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Anand Giridharadas isn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if it means taking down some of the most powerful people on the planet.
The former New York Times columnist turned bestselling author, has started a movement with his latest book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, a scathing critique of a society that rewards monopolistic models, faux philanthropy and protects the interests of a wealthy few.
I had the pleasure of chatting to Giridharadas about the change we need, the future of AI and the fight to make tech work for a better world. We discuss what the AI community needs as we get a glimpse into an exclusive chapter that was removed, where Giridharadas watches AI researchers making casual decisions to “get rid of all writers.”
As you’ll see in the interview, I was pleading for a solution, a quick fix. I learnt a lot about myself and my conditioning and ultimately realised that we need so much more than behaviour change. I hope this interview inspires you to read the book and think twice and question the status quo.
It’s easy to promise to do good but can you commit to doing less harm?
Goldstaub: This book is a warning that we’re going in the wrong direction. How do you want the tech community to change when they read it?
Giridharadas: I don’t think it works like that. I think this is a problem of a totalising bullshit culture that has permeated the way in which we think about how to make the world better, and it has hijacked the possibility of actually making it better. We need a cultural shift and a real effort to create a new kind of politics in which regular people are centered.
There’s a central problem I see in tech. Tech is the great new power centre of the world, in every age there’s a new Rome and I think it’s almost inarguable that the Rome of our time is Silicon Valley. I think at the heart of Silicon Valley is a false self-image of not being powerful, when they’ve become the most powerful people on earth. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie or not paying their taxes, there is a fantasy in Silicon Valley of the rebel, the outsider, throwing rocks at ‘the man’, and in total denial that they are ‘the man’ more than anybody in the world.
The tech world is full of Kings who think they’re rebels. They’re the biggest monopolists of our time. All the stuff happening in AI is not happening in small garages, who’s the biggest player? Google. It’s the established power. This is the pinstripe establishment that just happens not to wear pinstripes because of the weather in California.
Goldstaub: What can we do to force companies to implement that step before they build the product?
Giridharadas: I think it’s an interesting analysis that all these companies could add to their product launches – by listening to feedback, hiring anthropologists, researching the context of the countries and communities they launch their product in. Otherwise, we are allowing a handful of these people who are quite frankly socially deeply ignorant, to be in charge of human sociality.
Goldstaub: How can we create the right kind of competition? Not just a competition for more money or profit, but a competition for being the most trustworthy.
Giridharadas: If you had two Facebooks, I think one of them would try to be the more privacy-centric one. Markets are good when you have competition, there is pressure for some of the actors to treat consumers better. The tech world needs an anti-trust revolution. A lot of these issues would be solved if we broke up some of these monopolies.
Goldstaub: What role does the everyday person have in this?
Giridharadas: In a country like this where I feel a lot of people are under-represented, we need to change who is in politics. That simple change would go a long way. An important thing that’s happening right now that needs to be happening more, is the cultivation of people-powered pressure groups on politicians. For a long time, corporate people and big donors, particularly in the US, have done a much better job than regular people at putting pressure on politicians to vote a certain way. What we have now is a really interesting marriage of organisations that are half community organising, half electoral politics. We’ve seen with Justice Democrats and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that if you aim right, a relatively modest effort can have a pretty substantial effect.
Goldstaub: AI has the ability to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, like climate change. Why do you think that although AI has this potential, people are not applying it to these problems as much as they should?
Giridharadas: I think the conversation around AI is like talking about icing in the absence of a cake. The problem is that society is not working for most people. Society rewards the views of Exxon Mobil more than the people who don’t want dirty rivers. AI arrives as this new-fangled thing and all it’s going to do is accentuate and aggravate the existing problems.
I think what a lot of people in the tech world need to focus on, and we should do this as a society with or without them, is thinking about the larger power dynamics into which their technology is arriving. They need to think about how their technology could become part of the problem. A lot of tech people are curious about what they can do, but a lot of the time the way they can help is to stop doing a lot of the things they’re already doing – not paying their taxes, creating these monopolies, etc.
Goldstaub: One argument you have made is that we should let the entrepreneurs of the world create some small part of the fundamental innovation, and then all great technologies should go to a more community-based management, open sourced. How would you counter the fact that we don’t want just the one King at the top, but we also haven’t quite worked out how an open up to let more in.
Giridharadas: This is where we have a real role for regulation. Right now, there’s no alternatives to Facebook or any other monopolistic platform. However, if you had a requirement that all your data on Facebook should be instantly one-click transferable to any other platform, a regulation where there has to be a standard format, and with one click, you could transfer and keep all of your friends, I think it would be a lot less powerful to be Facebook. We can make choices to do that – and we haven’t made those choices.
Goldstaub: When GDPR was introduced in the UK, few people saw it as a win for their own personal human rights. How do we make sure the general public even care about owning their data?
Giridharadas: The regulation is not going to do it, but what I would imagine happening if you were able to make it easy, is you’d suddenly have a lot of young people saying ‘I’m going to make a Facebook alternative’. I think if it was good and more respectful of privacy, it might lure people over.
Goldstaub: How should we educate the next generation to equip them for the turbulent chaos?
Giridharadas: I think we need to change the story we tell young people about how we got the world they live in. There’s a miseducation taking place right now about how change is made. If you’re a woman, and you like the opportunity to work and vote, we should be telling the story of how that happened. That didn’t happen through rich people giving scraps or win-win social change, it was a fierce, ferocious battle that meant putting everything on the line. There’s a false story at the moment about the easiness of making change now, this notion that what used to be done by fighting on issues of power, justice and rights, can now be achieved by a social enterprise or an app.
Goldstaub: You said that there was an AI chapter in your book that you had to edit out. What can you tell us about what you said in that chapter?
Giridharadas: I was given permission to hang out in a really significant AI lab. Someone mentioned to me that every week they have this evening where VCs visit and meet the AI professionals to collaborate on future projects. Each week there’s a different topic. It just so happened that when I was there, the topic was how to disrupt writing. One of the questions that the VC proposed, was ‘can we use AI to replace all the writers?’ and I was there in the room. In the chapter, I basically described the discussion in which two VCs and a room full of brilliant AI geeks had a discussion about how we could get rid of all the writers. There were a couple of Europeans in the room, and they were the only people who were like, “what about arts and culture? Aren’t their books that couldn’t be written by AI?” It was crazy to see. Everybody else was like “no, no, it’s fine. We can disrupt that.” I watching this room of men decide that they would “get rid of all the writers” and two “money men”, from very serious VC firms, who could put the money behind those ideas.
I remember the last line of the chapter was ‘there was one woman in the room and she never spoke’.
Goldstaub: But you didn’t say anything?
Giridharadas: It was a discussion of my own liquidation, what could I say? As a journalist you always have to assume that you’re glimpsing 1% of what actually is going on. You always have to imagine there’s a lot more. This was the stuff that they were accepting would be on the record, with me in front of me. Imagine what they’re saying when I’m not there.
Goldstaub: When did the infantilization and relinquishing of accountability become a thing? You point a lot of the blame at Zuckerberg but was it prevalent earlier?
Giridharadas: Gates and Microsoft had a monopoly in the 90s and fought very hard to de-oxygenate the rest of the industry. It is in the nature of business people and winners to take all. I actually don’t necessarily blame winners for wanting to take it all, I blame the society for setting rules that allow them to do that. Obviously I think it’s better to be a moral person, but I think we can handle it if they are acquisitive winners who want to take all. If we do our job.
Goldstaub: Can we incentivise people and companies to do better?
Giridharadas: No, I don’t think so. Why the aversion to regulation? That’s like saying ‘should we give factory owners an incentive to not employ children?’ No. You prohibit them from employing children. I think we should have a prohibition against being a monopoly and a prohibition against paying as little taxes as Google does.
Goldstaub: I understand that. Is there an interim step? While we wait for the right regulation, can we encourage change by changing the metrics by which we reward the right behaviours?
Giridharadas: Unfortunately, in the tech world everyone wants to be a trillion dollar company or a unicorn, and they’re so removed from the metrics that actually relate to the quality and the fabric of people’s lives. I’ve spent time in Silicon Valley – those people wouldn’t know what an average person was if it bit them in the ass. They’re so separated, and they’re living in a city with around 7,500 homeless people. There’s 74 billionaires in the surrounding area and they don’t understand that they are creating a world in which very few people will essentially be the Lords and Ladies of this neo feudal world. The crazy thing is, they think they’re radical democrats.
Goldstaub: So if not a unicorn, what should we aspire to be more like?
Giridharadas: If you really want to do something, you could lead a movement in the tech world that invites public policy in to scrutinise and regulate the industry more, and to expose companies that lobby against that. Facebook is spending millions of dollars a year in Washington and elsewhere, trying to make sure no one looks at what they’re doing. We should be shaming them.
Goldstaub: Is there a more subversive, sneakier way to make change?
Giridharadas: The business mentality is to make good easier, not make bad harder, it tells us to protect our optionality, don’t close doors and don’t upset people. But, the way to fight for women’s suffrage was not to give carrots to men who let their wives vote. It was a change in law to make it illegal to deprive women of the vote. These are fights.
If someone with this mentality was a white person in Birmingham, Alabama in 1957, my fear is that it would translate to ‘I’m not one to fight for Civil Rights, but I will create a magazine to celebrate those white-owned restaurants that do allow Black people in’. Is there anything wrong with that theory? No. But that sounds gross to both of us. Why? Because the problem wasn’t to celebrate good white people, it was an illegal, immoral system, and the only responsible way to address it was by trying to uproot it. Somehow, when we bring that to the present and say Facebook is a really dangerous company that is abusing its power, people want to find a polite solution. Why do so many of us feel this desire to work genially with the system? There’s many systems that are worth working within, but Facebook is an evil company. The fact that so many of us have that extinct to corral it instead of actually shaming it, is more revealing about us than them.
Do you think power has ever been redistributed in history without the willingness to upset people?
Goldstaub: *thinks* no.
February 8, 2019 at 08:57AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs