it’s because ensuring such protections and equity takes time and negotiation. There are more nuances to policy than Case and company seem to know about, which is a good reason to delete this chapter of his book. Startup founders don’t worry about the larger implications and spillover effects of their creations, and they have no time for nuance and negotiation. Money must be made now – damn the polity.

Again, that isn’t how government works, nor do its citizens want it to operate in such a way.

I will give Steve Case one thing, though: He sold AOL to a slow-moving conglomerate; he definitely knows about change.

[1] Or maybe he does and he’s just being disingenuous. Maybe he’s making these recommendations because he will profit from them.

[2] You know, ‘cause they’re so flexible. Pay your rent? Unlikely. But they’re flexible!

[3] This is a case where immigration limits are important and should be made even more strict.

[4] The argument that we don’t have enough STEM graduates has been proven false. It’s a cover for “we want cheap labor” but we don’t want to move overseas.

[5] I have to wonder if its appropriations will be renewed if a conservative politician takes office.

Genius Material

First things first, you need to go download the Genius annotator plugin. You can annotate various items on sites you find around the Web. Like I annotated this story a little to give more information about the name “Islamic State.” I’ve annotated at least one post here. The hub of annotation, if you will, is at the Genius site. Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic I like left The New York Times to go fulltime annotator for Genius. (If you’ve downloaded the browser plug-in, you’ll notice that story has been annotated. Of course.)

The site started out as a lyrics database/annotator. Now you can go crazy.

I’m really good at annotating Death Cab for Cutie lyrics. I’ve spent fifteen years ruminating on DCFC song meanings.

It matters to me what the song says. I can’t apply it to my life without understanding the lyrics. I don’t necessarily need to know the singer was dating this girl when he was writing this album and halfway through they broke up and it’s reflected in the playlist. That’s all fun backstory, but I’m more interested in those feelings being communicated in the song — and understanding them — to see if they seem to at all coincide with my own experiences. Continue reading

Entry Status

I believe I’ve moved most of the entries from my old online journals — AOL-hosted, livejournal-hosted, older posts (which are likely archived on my server anyway) — over here. There are still posts at inadequate (November 2010 to October 2012) — FYI.

I’m so happy I found them and can share them. I haven’t read them all. But please feel free to go through and see the crazy shit I did and wrote in my younger years. Hold it against me if you want, but that just means you have no belief in the ability of people to grow, learn and, yes, change. (Unless you’re one of the people I wrote about. Then you can probably hold it against me.)

That’s that for tonight. Enjoy.

P.S. What do you think of the redesigned site?


Nit-Picking the NYTimes Biz Section

The previously much-ridiculed co-founder of AOL, Steve Case, discusses leadership in last Sunday’s The New York Times Business Section (5 MAY 2013). (Ah, for the days when chatrooms instead of timeline feeds were the main conduit of disgust with the digital overlords’ decisions!). There are, however, a few off-the-cuff denunciations of the government’s negative interference with innovation I’d like to address*. He says:

“The attackers are the entrepreneurs who are disrupting the status quo, trying to change the world, take the hill, anything is possible, and have nothing to lose in most cases. They’re driven by passion and the idea and intensity. Large organizations — and it’s true of Fortune 500s and it’s also true of governments and other large organizations — are defenders. These guys aren’t trying to pursue the art of the possible, how to maximize opportunity. They actually are trying to minimize the downside, and hedge risk. They’re trying to de-risk situations. Entrepreneurs can’t even think this way. It’s not even a concept they understand.”

He ignores the continuing, massive investment in R&D and innovations created by the government — including the very infrastructure on which his fortune was built. I’m no huge fan of Apple, but I bet they’d disagree that larger organizations can’t be creative.

Further, while Case may consider “defenders” as some sort of obstacle to be overcome or enemy of entrepreneurial innovation, he should also realize that “minimiz[ing] the downside, and hedg[ing] risk” is the government’s core job. It’s the whole point of the social contract. I give up some rights to be protected in those I retain, a protection offered by the government as a body of citizens. Protecting citizens from harm is not stifling innovation.

On the other hand (and next page of the paper edition), Jenna Wortham discusses the all-too-real implications of a growing digital divide created by high-end, personal and wearable computers’ cost prohibitive-ness to less wealthy “early adopters.”

“Surely, wearable computers are in our future, whether they are embedded in glasses or smart watches or even contact lenses. But the experience of wearing Glass raised questions for me about the future of new technology and who gains access to it first — part of a much larger debate concerning the undercurrents of power and privilege that course through the Web.

At the very least, the release of Glass could shape how we think about human and computer interactions, and — considering Glass’s abilities to quietly take photographs and record videos — how we influence policies about privacy and public spaces.

And it would be a shame if the only people who participate in this leap forward are those who can afford it.”

This is true, and a very good point. The last thing we want is the like of Steve Case, Clay Shirky, Sunil Paul and other technological solutionism evangelists and the wealthy deciding all policy on these issues either. Pointing that out is part of the purpose of this blog.

She goes further to note that privacy may, essentially, become a commodity.

“Some analysts say the future of security and privacy on the Web will belong to those who can afford expensive, anti-hacking software and other protective services. That could be the antithesis of the rise of the social Web, which promised a utopia imbued with the ability to empower those who used it, regardless of their location, financial means and level of privilege.”

You want privacy? Pay a private company for it. Can’t afford it? You’re out of luck. (This is where Case and others miss the point of government interventions.) She also notes that the poorest receive hand-me-down, poorly performing smartphones.

“This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. When the iPhone came out, it cost almost $600, in its cheapest form, and I couldn’t afford one. By the time I’d picked up enough extra shifts as a waitress to pay the price, the second and third versions of the gadget were on the market.

There’s no doubt that the device changed my life. It made me a much more streamlined individual and eventually gave me a competitive advantage as a budding technology reporter who had firsthand experience as the Apple ecosystem evolved. Relatively early access thus proved beneficial, as it has for many others who were the first to adopt and use new services, like the early “vloggers” (that’s video bloggers) on YouTube or developers in the App Store.”

There is a certain arrogance in assuming that providing children and adults in the lowest economic brackets with the latest technology would give them the needed leg-up to succeed in our society. Definitely, our students and lower-income folks (like myself) should be given the opportunity to experiment with, learn about and develop skills with the latest technology, if only to help with employment readiness. But we can’t leave out socioeconomic context. When she says lower- to lower-middle class incomes, she means middle class. There are far more pieces to the puzzle in helping the majority of people climb out of poverty. I appreciate that this is a short business column, and it raises some good points that others in Sunday’s section do not, but there is a lot more that goes into moving from waitressing to writing in the Times. It ain’t an iPhone.


*I know I’m starting to sound repetitive and nitpicky with various people’s statements, but that’s the idea. It’s important to counter these statements with equally timed responses. That’s partly what this blog is all about.

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