Best Things I Read This Week

George Packer of The New Yorker follows up on Silicon Valley values.

As Alec MacGillis of The New Republic points out, it’s a bit rich for Apple to argue — as Steve Jobs did for years — that the company needs more visas and green cards for foreign engineers, since there aren’t enough qualified Americans to fill tech jobs, while Apple does its damnedest to keep its contribution toward federal education aid as paltry as possible. This is an example, so blatant I couldn’t have dreamt it up, of the self-deception that exists alongside the hard work, idealism, and engineering brilliance of Silicon Valley. It’s the kind of blind spot to which young, self-confident, super-successful industries are especially prone.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley has come to believe that — as Khoi Vinh summarizes — “it can better the world by looking after itself first and last, effectively shirking any broader civic obligations, and that it generally regards government as a ruinous wasteland to be avoided and routed around, rather than as a means for social good.” It is a little surprising that this value is also permeated throughout the tech-centric blogs run by people outside of the Silicon Valley — the people who are indirectly damaged by Silicon Valley’s shirking of civic obligations. “Well, it’s within the current limits of the law” is an excuse, not a justification.

Mike Lacher of McSweeney’s gives the perfect parody of the the start-up culture ethos — that government regulations exist only to be “disrupted”.

The same way that Uber disrupted and revolutionized the way you hail a cab, we’re going to disrupt and revolutionize the way you get organ transplants. […] Worried our transplanters aren’t totally qualified? Just check their star ratings. When transplanters give great service, maybe by removing a tumor they find during the transplant, or by offering an iPhone charging station in the operating facility, our users will give them great ratings. Similarly, if a transplanter gives not-so-great service, by arriving late or abandoning the user in a bathtub full of ice with two large incisions marking where their kidneys once were, our users will give them just one or two stars. When you’ve got our star rating system, you don’t need some wall full of diplomas to know your transplanter will take good care of you. That’s the beauty of the crowd.

The Appleverse likes to say you shouldn’t wear Google Glass because you’d look silly. That is a dumb reason. A couple of psychologists have given, at The New York Times, a better reason for not wearing Google Glass: your attention span can’t handle it.

Heads-up displays like Google Glass, and voice interfaces like Siri, seem like ideal solutions, letting you simultaneously interact with your smartphone while staying alert to your surroundings. If your gaze remains directed at the world, then presumably if something important happens in your field of vision, it will capture your attention and take over your consciousness, letting you respond to it quickly.

The problem is that looking is not the same as seeing, and people make wrong assumptions about what will grab their attention.

ACCORDING to the results of two representative national surveys we conducted, about 70 percent of Americans believe that “people will notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else.”

Yet experiments that we and others have conducted showed that people often fail to notice something as obvious as a person in a gorilla suit in situations where they are devoting attention to something else. Researchers using eye-tracking devices found that people can miss the gorilla even when they look right at it. This phenomenon of “inattentional blindness” shows that what we see depends not just on where we look but also on how we focus our attention.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.


2 thoughts on “Best Things I Read This Week

  1. The Appleverse likes to say you should wear Google Glass because you’d look silly.

    Perhaps you meant “shouldn’t” here?

    I totally disagree with the idea that Silicon Valley (what a vague concept!) has some great civic obligation to let the government tax them; that might be a reasonable statement if government programs were efficient but, well, they most certainly aren’t.

    • Corrected typo. Thanks.

      I don’t see how one’s obligation is determined by efficiency. At any rate, what’s the evidence for the government being inefficient? (Which part of the government? What agency? Inefficient at what? What’s the comparison class?)

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