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A sad day. Tell the people you love how you feel about them, as often as you can.

 

Newsletter housekeeping

If you’re subscribing via email, heads up that I’m thinking about changing my newsletter engine, possibly to Buttondown. You shouldn’t see anything particularly different - and if you’re subscribing via RSS, nothing will change at all. But, to be honest, I’ll be paying a lot less money for a lot more power.

As always, I really appreciate it when people share around my posts, or let me know if they’ve disagreed with something I’ve written. Your time and attention are limited; thanks for sticking around.

 

Performative productivity and building a culture that matters

I recently heard a story about a company that, when determining who would be laid off in a downsizing event, asked team leads to rank their teams based on who would be most likely to work on the weekend.

Mind-blowingly, while it’s obviously (or hopefully obviously) immoral, this practice appears to be legal in the US, which has at-will employment in every state. This is one of the many contrasts between European and US employment law, which were the biggest culture shock for me when I moved to the US eleven years ago. In Europe, employers must ensure that employees don’t work more than 48 hours during a week and the minimum vacation allocation beyond statutory holidays is four weeks. In America, it’s often seen as a badge of honor to work 70 hour weeks, and it’s one of the few countries in the world with 0 mandatory vacation days.

Perhaps my concerns around compassionate employment are irredeemably European, but as I’ve written before, long hours with little rest are counter-productive. Environments that want you to work weekends and evenings in addition to standard office hours tend to value performative productivity over actual results, or adhere to a kind of religious belief around work ethic. If these employers paid attention to the research and data, they wouldn’t do it.

This is perhaps even more of a problem in flexible and work from home settings. In my previous piece, I quoted a French member of Parliament:

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

I heard recently about another company where the CEO regularly shouts at their team, and if a team lead suggests that a goal can’t be reached, retorts that they’ll find a team who can achieve it instead. These companies share a common trait: a fundamental lack of respect for the expertise and the lives of the people they’ve hired. It’s as if there’s some inherent value to this kind of work, and that the exchange of time for money obviates the need for human care.

It’s cultural. “I don’t think you should work while you have covid,” I told someone recently, mindful of the research about recovery times and long covid. “Maybe I learned the wrong lessons from my Dad,” he replied.

As well as being health and quality issues, these kinds of attitudes compound inclusion problems: only certain kinds of people can work all hours. Carers and parents, and particularly people from lower-income backgrounds, are more likely to have other commitments.

All aspects of a company’s culture are really hard to change when it’s already been set in motion. Either you care about creating a place that cares for its employees or you don’t, and these values affect the choices that are made by founders from the very first day. It’s impossible to do it bespoke, too: every aspect of a company has to pull together with the same cultural underpinnings. The entirety of a community has to pull together or resentments and friction build.

The same cultural change problem doesn’t apply in the same way across the country. While this is a uniquely American problem, not every American company behaves this way: to be frank, most of the successful ones don’t. One of the most promising aspects of the organization I’m at, The 19th, is its excellent, intentionally inclusive culture; it’s among the best, but not the first time I’ve felt valued at work. And it doesn’t take a people ops superhero to understand that people who feel valued do better work overall.

While I think these problems are best solved through legislation and unionization, competitive forces can be a useful fallback. Not everyone has the luxury of being discerning about their employer, but each of the companies I’ve mentioned is in the tech sector: a world where knowledge workers often do have the privilege of choice. Again, it doesn’t take an empath to understand that, given the choice between two otherwise similar firms, employees are more likely to choose to work at the one with a more supportive culture. It goes without saying that yelling doesn’t make for a productive workplace, but if you want to hire the best people, you’ve got to be the best place for them to work, and understand that, past a point, people are motivated by meaning, not money.

From a prospective employee standpoint, if you’re looking for a job, it helps to understand that you have every right to ask for and expect a better, more supportive culture. Having strong standards here makes the employment experience better for everyone, and helps even the worst employers understand that they need to change if they want to be successful.

But make no mistake: the onus is not on employees here. Employers - and the legislators that govern them in the United States - need to drag themselves into the twenty-first century and learn that a strong culture of support in turn makes for strong companies, and strong countries.

 

The corpus bride

I got my beta invitation to DALL-E 2, which creates art based on text prompts. You’ve probably seen them floating around the internet by now: surrealist, AI-drawn illustrations in a variety of styles.

Another tool, Craiyon (formerly DALL-E Mini), had been doing the rounds as a freely-available toy. It’s fun too, but DALL-E’s fidelity is impressive enough to be almost indistinguishable from magic.

I can’t claim to fully understand its algorithm, but DALL-E is ultimately based on a huge corpus of information: OpenAI created a variation of GPT-3 that follows human-language instructions well enough to sift through collected data and create new works based on what it’s learned. OpenAI claims to have guarded against hateful or infringing use cases, but it can never be perfect at this, and will only ever be as sensitive to these issues as the team that builds it.

These images are attention-grabbing, but the technology has lots of different applications. Some are benign: the team found that AI-generated critiques helped human writers find flaws in their work, for example. GitHub uses OpenAI’s libraries to help engineers write code, using a feature called Copilot. There’s a Figma plugin that will mock up a website based on a text description. But it’s obvious that there are military and intelligence applications for this technology, too.

If I was a science fiction writer - and at night, I am! - I would ask myself what I could create if the corpus was everything. If an AI algorithm was fed with every decision made by every person in the world - our movements via our cellphones, our intentions via our searches, our actions via our purchases and interactions - what might it be able to say about us? Could it predict what we would do next? Could it determine how to influence us to take certain actions?

Yes - but “yes” wouldn’t make for a particularly compelling story in itself. Instead, I’d want to drill a level deeper and remind myself that any technology is a reflection of the people who built it. So even if all those datapoints were loaded into the system, a person who fell outside of the parameters the designers thought to measure or look for might not be as predictable in the system. The designer’s answer, in turn, might be to incentivize people to act within the frameworks they’d built: to make them conform to the data model. (Modern marketing already doesn’t stray too far from this idea.) The people who are not compliant, who resist those incentives, are the only ones who can bring down the system. In the end, only the non-conformists, in this story and in life, are truly free, and are the flag-bearers of freedom for everyone else.

The corpus of images used to power DALL-E 2 is scraped from the internet; the corpus of code for GitHub Copilot is scraped from open source software. There are usage implications here, of course: I did not grant permission for my code, my drawings, or my photographs to form the basis of someone else’s work. But a human artist also draws on everything they’ve encountered, and we tend not to worry about that (unless the re-use becomes undeniably obviously centered on one work in particular). An engineer relies on “best practices” and “patterns” that were developed by others, and we actively encourage that (unless, again, it turns the corner and becomes plagiarism of a single source). Where should we draw the line, legally and conceptually?

I think there is a line, and it’s in part because OpenAI is building a commercial, proprietary platform. The corpus of work translates into profit for them; if OpenAI’s software does wind up powering military applications, or if my mini science fiction story partially becomes true, it could also translate into real harm. The ethical considerations there can’t be brushed away.

What I’m not worried about: I don’t think AI is coming for the jobs of creative people. The corpus requires new art. I do think we will see AI-produced news stories, which are a natural evolution of the content aggregator and cheap reblogging sites we see today, but there will always be a need for deeply-reported journalism. I don’t think we’ll see AI-produced novels and other similar content, although I can imagine writers using them to help with their first drafts before they revise. Mostly, for creatives, this will be a tool rather than a replacement. At least, for another generation or so.

In the meantime, here’s a raccoon in a cowboy hat singing karaoke:

 

You might have a dysfunctional company if: you're asking people to rank their teams on how likely they are to work on a weekend. Very glad to not work in an environment like that.

 

It’s been four years since I was last in my hometown / the country I grew up in, and I’m not sure when I’m going to make it back. It feels really weird. Feeling some kind of homesick tonight.

 

Comments are hard

Building a comments system is really hard. I tried to build one for Known, which powers my website, but found that spammers circumvented it surprisingly easily. You can flag spam using Akismet (which was built for WordPress but works across platforms), but this process tends to require you to pre-screen comments and make them public after the fact. That’s a fair amount of work and a fair amount of unnecessary friction for building community.

If you have a blog - you do have a blog, don’t you? - you can post a response to one of my posts and send a webmention. But not everybody has their own website, and the barrier to entry for sending webmentions is pretty high.

So I’ve been looking for something else.

Fred Wilson gave up on comments and asks people to discuss on Twitter. That works pretty well, but I’m not really into forcing people to use a particular service. That’s also why I’m not particularly into using Disqus embeds, which also unnecessarily track you across sites. Finally, I was using Cactus Comments, which is based on the decentralized Matrix network for a while, but it occasionally seemed to break in ways that were disconcerting for site visitors. (It’s still a very cool project.)

I love comments, and I guess that means I’m writing my own system again. To do so means getting into an arms race with spammers, which I’m not very excited about, but I don’t see an alternative that I’m completely happy about.

Do you run a blog with comments? How do you deal with these issues? I’d love to learn from you.

 

Do we really need private schools?

One of my most controversial opinions is that private schools should not be allowed. Quite how controversial is always a surprise to me: from my perspective it feels very straightforward.

In a nutshell, my argument comes down to the following complementary ideas:

  1. Every child deserves to have an equal start in life.
  2. As a society, we are better off if people from different backgrounds mix, interact, and get to know each other as early as possible.
  3. Every system of inequality is built around disenfranchisement and blocking access to resources. Giving everyone access to the same education and the connections that inevitably develop while attending an institution helps dismantle these systems.
  4. If the rich are forced to use the same system as the poor, the overall standard of education will rise for everyone.
  5. Education is a human right.

Does this fly in the face of American individualism? Sure, probably. Will it result in a society that is both culturally and financially richer? I think so.

As far as I can tell, the arguments for private education come down to the perceived right to perpetuate inequality by gating a special education system for people with wealth, a defense of American individualism at the expense of community, and sometimes the adjoining right to perpetuate exclusionary values systems. I’m not particularly interested in protecting any of those things.

It’s certainly true that public education needs more funding, more resources, and stronger frameworks around (for example) special needs education. I don’t think the answer to these problems is private alternatives: instead, I think we solve them by providing stronger support for public infrastructure. And one of the ways we guarantee this support is by forcing people with wealth and resources to use the same infrastructure as everybody else.

 

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

 

Tired: Vaccinations
Wired: Polio

 

Kicked off my day with a really lovely, energy-giving chat about something I'm really excited about, which is always nice. Onwards!

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