Archive for Technology

My new articles for The Economist on innovation and the future.

Late last year, I was commissioned by The Economist to write some articles on innovation and the future. I thought I would put them in one place, in case you’d like to read them in a spare moment or two. I hope you have time to take a look, and that you enjoy them.

  1. A wider cast: the ethics (and economics) of diversity in film
  2. Time over money: Wandering the world with the New Rich
  3. Holograms and the democratisation of modern football
  4. Softly, softly: the future of impact investing
  5. Spontaneity and the modern office
  6. In praise of “techno-optimists”
  7. The rise of the countryside

 

GitHub: sexism, bullying, harassment, and a curiously clean sweep.

[NOTE: This article was prompted by the tweets of the developer Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrdcore) and Shanley Kane (@Shanley), the technology writer.]

Last night I read about the departure from GitHub, the popular social coding side, of its co-founder Tom Preston-Werner. Preston-Werner’s company had been accused of a culture of bullying, sexism and harassment by one of the company’s then developers, Julie Ann Horvath. In an official announcement on its website, GitHub outlined the steps that it had taken to clean house. However, many of these steps seem to have been spent treading carefully around the elephant in the room. When GitHub’s findings are compared with the comments of two of their most vocal critics, the developer Julie Ann Horvath and the technology writer Shanley Kane,  it seems that much of the picture is still missing.

“Last month,” wrote Chris Wanstrath, the CEO and co-founder of GitHub, “a number of allegations were made against GitHub and some of its employees, including one of its co-founders, Tom Preston-Werner. We took these claims seriously and launched a full, independent, third-party investigation.”

“The investigation”, continued Wanstrath, “found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment. However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment. In light of these findings, Tom has submitted his resignation, which the company has accepted…As to the remaining allegations, the investigation found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.”

However, Horvath’s interview with Tim Murtaugh for the Stop Talk Show podcast  gives the impression that GitHub’s investigation has produced a curiously clean sweep. Horvath related the tale of a GitHub engineer who, following her rejection of his romantic advances, took a series of “passive-aggressive” measures to undermine her work. “He’s retaliating against me”, she said, “for not dating him or fucking him, excuse my language; it’s kind of crazy where you can’t work in an environment where, you know, men especially aren’t mature enough to deal with their own feelings.”

Horvath had kept a careful record of his behaviour. “There’s proof that this person went in and ripped out my code”, she told Murtaugh. “There are emails…I spent the last two years documenting all this stuff [so that] there was solid proof of all these things happening”. There is a sense, though, that certain uncomfortable questions were left unasked, perhaps for fear of what their answers might reveal. “They hired an outside firm to do an investigation”, observed Horvath at 24:47 of the podcast, “but…I haven’t gotten a phone call, so…I don’t know how exactly thorough that is.” (My italics.)

Horvath risked her career to make these allegations, and yet their strength has remained strangely untested. This investigation does not sound particularly rigorous: in any event, it is difficult to tell, since no copy of it has been made available to the public. “There was no investigation”, tweeted Horvath.  “There was a series of conversations with a “mediator” who sought to relieve GitHub of any legal responsibility.”  Meanwhile, Werner-Preston has gone on to another company, issuing a defiant statement on his own website to sue anyone making “any further false claims”. As for the engineer who allegedly bullied Horvath, he was not mentioned anywhere in the statement, even though it was his behaviour that lay at the very heart of this case. Instead, he was long ago promoted to a leadership position within GitHub, something which “terrified” Horvath to the extent that she had felt compelled to leave. The picture that she painted of the tech industry for Murtaugh and his listeners was one where women, particularly those at the beginning of the careers, are forced to suffer in silence.

“Why would younger women who are just entering this industry…speak out now?” asked Horvath. “We’re setting such a bad example for them because we’re saying “oh, if you don’t have, you know, [the right amount of] Twitter followers or if you don’t have a job already lined up, like, you’re completely fucked, and you have to deal with these situations and play with the boys’ club until you can create the circumstances by which you can leave.”

Many startups, by their very nature, are close-knit and homogenous – a phenomenon that Horvath refers to as “the tribe” – resulting in structures that are far too informal to deal with serious allegations of bullying and harassment, and situations which, in Horvath’s words, become “dangerous and toxic”.

Shanley Kane, the co-founder and co-CEO of Model View Culture, published a series of compelling tweets on the Github affair. “I need everyone to know that what happened at GitHub is NOT an exception. It is part of the script of Silicon Valley”, she wrote. “To keep Silicon Valley going – sexual harassment and abuse of women MUST happen. It MUST be covered up. The abusers MUST be promoted. The women MUST be punished and silenced. The men MUST NOT suffer consequences. THIS IS INTEGRAL TO THE MECHANISMS OF POWER AND WEALTH. In order for Silicon Valley to keep going as is, this is necessary. THIS IS NOT A BUG. THE SYSTEM IS WORKING AS DESIGNED.”

Taken together, the analyses of Horvath and Kane present a world where scrutiny of the excesses of male employees is routinely passed over in pursuit of profit. The question is how many women have either been inhibited in their careers or lost them altogether as a result of these brutally adverse working conditions; one which GitHub, and other companies like it, have so far been far too slow to address.

Twitter’s gender problem: blocking, and trolling unchained

Twitter has amended its blocking function, a move whose implications have been set out by @hollybrocks in an excellent post.  “Previously”, she writes, “blocking someone meant that they automatically unfollowed you, and if they went to your page, they couldn’t see any of your tweets, photos, videos, links – anything.” Now, though, if you block someone they can still follow you and retweet your tweets. The only difference is that they can’t see what you’re saying about them. Effectively, Twitter is saying to people being harassed by unwelcome followers that they should adopt the policy of “if I cover my eyes, you can’t see me”.

I mentioned on Twitter that these changes enabled harassment, and I think it’s notable that the only people who wondered why this was were men. This, I believe, is because men have a fundamentally different experience on Twitter to women. My female friends seem to get far more harassment merely for stating their views than men do. They know, for example, that a common form of online aggression is to have someone who hates you constantly retweeting on your tweets to others, so that the can pile on the abuse. These new changes are making it easier for online abusers to hunt their targets in packs.

The issue here for Twitter is seemingly one of gender. It is difficult to believe that these changes would have been made if there were more women involved in making the major decisions for this company. Indeed, it appointed its first female director, Marjorie Scardino, only a few days ago, news which soon looks to be engulfed by this brewing PR disaster. As the same article notes, “Unlike Facebook, though, Twitter still doesn’t have any high-ranking female executives.” Scardino joins seven white males on the company board, each of whom are presumably oblivious to the online barrage heading their way.

Twitter is a global brand and product, and it needs to move swiftly to address the needs of its diverse users: particularly when it has inadvertently put many of them at renewed risk. If you would like to make the blocking function far more robust, then you can sign and share this petition, using the #RestoreTheBlock hashtag started by @dwalton1 and continued by @judeinlondon and @stavvers.

 

 

My BBC Radio 4 talk on social media: “Why Mount Kimbie is better than Twitter” [2010]

Monday.

I woke up on a friend’s sofa at half six, my alarm went off at seven, and I got up at quarter past. By then I’d already checked the Internet to see if anyone had Tweeted me during my sleep. They hadn’t, so I looked next for the latest news stories.

You know the world’s changed when al-Jazeera is your homepage. They were reporting on the terrible drought in Somalia which affected 10 million people. It was impossibly tragic, and impossibly distant. The picture on the website was a portrait of misery but it seemed more like a high-definition shot from a film about the misery. It’s odd. Sometimes I wonder what the Internet raises more: our sense of awareness, or our sense of helplessness. Sometimes I feel like the sadness we see on our flatscreens has become just another movie we don’t have to watch.

I moved out of my girlfriend’s place last night, having advertised the break-up on Facebook first. I clicked on a button and changed my relationship status from “in a relationship” to “single”. Thing is, I never even wanted to list that I was in a relationship in the first place. For me, saying that you’re going out with someone on Facebook is a bit like selling your wedding pictures to Hello! magazine. It’s the karmic kiss of death, you’re setting yourself up for an awful fall.

I once read something about a Native American belief, possibly apocryphal, that to have a photo taken of yourself is to lose part of your soul, that it somehow saps away your life-force. I think I see what they mean. Online now are the ghosts of joy, photos taken of her and I when we were in perfect sync. Now they’re remnants of love lived but now lost, and strangers can now scroll through them to see how happy we once were, the same way civilisations millennia from now will look at those first few footprints skipping over the surface of the Moon. There’s an irony in looking at that online photo album: I surf it in silence, but the echoes are deafening.

I needed to keep moving. My brain and my body weren’t made for inertia; I needed purpose. I needed to stay fervent, or I would be engulfed by the emptiness. But I couldn’t go onto Twitter. Twitter makes me feel scattered. I have a lot of followers but I have no idea where I’m leading them. I have 140 characters to impress a passing set of eyes, so that they’ll read about me and maybe retweet me, though they’ll almost never meet me. Speed-dating seems intimate by comparison.

I have a friend who’s very good at tweeting, almost as good as he is at performing. I once joked that I didn’t need a watch: to tell the time, I simply had to check how many followers he had on Twitter, since he seemed to gain them at the rate of about a thousand every hour. I met him three and a half years ago at a show in King’s Cross, few people knew of his talent then. Now he’s just about the most exciting thing in music.

He became famous through YouTube, and so the Internet’s been very good to him. He performed an astonishing show of singing, rapping and beatboxing through a loop station, all the time strumming and slapping his guitar: the web went wild for it. That was millions of views ago: and, though he’s still at the very start of his career, his face has already been in umpteen homes across the globe. It seems almost the wrong way round. As he once said about the music industry, “these days you’ve got to make it before you make it”.

I might make it one day; but, more immediately, things in my offline life needed attention. (You know, life: that thing that happens in between the emails that never arrive.) At worst, I check my email dozens of times per hour, waiting for confirmation that this producer will work with me or that this magazine liked my book or my album. Log in, username, password, enter, look, grimace, refresh. Logout, log in, username, password, enter, look, grimace, refresh. It’s like I’m a kid sitting in the back of my ego’s car, and we’re on the road to success, and I keep screeching “are we there yet, are we there yet?” There’s nothing like an empty inbox to remind you of your distance from your dreams.

Having washed and brushed, I stepped outside. Unusually, Monday was kind. Maybe the day knew of my weekend’s grief, and there was something sympathetic about the sunlight. I didn’t want to disrespect the weather I’d been given by commuting underground to work, and so I waited patiently for the Number 4 bus. In the meantime, I fought to resist the itch that was Twitter. I love Twitter, but I don’t trust it. It’s like comfort food for the neurotic soul. You can sit and rant for hours about anything, tweeting your spleen out, and – whether approving or not – there’ll almost always be a responsive pair of eyes for what you write. And that doesn’t seem right. It’s too easy to vent instead of using that tension to go out and change what you really need to change.

Talking of change, I’m not the only person who’s more than a little miffed at Twitter. I was at a conference in Sweden recently, just outside Stockholm. There was one speaker in particular whose words stayed with me. His name was Mohamed El Dahshan, and forty-eight hours earlier he’d been fighting for a new and fair world in Egypt. Now he was in the West, in a world where there were millions of self-satisfied or merely oblivious citizens who thought that Twitter, and its social media stablemate, Facebook, had prompted the Arab Spring. He was angry about that. In fact, he was so angry he didn’t lose his temper. He was brimming with a righteous rage as he corrected what he saw as a complacent narrative.

Revolution, he made clear, wasn’t something that you achieved by remote control. You don’t get regime change by clicking “Like” on a democracy Facebook page. Freedom can’t be tweeted. You have to scuffle and skirmish in the dust and dirt for it. You need to bleed and yearn for it. He was so angry. Out there they don’t do unmanned drones, they stand against thrones. While we retweet, they don’t retreat.

He finished speaking, to the applause of many hundreds of hands. He asked those of us in the West, particularly those in the media, to do what we could to spread the word, to look inside ourselves and question if we were doing enough in support of the Arab Spring. I had a good think: and after some profound thought, I just started following him on Twitter.

See: there I go again. What came first, the chicken or the egg; what came first, the Twitter or the smug? Was I this flippant before Twitter? I was bad, but not this bad. You’re only given so much space with each tweet to send something witty out into the ether. So you’ve got to make it count, right? “Tweet now, ask questions later.” Otherwise no-one will be impressed. None of those complete strangers out there will be impressed.

I needed to get off Twitter, I needed to get unplugged, but it was harder than I thought. I kept reaching for its homepage like a smoker fiddling for cigarettes. So I did what everyone should do when they’ve just had a breakup, and reached instead for an album by Mount Kimbie.

For those of you who don’t know them, Mount Kimbie are an electronica outfit and they are very, very, very good. They are good friends of a musician called James Blake, who is a very big deal if you are a fan of a brand of music called post-dubstep, which if you are as old as me you will recognise as garage. Anyway. Mount Kimbie have released an excellent album called “Crooks and Lovers”, and the reason it’s so good is that it’s ideal listening for those who’ve just ended a wonderful but ultimately unsustainable love affair.

It’s not one of those pieces of music that gives you instant respite from your sadness – it’s not filled with nauseatingly happy tunes. Nor is it filled with hollow melancholy. As you listen to it, it walks gently with you to the verge of tears, then equally gently it steerss you away. It doesn’t give you easy answers, it doesn’t lead you to extremes, and that’s why it’s better than Twitter.

Anyway. The Number 4 bus arrived, and so I boarded it, walking to the top floor with the subtle vocal hooks of “Crooks and Lovers” massaging my heart via my ears. The weather had been kind to me, and the bus had been kind to me too. There was a group of four of five schoolgirls nearby, and somehow the pleasant energy of their rowdy chatter filtered underneath the drums and bass of Mount Kimbie’s album, so that it felt like an already fine piece of electronica was being sampled and remixed by strangers. I should’ve recorded it and released it as a mixtape, and given them all production credits. I could have called it “Mount Kimbie: The Number 4 Remix”, produced by Jenny, Sarah, Helen, Kate and Jane of, I don’t know, Clerkenwell Girls Technology College.

The bus and I made our way along its route. Truth was, I’d walked half this distance last night: trying to make some space in my head after this break-up, I’d gone for a five-minute stroll and ended up at the Barbican forty minutes later. No-one really knew where I was. I’d left the house while no-one else was home, and a week before I’d had my numbers wiped from my iPhone, so I was wandering aimless and invisible. No Facebook status updates, no pith on Twitter, just me and my blues and my gold Puma athletic shoes.

 

Look: I know I’m sounding ungrateful about social media, and perhaps I am. It’s allowed people like me to market our work for free to audiences of previously unimaginable size. But sometimes in life you just need a clear, uninterrupted run at things, whatever that is – whether it’s your happiness or your sadness, you just need to feel it and not force it, you need to let that narrative that’s in your guts just roll on out of you. That’s why I had to take that unplugged bus ride. No mentions or retweets. Just me.

Talking of narratives, I think that’s why I like Mount Kimbie – and no, I’m not their press officer. They can do glorious sonic narratives, they can make you lift and tilt and fall and softly prevail. It took me one and a half listens of their album to get to work, by which time I was already feeling entirely better.

In fact, from now on, I think I’m going to express all physical and emotional distances that I travel in relation to the amount of listens to a Mount Kimbie album that it takes me to travel them. E.g. if I’m in a very bad mood, and it takes me two listens of “Crooks and Lovers” to get out of it, then I’m two Mount Kimbies away from happiness. I think that this could catch on.

Well, I think that’s about it from me. I should do some thankyous. I would like to thank the BBC and the RSA for having me. I would like to thank my mate for letting me crash on his sofa and I would like to thank my ex-girlfriend for showing me how love felt a decade after I’d forgotten it.

I would like to thank Ed Sheeran for being a musician whose progress as an artist gives me the greatest happiness. Thank you to Facebook, I’m sorry if I laid into you. Obviously, I would like to thank Mount Kimbie.  And finally, thank you to Twitter. I wrote this without you, but I couldn’t have written this without you.

New poem, “The Lord’s iPrayer”

We pray to our smartphones,

Bending necks towards our tech:

“Our Father, who art in Windows Seven,

Hallowed be Thy Name.

Forgive us our drunken text messages

As we forgive those exes

Who send drunken text messages against us.

Lead us not into offline conversation

But deliver us from hanging out with people.

Let us only chat through apps,

And let us speak not in tongues but tweets;

For thine is the kingdom,

The rapidly decreasing battery power,

And the glory:

Forever and ever,

iMen.”

An Open Letter to Christopher Nolan, re: Transformers

Dear Mr. Nolan,

Please please please please reboot the Transformers franchise.  I realise that you are a very busy man and that you probably get countless requests from earnest fanboys wishing that you would breathe life into their favourite dramatic concepts but I can assure you that this request is different.  Well, OK, maybe it is not different but please hear me out.

Transformers were my favourite toys for years.  In Hasbro’s glory days, they were the best-selling gifts in the UK for seven Christmases straight.  Now they are on the big screen, where they find themselves secondary to the screen romance of Shia LeBoeuf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

Transformers, as an idea, is one of the best things there is.  It’s a fantastic allegory for what artificial intelligence might one day be like.  You see, so many writers envisage a time where robots rule over humans, where they will establish dominion over their creators in the same way that our empires subjugate others today.  Very few writers conceive of a time where there might be robots who, despite their intellectual and physical supremacy over us, might just choose – within the vast range of possibilities offered by robotic free will – to like us, and work with us.

However Michael Bay, the director who oversaw the three recent big budget films, turned Transformers into a parody of itself.  The plots had all the lightness and subtlety of a grand piano being pushed off an office-block.  They may have taken billions at the box office and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Megan Fox may have graced the sweaty dreams of many millions of men and women worldwide but, my God, they missed an open goal here.

We live in a time when human beings are building an artificial brain, where there seems to be a new algorithm poking its nose into our business each time we make a web search, and where our phones are so sure that they know best what we need that they have now started talking to us.

The time for a reboot is now. The Transformer series, just like Batman when you took it under your wing, has reached its lowest ebb.  The final film, Dark of the Moon, featured bad accents and Orientalist stereotypes and nauseating frat-boy office culture.  It is Batman and Robin with robots.  In fact, it might be nice if you could have a chat with Christian Bale, in case he’s kicking his heels. I think you two could really knock this out of the park.  Something dark, majestic and terrifying, where the first half-hour of the first film is a rainswept urban scene after nightfall.  I’ve seen this in my head a thousand times and I – ah, I’m sorry.  I’m doing that fanboy thing again.

Anyway, I just thought I’d ask, given that you seem to have managed making box-office smashes that don’t dumb it down.  Hope you have a great 2013, and I look forward to seeing what you do next.

 

With best wishes,

Musa Okwonga

P.S. I, ah, really liked Bane’s jacket in The Dark Knight Rises, if you could let me know who made it that would be awesome.