Time to Drop “Make Creativity Work” and “Make Community Work”?

Although I like the ideas incorporated in Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work, I’m beginning to think they aren’t the right way to frame these ideas.

I’ve been spending some time working on article queries as well as talking points, and the more I work with Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work, the more I think I’m to trying to pack in too many ideas. Each of them takes 3 bullet points to explain; that’s six in total. Add in an intro and other pieces that I need, and that’s an awful lot to digest.

Also, Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work are built on a series of assumptions that most people don’t make — e.g., why it’s important to build grassroots power at the heart of the economy the way unions did in the 40s and 50s. These assumptions make sense to most folks once they understand them, but that takes a bunch of explanation. As a result, it’s hard to concisely explain Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work: they require too much set up/context.

The other problem I’m running into is that because Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work have so many working parts, some of the points that are most important for me to highlight feel like they get lost in the shuffle. For example, almost no one who talks about the potential impact of robots talks about the importance of building grassroots power in the heart of the economy — or for that matter talks much about economic power at all.

Finally, I’ve never been entirely happy with the contrast between Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work. The word “creativity” plays a critical role in Make Creativity Work, but it’s always felt like someone to get the idea that I think the work that is covered in Make Community Work — e.g., taking care of kids or the elderly — isn’t creative. That’s definitely not the case, but given the history of male policy writers undervaluing what’s been traditionally seen as women’s work, I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

If I stop using Make Creativity Work and Make Community Work, what do I use instead? I don’t yet have short/snappy phrases to describe the new approach, but I think I can cover everything that’s critical in three buckets:

1) In every community, ensure that as many individuals as possible can learn the skills they need to participate in this economy — not only as tool users but as tool creators. This is critical not only so folks can make $$$, but also it’s needed for #2.

2) Build grassroots power at the heart of this to economy the way unions did in the 40s and 50s, only this time build power that includes every community. The goal: to ensure that everyone, not just a handful of corporations and the wealthy, gets a seat at the table with the decisions get made about how markets for this new economy will be structured and who will benefit (e.g., “YouTube Done Right”). And by ensuring that everyone will be empowered in this new economy generate unprecedented wealth.

3) Make Communities Whole. To guarantee everyone security, create a backstop, such as a mix of a Universal Basic Income and other opportunities that anyone could do and that reinforce our society’s values (e.g., “volunteer bucks”). Also provide resources for critical work the market doesn’t fully value, such as taking care of children and the elderly. And for communities that are devastated either by new crises, such as mass unemployment from robots, or have never recovered from previous damage, create a mini Marshall plan to get them back on their feet.

My first thoughts about this potential approach:

  • Although these three buckets still cover a lot of territory, I feel like I can streamline them enough that they will be easier for folks to wrap their heads around.

  • It feels like I’ll be able to more easily and more quickly & concisely lay out the assumptions behind each bucket. I won’t know for sure until I try, but it feels like rather than having a big, blobby set of assumptions followed by a lot of points and sub points, I should be able to end up with a nice clean table that encapsulates both the assumptions and the buckets.

  • My full version of the framework does a pretty good job of framing the Makers All argument in a historical context, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that in a more concise version — because my old framework covered so many points, the connections between the history and the points of the framework were too complicated to come up with a clean diagram. With a new approach, it feels like I might be able to pull that off.

Not bad for a first take! I’ll do a deeper dive next week, and by the end of the week I should have a first real draft of this new approach.

Is Coding Literacy for All a Silicon Valley Plot To Lower Tech Wages?

Last week, the Guardian published a piece arguing that organizations like code.org are essentially a nefarious plot to push down programmers’ wages:

Contrary to public perception, the economy doesn’t actually need that many more programmers. As a result, teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class. Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point….

Guest workers and wage-fixing are useful tools for restraining labor costs. But nothing would make programming cheaper than making millions more programmers. And where better to develop this workforce than America’s schools? It’s no coincidence, then, that the campaign for code education is being orchestrated by the tech industry itself. Its primary instrument is Code.org, a nonprofit funded by Facebook, Microsoft, Google and others. In 2016, the organization spent nearly $20m on training teachers, developing curricula, and lobbying policymakers.

If Silicon Valley was conspiring to drive down how much they spend on coders, I think they could figure out a strategy that would take a little less than 18 years to pay off. Take IBM. According to the New York Times, IBM now

employs 130,000 people in India — about one-third of its total work force, and more than in any other country. Their work spans the entire gamut of IBM’s businesses, from managing the computing needs of global giants like AT&T and Shell to performing cutting-edge research in fields like visual search, artificial intelligence and computer vision for self-driving cars. One team is even working with the producers of Sesame Street to teach vocabulary to kindergartners in Atlanta….

The tech industry has been shifting jobs overseas for decades, and other big American companies like Oracle and Dell also employ a majority of their workers outside the United States. But IBM is unusual because it employs more people in a single foreign country than it does at home. The company’s employment in India has nearly doubled since 2007, even as its work force in the United States has shrunk through waves of layoffs and buyouts. Although IBM refuses to disclose exact numbers, outsiders estimate that it employs well under 100,000 people at its American offices now, down from 130,000 in 2007. Depending on the job, the salaries paid to Indian workers are one-half to one-fifth those paid to Americans, according to data posted by the research firm Glassdoor.

You can certainly make a reasonable argument that teaching lots of people to code has more complex motives an ideological impact than simply trying to help lots of people learn to code, and the author also makes that point in the article. But the idea that organizations like code.org are primarily about driving down wages is just nuts.

More importantly, I think the author is ignoring an important economic impact if everyone learned to code. In the next 20 years we are going to see a remarkable rise of new technology: robots, AI, augmented reality, virtual reality, wearables, and digital fabrication. In this context, if most people learn to code it could fundamentally transform what might be possible in the same way that learning to read and write did on the previous economy. Given that all of these new technologies are driven by code, massively increasing the number of people who know how to do so might not only not draft wages down, they could help generate an unprecedented amount of wealth (in a similar way that California community colleges helped enable the rise of Silicon Valley).

How this would play out isn’t inevitable; it would depend in no small part on whether ordinary people were able to build the kind of economic power in this new economy that white blue color workers were able to build in the 40s and 50s through their unions. But there’s no reason why liberals or lefties should see the possibility of mass coding literacy as an evil capitalist plot.

Why Communties, Not Just Individuals:  Black, Latino Median Wealth Is Headed Towards Zero

Some shocking news from a new study: not only is the wealth gap between black and Latino families vs white families not shrinking, it’s actually getting much worse.

Between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of median Black and Latino households decreased by 75% (from $6,800 to $1,700) and 50% (from $4,000 to $2,000), respectively, while median White household wealth rose by 14% (from $102,200 to $116,800). If current trends continue, by 2020 median Black and Latino households stand to lose nearly 18% and 12%, respectively, of the wealth they held in 2013. In that same timeframe, median White household wealth would see an increase of 3%. Put differently, in just under four years from now, median White households are projected to own 86 and 68 times more wealth than Black and Latino households, respectively….

Earning a middle-class income does not guarantee middle-class economic security. White households in the middle-income quintile (those earning $37,201-$61,328 annually) own nearly eight times as much wealth ($86,100) as middle-income Black earners ($11,000) and ten times as much wealth as middle-income Latino earners ($8,600). This disconnect in income earned and wealth owned is visible across the entire income spectrum between these groups….

If the racial wealth divide is left unaddressed and is not exacerbated further over the next eight years, median Black household wealth is on a path to hit zero by 2053—about 10 years after it is projected that racial minorities will comprise the majority of the nation’s population. Median Latino household wealth is projected to hit zero twenty years later, or by 2073. In sharp contrast, median White household wealth would climb to $137,000 by 2053 and $147,000 by 2073.

This is another example of why it’s absolutely crucial that will we talk about access, we talk about communities and not just individuals. There are number of really terrific programs that are teaching folks across the country in poor communities how to code. That’s all to the good. But that was also true when the Internet started to take off. And yet African-American and Latino communities ended up with less wealth. We can’t repeat that mistake when it comes to robots, AI, and the other emerging tech that will dominate the economy in the next 20 years.

Unity: Come for the AR, Stay for the AI

If you want to develop something for augmented reality (AR), these days there’s a pretty good chance you’re using the gaming engine called Unity. Unity is the closest we’ve got to cross-platform AR; if you build something in Unity, it’ll work on Apple, Google, and Microsoft Hololens. This week, Unity added a new twist: Unity machine learning agents

Machine Learning is changing the way we expect to get intelligent behavior out of autonomous agents. Whereas in the past the behavior was coded by hand, it is increasingly taught to the agent (either a robot or virtual avatar) through interaction in a training environment. This method is used to learn behavior for everything from industrial robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles, to game characters and opponents…

At Unity, we wanted to design a system that provide greater flexibility and ease-of-use to the growing groups interested in applying machine learning to developing intelligent agents…
* Academic researchers interested in studying complex multi-agent behavior in realistic competitive and cooperative scenarios.
* Industry researchers interested in large-scale parallel training regimes for robotics, autonomous vehicle, and other industrial applications.
* Game developers interested in filling virtual worlds with intelligent agents each acting with dynamic and engaging behavior.

Unity’s machine learning agents are a long way from being finished. Unity is releasing their work as a beta (including, interestingly enough, open sourcing the software). But it should have some very interesting implications for Makers All down the line. As I discussed in On Augmented Reality and Not Sitting at the Back of the Bus and Why Augmented Reality Instead of Robots, given the very limited things robots that are ridiculously expensive can do today, I think augmented reality is a better place for working on the issue of community access right now. I’d assumed that at some point the lessons learned from community groups working together around augmented reality would be useful when robots and AI got interesting enough to start to do real work on them in the community. But given Unity’s announcement, there may be a lot more overlap than I expected.

When You Can Afford to Wait, When You Can’t

There’s an important lesson for Makers All in the tragedy of California’s abysmal poverty rate: sometimes you can wait to deal with a slow building crisis, and sometimes you can’t.

When the cost of housing started rising in Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley techies and investors didn’t pay any attention. When everyone is working crazy hours — and everyone is preaching that what they’re doing is going to revolutionize society — nobody wanted to stop and ask, how are we shaping society? And you can’t talk about housing costs without talking about land regulations and other issues that have to do with government, and everybody in Silicon Valley was smugly confident that government was too slow to waste time paying attention to. Besides, if your motto is “move fast and break things,” your hidden assumption is that you can always easily fix what you broke later.

But land and housing aren’t fluid the way software and hardware is. And as Silicon Valley’s newfound wealth collided with scarce housing, the cost of housing took off like a rocket. And once an area has been built up and housing has become insanely expensive, fixing what you broke is damn near impossible.

The same was true with Bay Area progressives, especially in San Francisco and Berkeley. Their mantra was “think globally, act locally” — and by “locally” they meant just their city. Before I left the Bay Area I was briefly involved with some progressive groups in Silicon Valley, and I was always amazed at how completely uninterested progressives in San Francisco and Berkeley were in what was happening right next door to them. They knew a lot more about the Sandinistas than they did about Silicon Valley. Between that and a shortsighted focus on rent control to the exclusion of broader housing strategies, they were completely unprepared as Silicon Valley’s housing prices started applying pressure to the very affordable housing markets of Berkeley and San Francisco (when I was a grad student in the 80s and early 90s, if you didn’t mind living in group houses you could survive quite comfortably on a tiny salary). At some level, they were making the same mistake as Silicon Valley techies: they assumed they could always worry about Silicon Valley and housing prices later.

It’s understandable that both of these groups made this mistake. But when it comes to the potential threat of mass unemployment due to robots and AI, we can’t afford to repeat it. We need to be asking ourselves now, what are the decisions we can wait to make, and what decisions and actions do we need to start taking in the next few years? Because what’s at stake here isn’t whether California housing will be affordable, it’s whether our society and our democracy will survive.

California: We’re #1… in Poverty

On the same day as Apple unveiled the expensive iPhone in Apple’s history, Southern California Public Radio released a sobering analysis.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show California has the country’s highest poverty rate, with nearly one in five residents facing economic hardship when factoring in living costs such as housing.

Most of the time we talk about poverty in terms of how much money people are making. But the Census Bureau also has a “Supplemental Poverty Measure” that does a better job at getting at how poor people really are by factoring in the cost of housing, taxes, and medical care. And by this more realistic standard, California is doing worse than Mississippi.

The main culprit: the astronomical cost of housing in California.

The California Budget and Policy Center blamed high rents for keeping 20.4 percent of the population in poverty. Sara Kimberlin, a senior policy analyst at the center, said fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the most populated parts of the state is more than $1,500 a month. But the state minimum wage pays $546 a month, meaning that a single mother earning that income, for example, wouldn’t be able to find an affordable place for herself and her children.

What’s particularly shocking about this turn of events is that California housing prices used to be quite reasonable. When I was in grad school in the mid-80s to early 90s, rent in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco was remarkably cheap. If you work willing to share a house with a few roommates, you could have a remarkably comfortable middle-class life on not a whole lot of money. But when Silicon Valley took off, a combination of an explosion of new wealth, not enough housing being built to keep up with a partly tech-driven increase in population, and outdated housing policies pushed housing prices so high that now almost no one can afford it. It’s a very sad state of affairs, and it’s not at all clear how they can get out from under.

Why I Haven’t Been Worrying About Creating Markets in Make Creativity Work

Watching CTO Francesca Bria’s amazing talk on Barcelona’s bottom up tech efforts, I realized why I haven’t gotten to writing about how the markets proposed by Make Creativity Work might function.

There are a number of groups across the globe who are trying interesting experiments in what’s sometimes called Platform Cooperatives that are trying to build an alternative to an economy dominated by Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. I have complicated feelings about these efforts.

The way think about it is similar to what I think around healthcare. I’m strongly in favor of Single-Payer, Medicare/Medicaid for All, or national health insurance. But almost every industrialized country other than us has a healthcare system that works quite well for their citizens, and most of them don’t use one of those approaches. My goal is to get the job done even if the end result isn’t exactly what I want.

So although I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Platform Cooperative’s crowd, given just how bad things could get if we don’t get a solution to the robot jobs crisis threat in time, I wouldn’t want to say there’s only one right solution. And if I’m being completely honest with myself, more than a handful of people who talk about co-ops in general and platform co-ops in particular are so loosey-goosey about how the tiny examples they love to talk & talk & talk about would scale to the point where they would have a real effect on the economy that I probably don’t give them a fair hearing, because they get on my nerves.

That said, I’m pretty impressed by some of the experiments that have popped up in the last two years, such as some of the projects highlighted by Bria. And so a part of me hasn’t been in any rush to do some of the hard, headbanging-against-wall analysis it would take to come up with a smart market proposal. I’d rather wait for a bit and see how some of these on the ground efforts pan out.

Meanwhile, Back in Barcelona… Creating Smart Cities from the Bottom Up

If Silicon Valley elites have become 2 parts liberal to 1 part libertarian, Barcelona techies have become 1 part wild-eyed radicals to 2 parts Get-R-Done. If you’re feeling a little depressed about the world, do yourself a favor and watch this amazing talk by Barcelona’s CTO, Francesca Bria on “Barcelona’s Strategy for Digital Sovereignty.” The scope of what they’ve been working on is breaktaking, and what they’ve managed to accomplish so far is pretty damn impressive. What I particularly appreciated was the effort to blend really bold ideas and smart, practical on-the-ground ideas. It’s not that often you hear someone talk about emancipatory democratic visions, movement building, and strategeies for procurement reform in the same breath — one good sign that this is the real deal.

What’s particularly exciting about this work happening right now is that it’s taking place in an environment where cities across the globe are beginning to learn from each other and collaborate much more than they had in the past. In another talk at the same conference, Mark Watts, Executive Director for C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, walked through a variety of examples of how innovations developed by a few cities have gotten implemented by other cities at a remarkable speed (ironically, spurred on in part by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Accords). So as Barcelona and their collaborators continue to break new ground, these ideas might actually come to a city near you.

Silicon Valley Elites: 2 Parts Liberal to 1 Part Libertarian?

David Broockman, Neil Malhotra, and Greg Ferenstein have published an interesting study of the political views of the US tech elite. Silicon Valley types are usually thought of as Libertarians — or more accurately, Lockheed Libertarians who’re against all government except for the programs that ice their cake. Turns out it’s a more complicated picture. According to the New York Times,

On most culture-war issues, they are unrepentantly liberal. They oppose restrictions on abortion, favor gay rights, support gun control and oppose the death penalty.

They also support raising their own taxes to fund health care and protect the environment.

Now for the twist. The study found one area where tech entrepreneurs strongly deviate from Democratic orthodoxy and are closer to most Republicans: They are deeply suspicious of the government’s efforts to regulate business, especially when it comes to labor. They said that it was too difficult for companies to fire people, and that the government should make it easier to do so. They also hope to see the influence of both private and public-sector unions decline.

To try to get a better sense of how these elites feel about regulation, researchers asked whether it was ok for a business like a florist to use surge pricing. Both traditional Democratic and Republican donors think it’s unfair, but 96% of the tech elites were good with it.

“My guess is there’s an underlying principle to their views,” Dr. Broockman said. “They see an entrepreneur trying to do what they want in the marketplace, and they see nothing unfair about that.”

It’d be interesting to see how tech elites’ political attitudes today compare to how they felt, say, 20 years ago. I’m guessing that the rise of inequality, the rise of resentment against tech startups in San Francisco — eg., the dust ups over Google buses that started back in 2013 — and increasing fears about automation have pushed them away from Lockheed Libertarianism to a political position that’s a lot more muddled.