How Hacker News benefited when I stopped tweeting

An alternative title to this post could be: “My first ever productive use of newly acquired programming skills”.

On November 21 2016 I wrote my last tweet on my personal Twitter account (I still tweet new blog posts on @meshedsociety). Shortly after, I also significantly reduced my sharing activity on Facebook. These were deliberate decisions. For individuals like me who have a natural urge to curate and spread information, not having such an easy outlet anymore for sharing reading recommendations is a big change. Where to promote all those good texts, essays and long reads? Sure, I have my weekly curated email (sign up here), and I publish a daily article selection about the digital economy (in German), but that didn’t cover everything I had previously been tweeting out. So did I just go against my nature, ending up sharing less links on the web?

I had the suspicion that without actually paying attention to it, I significantly increased my activity on the tech news hub Hacker News, submitting more stories than when I was still tweeting daily. And suddenly it hit me: I am now able to check myself if this hypothesis is true, thanks to my newly acquired Python skills. I started to teach myself Python in 2015, and a few months ago I decided to reduce some other work assignments to intensify my efforts. I currently invest about 1-2 hours daily. Continue Reading

How to think about today’s larger than life tech moguls

Stephen Hawking predicts that humans only have at best 100 years left on Earth, therefore colonizing space as fast as possible is essential. Elon Musk wants to bring tens of thousands of people to Mars for the same reason. He also expects a brain computer to become feasible within a comparatively near future. Mark Zuckerberg believes that connecting every human being on a digital platform (his digital platform) will make the world a better place. And Jack Dorsey believes in the importance of a platform to spread 140-character messages to the world.

When very accomplished and respected people from the technology industry and neighboring fields forecast the future and explain their visions, we listen. But should we?

That’s a question I ask myself every time when some bold quote about the future made by one of today’s tech celebrities travels through the international media.

The larger than life individuals from the entrepreneurial and technology sphere that nowadays dominate the headlines belong without a doubt to the smartest people on this planet. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in positions in which everyone listen to them. But they also are humans with the same flaws as everyone else. Their brains don’t fundamentally function in a different way. They simply have developed ways to leverage the brain’s capabilities in an especially effective way while simultaneously limiting or controlling the negative effects that their cognitive biases and primal impulses have on their own thinking.

Still, as long as they are human beings (to which there are no indications for the contrary), there will be flaws, thinking errors, biases. If whenever you speak everyone pays attention no matter how freaky your ideas are, how do you make sure not to develop hubris? The risk for an inflated ego inevitably increases.

That alone suggests that one should never stop being skeptical about any of these claims, no matter how much one otherwise admires a person. In addition, it’s impossible to distinguish the genuine result of hard and long thinking about humanity and the future from the self-serving promotion of narratives conducive to one individual’s reputation or strategic business interests. Does Mark Zuckerberg really believe what he wrote in his controversial manifesto, or has he chosen to claim to believe it knowing that promoting this vision will make his company prosper?

What I am writing here might sound obvious. Yet, thanks to the Halo effect, once we acknowledge someone’s accomplishments and intellectual authority, we tend to be susceptible to overestimating their foresight and intelligence in other areas of life and fields of knowledge. We tend to ignore the range of other motivations or causes that could be behind their statements.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt just cited a popular story about how ATMs led to more bank teller jobs – and was properly called out for this flawed anecdote. But he of course knows that rebuttals usually are only seen by a small share of those who heard or read about the initial claim.

In these moments when I catch myself forgetting to remain sceptical, I like to picture sitting with Musk or Zuckerberg in a bar, them being completely drunk. That usually helps to put things into perspective.

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Jack Dorsey’s belief

In a recent TV interview, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made it clear that he wants Donald Trump to keep tweeting (via). Here are his thoughts in his own words:

“I believe it’s really important to hear it directly from the leadership. I believe it is really important to hold them accountable. And I believe it is really important to have the conversations in the open rather than behind closed doors. If we all would suddenly take these platforms away, where does it go? What happens? It goes in the dark and I don’t think that’s good for anyone”.

This is quite some heaping plate of platitudes. But yes, what else could Dorsey actually say?!

If he would express regret about having given Trump an unique viral megaphone, he would essentially question Twitter’s right to existence. He cannot do that for the obvious reason that the consequence would be to shut down the company. After someone has walked around for 10 years selling the idea and value of a 140 character publishing service to the world, admitting that one (possibly) was wrong would be as unusual as giving up on any other strong ideological belief that someone holds (it’s no coincidence that Dorsey uses the word “believe” multiple times). And in this case of course, billions of Dollars and the jobs of many employees are at stake.

Therefore, the only thing Dorsey can do is to somehow construct a narrative which allows him and his employees to be able to justify whatever goes on on his platform (unless laws are violated) and to repeat it over and over again so it becomes some kind of quasi-truth. It’s not unlike the situation that Mark Zuckerberg is in, which I described in the post “Zuckerberg’s Lock-in Effect”.

I once read in an essay or book (sadly I don’t recall anymore which one) the following advice about what to ask people who have strong beliefs: “What evidence would it take to change your mind?” According to the author, if the person cannot come up with an answer, it is a sign that he/she actually is not interested in finding out the truth. I wonder what would change Jack Dorsey’s mind about his own platform.

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The internet brings people into space

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During the Q&A following a talk with the a16z investor and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen at Stanford Graduate School of Business (54 minute-long video recording here, very worth watching), a student sitting in the audience asked the Silicon Valley mastermind about his advice for people who have big ideas that might be very capital intensive. The questioner managed to score some laughter after quoting Elon Musk who – according to him – answered the same question a few years ago with the recommendation to “become an internet billionaire first”.

That’s witty. But it is also the truth. Musk used money he had earned from various deals in the online industry (including his biggest exit PayPal, which was acquired for $1.5 billion and made him a 9-digit sum in USD) to fund the initial stages of both his electrical car company Tesla and his rocket company SpaceX – to the point at which he literally ran out of cash. Without the dotcom companies that the South Africa-born serial entrepreneur did launch and sell before he took on the really big problems, Tesla and SpaceX might not exist. Continue Reading

Facebook, Uber and the outsider’s harsh perspective on Silicon Valley

Two companies based in the Silicon Valley (which not geographically but culturally includes San Francisco) have been making headlines over the past days: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his globalization manifesto and Uber was confronted with the extensive, high-profile revelations of a former female engineer about the company’s systematic ignorance of sexism and generally hostile work culture.

Both stories have led to widespread criticism. In the case of Uber, it’s obvious why. But even Facebook’s manifesto, despite having been an active PR effort, was not received too well in the media. When the leader of the arguably most powerful company in the world outlines how he wants to use that power to shape the world, few are getting enthusiastic. Two of the negative responses to these stories stuck out though: They didn’t come from the usual suspects who professionally cover or comment on technology but from representatives of other firms. They also didn’t only focus on the specific matter, but used the occasion for a direct attack on the Silicon Valley way of doing things. Continue Reading

Zuckerberg’s globalization manifesto says: “it’s really, really… really complicated”

That’s the type of coincidence I like: Just a few days after I opened a blog post with the rhetorical question about what’s keeping Mark Zuckerberg up at night, the Facebook CEO published an extensive open letter titled “Building a global community”, offering a few hints (reading time according to Instapaper: 23 minutes).

In what certainly must be called a “manifesto”, Zuckerberg offers his view on why globalization is experiencing a backlash and outlines on which principles Facebook will attempt to help tackling these issues.

Significant self-criticism is (unsurprisingly) missing. The text lacks any sincere acknowledgements of possible direct causations between certain unfortunate global trends and the rise of Facebook – which grew from 0 to almost 2 billion active members within only a bit more than 10 years.

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What’s next?

Like many people, I’m scratching my head about the state of the world, trying to make sense of the backlash against globalization, liberalism, science and secularism. The emphasis is on “trying”. It is not working. Too many dots to connect, too many contexts to consider, too many systems that are interdependent, too many ideologies and narratives that interfere with accurately assessing reality. Whenever I think I have arrived at some potentially all-comprising explanation, 10 other ideas pop up in my mind, some of them contradicting my previous hypotheses, while others adding additional layers to it, complicating everything.

And so, a lot of only loosely connected, unfinished thoughts are swirling through my head, which I’ll now pen down. Continue Reading

The internet does to the world what radio did to the world

Over the holidays, I finally found the time to read Marshall McLuhan’s book “Understanding media” (I might have spent time with it during my studies but definitely didn’t pay too much attention back then). Last year, hardly a week went by without me stumbling upon a text which made a reference to the book and its most famous phrase, “The medium is the message”. Now I understand why. McLuhan’s media criticism laid out in his 1964 work feels incredibly contemporary. Occasionally to an almost scary degree.

Among the parts that intrigued me the most were the following three paragraphs, which in my opinion are very suitable to describe current media dynamics and societal events – if one, while reading, replaces the term “radio” with “internet” and “Hitler” with whoever comes to mind.

“That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and public-address systems. This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization. For tribal peoples, for those whose entire social existence is an extension of family life, radio will continue to be a violent experience. Highly literate societies, that have long subordinated family life to individualist stress in business and politics, have managed to absorb and to neutralize the radio implosion without revolution. Not so, those communities that have had only brief or superficial experience of literacy. For them, radio is utterly explosive.

“The power of radio to retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, Fascist or Marxist, has gone unnoticed. So extraordinary is this unawareness that it is what needs to be explained. The transforming power of media is easy to explain, but the ignoring of this power is not at all easy to explain. It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.”

“Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities.

Clearly, education has failed to offer a large-scale civil defense against internet fallout.

Update: Have a look at the excellent comment discussion about the thoughts in this post on Hacker News.

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Photo: Flickr/Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0

From someone in a country without Amazon, a few questions about Alexa

Switzerland and Sweden have a couple of things in common. First, the names seem to be similar enough in many languages so that mixing up both countries is a very common phenomenon. Second, there are certain commonalities in regards to people’s mentality, for example a tendency to avoid conflict (for me, as a German living in Sweden and working with Swiss companies, there has been and still is a lot to learn). Third, in neither of the two countries, Amazon is operating its online store. This is in so far remarkable as I know that many people in Amazon’s core markets cannot even imagine anymore how life would be without the e-commerce giant. The reality from a customer perspective: It’s a bit inconvenient.

For the Swiss, Amazon.ch forwards directly to Amazon.de, offers free standard shipping above a certain order value, and obviously there’s no language barrier navigating the site. However, if you order from Switzerland which is not part of the European Union, you might end up having to pay additional customs charges in order to be able to pickup your package. In Sweden and the other Nordic countries, people are also forced to order from Amazon sites in other European countries (or the U.S.). Local versions in Nordic languages don’t exist. In Sweden, amazon.se is only a parked domain. Continue Reading

The obsession with “Fast-moving consumer news”

One suggested solution to the sheer unbearable state of today’s digital news landscape is quitting the consumption of day-to-day news. While a radical step would be to completely stop following any type of media used for the distribution of information that does not qualify as timeless, a more practical and in my opinion smarter approach is to limit one’s information intake to selected sources, trusted curators and channels that focus on specialist topics, bigger pictures and larger questions that remain relevant over longer periods of time.

Those who withdraw from what I would call “Fast-moving consumer news” (FMCN, as an information equivalent to the so called Fast-moving consumer goods) have to face one major point of criticism: To stop paying attention to the reports about tragedies, misery, human misconduct and violence, won’t stop these things from happening.

In the short term, that’s a fact. However, if the many hours not spent on following the latest breaking news are being invested into projects with a larger purpose, into entrepreneurship, or the creation and distribution of useful knowledge, then in the long-term, ignoring FMCN might in fact help improving the state of the world. But admittedly that’s still a shaky argument, because not consuming FMCN does not allow for the conclusion that the “gained” time actually is being directed towards more meaningful efforts. More likely it won’t be. 

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