the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party

Your emotions are real, but they are not reality.

Snake cake

These days, reality seems to be a matter of opinion, or perhaps mere assertion. But this isn’t just a recent phenomenon; it’s a divergence of the modern world from evolutionary biology that has been progressing for many generations, with increasingly stark effects.

Your body does not, cannot, and should not give you a truly faithful representation of the world. The world is too full for you to take in everything. Even if you were standing alone on an empty savannah, with no other living creature in sight, you would be overwhelmed by sensory overload if you could really take in everything around you: the infinite cocktail of light and shapes, sounds and scents, the feel of the particles in the air and the ground beneath your feet. You are like an ant in the ocean of all that surrounds you. To compensate, your five senses evolved to filter information down to a set that your brain can process into a different set of data that your body can act on. What you can sense is smaller than what exists, and what you perceive is different from what you can sense.

But even this finely processed data is a confusing panoply of input. Somehow, you have to figure out what to do about your perceptions. The most primal tools you have in making these decisions are your emotions.

Your emotions evolved so that you are urged to act in a matter that best suits your survival and the propagation of your genetic heritage. You might like to believe that you are not such a simple machine, but you surely are or you wouldn’t be here. Had you and all of your ancestors not experienced emotions related to hunger, you would not have survived to this point.

Now the world is a vastly different place than it has been throughout nearly all of our evolutionary history, and we are well into a time where our emotions easily lead us to wrong decisions. But it’s not so simple to determine when we are being served poorly by our emotions, because despite the mismatch between prehistoric evolution and our modern world, our emotions can be: always wrong, wrong but right, or really complicated. I can explain this more clearly with three scenarios named “the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.”

The Cake

Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly on the hunt for food, and food was not always easily accessible. On the rare occasion when they stumbled upon some luscious morsel of fat, or some delicate repository of sugar, it was to their evolutionary advantage to immediately devour that treasure.

Today of course, our industrial food supply surrounds us with tempting confections of fat and sugar, combined in manners that are exquisitely tuned to trigger our desire to eat. When you see a piece of cake, you may have an emotion that compels you to immediately cram as much of it into your mouth as quickly as possible.

This emotion, however, is always wrong. Unless you are in an unfortunate state of deprivation, it is not true that this is a rare piece of cake that is critical to your survival and a boon to your odds of producing progeny. The truth is exactly opposite: incessant indulgence of this instinct to eat cake will lead to your premature death and very probably to a reduction in your mating prospects.

So this is the simplest example of second-guessing your emotions: In the past, this emotion was always right, and today it is always wrong.

The Snake

Imagine you are walking through the forest, enjoying a lovely day, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a deadly snake at your foot, poised to bite and fill your body with poison. You jump away from the threat even faster than you perceive it.

Your heart pounding in your chest, the fear coursing electric in your body, you look down at the ground and see that what you thought was a snake was really just a stick.

The next day on another idyllic walk, nearly the exact same thing happens: the sudden appearance of a snake, a shocked leap out of harm’s way, and then the sheepish realization that there’s no real threat. Maybe this time it’s a lizard. Or it is a snake, but it’s just not a deadly one.

And this happens over and over again, and you never learn your lesson, you just keep jumping like a fool. Until one day, you look down and it really is a deadly snake. You pick up a rock and you bash its head in.

This emotion, this often irrational fear, survives today. You may not walk in the woods that often, but maybe you park your car in a dark parking lot, and when you hurry to your car late at night, you grip your keys tightly, interlaced in your fingers to defend yourself from the attack that never comes. Maybe you walk down a dark street in a neighborhood of ill repute, and you nervously cross the street when you see strangers approaching on your side.

Are you paranoid, are you making unkind assumptions? Yes. Do you need this emotion to survive? Absolutely, yes. The genetic lines of people who completely lacked this emotion are gone now, as they were all killed by deadly snakes.

So in this case, the emotion is almost always wrong, but nevertheless you must honor it in your actions for the unacceptable consequences of the one time that it is right.

The Cocktail Party

At a festive gathering of a few dozen people, you are talking to a person that you have never met before that evening. The conversation is pleasant enough, but in an unguarded moment you make an errant comment that you suddenly realize might have offended this person. You are about to clarify your words, but just at that moment you are interrupted by a friend who appears at your shoulder, and when you turn back to your previous conversation partner, she has disappeared into the swirls and eddies of the party.

Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But then why does it keep you up at night? You replay the scene in your head and pick over every detail, wondering if you offended this perfectly pleasant person, agonizing over how the words came out and what you should have said differently. The emotions of social mortification can be gut-wrenchingly powerful. What gave them such power, and should we still honor that power today?

In pre-historic times, people lived in very small groups, and for many millennia your largest social context might only be the size of a small village. Almost every person that you met would be someone you would interact with many times over the course of your lifetime. If you had an awkward social interaction with someone, you would want to repair this social tear, and you will quickly have many chances to do so. Reconciliation would be important not only for your relationship with this person, but so that you would not gain a reputation in the village for being unsociable. Such a reputation is an evolutionary death sentence, as effectively all of the people you meet in your lifetime would become unwilling to to procreate with you.

Today the situation is very different, but not entirely different. You will certainly never meet all of the people in your reasonably reachable geographic vicinity. However, a great many of us, perhaps even the great majority of us, continue to live in small social circles. Consider the example of an entrepreneur in San Francisco attending a cocktail party filled with the most connected investors in the Bay Area. An egregious party foul here could effectively end the entrepreneur’s ability to continue working, a consequence as extreme as any village faux pas on the prehistoric savannah. The same concerns might apply to certain types of gatherings for a writer in New York, a union laborer in Pittsburgh, or a rug dealer in Morocco. Or even a social media addict posting to her favorite group on Facebook.

But the context is really difficult to assess. Are the investors at this party really that connected? Does that merchants’ association in Morocco really enforce its unwritten rules? Is that Facebook activity really going to spread anywhere outside the group? And who is really in this group anyway? The modern world has made this assessment extremely complicated.

So the cocktail party is an example where the emotion used to be nearly always right, and today whether to honor that emotion in your actions involves a complex assessment of reality.

But what is reality?

Reality is the set of information that allows you to make rational decisions that further your best interests. There are many, many things that get in the way of your clear perception of reality, and foremost among them are your emotions. Emotions have not evolved to accord with the reality of the modern world. For the most part, you cannot change the emergence of your emotions, as they remain encoded to respond to stimuli of many thousands of years ago.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a prisoner of your emotions. You can allow them to occur while nevertheless choosing to act in accord with reality. However, you must continue to honor the emotions that have beneficial effects in the modern context. To make choices among those emotions wisely, you should keep in mind the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.

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2nd chances

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Second Amendment is unique among the Bill of Rights for appearing to protect an object you hold in your hand rather than an idea you hold in your head. The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech and religion, the Third protects a person’s dominion in their own home, the Fourth through Eighth protect criminal and civil procedural rights, the Ninth and Tenth limit the scope of the Constitution – these are all concepts, not things. Is the Second Amendment really about protecting an object, rather than an idea? If it’s the latter, then what is the idea?

Imagine if the First Amendment read something like, “Congress shall make no law infringing on the right of the people to keep and operate a printing press.” The sentiment would be clear: a free press is vital to a properly functioning democracy, the spread of information and debate is a bulwark against government tyranny. And of course, a printing press is necessary to print newspapers, so it would make sense to protect this physical object, as one of the most important instruments of our freedoms. This version of the First Amendment would have worked just fine for the first two hundred years of the nation.

And then it would become ridiculously outdated with the rise of digital information and the dominance of the Internet as the means through which speech is disseminated among the masses. Perhaps there would be a strong subculture of holdouts who would insist on the totemic power of the physical printing press, absolutely convinced that this thing was the idea of the First Amendment itself. They would fight furiously for the right to own and collect their printing presses, and the National Printing Press Association would fight every minor infringement, insisting that it was perfectly normal and supremely American for a person to own dozens upon dozens of presses, each with gigantic capacity, capable of printing millions of newspapers per day, in a world where no one reads newspapers anymore.

But those holdouts could not be considered seriously engaged in the project of upholding the freedoms established in the Bill of Rights. It would be obvious that those people had lost all sight of the purpose of protecting the citizenry from the tyranny of the government.

You could criticize the holdouts as bitter people, clinging to their printing presses in the face of a changing society that confuses their simple minds. But that would be a poor engagement with their legitimately held underlying concerns. A complete engagement would ask what the First Amendment is really about, and whether the physical printing press can still be considered an important object in the concepts behind the First Amendment.

The analogy is exceedingly obvious at this point. In the Second Amendment debate, we have a contingent of Americans who are certain that their guns are the object that must be protected, and another contingent who insists that private gun ownership is a public menace and must be limited, or eliminated entirely. In the ferocious argument between these factions, there is almost no serious discussion about the true concepts underlying the words of the Amendment.

What discussion there is barely gets beyond the surface, a trivial debate about the term “a well-regulated militia.” Gun control advocates seize upon the phrase to insist that use of guns in a militia context is the core of the right, rather than individual gun ownership. Whether or not that is true is completely irrelevant, when compared to the true purpose of the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment, like all of the rest of the Bill of Rights, is about limiting governmental power. It is about ensuring that governmental tyranny will ultimately have to contend with the will of the people. The other amendments protect intellectual liberty, procedural rights, legal limits – these are important weapons in the arsenal of freedom. But another important weapon is the actual weapons. The Second Amendment is intended to preserve the threat of armed revolt against tyranny.

Thomas Jefferson believed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” These thoughts led directly to the Second Amendment, which protects the idea of armed rebellion as a limitation on governmental power. This idea is what is intended to be protected, not the physical objects of guns, whether or not in the context of a militia. But guns are now as obsolete for rebellion as the printing press is for freedom of the press.

The problem is that the disparity of destructive power between the weaponry of the government and the weaponry that people can own has become too great. Even if all citizens were armed with fully automatic assault rifles, this arsenal would pale in comparison to the firepower available to state and local police forces, never mind the world-ending power of the national armed forces. Private gun ownership might be a problem in many ways, but it is not at all a problem for the government’s power over the people.

And it would be nonsensical to try to balance this out by escalating the firepower in the hands of the citizens, for example by arming every citizen with their own nuclear weapons. The Second Amendment wasn’t meant as a pact of mutually assured destruction. Jefferson said “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” – meaning that the limitation is created by an insurrection that can be forcibly put down by the government, not that the government should fear world destruction. When patriots take a cause seriously enough to put their lives on the line, the government might have to put them down violently as well, but the bloodshed on both sides forces all to consider the sensible limits of governmental power.

So “a little rebellion” based on guns is a laughably ineffective tool in today’s society. Government power is no longer truly threatened by private gun ownership, and hasn’t been for about a century. The Second Amendment worked well enough for the first hundred and forty years or so, but we have been in a different world since the end of the Great War. Still, it would be myopic to declare that the Second Amendment should now be considered obsolete. The idea is not obsolete, merely the objects specified in support of the idea.

The Second Amendment protects the idea of armed rebellion as a limitation on governmental power. Even though guns are obsolete for the protection of this idea, no serious discussion of the Second Amendment can propose their elimination without also proposing the armaments that should replace them.

It should be obvious by now that the weapons that matter are no longer ballistic, they are digital. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be online. The government does not fear guns. The government fears anonymity, connection and encryption (ordered this way not for importance, but just for the ACE acronym):

  • Anonymity – the right to interact with government without revealing your identity
  • Connection – the right to digital access to governmental resources
  • Encryption – the right to unbreakable encoding of messages

These are the armaments that matter in terms of a little rebellion now and then – their power far exceeds the combined firepower of private gun ownership. Second Amendment reform should be pushing in this direction:

A digital Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to remain Anonymous to the government, Connect online to all governmental information, and use and possess tools for unbreakable Encryption, shall not be infringed.

Gun control advocates and their opponents are equally subject to the charge of dereliction of patriotism, when they focus on guns rather than reforming the Second Amendment so that it can rejoin the rest of the Bill of Rights as a truly effective protector of our freedoms.

death of a tech salesman

We sought a special person to sell product for our company. It’s not easy to find someone who’s great at selling a highly technical product to smart engineers, who usually understand their own problems much better than the people selling to them. It takes unusual resilience, affability, humility and persistence.

We were lucky to find Bijan Dhanani. He had made a name for himself in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, working at several local startups, and becoming widely known and loved for his community projects and musical talents. Coming to Silicon Valley was a dream come true for him, and he fit right into our little band of colleagues on our startup adventure. In his first few weeks, he learned our product like a pro, already displaying the knowledge and charm required for success. At the end of his fourth week, he died, just 30 years old.

There are no lessons in his death. It was the hottest day on record in San Francisco. He had just moved into his new apartment in Mission Dolores. In my mind’s eye, I see him moving the last piece of furniture into place, surveying his new space with a deep sense of satisfaction, thinking about his new situation with sunny optimism, excited about the future ahead. And then he lay down to rest, never to get up again.

This is my nineteenth year working in tech in Silicon Valley. There are no new stories, this isn’t the first time that a young colleague of limitless potential has passed too early from this earth. The universe is not short of reminders that life is precious, time is limited, you must hold your loved ones close while you can.

There are no new lessons, only reminders. The important lessons are so basic, so few, so oft repeated, that no one can fail to hear them. Value your time. Optimize for love and friendship, live with gratitude and compassion. It seems so simple, but if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get the worst, most stark reminder of just how hard it can be. Memento mori.

the jungle

Upton Sinclair was a novelist, but the impact of his work was more akin to today’s investigative journalism. He went undercover to expose the harsh labor and unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry, he exposed the sensationalist “fake news” of his day, he pilloried Wall Street as well as the coal, oil and auto companies that drove the American economy. Industrialists hated him; the mainstream press only begrudgingly acknowledged his accomplishments. President Theodore Roosevelt called him “a crackpot,” and said further, “He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”

I doubt Sinclair cared at all what the President thought, and he probably did have less concern for truthful details than he had for the larger cause of social justice. We should be glad for that. Today we still enjoy the fruits of Sinclair’s relentless fervor and incendiary writing: food safety standards, journalistic ethics, and heightened scrutiny of the giants of business on matters of fair and safe labor practices.

I regard Sarah Lacy as the Upton Sinclair of the tech industry, especially with regard to fair treatment of women in Silicon Valley workplaces. She has been a consistent and powerful advocate of social justice, and her impassioned writing has contributed to highly visible changes in highly visible businesses. She might occasionally trample on a smaller truth in pursuit of a larger justice – and if she can be anywhere near as successful as Sinclair in bringing about social change, I don’t really blame her. But nevertheless, we hold our idols to higher standards than our enemies.

Pando recently published an article about a VC firm, with one partner who had recently resigned due to highly credible allegations of sexual misconduct, one about-to-join partner deciding not to join after all, and the remaining partner dealing with the fallout. Since the firm stridently denied the initial claims of the victims, this remaining partner continues to receive Sarah’s scrutiny. In criticizing the firm’s promotion of “baller bro culture,” Pando published pictures of this remaining partner at parties with women.

This is where she lost me, a bit. These are just pictures of a guy at a party, he does not appear to be doing anything inappropriate. The women in the pictures are not doing anything inappropriate. How is this “baller bro culture”? I felt bad for the women, as it seemed that publication of the pictures was a sort of “party-shaming” implying that these women could have no possible role other than objectification. It seems oddly Puritan and retrograde in a way that doesn’t fit Sarah’s other writing.

But I get her point. If it turns out that these pictures were used in promotion of the VC firm’s activities, then they are illustrative of a “baller” image that the firm wanted to convey. Even if these particular pictures were never used that way, Sarah claims to have enough off-the-record information to be sure that the firm consciously promoted such an image, and I believe her. And more importantly, I believe the women who have come forward to claim that they were victimized by the VC firm. So at the end of the day, we are aligned on the larger cause, even though I am very sure that Sarah has done an injustice to the innocent women in the pictures she used. (She’s taken one of the pictures down, but not because she admits she was wrong, but because the copyright owner objected to its use.)

So I wondered, how can I help the larger cause? If I knew of any investors or company managers that abuse their positions for sexual advantage, I’d speak of it openly. But I don’t, so I asked myself whether I knew of anyone who was promoting a “baller bro image” that supports an environment that disadvantages women …

And here’s where I got stuck. I know one investor who frequently posts images of himself in glamorous locations, often with attractive women (and attractive men, to be fair). I know him pretty well, in fact. Everybody knows this guy, I’m sure Sarah knows him too. And everyone knows he’s a good, honest and fundamentally decent human. He’s known so well and spends so much time around attractive people, with such a sparkling reputation, that it’s basically impossible he could have done anything inappropriate without everyone finding out. Is he baller? Hellz yeah, he baller. Does that mean he uses a “baller bro culture” to promote his business and take advantage of women? I don’t think so …

I feel very confident that he’s never taken advantage of the inherently unfair investor power dynamic to pursue sex. But now we have to consider the question of whether his distribution of the images of innocent fun supports an overall culture in tech that’s bad for women. Again, I don’t think so – but I also don’t think I’m the best judge of this question. So let’s say for the moment that yes, these images contribute to an overall culture that objectifies women. What then? Do I reach out to this guy and insist that he stop posting pictures of his fabulous life? That seems oddly Puritan and retrograde.

WWSD? (What Would Sarah Do?)

I don’t know. Despite how unfairly she treated women in those other pictures, I have a hard time believing she’d engage in a crusade against this kind of aspirational Insta-journaling. I don’t think I can ask her, as she regards my concerns as absurd. So I’m left with few options … other than that impotent cry into the ether known as blogging, aka the last resort of a scoundrel.

the right stuff

I’ve been reading post-election analysis all day. It’s exhausting, infuriating, debilitating … and necessary. When an outcome is wildly off expectations, it’s important to understand what really happened, otherwise you could expend a lot of effort “fixing” the wrong things. There sure are a lot of people who are confident that they know what happened, I’ve been reading them all day. Then I suddenly realized that these are precisely the same people who turned out to be so spectacularly wrong in predicting the outcome. Hey, maybe I should pay attention to people who were right all along …

There were some early, correct predictions, by a prescient pollster (March 2016), a hack blogger (May 2016), a partisan policy expert (August 2016), and a politics professor (Sept 2016), but two sources stand out for their entertaining writing and strong post-election advice.

Michael Moore predicted a Trump victory in July. He precisely identified the four critical “Rust Belt” states that were vulnerable to a Republican flip. Everything he said in his analysis turned out to be exactly correct. So we should probably take his post-election advice pretty seriously, you should read it on his page but I’ll paraphrase here:

  1. Reform the Democratic Party nomination process.
  2. Ignore the media sources that got stuck on their false narrative before the election.
  3. Get active in telling Democratic Congresspeople to obstruct the Republican administration.
  4. Get over your surprise and stop treating Trump like a joke.
  5. Remember that the popular vote went to Clinton. The populace wants liberal policies.

Solid advice, pretty straightforward. The tone overall is combative and spirited; I’m a little unhappy about how it implies we need 4 more years of complete legislative gridlock, but I suppose that’s the fight we must sign up for if we fear that Trump will try to fulfill his campaign promises.

But … why would we assume that? Trump never fulfills promises that aren’t to his advantage, why would he start now? This is the perspective of the other guy who got it right in a really interesting way, Scott Adams. Famous as the creator of Dilbert, he’s become an oddly narcissistic but really entertaining blogger. He predicted a Trump victory in August 2015, by far the earliest correct prediction. He says that President Trump will preside over the most direct democracy in the history of our republic. In Adams’ view, campaign promises mean nothing to Trump. He says what he says to get what he wants. He got elected by one set of people, now he’ll govern another set of people. He’ll say whatever is needed to placate the largest set of those people that he can, regardless of whether they elected him, and that generally that set will lead to kind outcomes. Trump is a con man, which actually makes him a safe choice for President, because he has no intention of hurting his real-estate interests around the world, or his self-centered media business.

Reading Adams is going to be infuriating for many, but the practical advice there is actually pretty similar to Moore’s: be active with your neighbors and representatives, especially on social media; ignore the pundits who were wrong all along; remember that the majority of the country wants good outcomes for as many people as possible. I kind of want to slap him upside the head, but I can’t say he’s wrong.

American experimentalism

I’m proud to be an American, always have been. What I’ve always loved about this country is that the truest test of citizenship is about ideas, not history or genealogy. The USA is special in this way, that you can be most authentically American by internalizing and adhering to certain ideals. You can’t become more French by reading Sartre, more Irish by drinking whiskey, or more Korean by eating kimchee. In nearly all countries, the strongest claim to belonging is made by tracing family lineage. Only in America can you make an insuperable claim to belonging merely by believing the right things.

Though a popular view, the idea that the United States is special in this way is strongly disputed in academic circles. “American exceptionalism” is regarded as a naive worldview that has served primarily as a rationalization for imperialism, discrimination and arrogance. While I don’t agree with that critique, I have finally come to understand that the American experiment has always included genocide, and always will. The nature of pursuing ideals above all apparently includes the plowing of actual humans into the ground like so much fertilizer.

There’s no disputing that the establishment of this country by European settlers included the genocide of Native Americans. There’s no way of excusing such carnage; the best anyone can say is that the founding of the nation in blood was regrettable but unavoidable. As if one original sin weren’t enough, our country additionally built its economic strength on the backs of slavery, perhaps the most profitable genocide in history, one that continues to pay dividends to some privileged classes up to this very day.

This carnage can’t be defended. We can only promise to do better in the future. In looking ahead, we try to draw a through line to the past, saying that our nation was founded on the correct ideas, those of liberty and equality, freedom and justice. Although only a very few truly participated in the American ideal at the start, the course of bloody history has painfully expanded the benefits as we’ve expanded our understanding of common humanity. The most charitable view is that we’ve always had the right ideals, but the challenge has always been improving our implementation. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The hope is, I suppose, that each successive genocide is less bloody than the last.

Fleeing Europeans established this country by killing Native Americans. Early Americans grew the country with the slavery of Africans. We are getting closer and closer to a country where our ideals are truly extended to African-Americans, along with previously disenfranchised and disadvantaged women and LBGT people, immigrants and religious adherents of all kinds and creeds. Life is getting better for everyone, on average. And though our conflicts may be impassioned, they are no longer openly murderous. Perhaps genocide is no longer part of the cycle of the American experiment.

But as life gets better for everyone on average, it gets worse for some in particular. Now it seems that many male Americans of European heritage, in losing their privilege, are suffering a kind of slow death. “Genocide” may be too dramatic a term, held too dear by those who have suffered the most from it. But we can still talk about death, we can see that the greatest increase in suicide rate in recent years is among uneducated white male Americans. Here is a class of people who will slowly lose everything they hold dear.

And who will miss it – when what they hold dear is so often tribalism, jingoism, racism, all manner of deplorable -isms – doesn’t such savagery deserve extinction? They deserve to be left behind, for they are malformed and often malicious, substandard and nearly subhuman … Never mind that these are the same judgments that “true” Americans have always made in the name of reforming this nation ever closer to the deathless ideals. Let’s ignore the echoes of of our bloody past, for this time we are so sure we are right.

That is the price of progress, we say, those of us who are on the winning side of the historical moment. Like every other set of Americans who believed that the evolution of our country requires regrettable-but-unavoidable bloodshed, we believe that this is the last forced extinction of a way of life. Once the deplorables are finally put in their place, surely we will have justice for all.

Is there an end to the American experiment? What would that look like? American ideals may outlive America. The institutions of statehood may only be a temporary infrastructure in the eternal pursuit of abstract ideals. For example, democracy outlived and evolved long beyond the historical city-state of Athens.

Stranger still would be an end involving expanded recognition of consciousness. There have long been a tiny minority of people who would extend consciousness and its attendant rights to certain animals, or even plants. If this notion ever becomes mainstream, what are the consequences to expanding American ideals to all conscious beings? More fantastically and yet more plausibly, what will happen when machines have processing capability such that their operations are indistinguishable from human consciousness? Our notions of liberty and equality, freedom and justice, even the pursuit of happiness, may continue to become increasingly abstract, until these ideals are no longer be tethered to any particular people, or to any people at all.

The repeated refrain in the American songbook is the collapse of the way of life of those who thought they controlled the music. Custer had his last stand. The South lost the Civil War, and really isn’t rising again. MLK Jr. is more alive than his assassins, Trumpism is the last gasp of a dying breed. Today we seem to be in yet another war for the soul of our nation. No matter who emerges as the victor, I doubt it will be the last.

product management, destroyer of worlds

God I hate tech hyperbole. And I literally hate the use of “literally” to mean its opposite … but let me explain how bad technology product management can literally lead to the end of the world.

Donald Trump represents an existential threat to humanity. To put such a man at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation is like handing over the controls of a nuclear submarine to a petulant baby. That’s a poor simile only because it’s not an analogy but a nearly literal description.

What can I do about this? I’m just one person, one vote. Moreover, I’m in California, which will surely vote Clinton anyway, so my vote won’t sway the outcome. I could advocate, I could preach to everyone around me, but really most of the people in physical proximity to me already agree with me.

What about technology? I’m in the center of Silicon Valley, I know me some techmology, can’t I do something wizardly to extend the power of a single voice? Nope. I mean, I can write this little essay, and maybe my fifty readers will like it, but those fifty people and everyone they’ll share it with already agree with me.

But about twenty miles from here, there are a couple of dozen people who literally hold the fate of our political conversation in their hands. In fact, it’s been in their hands for quite some time now, and they’ve made decisions which, only in retrospect, appear to have been disastrous for our nation’s politics.

At Facebook, the News Feed is the main stream of information that people see when they use the service. It has become the single most important source of news and conversation for many if not most Americans. It is designed to show people information that they want, which largely means showing people what they already agree with, from people who they already are inclined to sympathize with.

At Google, the search results page answers billions of queries each day, from billions of people. The results are carefully shaped not just with regard to each query, but as much as possible conformed for the particular user, so that the user sees results they are more likely to want to click, which in essence means showing them information they already agree with.

I’m not the first to note that the creation of these echo chambers only serves to reinforce existing biases, and isolate people from diverse opinions that could broaden their horizons and enrich our society. I might be among the first to charge that the product managers who now lead Facebook News Feed and Google Search are failing at their jobs.

On its face that’s a ridiculous statement, as we are talking about two of the most successful products in history, literal world changers. And who could argue against the general strategy of conforming experience to user tastes? But there comes a time in the life cycle of even massively successful products, when the product has attained a use and effect that were never anticipated through all of the prior success. Product managers who do not grapple with what their products have become, in all dimensions, are not doing their jobs well.

News Feed and Search are unique in landscape of all products. These are no longer simply things that people use, and therefore need to be designed to be as pleasant and popular as possible. These products now form the infrastructure of political conversation, they have become the backbone of our polity, they are the means by which citizens of our nation engage with each other on the essential ideas of community. The success of these products must now be judged on how well they serve beneficial outcomes in our society, especially our politics.

There are plenty of people at Facebook and Google who are deeply invested in denying this responsibility, which is so self-evident to all of the rest of us mere users. They would like to say that their products are designed to be “neutral,” to simply follow algorithms that have no sense of society or humanity. They want to hide their power behind obfuscating explanations of math and probability.

Some of this may be a difference in perspective. Some of this may be benign short-sightedness. But some of it is moral cowardice. I hate to make such an inflammatory charge, but when you have the ability to shape a product in a way that would reduce the likelihood of a fascist from taking the reins of a country with the firepower to end life as we know it, and you deny that you have this power, I have a hard time calling this anything other than what it is.

Facebook and Google know that their products contribute to a stifled political conversation that only hardens lines of hate and allows well-meaning people to isolate themselves in their own safe spaces. Will they continue to build their products in a way that divides our society? Or will they take real moral responsibility for how their products shape our political conversation, and make their products a conduit for uncomfortable ideas that could improve our world? Will they break down the barriers between hardened positions, expose ignorance to truth, measure hatred and inject love? Or will they claim that these goals are too soft, and anyway achieving them is too hard?

When Philip Morris discovered that their product was killing their customers, they hid the evidence for as long as they could, and they denied the truth even after it was apparent to everyone else, all so they could squeeze out the last dollars from their death-dealing empire. When Coca-Cola realized that sugary drinks were contributing to unprecedented rates of obesity, they diversified their product lines to include healthy drinks as well as sugar bombs – not exactly admirable, but at least preparing for a shift where people who could watch out for themselves would continue to contribute to the company’s bottom line. At this point, I would be okay with lesser evils, but I would prefer to see moral courage. Product managers at Facebook News Feed and Google Search: Do Your Jobs.