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Archive for August, 2011

Darth Vader will lose a little more of his dignity in Star Wars original trilogy Blu-rays. Listen for yourself! [Video]

30 Aug
George Lucas is not satisfied with turning the puppet Yoda in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace into a CG creation. Or just fixing some of the wonky lightsabre effects in the original trilogy. He's going a bit further. More »
 
 

Vizualize.me Beta: Turning Your LinkedIn Resume in Infographics

30 Aug

vizualize_me.jpg
There seems to be a commercial market emerging around the idea of automizing the creation of infographics. Toronto based start-up vizualize.me [vizualize.me] is currently developing an online application that can automatically translate any online LinkedIn profile into an online infographic. In particular, the new service aims to overcome the issue of reading overly long or highly complex resumes by showing the same information in a more readable and attractive way. The start-up has been coding the online application only since the last 2 months, and is currently still in private beta.

First peeks behind the beta service show how this can become particularly useful for those that like to change jobs often, have a high amount of skills or know quite a lot of languages (unfortunately, my current own resume is not that compelling). The infographics are automatically generated through logging in with LinkedIn credentials. One can still edit each individual item, change the 'theme', 'colors', 'fonts' or the 'background' image. 'Themes' actually include different visualization techniques, which currently include a horizontal or vertical bar graph slash timeline and a more risky arc diagram-style approach.

While the idea seems certainly useful, one would certainly wish for the availability of more subdued visual styles, in particular for those people who appreciate more classical visual styles when applying for high-end, important jobs. I also foresee some critical comments on the color palette for the 'language' world map.

Notably, Visual.ly is also betting on the future of semi-automized online infographics, as it is currently in the process of launching an online infographics authoring tool.

 
 

Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation

30 Aug

Advertisement in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation
 in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation  in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation  in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

– John Donne

If you’ve ever worked at a company of any size, you’ve experienced it. Isolation. That feeling of being utterly alone in what you do.

Some people love it: the determination that comes from being a lone ranger, boldly going where no one has gone before. Others hate it: the despair that comes from slaving over a design only to see it disappear down a black hole of development, whereupon it emerges onto a website months later, unrecognizable from the pixels you put on the page with such painful precision.

Island in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation
Image credit: Ibrahim Iujaz

These are the perils of working in siloed environments, and it’s where many of us find ourselves today. We’re either terribly alone or terribly frustrated, depending on the particular variety of silo we find ourselves in. In this two-part series, I’ll explore the consequences of working in isolated environments, and how we can solve this problem by encouraging more collaborative cultures.

What Exactly Are We Talking About Here?

Silos in work environments usually come in two flavors:

  1. Lonely silos
    Lonely silos are made up of workers with no real connection to the outside world. This often happens at start-ups where the focus is more on getting something out the door than on doing it right. I mean, who has time for proper UX design when “we’re building [technology x] because [company y] hasn’t built it and [people z] need it?” (as Kyle Neath recently put it).
  2. Functional silos
    Functional silos feature workers who may be part of fantastic design teams. They have great whiteboard sessions, help each other out, enjoy their pizza Fridays… And yet, they have no real seat at the table when it comes to business strategy. Design happens painfully slow because it has to be signed off by 10 different people. And even then, there’s no guarantee that anything will be implemented the way the designers envisioned it.

Working in lonely silos and functional silos have two main consequences, both devastating to software development:

  1. No process
    This usually happens in lonely silos. It’s everyone for themselves. The company subscribes to the “release early, release often” approach, and so you won’t get bogged down with a formal development process, guidelines for functional specs or any of the stuff that big lame corporations busy themselves with.
  2. Too much process
    This usually occurs when functional silos get out of control. Organizations resort to putting hierarchies and processes in place to stop the “cowboy coding” madness. The science:art ratio in design shifts way too much to one side or the other. Functional specifications move into Microsoft Word templates that are 20 pages long before a single word of content is written. And sure enough, the cowboy madness stops. But it gets replaced with a different kind of madness: stagnation.

The Consequences Of Not Following A Design Or Development Process

When you work in an environment where silos result in no clear design or development process, the following often happens.

1. MVP Madness

We all know the concept of “Minimum Viable Product,” but revisiting Eric Reis’ definition would be useful:

The minimum viable product is that product which has just those features (and no more) that allow you to ship a product that resonates with early adopters; some of whom will pay you money or give you feedback.

Problem is, that last section of the definition often gets ignored. You know, the part about people paying you money. So this MVP idea can be taken too far, and a product can be released before there is a minimum viable understanding of what the thing is supposed to do (or who it’s supposed to be useful for). You could argue that the Color app is an example of this MVP madness (“It’s a photo app!” “No, it’s a data-mining app!” “Actually, it’s a local group-messaging search/recommendations app!”)

Perhaps the best example of this culture is the Lifepath sign-up page, which Dustin Curtis recently put up in what I’d like to believe is a deliberate and very effective attempt at MVP irony:

Lifepath1 in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation
Lifepath sign-up page

A lot of this problem would go away if we evolve MVP thinking into what Andrew Chen calls “Minimum Desirable Product”:

Minimum Desirable Product is the simplest experience necessary to prove out a high-value, satisfying product experience for users.

I think that definition would send a lot of MVPs back to the drawing board, and rightfully so.

2. No Significant Design Focus

The second consequence of a lack of process, particularly in start-ups, is that design is often the last thing on people’s minds. I recently heard an interview with a start-up founder who gave the following overview of their staff: “We have 13 employees: 9 software developers, 2 sales people, 1 operations manager and a social media conversationalist.”

The company hired a social media conversationalist before it hired a designer. In this type of no-process world, ideas go from vision to code (and users) in one easy step, bypassing the principles of user-centered design completely. As Erika Hall puts it:

The floor of Silicon Valley is littered with the crumbling husks of great ideas — useful products and services that died in the shell before they hatched out of their impenetrable engineering-specified interfaces.

3. Endless Cycles

A third consequence of no-process development is that you never really know when you’re done. Not to make this about methodology, but this is one area where the “definition of done” concept in Scrum is extremely useful. If you don’t know when you’re ready to push something live, then the problems of MVP madness and lack of design are exacerbated.

Google Wave is a case in point. Listen to Douwe Osinga as he gives two good examples of MVPs done right before moving on to the problem with Google Wave:

Thinking big sounds great, but most big ideas start small and go from there. Google itself started from the notion that it would be interesting to look at back links for pages. Twitter started out as hardly more than a group SMS product that also works online. Facebook explicitly restricted themselves at first to one university.

Wave is a case in point. Wave started with some fairly easy to understand ideas about online collaboration and communication. But in order to make it more general and universal, more ideas were added until the entire thing could only be explained in a 90 minute mind blowing demo that left people speechless but a little later wondering what the hell this was for.

The Consequences Of Having Too Much Design/Development Process

So that’s what can happen in a no-process environment. But what happens at the other end of the continuum, where process is king of the world?

1. Org-Structure Design

When you can sketch out an organization’s structure by looking at its home page, chances are it’s hopelessly lost in functional silos. I experienced this first-hand while working at eBay. I would sometimes run into the product manager for the home page in the morning, and he’d have no idea why his page looked the way it did on that particular day. Each day was an adventure to see what had changed on the page that he “owned.”

Don’t believe me? Below is an example of the eBay home page from about a year ago, with the teams responsible for each section of the page overlaid (they’ve since gone through a redesign that fixed this issue):

Ebay-silo in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation

This is unfortunately one of the side effects of functional silos. You run the risk of losing any sense of holistic design direction on the website.

2. Design Monkeys

Another consequence of an over-reliance on process is that designers could become nothing more than monkeys, cranking out efficient, perfectly grid-aligned but completely uninspired designs on an assembly line. Wondering whether this is you? Here are some instructions you might recognize as a design monkey:

Pop-1024x88 in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation

Web2-0 in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation

Comicsans F in Breaking Down Silos, Part 1: The Consequences Of Working In Isolation

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in style guides, and I believe in design constraints. But when an organization becomes overly reliant on design rules, creativity is often the first thing out the door. Yes, design is much more than art (we’ll come back to this later), but it’s certainly not pure science either. Without the right injection of art and creativity, science gets boring and forgotten pretty quickly.

3. Tired Developers

Once process takes over an organization, the acronyms start. And arguably, the most feared of them all is PRD: the product requirements document. This usually takes the form of a Word template, with a two-page table of contents. It includes a solution to every single eventuality the software might ever encounter. It sucks the soul out of product managers and the life out of developers.

To use another example from eBay, we once had a 23-page PRD to make some changes to our SiteCatalyst JavaScript implementation. And then the project didn’t happen. I shudder to think about the hours and hours of lost productivity that went into creating this document that never got used. People could have created things during that time. Instead, they sat in Microsoft Word.

The result? Tired developers. Developers who don’t want to code anymore because coding becomes 70% deciphering Word documents, 20% going back and forth on things that aren’t clear, and 10% actually coding.

How do you know that your developers are tired? Charles Miller’s explanation of what it means when a developer tells you that something is “non-trivial” sums it up pretty well:

It means impossible. Since no engineer is going to admit something is impossible, they use this word instead. When an engineer says something is “non-trivial,” it’s the equivalent of an airline pilot calmly telling you that you might encounter “just a bit of turbulence” as he flies you into a cat 5 hurricane.

Tired developers use the word “non-trivial,” or some variation thereof, a lot more than energized developers.

4. Distrust Between Teams

When people don’t live and breathe each other’s workflows, understanding the decisions they make is hard. And if you don’t understand the reason for someone’s decisions, distrust can creep in.

Functional silos that rely on too much process serve as fertile ground for distrust in relationships. A reliance on process can instill a false sense of security and the mistaken assumption that conversation and understanding are less important than proper documentation. This is particularly true in the complicated relationship between designers and developers. As Don Norman recently put it:

Designers evoke great delight in their work. Engineers provide utilitarian value. My original training was that of an engineer and I, too, produce practical, usable things. The problem is that the very practical, functional things I produce are also boring and ugly. Good designers would never allow boring and ugly to describe their work: they strive to produce delight. But sometimes that delightful result is not very practical, difficult to use and not completely functional. Practical versus delightful: Which do you prefer?

So, when designers and developers are not in the same room from the moment a project kicks off, or when design becomes prescriptive before thorough discussion has taken place and everyone has sweated the details together, the stage is set for the two worlds to collide. Breaking down these silos is the only way to design solutions that are practical and delightful.

5. Design by Committee

Not everyone can code, so they don’t go to developers telling them that their HTML needs to be more semantic. But everyone thinks they’re a designer, or at least has a gut feeling about design. They like certain colors or certain styles, and some people just really hate yellow. Because everyone has an emotional response to design and believes “it’s just like art,” they think they know enough about design to turn those personal preferences into feedback.

One of the first things we need to do to solve this problem is to teach people how to give better design feedback. Mike Monteiro gets to the crux of the issue in “Giving Better Design Feedback”:

First rule of design feedback: what you’re looking at is not art. It’s not even close. It’s a business tool in the making and should be looked at objectively like any other business tool you work with. The right question is not, “Do I like it?” but “Does this meet our goals?” If it’s blue, don’t ask yourself whether you like blue. Ask yourself if blue is going to help you sell sprockets. Better yet: ask your design team. You just wrote your first feedback question.

And how do we respond practically to the problems of design by committee? Smashing Magazine’s own article sums it up best:

The sensible answer is to listen, absorb, discuss, be able to defend any design decision with clarity and reason, know when to pick your battles and know when to let go.

Here are four principles I use in my day-to-day work to make that statement a reality:

  1. Respond to every piece of feedback.
    This is tiring, but essential. Regardless of how helpful it is, if someone took the time to give you feedback on a design, you need to respond to it.
  2. Note what feedback is being incorporated.
    Be open to good feedback. Don’t let pride get in the way of a design improvement. And let the person know what feedback is being incorporated.
  3. Explain why feedback is not being taken.
    If a particular piece of feedback is not being implemented, don’t just ignore it. Let the person know that you’ve thought about it, and explain the reason for not incorporating that feedback. They will be less likely to get upset at you if you explain clearly why you’re taking the direction you’re taking. And if you’re not sure how to defend the decision…
  4. Use the user experience validation stack.
    Read the post “Winning a User Experience Debate” for more detail. But in short, first try to defend a decision based on user evidence — actual user testing on the product. If that’s not available, go to Google and find user research that backs up the decision. In the absence of that, go back to design theory to explain your direction.

Summary, And Where We Go From Here

Ending an article on such a doom-and-gloom note feels a bit wrong. But maybe pausing here would be good so that we can all reflect on the issues that siloed development creates in our own organizations. As UX people, we’re taught to understand the problem first before trying to solve it, right? So, let’s do that. Did I miss any consequences? Anything you’d like to add or challenge about the consequences I’ve highlighted in this article?

In part 2, I’ll explain my own journey with siloed development and go over some of the guidelines we’ve implemented to break down these silos and build collaborative teams that help eliminate the vast majority of the issues outlined in this post.

(al)


© Rian van der Merwe for Smashing Magazine, 2011.

 
 

The Hive Mind Needs More Women

29 Aug

Kevin Kelly wrote a thought-provoking post about how "the impossible" is happening more often nowadays, thanks in no small part to large scale collaboration over the Internet. In other words, the hive mind. He cites eBay and Wikipedia as two examples of things he would've thought impossible in decades past.

Collaboration over the Web is still evolving. One way it might be immediately improved is by adding more women to collective intelligence projects and by shutting up the loud mouths. I'm not idly speculating here, those were the findings of a recent study by MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence.

Sponsor

The study found that collective intelligence is not as dependent on individual intelligence as first thought. Having more women in a group improves the collective intelligence, because it raises the level of "social sensitivity." Another important factor is letting everyone talk equally, rather than having the loudest or most opinionated people dominate the conversation.

Back to what Kelly wrote. He posits that more previously impossible things will emerge thanks to "large-scale collaboration, or immense collections of information, or global structures, or gigantic real-time social interactions." He continues:

"Just as a tissue is a new, bigger level of organization for a bunch of individual cells, these new social structures are a new bigger level for individual humans. And in both cases the new level breeds emergence. New behaviors emerge from the new level that were impossible at the lower level. Tissue can do things that cells can't. The collectivist organizations of wikipedia, Linux, the web can do things that industrialized humans could not."

This thinking dovetails nicely with the MIT report. Carnegie Mellon's Anita Woolley explains the findings more in this video:

The implications of all of this for any company doing online business is clear: optimizing groups with more women and more democratic discussion is just as important as casting your crowdsourcing net far and wide. As Aaron Saenz at Singularity Hub put it: "With enough research the crowds of tomorrow may be optimized for the best possible amounts of collective intelligence. Not just huge amounts of thought-power, but efficiently organized huge amounts of thought-power."

It's also something that tech conference organizers should bear in mind. I for one could do with less loud, opinionated people dominating group discussions - as often those people are the least thoughtful.

Kevin Kelly concludes that "humanity is migrating towards its hive mind." Whether or not you agree with that somewhat extreme position, collective intelligence will continue to be a big driver of Web innovation. We just need more women and less loud mouths, don't you think?

Photo credit: I Love Milwaukee

Discuss

 
 

Screenshot of Steve Jobs’s Calendar

29 Aug

 
 

Piece of crust stolen from Texas found in Antarctica

29 Aug

You’ve likely heard of Pangaea (not the one that sounds similar from Avatar), but you may not realize that it wasn’t the first supercontinent; several have been identified from the rock record. About a billion years ago, a supercontinent named Rodinia formed from the collision of a number of cratons which comprise parts of today’s continents. Evidence of the collisions that built Rodinia remains in a geological remnant called the Grenville mountain range.

Collisions of continents compress the crust between them, driving up a range of mountain peaks. We see a process like this going on today in the Himalayas, where the Indian plate is pushing northward into the Eurasian plate. With time, however, erosion will level out these mountains.

The Appalachian mountain range no longer reaches the impressive heights it once did because it has been eroding for over 400 million years. Deep in the roots of the Appalachians, though, we can see evidence of an even older mountain range that has long-since eroded from sight. The remnants of the Grenville range extend along the East Coast of the United States, but also continuing north into Canada as well as south through Texas and into Mexico. 

Read the rest of this article...

Read the comments on this post

 
 

Behind the Photo of the Day

29 Aug

Behind the Photo of the Day

Behind the Photo of the Day: A picture of a lush green hill, called “Bliss,” is one of the most recognizable images in the world thanks to its place as the Windows XP default wallpaper — but where did it come from?

Turns out it’s a real scene, not a CG image. It was taken in Sonoma County, CA, circa 1996 by photographer Charles O’Rear.

O’Rear is not allowed to disclose how much Microsoft paid him for Biiss, but he says the payday was the second highest for a living photographer, behind a guy who sold a photo of Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky.

As for the location, it’s now a vineyard, which you can see in an updated photo after the jump. Google Maps also provides a 360-degree view of the area.

[thenextweb]


Tagged: bliss, charles o'rear, desktop, hill, microsoft, photo, wallpaper, windows xp

Submitted by: Unknown

 
 

Fantastic Mr Fox of the Day

26 Aug

Fantastic Mr Fox of the Day

Fantastic Mr Fox of the Day: A four-month-old fox slides down a conveyor belt at an abandoned gravel quarry near the rural German hamlet of Bursfelde.

Brit Duncan Usher, who snapped the photo, says he saw two kits using the conveyor belt as a makeshift slide. “One ran back to the top of the conveyor belt and then started to walk back down it, stopped and sat down,” Usher is quoted as saying. “After a few seconds it started to slide down the conveyor belt using its front paws to drag it forwards…

I have not seen this type of behaviour amongst free living wild animals and I was really surprised and pleased to witness and capture this unusual event.”

[dailymail / arbroath.]


Tagged: Adorable Animal, Fantastic Mr Fox, Foxeh

 
 

Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor: An Idea Whose Time Has Come [This Is Awesome]

26 Aug
It's one of those ideas that's so radical, it might just work: women fighters wearing actual armor. You know, that covers their vital organs and protects them against damage. A new tumblr blog celebrates "Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor." The armor may be reasonable, but the pictures are awesome. More »
 
 

How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying)

24 Aug

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(Photo by Francisco Diez)

Do you have too many readers of your books and articles? Want to reduce traffic on your blog? It turns out, there is a foolproof way to alienate many of your fans, quickly and at almost no cost.

It took me years to discover this publishing secret, but I’ll pass it along to you for free:

Simply write an article suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires.

Really, it’s that simple!

You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.

This is not to say that everyone hated my last article (“How Rich is Too Rich?”), but the backlash has been ferocious. For candor and concision this was hard to beat:

You are scum sam. unsubscribed.

Unlike many of the emails I received, this one made me laugh out loud—for rarely does one see the pendulum of human affection swing so freely. Note that this response came, not from a mere visitor to my blog, but from someone who had once admired me enough to subscribe to my email newsletter. All it took was a single article about the problem of wealth inequality to provoke, not just criticism, but loathing.

The following should indicate the general gloom that has crept over my inbox:

I will not waste my time addressing your nonsense point-by-point, but I certainly could and I think in a more informed way than many economists—whose credentials you seem to think are necessary for your consideration of a response. Do you see what an elitist ass that makes you seem? I think you should stick to themes you know something about such as how unreasonable religion is. I am sure I am not the only one whose respect you lose with your economic ideology.

Nothing illustrates why people should not leave their comfort zones than this egregiously silly piece….You make such good points about the importance of skeptical inquiry and about how difficult it is to truly know something that your soak the rich comments are, as a good man once said, not even wrong. Take care.

Sorry Sam. I used to praise and promote your works. You’ve lost me. Your promotion of theft by initiating force on others is unforgivable. You’re just a thug now, attempting cheap personal gratification by broadcasting signals which cost you nothing, just like Warren Buffett.

Many readers were enraged that I could support taxation in any form. It was as if I had proposed this mad scheme of confiscation for the first time in history. Several cited my framing of the question—“how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep?”—as especially sinister, as though I had asked, “how many of his internal organs can one person be allowed to keep?”

For what it’s worth—and it won’t be worth much to many of you—I understand the ethical and economic concerns about taxation. I agree that everyone should be entitled to the fruits of his or her labors and that taxation, in the State of Nature, is a form of theft. But it appears to be a form of theft that we require, given how selfish and shortsighted most of us are.

Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers.

Would Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, rather have $10 billion in a country where the maximum number of people are prepared to do creative work? Or would he rather have $20 billion in a country with the wealth inequality of an African dictatorship and commensurate levels of crime?[1] I’d wager he would pick door number #1. But if he wouldn’t, I maintain that it is only rational and decent for Uncle Sam to pick it for him.

However, many readers view this appeal to State power as a sacrilege. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Either they yearn for reasons to retreat within walled compounds wreathed in razor wire, or they have no awareness of the societal conditions that could warrant such fear and isolation. And they consider any effort the State could take to prevent the most extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty to be indistinguishable from Socialism.

It is difficult to ignore the responsibility that Ayn Rand bears for all of this. I often get emails from people who insist that Rand was a genius—and one who has been unfairly neglected by writers like myself. I also get emails from people who have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” or otherwise saved by the “living Christ,” who have decided to pray for my soul. It is hard for me to say which of these sentiments I find less compelling.

As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly “objective” morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. And Rand’s attempt to make literature out of this awful philosophy produced some commensurately terrible writing. Even in high school, I found that my copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged simply would not open.

And I say this as someone who considers himself, in large part, a “libertarian”—and who has, therefore, embraced more or less everything that was serviceable in Rand’s politics. The problem with pure libertarianism, however, has long been obvious: We are not ready for it. Judging from my recent correspondence, I feel this more strongly than ever. There is simply no question that an obsession with limited government produces impressive failures of wisdom and compassion in otherwise intelligent people.

Why do we have laws in the first place? To prevent adults from behaving like dangerous children. All laws are coercive and take the following form: do this, and don’t do that, or else. Or else what? Or else men with guns will arrive at your door and take you away to prison. Yes, it would be wonderful if we did not need to be corralled and threatened in this way. And many uses of State power are both silly and harmful (the “war on drugs” being, perhaps, the ultimate instance). But the moment certain strictures are relaxed, people reliably go berserk. And we seem unable to motivate ourselves to make the kinds of investments we should make to create a future worth living in. Even the best of us tend to ignore some of the more obvious threats to our long term security.

For instance, Graham Alison, author of Nuclear Terrorism, thinks there is a greater than 50 percent chance that a nuclear bomb will go off in an American city sometime in the next ten years. (A poll of national security experts commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005 put the risk at 29 percent.) The amount of money required to secure the stockpiles of weapons and nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union is a pittance compared to the private holdings of the richest Americans. And should even a single incident of nuclear terrorism occur, the rich would likely lose more money in the resulting economic collapse than would have been required to secure the offending materials in the first place.

If private citizens cannot be motivated to allocate the necessary funds to mitigate such problems—as it seems we cannot—the State must do it. The State, however, is broke.


And lurking at the bottom of this morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.

Many of us have been extraordinarily lucky—and we did not earn it. Many good people have been extraordinarily unlucky—and they did not deserve it. And yet I get the distinct sense that if I asked some of my readers why they weren’t born with club feet, or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments. There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles. And it is pernicious. Followers of Rand, in particular, believe that only a blind reliance on market forces and the narrowest conception of self interest can steer us collectively toward the best civilization possible and that any attempt to impose wisdom or compassion from the top—no matter who is at the top and no matter what the need—is necessarily corrupting of the whole enterprise. This conviction is, at the very least, unproven. And there are many reasons to believe that it is dangerously wrong.

Given the current condition of the human mind, we seem to need a State to set and enforce certain priorities. I share everyone’s concern that our political process is broken, that it can select for precisely the sorts of people one wouldn’t want in charge, and that fantastic sums of money get squandered. But no one has profited more from our current system, with all its flaws, than the ultra rich. They should be the last to take their money off the table. And they should be the first to realize when more resources are necessary to secure the common good.


In reply to my question about future breakthroughs in technology (e.g. robotics, nanotech) eliminating millions of jobs very quickly, and creating a serious problem of unemployment, the most common response I got from economists was some version of the following:

1. There ***IS*** a fundamental principle of economics that rules out a serious long-term problem of unemployment:

The first principle of economics is that we live in a world of scarcity, and the second principle of economics is that we have unlimited wants and desires.

Therefore, the second principle of economics: unlimited wants and desires, rules out long-term problem of unemployment.

2. What if we were having this discussion in the 1800s, when it was largely an agricultural-based economy, and you were suggesting that “future breakthroughs in farm technology (e.g. tractors, electricity, combines, cotton gin, automatic milking machinery, computers, GPS, hybrid seeds, irrigation systems, herbicides, pesticides, etc.) could eliminate millions of jobs, creating a serious problem of unemployment.”

With hindsight, we know that didn’t happen, and all of the American workers who would have been working on farms without those technological, labor-saving inventions found employment in different or new sectors of the economy like manufacturing, health care, education, business, retail, transportation, etc.

For example, 90% of Americans in 1790 were working in agriculture, and now that percentage is down to about 2%, even though we have greater employment overall now than in 1790. The technological breakthroughs reduced the share of workers in farming, but certainly didn’t create long-term problems of unemployment. Thanks to “unlimited wants and desires,” Americans found gainful employment in industries besides farming.

Mark J. Perry
Professor of Economics, University of Michigan, Flint campus and
Visiting Scholar at The American Enterprise Institute and
Carpe Diem Blog

 


As I wrote to several of these correspondents, I worry that the adjective “long-term” waves the magician’s scarf a bit, concealing some very unpleasant possibilities. Are they so unpleasant that any rational billionaire who loves this country (and his grandchildren) would want to avoid them at significant cost in the near term? I suspect the answer could be “yes.”

Also, it seemed to me that many readers aren’t envisioning just how novel future technological developments might be. The analogy to agriculture doesn’t strike me as very helpful. The moment we have truly intelligent machines, the pace of innovation could be extraordinarily steep, and the end of drudgery could come quickly. In a world without work everyone would be free—but, in our current system, some would be free to starve.

However, at least one reader suggested that the effect of truly game-changing nanotechnology or AI could not concentrate wealth, because its spread would be uncontainable, making it impossible to enforce intellectual property laws. The resultant increases in wealth would be free for the taking. This is an interesting point. I’m not sure it blocks every pathway to pathological concentrations of wealth—but it offers a ray of hope I hadn’t seen before. It is interesting to note, however, what a strange hope it is: The technological singularity that will redeem human history is, essentially, Napster.

Fewer people wanted to tackle the issue of an infrastructure bank. Almost everyone who commented on this idea supported it, but many thought either (1) that it need not be funded now (i.e. We should take on more debt to pay for it) or (2) that if funded, it must be done voluntarily.


It was disconcerting how many people felt the need to lecture me about the failure of Socialism. To worry about the current level of wealth inequality is not to endorse Socialism, or to claim that the equal distribution of goods should be an economic goal. I think a certain level of wealth inequality is probably a very good thing—being both reflective and encouraging of differences between people that should be recognized and rewarded. There are people who can be motivated to work 100 hours a week by the prospect of getting rich, and they often accomplish goals that are very beneficial. And there are people who are simply incapable of making similar contributions to society. But do you really think that Steve Jobs would have retired earlier if he knew that all the wealth he acquired beyond $5 billion would be taxed at 90 percent? Many of people apparently do. However, I think they are being far too cynical about the motivations of smart, creative people.

Finally, many readers said something like the following:

If you or Warren Buffett want to pay more in taxes, go ahead. You are perfectly free to write the Treasury a check. And if you haven’t done this, you’re just a hypocrite.

Few people are eager to make large, solitary, and ineffectual sacrifices. And I was not arguing that the best use of Buffett’s wealth would be for him to simply send it to the Treasury so that the government could use it however it wanted. I believe the important question is, how can we get everyone with significant resources to put their shoulders to the wheel at the same moment so that large goals get accomplished?

Imagine opening the newspaper tomorrow and discovering that Buffett had convened a meeting of the entire Forbes 400 list, and everyone had agreed to put 50 percent of his or her wealth toward crucial infrastructure improvements and the development of renewable energy technologies. I would like to believe that we live in a world where such things could happen—because, increasingly, it seems that we live in a world where such things must happen.

What can be done to bridge this gap?

 

  1. The Gini coefficient is a measure of wealth inequality in a society. It is also one of the best predictors of its homicide rate—better than GDP, unemployment levels, energy consumption per capita, or any other measure of average wealth. This suggests that it is relative rather than absolute scarcity that motivates violent competition between people (see, for instance, Daly, Wilson, & Vasdev, “Income inequality and homicide rates in Canada and the United States.” Canadian Journal of Criminology, April 2001: 219-236). ↩