Universal Basic Income and human dignity

Convinced critics of an Universal Basic Income (UBI) often point to the importance of work for human dignity as a major argument against the UBI. The most recent example gave AI pioneer Andrew Ng in this interview:

“Silicon Valley has a lot of excitement about unconditional basic income. I don’t support that. There’s a lot of dignity to work. For someone that’s unemployed I really support the government giving them a safety net with the expectation that they’ll do something to contribute back, such as study, so they can gain the skills they need to re-enter the workforce and contribute back to the tax base that is hopefully paying for all of this.”

But why is the UBI often presented as a dichotomy to working, and thus in consequence as a way to rob people of their dignity?

To me, the way an UBI would have to be constructed and framed is straightforward and very much in harmony with the critical role of work for people’s mental well-being:

An UBI is NOT meant to discourage people to work. It is meant to offer them more freedom to align how they spend their time with their areas of interest and with other life priorities. It is meant to offer more room for calculated risk-taking, as well as the ability to choose work which is deeply meaningful to them, but badly paid (such as helping people in need). And it is meant to remove the most basic existential fears from everyone’s mind, such as homelessness, not being able to buy food or not being able to pay for a necessary health procedure – while at the same time reducing the stigmatization and bureaucracy associated with traditional social welfare support.

The UBI is not meant to enable or encourage people to have a comfortable life without doing any work. Sure, if an individual who receives an UBI chooses to move to the most affordable place in a country, to only eat instant Ramen and to be content with that, good for him or her. But most humans would not be satisfied with that kind of lifestyle, so they’d still have to look for an occupation. However, unlike today, they could do this with a mind freed from the most pressing existential pressure, and maybe they would only choose a 20-hour- or 30-hour-week-job.

So the point of the UBI, according to my view, should be to give people more freedom in regards to their occupational choices. An UBI done right (according to me) would not rob anyone of their dignity.

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Great times ahead for everyone in the business of audio content

Here is a German version of this post.

The rise of smart speakers and wireless headphones leads to a likely increase of time available for audio consumption. Who benefits from this? Among others of course those offering music streaming, podcasts and audiobooks.

Especially for podcasts, the potential is huge. Last year, 24 percent of Americans age 12 or older have listened to at least one podcast every month. In Germany in 2015, 1.3 million people out of about 80 million (total population) consumed podcasts every day. The room for growth is obvious.

And the conditions could not be better. Apple just released an analytics service for its podcast platform, which still is said to be the market leader (but its dominance is shrinking). Finally, podcast creators can get data on listening behavior on a per-episode basis. And while some feared that this would lead to very uncomfortable insights, such as large numbers abandoning podcast episodes prematurely, the concerns appear to have been unfounded. As Wired just titled after talking to a bunch of podcasts producers about their numbers: “Podcast listeners really are the holy grail advertisers hoped they’d be”.

Beyond a predictable growth of the podcast sector, another trend of 2018 is poised to be a blurring of the lines between the different types of audio formats. The Amazon-owned audiobook platform Audible is expanding its podcast portfolio. In Germany, it even plans to launch journalistic live shows, which would basically pit it against radio. Meanwhile, music streaming giant Spotify is also doubling down on podcasts.

Distinguishing between music streaming, podcasts, audiobooks and traditional radio might soon become much harder. That’s a natural process. For listeners, the labels don’t matter. What matters is to have access to the right type of audio content at a given moment. Whether they want their favourite songs, background noise, world news, a thought-provoking talk about philosophy, something to laugh, tunes to fall asleep to or the audio version of a bestselling book, depends a lot on their context, environment and what they are doing while listening. If a player in the market manages to offer every type of audio content with good usability and a competitive price under one roof, it’ll likely be a big hit.

Although it cannot be ruled out that audiobooks, due to the particular economics, will remain separate from other audio content. Google just started selling audiobooks on its Play Store.

The upcoming audio boom leads to interesting questions, such as what role traditional radio will play. So far it has fared quite well against digital competitors. But will millions of AirPod users end up walking around listening to their local radio station all day? That’s not impossible but rather unlikely.

Also: Will audio content be complementary or substituting to display-based digital media? Considering the current backlash against social media and the consequential emergence of movements such as “Time well spent”, replacing  display-time with audio content might be an effective way to break with a bad habit (such as mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds) by creating a better one.

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Zuckerberg’s promise about fixing Facebook does not extend to Instagram

Instagram has just turned on a so called “activity status” for (at least some) users. It allows accounts you follow and people you message with to see when you were last active in Instagram apps. The new setting has been activated by default, but without a notification informing the user about the new “feature”.

Some might consider this a typical and expected behavior for social media apps, and it is. The “activity status” functionality is well established in other messaging apps, and implementing changes to privacy-related aspects of a service via “opt-out” (activated by default, can be turned off) instead of “opt-in” (deactivated by default, can be turned on) has been a common practice ever since the early days of the social web.

But times are different now. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook (which owns Instagram), has just declared 2018 the year in which he wants to “fix Facebook”. He and his company have been unusually self-critical lately in regards to how the social network might have contributed to certain problematic (online) trends and how spending time on social media can can be bad for people. “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”, Zuckerberg wrote.

In short, Zuckerberg wants to regain people’s trust in that his company can be a net gain for society, not a net loss, and he’s vocal about it. But in the end, what matters are people’s actions, not what they say. Instagram taking itself the right to force a privacy intrusion onto its users without asking or at least informing suggests that not a lot will change. This practice is right from the “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” playbook which Facebook and other consumer tech companies have been following religiously over the past 10 years to grow their user base and engagement. In other words, to capture as much of people’s attention and share of mind as possible, regardless of collateral damage.

But these practices must not be tolerated anymore. They represent the same unethical values and culture which caused Facebook to become a burden for societies. They show a lack of respect for the user and an obsession with relentlessly increasing user engagement, putting the users’ actual well-being not first, not second, but at the bottom of the list of priorities.

As someone who so far has considered Instagram a more pleasant and less destructive type of social app than Facebook or Twitter, I’m really disappointed. And if Zuckerberg wants his pledge to be seen as sincere, this definitely doesn’t help.

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The lost blog post about “World Leaders on Twitter”

Twitter just published a blog post justifying why the company isn’t banning Donald Trump for breaking the messaging service’s rules with his inflammatory tweets.

However, it seems as if the wrong draft made it through the internal approval process. I am sure that the actual post should have looked like this:

There’s been a lot of discussion about political figures and world leaders on Twitter, and we want to share our stance.

Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global, public conversation.
Twitter has significantly contributed to the current polarized state of the global, public conversation. We might even have been complicit in “creating” Donald Trump as U.S. President.

Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society. Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.
Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society. The trivial nature of Twitter, the character limit as well as our need to earn money with people’s attention at all costs means that the service is not suitable as a tool nor environment for world leaders to communicate with the public and to carry out their work responsibly.

We review Tweets by leaders within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly. No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions. We work hard to remain unbiased with the public interest in mind.
However, the truth is that we need Donald Trump. He is driving our current growth. Without Donald Trump’s tweets, we’d face severe business risks, as fewer and fewer people would pay attention to us. Also the media wouldn’t constantly mention us anymore.

We are working to make Twitter the best place to see and freely discuss everything that matters. We believe that’s the best way to help our society make progress.
We have no other choice than to pretend that Twitter is highly important for the the world and to achieve progress, even if we are well aware of that we are part of the problem, not the solution.

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The jobs of the future are already here – and some are really weird

Every discussion about the consequences of automation eventually has to lead to the same conclusion: Millions of human jobs are about to disappear because machines will be better and/or more efficient at doing them. This could lead to massive political and social unrest. However, like during any wave of structural disruption due to technological progress, new jobs and tasks suited for humans will emerge. But they might not have too much in common with the tasks and frameworks of the traditional, stable nine-to-five model and its variations.

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If you look closely, the shift is already in full effect. Over the past ten years, numerous new professions, jobs and ways to earn money have appeared. For many people, embracing these has been a necessity due to job loss. For others, new opportunities arose out of entrepreneurial foresight or the urge for independence and freedom from the constraints of traditional employments. Some of these new tasks can have concerning societal or psychological implications.

Let’s dive into the new jobs which didn’t exist ten years ago (without a claim for completeness). Overlaps are common.  Last updated:  April 26 2018. Continue Reading

Facebook bought tbh – but not the similar app with the same name that launched in 2013

Facebook has acquired a smartphone app named tbh (which stands for “To be honest“). It allows its currently 2.5 million users in the U.S., to give compliments to each other. According to TechCrunch, the app was launched in August by a Canadian startup called Midnight Labs, which according to its founder had built about 15 products since 2010. None of them really flourished. Until now.

The name “tbh” sounded familiar to me in an app context. I researched my old blog posts. Indeed, back in 2013, I had written an article (in German) mentioning an UK-based app called TBH. This service went nowhere. The app and website are not available anymore and any mentioning of it on the web dates back to 2013. The TBH website’s only available 2013 record on archive.org doesn’t produce a proper site anymore. But if you read the press release from TBH 2013, both apps’ philosophies sound very similar: Continue Reading

Twitter and Trump: A truly destructive relationship

Here you can read a German version of this article.

There probably is no other company in the world that has maneuvered itself into such a complicated and even pitiful position such as Twitter.

As the prime communication channel for infamously impulsive and notoriously conflict-ready U.S. President Donald Trump, Twitter’s platform is playing a critical role in the various minor and major squabbles which Trump is engaging in around the clock. In fact, Twitter’s platform is enabling these squabbles in an unique way, as the service’s unfiltered real-time character, brevity, viral dynamics and emotional user behavior amplifies any seemingly trivial 140 character message thousandfold, and – with helpful participation of click and outrage-driven media as well as tweeting anti-Trump activists – turning it into “world news”.

It’s hard to exactly pin down what would have happened in a world without Twitter (and without a service exactly like Twitter). But the world would look different for sure. It’s speculative but maybe Trump wouldn’t even be President. Presumably that’s the type of reasoning which led the former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to launch a crowdfunding campaign intended to raise enough money to buy a majority stake in Twitter – in order to subsequently being able to ban Donald Trump from the service. Continue Reading

Learning to code, 420 hours later: How to teach yourself Python, for free

A bit about 1 1/2 year ago, I started to teach myself programming with Python. Today I feel confident to formally complete my project.

I am honestly a bit proud to be able to code on what I consider an intermediate beginner level. After continued and steep improvements over the past months, I am now past the “Coding Inflection Point”. This means that I have internalized the majority of the basic approaches to and patterns of Python programming and can now in some situations actually rely on established routines to write code.

If you draw a parallel to learning a spoken language, it is the moment at which you are able to hold basic conversations in your newly acquired language. Yet whatever you express is primitive, ridden with errors and characterized by a small vocabulary. You constantly have to look up words or grammar. Sometimes, when talking about more complicated stuff, you have to give up (but you’ll use this insight for future improvements). Still, you feel excited about your new skill.

With this post I want to briefly summarize how I taught myself coding with Python. This will be the last article of my my little inofficial series of posts, and from now on it it will the only one that matters. Let’s get to it: Continue Reading

The only good rebuttal of the Googler’s memo that I’ve seen

You might have heard about the controversial memo by a Google engineer about diversity that started to make its rounds a few days ago. I won’t summarize it here, as any summary I’ve seen failed to get the author’s points accurately across (no surprise considering the length of the text).

Unlike others, I considered his text as a sincere attempt by a thinking individual to point towards something which he personally perceives as a systemic problem inside Google and the tech industry in general. So when I saw the “quality” and style of the negative reactions, I was… well, not impressed, to put it nicely. In fact, it made me even feel solidarity with the author.

Fortunately, the writer and social scientist Adam Grant today published a compact rebuttal of the memo’s core conclusions, which sets things right. Grant avoids expressions of hot-headed outrage, moral preaching, name calling and denial of scientific facts, while he at the same time presents the available scientific evidence from meta analyses and studies that clearly indicate that the memo’s author most probably overestimates the larger effects of biological/neurological gender differences on girl’s/women’s professional choices in regards to the IT industry. That is to say, he is not wrong about the general scientific foundation that he builds his argumentation on (as it seems to be consensus among researchers in the natural sciences community), but his conclusions are overblown.

In other words, the role of cultural biases is with some large likelihood much more significant, which is why striving for diversity, working to change cultural stereotypes and encouraging more girls/women to become IT professionals/programmers remains a smart and right thing to do.

Personally though, I don’t think at all that the author of the memo should be fired, as some have demanded.

Update: A few hours after I posted this, word came out that he has been let go. In case you are interested in the scope of opinions about the whole situation, head over to Hacker News.

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Amazon Echo and Spotify are a dream team in the smart home

It has become a rare occurrence that a piece of consumer software manages to impress me. It’s 2017, after all. But Spotify has just pulled that off. More specifically, Spotify’s seamless playback and sync ability across different devices.

Since I purchased an Amazon Echo speaker some weeks ago, I now frequently access Spotify on four different devices. Already before buying the Echo, I appreciated Spotify’s handover procedure to switch the device that you are listening music from (e.g. from the notebook to the smartphone). But with the addition of the Echo, the complexity of the cross-device integration has risen, without that I noticed a single issue so far.

I can ask Alexa (the smart assistant that runs on the Echo) to play Spotify, and then control the playback on the Echo either through voice or from any other of my devices that Spotify is installed on. I can skip the song playing on the Echo from my iPhone, hand over playback from the Echo to the iPad via my notebook, or reduce the volume of the Echo’s Spotify playback from my iPad. Or anything in between, except one thing: I cannot control playback on the other devices through the Echo/Alexa – but I never have felt I needed to either.

Having this kind of freedom to control one’s music playback at home is truly liberating, and it makes me wonder a bit what Apple plans to make better with its upcoming HomePod speaker. HomePod is supposed to offer a superior music experience in the smart home. But with Echo’s  outstanding music playback performance and a seamlessly integrated third party music app (such as Spotify, in my example), I wouldn’t know what to wish for more.

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