Silicon Valley Can’t Fix Everything (Zeynep Tufekei)

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times July 15, 2018.

“Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, the author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” and a contributing opinion writer.”

Silicon Valley moguls seem to believe they can fix most anything, and they appear befuddled when their attempts to do so aren’t met with unbridled enthusiasm.

The tech billionaire Elon Musk was among the millions of people captivated by the plight of the 12 boys and their soccer coach recently trapped in a cave in Thailand. But Mr. Musk didn’t just follow the story on the news and social media; he has vast resources, so he also tried to help.

He directed his engineers to build a miniature “submarine” (basically a sophisticated metal cylinder) that he hoped could be used for the rescue. He shared videos of the submarine with his 22 million followers on Twitter. And he received widespread media coverage and encouragement from his many fans.

Mr. Musk’s desire to help was commendable. But when the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, declared that Mr. Musk’s contraption was impractical for the task at hand — a task that had been completed, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers — Mr. Musk responded with irritation. He insisted on Twitter that leaders of the operation had in fact welcomed his assistance and that Mr. Narongsak was not the “subject matter expert.” He also expressed frustration that he was being criticized while trying to help.

Instead of venting, Mr. Musk — indeed, Silicon Valley as a whole — can perhaps see the Thai operation as a lesson. This was a most improbable rescue against the longest odds. Safely navigating 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swimmers, through a dangerous cave relied on a model of innovation that Silicon Valley can and should learn from.

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

This approach is what allowed the airline captain Chesley Sullenberger to safely land a commercial airplane on the Hudson River in 2009 after its engines were disabled. Captain Sullenberger’s skill and composure were, of course, a credit to him personally. But they also rested on decades of training and learning in an industry that had been government-regulated and self-regulated to such a degree that hurling through the atmosphere in giant metal cans at 35,000 feet is now one of the safest ways to travel.

By contrast, Silicon Valley moguls seem to favor spending money on improbable but impressive-sounding long shots. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, donated $100 million to New Jersey schools as part of a multiyear plan to improve them. The centerpiece of the plan was teacher evaluation and charter schools, but it didn’t work well. Some aspects of the plan even made things worse. Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

Silicon Valley also tends to ignore problems in its own house. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has declared that space exploration is one of the main things he should spend his money on. But poorly paid workers in Amazon warehouses, who work under grueling conditions, may have other ideas about how Mr. Bezos might best spend his money.

In the case of Mr. Musk and his submarine, the Thai authorities understood that they needed to let the expert cave divers plan and direct the rescue operation (and Mr. Musk, to his credit, said he would take the lead from the divers). But the kind of publicity Mr. Musk created can take on a life of its own and exert undue influence.

I don’t mean to dismiss the role of technological innovation. Maybe in the future, some version of Mr. Musk’s contraption could be useful. But that would require long-term development, testing and collaboration with a variety of experts — not just a handful of Mr. Musk’s engineers.

If Silicon Valley wants to help the world, there is a lot it can do, starting with making its own products safer and its own companies more just. Perhaps most important, it can develop respect for hard-earned expertise in areas other than its own.



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8 responses to “Silicon Valley Can’t Fix Everything (Zeynep Tufekei)

  1. Pingback: Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    From a recent talk of mine.
    The “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society” began in 2016 as a PR campaign designed to put a positive spin on AI in the face of increasing public and press disapproval of data mining and the use of algorithms to drive online behavior (e.g. Facebook’s profit-seeking from Russian operatives who interfered with our elections).
    The grandiose vision of artificial intelligence as a panacea is betrayed by the overwhelming purpose of these companies: Profit seeking from the personal data of individuals. Here are some briefs from these companies.
    — Amazon has customer reviews, 1-Click shopping, personalized recommendations, Prime, Fulfillment by Amazon, AWS, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kindle, Fire tablets, Fire TV, Amazon Echo, and Alexa.
    –Apple sells iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, and Apple TV, has software platforms — iOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS with services via the App Store, Apple Music, Apple Pay, and iCloud.
    –DeepMind, based in London, acquired in 2014 by Google (part of Alphabet group) works on AI programs that can “learn to solve any complex problem without needing to be taught how.”
    –Google is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. Google products/platforms include Search, Maps, Gmail, Android, Google Play, Chrome, and YouTube.
    Facebook. Facebook has AI Research (FAIR) and Applied Machine Learning.
    –IBM’s Watson is. .”.the most advanced AI computing platform available today, deployed in more than 45 countries and across 20 different industries.”
    –Microsoft says, “More than any other technology that has preceded it, AI has the potential to extend human capabilities, empowering us all to achieve more.”
    Should mega-corporate systems of artificial intelligence be trusted to solve humanity’s most pressing challenges?
    I do not think so.

    PARTNERSHIP ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE TO BENEFIT PEOPLE AND SOCIETY:  Note, since my presentation, a number of non-profits, think tanks, and programs have signed on as “partners.” The meaning of partner is not clear, nor is the cost of a partnership. Most of the partners to date (April 4, 2018) are non-profits. At the website look for updates under “News.”


    • larrycuban

      Laura, could you send me a copy of your talk? Summary of it and the links were helpful to me in thinking further about AI, the continued love affair with technology as solution to human problems, etc.

      • Laura H. Chapman

        I am tweaking the references. This is a PowerPoint with images, not an APA paper for publication. I will forward it before the end of the week.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Laura. Look forward to seeing PP.

  3. One of my main complaints about ed tech is how rarely developers engage in the true discipline of user-centered design, using an Agile development model. Instead of starting with a problem that real teachers think they have in their real classrooms, and solving it, the developers imagine a problem based that can be solved by their favorite new bit of technology. The result is all too often a poorly conceived fragment of a solution that almost works, if the (early adopter) teachers invest considerable effort in making the new product useable and useful in their environment. Middle adopter teachers know better than to waste their time on such errands, and are content to wait until someone else has figured out how to make some productive use out of the product. The landscape is littered with ed tech innovations that never got beyond the early adopters, and never went to scale.

    A simple test: would you install an app that requires a 2-day professional development workshop to learn how to use, and many hours more to configure and load with content? Why are we still building ed tech that way?

    • larrycuban

      I agree with your main point. Thanks for comment.

    • Laura H. Chapman

      The mantra of IMS Global is this. All software should for education should be plug and play, interoperable, no or minimal professional development needed. IMS stands for Instructional Management Systems. IMS GLobal is positioning itself as the certifier of interoperable software systems and has a product catalog in the works. The interoperability is being enabled by parallel project to assign computer codes to almost every aspect of education from early learning to workforce performance (span) and indications of aims, resources, assessments, and so on. The coding activity is a work in process and in the US is being led by the National Center for Education Statistics, Common Education Data Standards project CEDS. IMS Global and CEDS are interconnected efforts to make digital instruction the new international norm.

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