All posts filed under: Tech

Diversity and Discrimination in Open Source

Back in May, I decided to leave the LLVM project, to which I was a contributor. I announced this decision in an open letter to my colleagues, which received some coverage in the technical press at the time, and a number of requests for further comment, which I declined. In what follows, I want to elaborate upon my reasons for leaving and explain what I think is going wrong in open source generally, and at LLVM in particular. First, for those unfamiliar with the tech world, a little background. Software is commonly developed and made available to the public in one of two ways: either proprietary software is developed privately inside a company and sold for a fee, or open source software, as the name implies, is developed in the open for anyone to use and improve. Microsoft’s Office is an example of the former, and the Linux operating system is an example of the latter. Among programmers, there are ongoing discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of both models. I have been attracted to the open …

Social Media: The Case for Deactivation

In 2017, an article sub-titled “The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel” appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. I found it scientifically rigorous and persuasive, and so, not wanting to feel worse, I deactivated my Facebook account. But then in the months that followed, I found scientific arguments that seemingly come to the opposite conclusion, namely, that social media are good for you. It turns out that I had only scratched the surface of a mountain of writing on this topic. So which is it? Should I re-activate my Facebook account? Should you deactivate yours? To answer these questions, we need a common currency for measuring the costs and benefits of using Facebook, and other major social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Surprisingly, perhaps, the mountain of articles on this topic doesn’t yet include this kind of systematic cost-benefit analysis. One of my goals here is to provide one. Drawing on the last two decades of scientific research, I’ll show that major social media platforms do more harm than good, thereby increasing the …

Why the Techlash Won’t Go Away

“This would probably not have happened if Hillary had won the 2016 presidential race,” is the kind of comment you may hear these days around Silicon Valley as gloomy high-tech titans are forced to contend with a growing political backlash against what critics allege is the concentrated wealth and power in the hands of omnipotent tech companies. And they accuse social media and other online services of posing risks to national security and to freedom of speech, with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers calling for some form of government regulation of the Internet. Hell hath no fury like an Internet Utopianist scorned. The irony is that much of this backlash, or “tech-lash”, has been driven by many of the same Democrats that companies like Google and Facebook had backed during the presidential campaign, when employees of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, donated US$1.6 million to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or about 80 percent more than the amount given by workers at any other corporation, according to The Wall Street Journal.  And Eric Schmidt, the …

The Case for Electric Vehicles

Elon Musk is trying to lead the world to a better place with his commitment to electric vehicles. Specifically, he is leading American middle-class families of the future towards cheaper, more efficient cars and energy usage. Musk’s desire to make America competitive in the budding electric car market is not only good for American consumers, but it is also good for the United States: it will help make the country more energy independent, thereby liberating America from having to depend on dubious oil-producing states. Musk should not only be commended for his pioneering work, but the United States government should continue subsidizing his work to remain competitive in the 21st century economy. Since its inception in 2006, Tesla Motors has contributed significantly to research into and development of the electric car in the United States. The electric car is not a new idea. Yet, it never fully captured the imagination of Americans the way the traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicle did. However, the Great Recession of 2008 (and the anemic recovery that followed), placed many Americans …

Is There a Future for Human Spaceflight?

On February 6, Elon Musk and his company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) accomplished the maiden launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket. It was exhilarating to watch, even vicariously through the Internet. The payload, one of Musk’s red Tesla sports cars, is now on a deep space trajectory that will see it reach out beyond the orbit of Mars before swinging back inward on a permanent and repeatable arch about the Sun. This much lauded success brings Musk one step closer to his personal goal of establishing a human settlement on another world. While certainly a happy day for Musk and his space company, other space visionaries wishing to establish a human foothold in space have recently recorded less spectacular progress. This past Fall, XCORE – a company developing a spacecraft to transport tourists to space – announced it had filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. And, not so long-ago, Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic – also a space tourism company – suffered a fatal crash of its SpaceShipOne vehicle during testing, an accident that has significantly …

Silicon Valley and the ABCs of Diversity

When discussing diversity, the loudest voices are the ones which treat diversity as intrinsically valuable. Diversity is viewed as something of which more is always better, an idea flying in the face of our intuitions and best practice. And when it comes to diversity among people, diversity of skills and knowledge is often conflated with demographic diversity. We can watch these debates unfold live at Alphabet Inc. subsidiaries like Google and YouTube, as Google faces a lawsuit and YouTube stands accused of severe discrimination against White and Asian males. First, let’s run through a thought experiment just to get the principles down: You’re in an alien museum, on an alien world. You can only save 100 items. You do not know anything about the items, or the world, except what you might be able to infer by looking at them. How do you determine what to take? You’re in a museum on Earth, in a country that’s very foreign to you. You can only save 100 items. You do not know anything about the items, …

Would You Opt for Immortality?

Before the 7.6 billion people alive today, demographers estimate that about 100 billion people lived and died. This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori, as medieval Christians reflected—Remember that you have to die. What if it didn’t have to be this way? There are, in fact, organisms whose bodies steadily and reliably replace cells with healthier cells, and whose tissues and organs self-repair and maintain their vigor. They’re called children. And there are cells in adults that divide indefinitely. They’re called cancer. What if there were a way to genetically re-engineer and chemically reprogram our cells to divide indefinitely like they do in children, and to continue this process throughout adulthood without becoming cancerous? Could we become immortal? “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once said, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” There are today well-funded groups of scientists who believe we can do just that. If …

Blockchain and Sex

Blockchain is often described as a solution in need of a problem. Despite being eight years old few people transact in bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Outside of its success as a speculative investment, cryptocurrency has seen little adoption and has become more akin to investing in gold than a trading currency. Yet this may soon change as an Australian start-up company is developing a cryptocurrency tailored for the needs of the adult industry. Australian startup company “intimate” has created a cryptocurrency to meet the specific needs of the adult industry. Recently, I interviewed Leah Callon-Butler intimate’s co-founder who said: Crypto is still an infantile technology and it will be some time before we realise the equivalent Web 2.0 of blockchain. Given our team’s deep expertise in both crypto and adult – and the rampant institutional bias and social exclusion that exists within the sex industry – we knew that this would be the perfect use case as a proof of concept for a decentralised solution. Many people do not realise that the problems in the …

Lawsuit Exposes Internet Giant’s Internal Culture of Intolerance

James Damore, the former Google engineer who was fired last summer after authoring a document questioning the company’s diversity policies, has filed a lawsuit against the company. In a 161-page complaint, he does far more than challenge his firing and accuses Google of systemic discrimination against and harassment of white and male employees, as well as of violating a California state law that prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of an employee’s political persuasion. He has joined together with another engineer by the name of David Gudeman who was also fired after he expressed politically incorrect views. Together, the two of them are requesting that their case be treated as a class action on behalf of all employees who have faced similar treatment at the hands of the Internet giant. The charges that they make are broad and far-reaching, but they are not asking that their claims be taken on faith alone. More than half of the complaint is taken up by an 87-page-long exhibit consisting of screenshots from internal systems used by Google …

The Empathy Gap in Tech: Interview with a Software Engineer

Last year I was working on an article about the tech industry when I decided to interview a software engineer who writes for Quillette under the pseudonym “Gideon Scopes”. Gideon had mentioned to me in passing that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild variant of autism spectrum disorder) and I wanted to find out more about the industry from the point of view of someone who is not neurotypical. I first asked him when it was that he knew he wanted to work in technology. He told me that he first knew it when he was five. His family got their first home computer and he was transfixed. Later, he would come across a brief introduction to the BASIC programming language in a book and proceed to teach himself his first programming language. He was only seven. As a child he taught himself programming out of books, mostly alone at home. He told me that his family were not particularly supportive of his hobby. His mother was not happy to see him focus so intently on one …