Thursday, December 25, 2014

Disrupt away, oh Silicon Friends!

"Rah-rah Stanford, it's so great! F-ck Cal, their protestors are full of hate! We love tech, it's just so awesome—let's build more apps, that's the way to innovate!"

A group of protestors rushed into the auditorium where tech investor Peter Thiel was speaking as the event neared the Q&A portion of the night. In an unfortunate bit of reporting by The Daily Cal, where the reporter didn't quote any of the protestors, we have a succession of three Berkeley students decrying the intrusion (emphasis added):
“We honestly didn’t think the protests would interfere,” said Pierre Bourbonnais, president of the Berkeley Forum and former marketing manager at The Daily Californian. “It’s pretty unimaginable and unfortunate. I’m in support of free speech, but this is not the right venue for that. I’m very disappointed.”

“I can’t believe that (the protesters) thought that this was a politically acceptable way (to protest),” said Jacob Bergquist, a UC Berkeley freshman. “It made me very angry, because some of the people (in the audience) came because they’re just trying to make an impact on the the world.”

... “we feel that it was inappropriate for them to come in and disrupt an event, said Jonathan Lin, a UC Berkeley junior. “It was disrespectful for them to disrupt Mr. Thiel."
First of all, some caveats: I don't necessarily have a strong opinion on Peter Thiel or his political views. He actually comes from an earlier generation of tech entrepreneurs, though he is now an investor in the current startup scene. The protestors appear to have taken advantage of the visibility of the event to put a spotlight on Ferguson and the treatment of African Americans by police, though there were reportedly also shouts of "No NSA, no police state," perhaps a reference to his role in founding Palantir. However, in this particular situation, the protests—and more tellingly, the student reactions—provide a commentary about "the tech sector" more broadly. In this standoff, Thiel serves as a totem of the the warped shape things have taken in Silicon Valley in recent years.

According to one UC Berkeley student in the audience, “It was disrespectful for them to disrupt Mr. Thiel." Is it disrespectful because we worship him? Maybe it's disrespectful for Silicon Valley brogrammers to disrupt people's neighborhoods, livelihoods, and lives. It was very disappointing to see the lack of support in the UC Berkeley crowd to the moment—and an insensitivity to the "people-matter" zeitgeist of recent months (also here). This is UC Berkeley we're talking about, the home of the Free Speech Movement, for cryin' out loud! Protest, public debate, cracking open tough issues to force public discourse—that's a central part of the campus identity. Instead, we see a crowd of UC kids lapping at the feet of technologists, insisting that social activists be thrown out.

In this particular situation, it appears that a good number of Berkeley folks have become part of the unfeeling tech crowd, or aspire to join the ranks of the "entrepreneurs." The sentiment seems to be something akin to, "Let's run the poor people out of town. They should just 'train themselves' to work in the new economy after all ... and who the hell are these rioters complaining about 'systemic' issues? They should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get out of the way, they're blocking my tech bus." These sycophantic Berkeley kids are metaphorically sucking Stanford's **** [I suppose I could rephrase that using the more PC "lapping at Stanford's bowl."]

How disturbing! I wish they were proud of who they are, because we need alternatives: other modes of development, different definitions of achievement. Don’t all come worship at the altar of tech. The world deserves better. You are better.

After all, this is the Berkeley where last night, two architecture and engineering students were talking to me about the Global Poverty & Practice minor, which requires students to go out into the world and work with NGOs in the field to gain practical experience with poverty alleviation and development. Do you know how amazing that is?

(By the way, I’m not against Stanford—I teach there, and I have great love and appreciation for this institution that is my home. It’s just that in some respects, the university is not living up to its ideals—its own professed values, the dream of this place.)

As for the following freshman—I'm sure he'll proud of that quote in 4 years: “I can’t believe that (the protesters) thought that this was a politically acceptable way (to protest) ... It made me very angry, because some of the people (in the audience) came because they’re just trying to make an impact on the the world." And clearly none of the protestors care about making an impact on the world, they are just no-good anarchists who need to mind their own business? Or are you just annoyed they don't believe in the same vision for the world? Perhaps we just gotta let the brogrammers get to work innovatin' and changin' the world.

The lack of appreciation for Cal's spirit of protest, rebellion and refusal to politely stand by while authorities crack down or systematically oppress minorities, vulnerable populations, and the weak and outcast ... THAT is far more offensive.

Perhaps these students come from households where they didn't talk about politics, and are going to Berkeley to be computer engineers. But the good thing is that by being in that ferment, they'll learn and pick up a thing or two about social justice. My own sensitization to issues of social justice was greatly heightened when I began visiting Berkeley semi-regularly in 2013. The folks there helped to sharpen my awareness of these issues and how they can be part of our everyday lives, in how we speak and interact, not just something that happens at the ballot box.

I used to be so proud of Stanford and Silicon Valley—that unlike Wall Street, we could innovate, put creativity and people first; that we could care about society and still succeed in the world. But now, we have occupied the role that Wall Street formerly did in the public imagination—a rancidly disappointing outcome. With the uncaring brogrammers, the oblivious techies, the misogyny, the self-arrogating privilege that comes with wealth but without social responsibility ... it’s really sad, because we were supposed to be better.

As for the "Berkeley" students: you're barking up the wrong‪ #‎tree‬. I didn't think I'd see the day when you were on your knees in front of Palm Drive. You can't respect yourself enough to realize that you are inheritors of a unique and proud tradition. On the eve of the Free Speech Movement's fiftieth anniversary, you've bought into something else entirely.

Don't. Please awaken to the spirit of your home. We need you.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Oldies but goodies

Though we live in an age of iPhones and iPads, from time to time, I still think about the music devices from our youth: CD players. This was how we carried songs in our pocket, after the Walkman started to fade from the scene.

It's not about nostalgia. This device generates very different sensations. There's something very solid and immediate about having your music on a CD. Though services like Pandora or Spotify promise limitless access, perhaps you don't really need "the whole world of music" at your fingertips. Even if it's somewhat winnowed down with dedicated music devices like the iPod, which has limited storage, there are still too many choices and endless scrolling.

With the CD, you choose an album and settle down to comfortably listen to it. I like the sensation of pushing "forward" or "reverse" on a player; it feels more real, more responsive. There are a set number of tracks, either as part of an artist's selection, or one that you have assembled yourself with a CD mix. Like a book, listening to the CD is a complete experience: it has a finite beginning and an end.

I listened to the new Taylor Swift album 1989 on my CD player, during a BART ride yesterday. It was satisfying. At risk of seeming old school, I think I might walk around with this as my music player for the foreseeable future. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Everyone Else is Doing It

The New Republic is an amazing publication, and its gutting seems to be a tragedy. It didn't really have the same updated web presence that The Atlantic, The Wire (RIP), plus some of the new media outlets (Vox, 538) did, so perhaps it was in need of a bit of a digital boost. (Anecdotally, The TNR's voice was absent from my social media, factoring in a lot less on my Facebook feed than the above publications, or even traditional outfits like The New York Time and The Guardian. But when you made your way to the site, the pieces featured there were exceptionally thoughtful, gracefully crafted with a real seriousness and meticulousness.) I just wish this attempt at transformation could have been done in a way that respects the venerable tradition and intellectual vitality of the publication.

I'm tired of the fetishistic "Silicon"izing of everything. We need to stop bowing dow and worshipping "digital" and the Valley, and start thinking about how we fit into a larger ecosystem—of society, of values—and how we shape the deep, underlying, humming song of the world, not just the flashy surface.

Let's stop conforming to someone else's paradigm shift, and start making our own: one that has a true ethical core. The role of media isn't to get clicks—that's instrumental, not a raison d'etre. The role of media is to change thinking—to build an educated citizenry, provide truthful reporting, while pushing back against falsehoods, giving voice to the voiceless, to engage and provoke, to be both a gadfly and a pillar, to be the relentless critic and the sagacious teacher ... It is to create a collection of insights, and a world view (or many world views) ... It has a mission, and it keeps our democracy rolling. Fine, maybe not all media—the world has its gossip rags and its polemics. But this it The New Republic, for God's sake. Can we not let it do its job? Can we not nurture these writers and support them as they carry out a spectacularly pro-social mission of opening minds, challenging assumptions and inspiring more critical thinking?

If you have fabulous wealth from the Second Web Era, you would think you could purchase your way out of that life—to transcend. Instead, this dude—and dude really isn't a wrong appellation for someone of our Internet-fueled generation—is buying into the world of Internet hype. He is embodying the social media generation instead of finding a way of stepping up and rising above. He isn't interested in evolution, but retrogression. It's worse a violation than any "old media" outfit could ever commit of being limp or anachronistic, because this generation is supposed to be better than that. There are greater expectations, we should show more promise, because we know, because we are digital natives. He's sinking down to the level of the extant world, not looking into what could be. He's accepting status quo, when the status quo is meaningless "disruption". He never asks those around him, whether it's his immediate circle of friends, his band of writers and employees, or his wide assemblage of of readers and society at large, to do anything other than conform. Instead, he could be inviting us all to do better.

With this outcome, The New Republic has given up the opportunity for new technology mavens to build a true partnership, friendship, alliance with the world of old and imagine a joint future together. A publication is not only its public face, nor the archive of articles, but the ensemble of people who write, build, shape and paint it, as well as the long heritage that has built its reputation, its character, its place in the cultural sphere. He's taken hostage the palace, and instead of reimagining-while-preserving, he's dynamited the tower, collapsed the chapel, leveled the walls and gates, so we all fall down the crevasse to a newly "flat" future. It will be a long time before we rebuild an architecture so elegant as that, and the city landscape will be the poorer for it.

This episode reminds me of the hutong-demolishing, resident-evicting, temple-bulldozing attitude—that cultural theft carried out by the skyscraper-and-condo building developers. They suffer from a narrowed field of vision, and what at the end of the day amounts to a real lack of imagination. The attitude seems to be that "everyone else is doing it," and so we must do the same to survive.

"Everyone else is doing it." That's what you want to do with our cultural heritage? "Everyone else is doing it." That's the best response you can give? From the intellectual heirs and beneficiaries of Silicon Valley—once the heart of innovation—I expected better. New shopping mall indeed.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Waiting for 包公 to visit the earthly world

Horrific story of police and judicial system malfeasance in China, from The Washington Post. In this piece, a group of former law enforcement officials who have witnessed and experienced abuse—and tried to do something about it—were sacked or jailed, and subsequently persecuted when they tried to press their cases. It's deeply unfair, revealing the darkness of a system rotting from the inside.

If only 包青天, Lord Bao, the historical judge renowned for fairness and ethics, could descend from Heaven and put a halt to the corrupt and unethical officials who are currently stacking the "justice" system.

The article and even some of the petitioners seem resigned to the fact that the petitioning won't achieve anything in the end. The local forces have all the power, and personal patronage linked with political insider status run the game. "It won't change," seems to be the message. If so, then we really need a divine clean sweep to dismantle this broken system.