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Personalization was a buzzword, a selling point, of Web 1.0: You would soon get what you wanted and only that delivered to you seamlessly. Of all the dubious ideas of that pre-bubble era, none came truer. At first you had to set your preferences, but now that mostly occurs automatically, algorithmically. 

The phenomenon is especially evident in news, with the erstwhile gatekeepers, already disrupted financially, being swept away by a flood of information. The variety of yesterday’s newspapers, even ones that had a political slant, forced a certain amount of friction into our lives, made us look at the other side of the argument and question ourselves. Those debates disappeared into the zeros and ones.

In a smart New York Times column, Farhad Manjoo articulates the phenomenon of more (information) being less. He points out that even actual proof means little today, writing “you would think that greater primary documentation would lead to a better cultural agreement about the ‘truth.’ In fact, the opposite has happened.”

An excerpt:

You’re Not Rational

The root of the problem with online news is something that initially sounds great: We have a lot more media to choose from.

In the last 20 years, the internet has overrun your morning paper and evening newscast with a smorgasbord of information sources, from well-funded online magazines to muckraking fact-checkers to the three guys in your country club whose Facebook group claims proof that Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are really the same person.

A wider variety of news sources was supposed to be the bulwark of a rational age — “the marketplace of ideas,” the boosters called it.

But that’s not how any of this works. Psychologists and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons. Instead, we are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest — we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.

This dynamic becomes especially problematic in a news landscape of near-infinite choice.•

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I’ve said my piece on more than one occasion on the demise of Gawker (most recently here), but Farhad Manjoo has an interesting take in his latest New York Times “State of the Art” column, arguing that the spirit and style of Nick Denton’s former flagship has so infused the media landscape that Peter Thiel’s petty revenge failed even if it seemed to succeed. In a sense, he won a battle after the war had already been decided.

That’s probably true to a good extent, but I wonder if the most key ingredient, the thing that made Gawker sometimes so good and at other moments so bad, survives the site. That was its very raffishness, the dicey and daring spirit that always made it a place people could go to afflict the comfortable. Admittedly, such important scoops rarely materialized on the site, with reflexive dart throwing more the reality, but the possibility existed. Manjoo lists a raft of legacy publications influenced by Gawker, but none of them have adopted this aspect of the ethos. That will usually be for the best but occasionally not.

From Manjoo:

Even if you avoided Gawker, you can’t escape its influence. Elements of its tone, style, sensibility, essential business model and its work flow have colonized just about every other media company, from upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vox to incumbents such as CNN, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

The most important innovation Gawker brought to news was its sense that the internet allowed it to do anything. It was one of the first web publications to understand that the message was the medium — that the internet wasn’t just a new way to distribute words, but that it also offered the potential for creating a completely new kind of publication, one that had no analogue in the legacy era of print.

This sounds like a basic realization, but it wasn’t obvious to most online publishers. I know this firsthand. In the 2000s, I worked at three different magazines that were based entirely online — Wired News (the online arm of Wired Magazine), Salon and Slate. Looking back now, I can tell that even though we were doing good work, we weren’t doing much that was really different from what came before. A typical Salon or Slate article was 600 to 1,500 words long. Generally, a writer wrote a few times a week. We took the weekends off. Though we wrote online, in most ways we were really putting out a relatively fast paced magazine, just without ink and paper.

Gawker did not invent blogging, but Nick Denton, its founder, was among the first to recognize that blogs were a transformational technical innovation. They offered a template for blowing up everything about how news was created and delivered.•

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Visitors to General Motors "Futurama" Exhibit

I’d be happy to wager there have never in our history been more intelligent people toiling in the area of futurism. They may formally identify as economists or political scientists or technologists rather than futurists, but there’s a steady deluge of books and papers on the promise and perils of tomorrow, which contain advice on how we can maximize the former and minimize the latter. 

This crowded field goes unmentioned in Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times column, which paints a dire picture of futurism in a post-Toffler world. The writer is absolutely correct to call out the U.S. government for ignoring to a good extent the chorus of clarion calls, protected by gerrymandering from the consequences of myopia. The present (e.g., infrastructure) is barely acknowledged let alone the next wave. I do believe, however, that the critical mass of thinkers in this area will ultimately serve us well, even in the recalcitrant public sector, which, as always, is prone to the sweep of history.

The opening:

All around, technology is altering the world: Social media is subsuming journalism, politics and even terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the Western world. National governments are in a slow-moving war for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen — all of which happen to be tech companies.

But even though these and bigger changes are just getting started — here come artificial intelligence, gene editing, drones, better virtual reality and a battery-powered transportation system — futurism has fallen out of favor. Even as the pace of technology keeps increasing, we haven’t developed many good ways, as a society, to think about long-term change.

Look at the news: Politics has become frustratingly small-minded and shortsighted. We aren’t any better at recognizing threats and opportunities that we see emerging beyond the horizon of the next election. While roads, bridges, broadband networks and other vital pieces of infrastructure are breaking down, governments, especially ours, have become derelict at rebuilding things — “a near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future,” as the writer Elizabeth Drew put it recently.

In many large ways, it’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.•

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Serious discussion about Guaranteed Basic Income in America stretches back at least as far as Richard Nixon, whose administration’s advocacy for it and universal health insurance would today make the 37th President a sort of Sanders-esque figure.

When people initially learn Silicon Valley technologists are fully in favor of GBI, they’re often surprised and grateful, but this largesse comes with a caveat. To a good degree, it’s driven by a Libertarian streak that aims to vanish social safety nets (the welfare state, as it’s often referred to) and the bureaucracy that attends it. That would include all forms of government healthcare. That’s a problem since, as we’ve seen, health insurance left to the free market is an unmanageable expense for many, and that would be true even with an income floor.

In a NYT conversation about basic income between columnists Farhad Manjoo and Eduardo Porter, the latter questions whether we’re headed for an Utopian work-free world or one with plenty of poorly paid drudgery in which the BGI math doesn’t add up. An excerpt:

I read your very interesting column about the universal basic income, the quasi-magical tool to ensure some basic standard of living for everybody when there are no more jobs for people to do. What strikes me about this notion is that it relies on a view of the future that seems to have jelled into a certainty, at least among the technorati on the West Coast.

But the economic numbers that we see today don’t support this view. If robots were eating our lunch, it would show up as fast productivity growth. But as Robert Gordon points out in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” productivity has slowed sharply. He argues pretty convincingly that future productivity growth will remain fairly modest, much slower than during the burst of American prosperity in mid-20th century.

A problem I have with the idea of a universal basic income — as opposed to, say, wage subsidies or wage insurance to top up the earnings of people who lose their job and must settle for a new job at a lower wage — is that it relies on an unlikely future. It’s not a future with a lot of crummy work for low pay, but essentially a future with little or no paid work at all.

The former seems to me a not unreasonable forecast — we’ve been losing good jobs for decades, while low-wage employment in the service sector has grown. But no paid work? That’s more a dream (or a nightmare) than a forecast. Even George Jetson takes his briefcase to work every day.•

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Farhood Manjoo’s latest New York Times column, “In a Self-Serve World, Start-Ups Find Value in Human Helpers,” argues that the freestyle-chess approach of person-computer tandems tackling tasks (e.g. travel agent) is the best path forward. That’s probably a little too rosy a view.

In the short term and perhaps medium one that combination may be winning, but it also assumes that software won’t continue rapid improvement. The writer acknowledges the opaqueness of pricing that existed pre-smartphone, but seems too nostalgic to completely comprehend how much it bedeviled consumers. Companies that backpedal from a full-on software approach may reap benefits, but the question is for how long.

An excerpt:

Now, rather than consult an insurance agent, you simply search online. You never go into a bank —you just use the tireless A.T.M. — and at the supermarket, there are those self-checkout machines. You can buy stocks without a broker, you can publish a book without a publisher, you can sell a house without an agent and you can buy a car without a dealer. Slowly but surely, the robots seem to be replacing all the middlemen and turning the world into a self-serve society.

An economist would praise the great disintermediation for its efficiency. As a customer, you may have a different reaction: Look at all the work you’re now being asked to do. Was it really wise to get rid of all those human helpers?

In many cases, yes, but there remain vast realms of commerce in which guidance from a human expert works much better than a machine. Other than travel, consider the process of finding a handyman or plumber. The Internet has given us a wealth of data about these services. You could spend all day on Craigslist, Yelp or Angie’s List finding the best person for your job, which is precisely the problem.•

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A follow-up post to the David Graeber video about so-called bullshit jobs, here are excerpts from two articles about modern employment, one from Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times which looks at the Uberization of work and the other by Joshua Krook of New Intrigue which focuses on labor in a highly automated world.

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From New Intrigue:

The Robotic (Post-Industrial) Revolution:

There is something very curious about politicians constantly obsessing over people getting jobs in the light of the oncoming Robot Revolution.

Now you might think I’m crazy for believing in such things, but then you will have to call the likes of Stephen Hawking crazy too, which is a much, much more difficult task.

There are already articles on the web asking:What will happen when Robots Take our Jobs? The idea is that an oncoming robotic revolution is coming whether we like it or not.

And with it, the capacity of robots to do the jobs typically reserved for humans – including high-end, white-collar professional work. The latest robotic innovations out of Japan can play ping pong (“and even decide to take it easy on opponents by missing a few hits”), use sign language to “talk” to humans and “mimic simple greetings.” This is only the beginning.

Despite almost every single instinct of intuition in my body saying that robots will make our lives easier, which is what we’ve been taught (using examples like the washing machine in the 1950s) –by freeing up our time and allowing us to work on things that aren’t menial, boring office jobs– we have to look to history here and realise that that seems like an unlikely outcome. History has a few examples where this is true, but on the whole it has gone the other way, and this time round…

It may even go the other way.•

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From the New York Times:

Various companies are now trying to emulate Uber’s business model in other fields, from daily chores like grocery shopping and laundry to more upmarket products like legal services and even medicine.

“I do think we are defining a new category of work that isn’t full-time employment but is not running your own business either,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s business school who has studied the rise of the so-called on-demand economy, and who is mainly optimistic about its prospects.

Uberization will have its benefits: Technology could make your work life more flexible, allowing you to fit your job, or perhaps multiple jobs, around your schedule, rather than vice versa. Even during a time of renewed job growth, Americans’ wages are stubbornly stagnant, and the on-demand economy may provide novel streams of income.

“We may end up with a future in which a fraction of the work force would do a portfolio of things to generate an income — you could be an Uber driver, an Instacart shopper, an Airbnb host and a Taskrabbit,” Dr. Sundararajan said.

But the rise of such work could also make your income less predictable and your long-term employment less secure. And it may relegate the idea of establishing a lifelong career to a distant memory.

“I think it’s nonsense, utter nonsense,” said Robert B. Reich, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley who was the secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. “This on-demand economy means a work life that is unpredictable, doesn’t pay very well and is terribly insecure.” After interviewing many workers in the on-demand world, Dr. Reich said he has concluded that “most would much rather have good, well-paying, regular jobs.”•

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Google’s Larry Page, who believes you’ll eventually have a brain implant, tells Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, somewhat defensively, one of the main obstacles of technologists who wish to quantify and mine our lives: 

Farhad Manjoo:

You’re saying the usefulness of the products will change how people feel about them?

Larry Page: 

Yeah, and we know that if we talk about things before people see them, there’s a much more negative reaction. That’s one of the things we learned. It’s really important for people to be able to experience products; otherwise you fear the worst without seeing those benefits.

I’m not trying to minimize the issues. For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite. We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits. I think that’s what’s happened in health care. We’ve decided, through regulation largely, that data is so locked up that it can’t be used to benefit people very well.

Right now we don’t data-mine health care data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year. I’m very worried that the media and governments will try to stoke the people’s fears and we’ll end up in a state where we could benefit a lot of people but we’re not able to do that. That’s the likely outcome.”

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At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo wonders whether Uber, for all the very reasonable doubts about the service, could cause a serious decrease in private car ownership, which would have huge ramifications for not just transportation but also housing and environment. An excerpt:

“It is impossible to say whether Uber is worth the $17 billion its investors believe it to be; like any start-up, it could fail. But for all its flaws, Uber is anything but trivial. It could well transform transportation the way Amazon has altered shopping — by using slick, user-friendly software and mountains of data to completely reshape an existing market, ultimately making many modes of urban transportation cheaper, more flexible and more widely accessible to people across the income spectrum.

Uber could pull this off by accomplishing something that has long been seen as a pipe dream among transportation scholars: It has the potential to decrease private car ownership.

In its long-established markets, like San Francisco, using Uber every day is already arguably cheaper than owning a private car.”

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Politicians and organizations that tried to suppress the African-American vote during the 2012 election are angered that some of the targets of the IRS looking for tax-exempt infractions were Tea Party groups. Those who usually support racial profiling are angry that they, in a sense, were stopped and frisked. I’m against all of these investigations based on generalizations but also appalled by the hypocrisy. The opening of “Profiling Is Great…Except When You Do It to Me,” by Farhad Manjoo as Slate:

“Pretend you work at the Internal Revenue Service. Actually, let’s make this exercise even more terrible. Pretend you’re an underpaid, low-level clerk working in the understaffed IRS backwater of Cincinnati. Every day, a big stack of files lands on your desk. Every day, the stack gets a little bigger than the last. Each file represents a new application for a certain tax status—501(c)(4), a tax-exempt designation meant for ‘social welfare’ organizations. Nonprofits with this status aren’t required to disclose the identity of their donors and they’re allowed to lobby legislative officials. The catch is that they must limit their political campaign activity. According to IRS rules, 501(c)(4) groups can participate in elections, but electioneering must not be their ‘primary’ mission.

Got all that? Good—now let’s get to work. It’s your job to decide which 501(c)(4) applications represent legitimate social-welfare organizations, and which ones are from groups trying to hide their campaign activities. What’s more, you’ve got to sort the good from the bad very quickly, as you’re being inundated with applications. In 2010, your office received 1,735 applications for 501(c)(4) status. In 2011, the number jumped 30 percent, to 2,265, and in 2012 there was another 50 percent spike, this time to 3,357 applications.

So what do you do? You look for a shortcut. Someone at your office notices that a lot of the applications for 501(c)(4) status are from groups that claim to be part of the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Aha! When you’re looking for signs of political activity, wouldn’t it make sense to search for criteria related to the largest new political movement of our times? So that’s what you do: Without consulting senior managers, you and your colleagues set up a spreadsheet called ‘Be on the Lookout,’ or BOLO, which spells out specific criteria for flagging potentially politically active groups. The spreadsheet lists keywords like ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriots,’ and ‘9/12 Project.’ It also flags groups whose primary concerns are government spending, debt, and taxes, that criticize how the country is being run, or that advocate policies that seek to ‘make America a better place to live.'”

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The early promise of PCs in the 1970s, in the heyday of the Homebrew Computer Club, was that the individual would be master of the technology, not that we would queue up for “improved” iPhones handed down to us by a gigantic corporation every six months. Chris Anderson thinks the spirit of the Homebrew is regaining prominence and will be the future of American manufacturing. From Farhad Manjoo in Slate:

“As Anderson describes it, the new movement is built on three technological and social advances. First, there’s ‘rapid prototyping.’ Today you can design your world-changing widget on a computer, instantly make it real on a 3-D printer, and then go back to the drawing board to refine it. Second, because your designs are all standard CAD files, you can share them with others and borrow other people’s designs, allowing for everyone to improve their widgets through remixing. Finally, when you’ve perfected your widget, you can take advantage of firms like Kickstarter to raise money, then send your designs to commercial manufacturers that will produce your widget in bulk—even if bulk, for you, means you’re making only a few thousand of them.

When I chatted with Anderson recently, I asked him about the timeline of his vision. He thinks the maker movement is around where the PC industry was in the mid-1980s—somewhere between the release of the Apple II and the Mac, between a computer that was popular with hobbyists and one that was meant for everyone. Soon, we’ll have 3-D printers that cost about the same as paper printers, we’ll have 3-D design software that’s as easy to use as iMovie, and making physical things will take on the kind of cultural significance that making digital things did in the first dot-com boom. At that point, we’ll notice the products around us begin to change, Anderson says. A lot of what you’ll buy will still come from large companies that make mass-manufactured goods, but an increasing number of your products will be produced by ‘industrial artisans.’ These artisans will produce goods aimed for niche audiences—perhaps you’re a gardener who needs a specific kind of sprinkler head, or maybe you want computer speakers shaped like Mount Rushmore. Because they’ll be able to sell anywhere, and because their goods will command higher prices that mass-manufactured stuff, artisans will be able to build thriving small businesses from their inventions.”

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Homebrew at the Byte Shop in 1978:

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From Farhad Manjoo’s new article about the decline of money–or at least the physical manifestation of it–in Slate:

“It sounds like a prank, right? Money is a confidence game, a mass delusion that only works because we’ve all been had together. That’s why it’s best not to think too much about it. As when Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, the moment we realize what’s really going on with money is usually the moment the whole system comes crashing down.

The psychic gymnastics necessary to accommodate money are the central theme of journalist David Wolman’s provocative new book, The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society. Even Wolman’s title contains a trick—note how it conflates money and cash, two concepts that, to economists, are very different things. Money is any tradable store of value; it can exist in your pocket or on a bank statement, in dollars or Euros or, if you’re in prison, in cigarettes. Cash is only the physical instantiation of money, and, as Wolman points out and as everyone in the Western world knows, it is on its way out. Thanks to technology, trustworthy banking (well, mostly), and our insatiable appetite for convenience, we’re all carrying less and less cash, and soon we’ll probably quit it altogether.”

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I find so many great things online by accident that I’ve never been quite as concerned about Internet filters as some have. In “The End of the Echo Chamber,” Farhad Manjoo of Slate writes about new research–albeit research conducted by the very interested party Facebook–that suggests that the Web is inherently serendipitous (or perhaps we are) no matter how much personalization, targeting or narrowcasting is forced upon us. The opening:

“Today, Facebook is publishing a study that disproves some hoary conventional wisdom about the Web. According to this new research, the online echo chamber doesn’t exist.

This is of particular interest to me. In 2008, I wrote True Enough, a book that argued that digital technology is splitting society into discrete, ideologically like-minded tribes that read, watch, or listen only to news that confirms their own beliefs. I’m not the only one who’s worried about this. Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, argued in his recent book The Filter Bubble that Web personalization algorithms like Facebook’s News Feed force us to consume a dangerously narrow range of news. The echo chamber was also central to Cass Sunstein’s thesis, in his book Republic.com, that the Web may be incompatible with democracy itself. If we’re all just echoing our friends’ ideas about the world, is society doomed to become ever more polarized and solipsistic?

It turns out we’re not doomed. The new Facebook study is one of the largest and most rigorous investigations into how people receive and react to news. It was led by Eytan Bakshy, who began the work in 2010 when he was finishing his Ph.D. in information studies at the University of Michigan. He is now a researcher on Facebook’s data team, which conducts academic-type studies into how users behave on the teeming network.”

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Farhad Manjoo has an excellent new article in Fast Company,The Great Tech War of 2012,which looks at the quartet of dominant American technology companies poised to do battle with one another. An excerpt:

“To state this as clearly as possible: The four American companies that have come to define 21st-century information technology and entertainment are on the verge of war. Over the next two years, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will increasingly collide in the markets for mobile phones and tablets, mobile apps, social networking, and more. This competition will be intense. Each of the four has shown competitive excellence, strategic genius, and superb execution that have left the rest of the world in the dust. HP, for example, tried to take a run at Apple head-on, with its TouchPad, the product of its $1.2 billion acquisition of Palm. HP bailed out after an embarrassingly short 49-day run, and it cost CEO Léo Apotheker his job. Microsoft’s every move must be viewed as a reaction to the initiatives of these smarter, nimbler, and now, in the case of Apple, richer companies. When a company like Hulu goes on the block, these four companies are immediately seen as possible acquirers, and why not? They have the best weapons–weapons that will now be turned on one another as they seek more room to grow.”

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Majoo on living in the post-fact digital world, 2008:

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From the introduction of “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” a series of articles about the increasing IQ of artificial intelligence, by the resolutely excellent Farhad Manjoo at Slate:

“Artificial intelligence machines are getting so good, so quickly, that they’re poised to replace humans across a wide range of industries. In the next decade, we’ll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we’d never suspected possible—they’ll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one. Economic theory holds that as these industries are revolutionized by technology, prices for their services will decline, and society as a whole will benefit. As I conducted my research, I found this argument convincing—robotic lawyers, for instance, will bring cheap legal services to the masses who can’t afford lawyers today. But there’s a dark side, too: Imagine you’ve spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner—and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?”

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“Bring it on”:

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