The tech elite ignores inequality at its peril

Image by by Bluerasberry

Google’s new self-driving prototype car will sit at the head of “the long tail” curve if it’s a hit while services such as Uber and AirBnB sweep up the other end.

Several years ago when media companies were still working out what the “long tail” meant to them, Clay Shirky shared a key nuance that made the whole picture clearer for me. He told me that the middle of a power law curve is the most dangerous place to be because you are irrelevant there. He was right.

Photo by O’Reilly Conferences

I was reminded of this while attending O’Reilly Media’s Next:Economy event in San Francisco, where people talked about artificial intelligence, platforms, networks and ecosystems creating and destroying labour markets.

In today’s world, artificial intelligence such as that seen in Google’s self-driving cars is at one end of that power law curve of services, ie the top of the curve, and marketplaces such as Uber and AirBnB are sweeping up the other end — the long tail of services.

If the lessons of the now-famous 2004 Wired article by Chris Anderson about the long tail prove relevant then companies serving the middle market are going to suffer. According to Shirky’s “middle power law problem” the stuff that happens in between artificial intelligence and niche human-powered labour will become irrelevant.

Image by Keith Hopper

Middle management will be replaced by the long tail of tasks performed by a vastly more efficient labour market.

A lot of the discussion at the event was focused on workers — their needs, rights and future prospects. Sebastian Thrun of Udacity even suggested that higher education degrees in social sciences were a waste of time because the new economy puts a premium on skills.

But there was a baked in assumption among many speakers that these big changes were already happening, and that it was just a matter of time before we were all deploying services or being deployed in service of something or somebody.

Interesting questions start to emerge, such as will we still need to own a car if one can appear in front of us ready to take us where we want to go at any given moment for a reasonable price?

Of course, people need to model the computing that sits at the top of the curve, and that will become a lucrative area of work. In fact, Facebook is hiring AI trainers now. Alex Lebrun said this was a huge area of growth. “We will need more and more trainers because the more you know the more you know you don’t know. There will always be new domains to learn about.”

Many speakers at the event acknowledged that the gap between the people at the top and those at the bottom was only increasing — this is an alarming trend.

Self-proclaimed “zillionaire” and early Amazon investor Nick Hanauer of Seattle-based Second Avenue Partners expressed great concern for the stability of society. He said: “You must match tech innovation with civic innovation. Uber is fantastic, but we have to find a way to accommodate that innovation in society.”

He used the fight to increase the minimum wage as an example of the types of battles that will lead to more dramatic social problems, perhaps revolutions. “Trickle down economics is a way to bully people into not exercising their rights,” he said. “The threat becomes: ‘If you force us to pay our workers fairly we will fire them.’”

In a letter to his fellow plutocrats in Politico, Hanauer wrote:

“The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last. If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”

I find it difficult to imagine inequality reversing from its current trajectory without something dramatic happening. Perhaps this is a place where the middle may play an important role over time, though fighting against irrelevance seems like a losing battle too.

I did notice an apologetic tone among many of the speakers at the event. There seemed to be an awareness that the change was both beyond anyone’s control and that it was heading straight for many innocent people who were unwittingly in its way.

If there is still time to assert some cultural values into the technological framework of this next wave of change then hopefully people will consider infusing their automated marketplaces with more humanity.

Photo by Joi Ito

In his 2003 essay, Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality, Shirky wrote:

“Given the ubiquity of power law distributions, asking whether there is inequality in the weblog world (or indeed almost any social system) is the wrong question, since the answer will always be yes. The question to ask is, ‘Is the inequality fair?’”

If the entire world becomes a unified workforce on these new platforms then the people shaping these platforms should heed the warnings from the likes of Hanauer, or they will regret admitting that he was right when billions of pitchforks are aimed at them.

As Zeynep Ton described in one of the closing talks of the day, providing a decent living for your workforce or pursuing “human-centred operations strategies” creates stronger long-term profits. Her research may provide some answers that solve everyone’s needs and avert angry mob mentality that otherwise seems inevitable.

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Originally published at on November 24, 2015.

Letter from the editors — July 2015

The theme of the July 2015 issue seemed to fall into a ‘Movement & Migration’ kind of area, and designer Dean Vipond thought the idea of magnetic fields over the Mediterranean conveyed this push-pull dynamic well. It also results in what appears to be fingerprints which resonate with some of the articles that are talking about movement and migration in terms of identity.

Of the many things to sort out when we started Contributoria last year there was one question in particular we weren’t sure about. Would we see challenging reporting, or would writers play it safe?

We knew we could create the environment for people supporting journalism to work as a concept, but it was always going to be up to the writers and the community to bring the difficult topics, the unheard stories, and the hard-hitting investigative reporting that changes people’s minds and exposes wrongdoing.

These more difficult articles have been gaining traction, but it wasn’t until the latest issue here that the community went all-in and tackled some of the world’s biggest problems. And they did so with intelligence and style.

They told stories about refugees and immigrants, slave labor, homelessness, human rights abuses and organised crime. They surfaced stories you wouldn’t normally read in mainstream media about fascinating animal research, political history, and inspiring activists.

The community’s ambitious spirit and passionate coverage of subjects mainstream media fails to surface is what interests the many partners we’ve started working with recently.

We’ll need all the intelligence, style, spirit and passion we can find to meet the challenge posed by our latest partner — Vivienne Westwood.

The British fashion icon, environmentalist and activist is going to guest edit the September issue.

Vivienne Westwood wants writers to cover the dangerous game being played on behalf of the people and our planet by politicians, bankers, corporations and, yes, mainstream media.

As Greenpeace UK director John Sauven wrote via Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution, “We seem to have accepted a simplistic and beguiling mantra: more growth, more profits, more stuff. And, with it, the consequences: more climate change, more chaos, more extinction, more inequality…

Climate change is not about diplomacy or energy or capital or economics. Climate change, like many other important issues, is about power. A new energy system means new power relations.

The Contribuoria community’s job now is to expose this new power dynamic for everyone to see clearly. We’ve posted some topic suggestions to help guide writers’ proposals.

We couldn’t be more proud to work with Vivienne Westwood on the September 2015 issue. After seeing how hard writers are working to cover such difficult stories as they did in the current issue we now know that Contributoria’s flavour of journalism supported by people can take on the biggest and most challenging stories of our time.

Originally published at

Leak against the machine

Young people are threatened by some of the structural systems that define society today. They are flawed, unchangeable, and viewed as an obstacle to a fruitful future. Baby Boomers would be wise to tone down the lecturing and instead be part of the solution.

It’s easy to be dismissive of Occupy, WikiLeaks, the NSA files, etc. The characters playing out these episodes have been accused of being immature, unaware of what they’re doing, unorganized, vain, etc.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote condescendingly about them as you would an annoying younger sibling who doesn’t understand the world, yet:

“Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”

Similarly, Thomas Friedman suggested that we ought to be more thankful that the government is as forgiving as it is already:

“If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.”

These people argue that the price of being an American means trusting the powers we’ve elected and those we’ve employed to protect us. Fair enough. Their incentive to protect the status quo is both professional and personal. They’ve worked hard to shape the systems we live with today.

It’s increasingly clear, however, that those voices are part of a geopolitical system that is fading, something that is being replaced.

I can’t remember which of my history professors (maybe Robert Dallek) taught that the conditions installed after war tend to overcompensate for its causes. The features of that strategy have oppressive effects which in turn inspire subversive and even revolutionary reactions.

Perhaps the Patriot Act and its proponents (a significant majority of Americans) overcompensated for the 9/11 atrocities. Intelligence, the weak link in US security, was reinforced with law, budget, access, and, most importantly, full public support.

Superscale surveillance was born, a fair trade in the eyes of many.

The road to this position is not about whether you are for or against Obama or whether or not it’s George Bush’s fault. It happened because of fear and unkowns, a generational obsession with the remaining runway Baby Boomers are left with now.

Conor Friedersdorf said it well in his Atlantic piece:

“Americans are generally good at denying al-Qaeda the pleasure of terrorizing us into submission. Our cities are bustling; our subways are packed every rush hour; there doesn’t seem to be an empty seat on any flight I’m ever on. But as a collective, irrational cowardice is getting the better of our polity. Terrorism isn’t something we’re ceding liberty to fight because the threat is especially dire compared to other dangers of the modern world. All sorts of things kill us in far greater numbers.”

The arguments for protecting the American people from terror attacks can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But some day soon there will be a generation of grown up and capable people who have no connection to or recollection of 9/11.

Being a young twentysomething or, worse, a new grad trying to start a career in a world where all the infrastructure society has created to support its existence is both flawed and unchangeable sounds really depressing.

Like every generation before them, they won’t stand for the current state of play. They view the obstacles to change, progress, independence and a fruitful future as oppressive, threatening and potentially enemies. Their fight against invisible and amorphous powers including communications surveillance, out of control banking systems, and unregulated lobbying practices is only going to increase in intensity.

What will happen if the current systems fail to make obvious and tangible positive differences in young people’s lives?

Baby Boomers may look back with fondness on the days when the only damage being done was the release of the occasional secret here and there. Before that happens, the columnists and their ‘voices of reason’ need to recalibrate and use their power to support healthy change instead of speaking on behalf of Big Brother himself.