Bullies and Bystanders

If your reader feeds mostly consist of echo chamber walls, you probably don’t know that one of the more prominent Appleverse podcasts, Angry Mac Bastards, has recently went off the air, so to speak. (Admittedly I have been away from this corner of the internet for a while now, so the news may just be news to me.) The absence of this news is especially curious for sites like The Loop, which has been associated with the podcast, at least in the past.

Rewind a little. Here is my initial reaction a while back on my first (and last) listen to Angry Mac Bastards:

Fastforward back to now. Here is the incident that led to Angry Mac Bastards’ demise. Basically, they cyberbullied a developer named Aaron Vegh for… I’m not sure why. Here is an except from the segment:

Darby: Well I think you can sum up this Aaron Vegh’s, just the whole thing, just at the very beginning of his, ah, Hire Me web site. It says “Hi I’m Aaron, I’m the nerd you’re looking for. I’m a programmer ready to take on the next big challenge of my career. I’ve written a book, shipped two iOS apps, started my own web development firm, and worked for The Man. I’ve taken the chance on a startup, and I’ve started a magazine, though that one didn’t work out so well.” You know, this, this, this… there’s a picture of this fucker in a, if the gamma on your monitor is fucked you’ll think it’s a turtle neck it looks to be some kind of zip-up fleece performance job.

John: Thing.

Darby: You know, bagging on people’s personal looks is kinda low, but he’s got hair that’s been Photoshop’d on, your standard three-quarter turn, arms crossed, head slightly nodded, stock photo, “I am wise beyond your knowledge” uh gaze at you. Like John you were saying it’s just everything about this derp sums up that he’s the last person that anyone wants to hire, and (laughing) we spent so long talking about some poor fucking homeless guy that we’re slagging this poor chump’s attempting to get a job, but he’s done it so badly, it’s just disturbing.

And the response to the aftermath? Well, John C. Welch (that’s the “John” above) has apparently closed down not only Angry Mac Bastards, but also his website and Twitter account too. A non-apology apology remains in the internet archive though:

Fighting the Internet Outrage Machine isn’t worth it. It’s not worth the headache it will cause our sponsors, it’s not worth the headache it will cause our families. Our families don’t deserve that kind of crap.

There is just too much irony there to analyze fully. Let’s move on.

Even worse are reactions like Harry Marks‘s (Marks is, of course, a noted fan of the podcast):

They took apart a developer’s website in a mean-spirited and childish way, not unlike how they’ve torn apart bad tech writers over the last four years. Yes, they’ve been doing this for four years, but now suddenly it’s a problem.

That’s where defenders of Angry Mac Bastards are wrong. It is not only a problem now, suddenly. It has always been a problem. Unfortunately, too many of us bystanders simply watched and let the cyberbullying continue. And, worst of all, the people who actually listened to the podcast and its sponsors encouraged and enabled the continuing cyberbullying.

Honestly, we can all use some bystander intervention training. The first step is to name and acknowledge the offense, and not just in some excusable non-apology apology way. Blaming the response on the amorphous Internet Outrage Machine, despite the copious uses of capitals, is pretty much the opposite of that.

Yes, we might not do it consistently. But avoiding a hypocrisy charge at the cost of complacency is a really bad reason to let behaviors like AMB’s go on. Start somewhere.

(Needless to say, I have no problem with people criticizing arguments and positions, even in harsh terms. That’s not what Angry Mac Bastards do.)

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


The Case Against Community

In The New Yorker, psychologist Paul Bloom made a somewhat surprising case against empathy:

Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

Drawing on decades of psychological research, Bloom articulates the problems with using empathy as a guide to how we ought to interact with others. As a matter of fact, we tend to empathize with the people who are near us, close to us, and similar to us. Consequently, empathy directs our attention to that one single baby who fell down the well but away from millions who are dying in a genocide, and empathy makes us take out our wallet for that one terminal cancer patient we know while ignoring so many others with treatable conditions who will die due to inadequate medical resources. Many of the worst problems in modern society don’t come from an insufficiency of empathy, but from an overload of empathy.

Empathy is the micro foundation for the macro structures of community. At the macro level, then, the problems of empathy becomes the problems of community.

Sure enough, the existence of a community has upsides. It’s what makes us pour our heart out to a baby who fell down the well — because she is one of us. But the existence of a community also has downsides that are arguably more severe. It’s also what makes us turn our heads away from millions who are dying in a genocide — because they are not part of our community.

Of course, we inevitably find ourselves as members of various communities. However, given how parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate a community can make us, we’re often at our best when we are smart enough to rise above it.

Over at 512 Pixels, Matt Alexander recently extolled the virtues of the Appleverse community:

[…] we read, link, joke, and support each other online — regardless of readership or Twitter follower counts — because this is a community built organically upon compassion and shared beliefs.

The problem of community, as you might have guessed, is that same support given to the insiders can quickly turn into vitriol thrown at outsiders. Will Kujawa found this out when he leveled some mild criticisms at the new The Loop iOS magazine. As he puts it,

This automatic tendency to support each other, while mostly good, unfortunately leads to suspicion when it’s suggested I spend money on something a friend or colleague of theirs is selling — whether it’s a book, an app or a magazine subscription — as they’re not always the most balanced source when it comes to the overall quality and value.

It’s probably a sisyphean task to completely rise above our communities. I won’t pretend that I have. Still, I think it’s worth trying.

If we can get part-way there, then maybe we can stop the talk about perceptions, press releases, and commercials, and just talk about interaction design, file architecture, and other far more interesting and actually substantive things. Maybe we can even worry less about who is right and wrong but instead more about what is right and wrong. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to interact with others as not insiders or outsiders of a community, but just people with some things to say.

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

An Audacious Proposal: Parity VC

A modest proposal is one that is so absurd that no one should want to implement it. An audacious proposal is one that is so reasonable that everyone should want to implement it, but still no one is doing so. I have an audacious proposal.

Starting Point 1: Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. This problem has been well documented. In fact, it is so bad that CNN Money had a hard time getting any straight data from some of the biggest tech companies like Apple and Google. Despite some valiant efforts, the problem remains as glaring as ever.

Starting Point 2: Morgan Stanley’s new investment initiative. As the New York Times reports,

Morgan Stanley’s wealth management division is starting a new portfolio which seeks to invest in companies that have demonstrated a commitment to including women on their corporate boards. The strategy, known as the parity portfolio, is scheduled to get going on April 1.

In a report last summer, Credit Suisse’s research institute found that over a six-year period, companies with “at least some” women on their boards did better, in terms of share price, than those with none.

[…] The strategy seeks to encourage companies to think deeply about the gender makeup of their boards. Only companies with at least three women board members will be included in the portfolio.

Why couldn’t there be something similar in tech?

My Audacious Proposal: An analogous parity venture capital fund that only funds startups with a diverse makeup. Of course, there can be reasonable disagreements about how to best operationalize the requirement. Perhaps it means that at least 50% of the founders need to be women. Perhaps it means that at least 40% of the engineers need to be women or other underrepresented minorities. Let us not quibble about detail for now.

A parity venture capital fund is potentially good business too. Morgan Stanley is no charity; there is a clear economic motivation behind its new initiative. There is some, though by no means conclusive, evidence that boards with some women simply perform better. Similarly, given what we know about gender and race’s power to bias people’s evaluations (previously discussed on this blog), it would be unsurprising if it turned out that startups with a diverse makeup are currently systematically overlooked. A parity venture capital fund would then be in a perfect position to exploit this market inefficiency.

So what say you, angels of the world?

(Or maybe the white dudes can all pitch before lunch?)

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

The Psychology of The Magazine‘s Success

Marco Arment started The Magazine a few months back. By all accounts, it’s a resounding success, despite initial content and authorship disappointments from cranky jerks like myself. The financial success of it wasn’t well-known until very recently, when Arment gave interviews to NPR and Ben Brooks.

There are some eye-popping numbers there: $35000/month revenue, 25000 subscribers, and a handsome rate of $800 to the freelance writers to boot. But I’m not interested in those. Instead, I’m most interested in one of Arment’s insights that was lost on many others, including me.

How much are people willing to pay for a bottle of wine? You might think that the answer depends on how good the wine is, or on how much people like wine. You wouldn’t be completely wrong, but you also wouldn’t be completely right. In a striking experiment, behavioral economist Dan Ariely asked MBA students at MIT how much they’d pay for a bottle of 1998 Cotes du Rhone. However, and here’s the trick, he also asked them to write down the last two digits of their social security number before bidding on the wine. It turns out that those who have higher social security numbers (e.g. 99) bid higher for the bottle of wine.

What the experiment demonstrates is the anchoring bias, where our judgments are influenced by factors that we first encounter, even if these factors turn out to be highly irrelevant. It is a fundamental, and unfortunately rather incurable, human cognitive condition. It has been well studied by behavioral economists since Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky. And of course, the basic idea is well-known to street vendors of the world for centuries before that. Yet, surprisingly, there is little talk about anchoring bias when it comes to app ecosystems. Even more rare is the person who sees an opportunity in it.

Arment is that person, as it turns out. The most ingenious aspect of The Magazine is its exploitation of anchoring bias.

Magazines are a fluke on iOS: they have different price expectations. Big-name iOS magazines can easily charge $5 per month. The New York Times charges about $15 per month. So for The Magazine to be $2 per month sounds extremely inexpensive in the magazine world, yet that’s $24 per year — far more than I could earn per customer with a traditional app.

That quote is from Arment to Brooks. But it could also be a textbook illustration of the anchoring bias. Bravo, Marco, for seeing this manifestation of the human cognitive condition before others, and for seizing the opportunity that it presents.

[Editor’s postscript: Obviously the post title is a bit tongue-in-cheek. No doubt there are other reasons for The Magazine’s success. This is just what I thought was the most psychologically interesting one.]

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

The Practical Benefits of Calls for Diversity

To start, I am going to assume that prejudice against women, non-whites, and other subordinate groups is bad — even when it is unconscious. If you think otherwise, then you can stop reading now and go listen to some Skrewdriver instead.

I am also going to assume that most, if not all, of us hold some implicit prejudices against women, non-whites, or other subordinate groups. As I said before, this assumption is quite well-supported by decades of research in the North American context, summarized here. If you are still skeptical, I invite you to try out some implicit association tests.

What can we do about the negative stereotypes that we implicitly hold? Clearly, being “gender blind” and “color blind” — contrary to what Andy Rutledge will have you believe — is not the answer. To do so is to give in to our lizard brains and to let our implicit prejudices win over our explicit anti-prejudicial commitments. (Again, if you don’t have these commitments, go listen to Skrewdriver.)

I want to suggest that boycott petitions and other explicit calls for diversity can have a kind of practical benefit that is only tangentially related to their stated goals. The upshot is that, whatever ambivalence you have about boycotts in general (and I have plenty), you should also take their hidden practical benefits into account.

I’ll focus on a recent research program by social psychologist Gordon Moskowitz and colleagues on suppressing implicit stereotypes. What they found is that one effective way to prevent the activation of implicit stereotypes is to prime people with egalitarian goals.

[Disclaimer: While the existence of implicit stereotypes is confirmed through decades of research, the work on the suppression of implicit stereotypes is relatively nascent. Apply appropriate caution.]

From Moskowitz’s review article on the implicit stereotype control:

In several experiments, the temporary priming of egalitarian goals was achieved in a fashion similar to Spencer et al. (1998) — by having people contemplate a failure. Research participants were asked to describe behavior from their recent past that clearly violated the egalitarian ideals they hold. In this case, the failure in question was regarding treating African Americans in an unbiased way. This failure at being egalitarian should trigger a goal to be egalitarian and initiate the inhibition of goals that are incompatible with being egalitarian, such as those that promote the activation of stereotypes.

[…] Do participants control the immediate and ‘automatic’ process of stereotype activation on a task that they do not know has anything to do with stereotyping? The answer is ‘yes’, but only if one had previously had an egalitarian goal triggered. Participants who write about a failure relating to a control goal show stereotype activation. However, people for whom egalitarian goals had been triggered showed stereotype inhibition — they respond slower to stereotype-relevant words (and only these words) following faces of Black, but not White, men.

[… in conjunction with other studies …] Thus, simply thinking about being egalitarian does not lead one to stereotype less, striving to be egalitarian, having a goal, does.

Implicit stereotypes can therefore be implicitly inhibited — by striving for an egalitarian goal. To reach a bit, we might say that thinking about past failures and trying to be egalitarian are more effective for preventing the activation of implicit stereotypes than consciously suppressing those implicit stereotypes. So one thing we can do about the negative stereotypes that we implicitly hold is give ourselves a special kind of attentional misdirection.

You probably see the application to the current conversation on diversity in tech already. There are practical benefits to Matt Andrews’s pointing out a conference’s failure to have a female speaker and Rebecca Rosen’s petitioning for the boycott of such conferences. They (mis)direct our attention to egalitarian goals. Then, in striving for those egalitarian goals, we are less prone to the activation of harmful unconscious stereotypes that we all probably hold. So even if you don’t think something like a boycott is the right response at the end of the day, there can still be practical benefits that come from someone calling for it.

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

What is Pragmatically Bad about Tech’s Diversity Problem?

Jamelle Bouie has an excellent piece in the latest issue of The Magazine about the source of tech’s diversity problem.

He points out that the lack of diversity in tech, broadly construed, has less to do with people’s explicit attitudes, and more to do with their implicit attitudes. The problem is perpetuated by little things we don’t pay much attention to, like network effects. As anyone familiar with the research on privilege is keenly aware, it is hard to acknowledge privilege — let alone to fight against it — because it is largely invisible, even to our conscious minds. (A good companion piece is Tom Morris on geeks and privilege.)

Tech’s diversity problem is still here. Most recently, Matt Andrews pointed out the existence of an all-male (and mostly white) tech conference. Shockingly, one of the organizers responded to his inquiry with: “I don’t feel need to defend this, but am happy with our process”. A firestorm ensued, and you can catch some sparks by clicking on the links that Andrews added to his post, at the bottom. (Don’t miss the contributions in the comment thread.)

I am less interested in stoking this fire than in tackling a common attitude that I see in the discussion. Basically, the attitude is something like: let’s grant that the lack of diversity in tech is morally bad; what is so pragmatically bad about it? In other words, from the perspective of a conference organizer who is neither interested nor disinterested in issues of social justice, why shouldn’t there be an all-male (and mostly white) panel speaker list?

I want to suggest that we can begin to see one way in which tech’s diversity problem is pragmatically bad through the recognition of the false-consensus effect. (Since the effect is well-documented, the Wikipedia entry, which is based on an academic review, is actually quite good.) This effect, roughly described by Wikipedia, refers to

a cognitive bias whereby a person tends to overestimate how much other people agree with him or her. There is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are ‘normal’ and that others also think the same way that they do.[1] This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a ‘false consensus’.

Here is the causal pattern that I see, without the fine prints. First, implicit biases drive the lack of diversity. Then, the the lack of diversity drives the false-consensus effect. In the end, the tech world loses out on perspectives that would have added significantly to the conversation — perhaps by challenging our conceptions of normality and guarding us from overgeneralizing from our own experiences. If something like this is going on, then you should still care about the practical losses for tech even if you don’t care about the social injustices (but of course you should care about that too).

The matter, as always, is more complicated. In this context, a further complications comes from the fact that implicit bias and false-consensus effect can interact in dangerous ways. In a recent article in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found a direct relation between holding an implicit prejudice and perceiving a consensus about the acceptability of the prejudice. They then noted some consequences of this interaction:

[…] the illusion of strong support among prejudiced people can be expected not only to make them more willing to act on their views, but also more forthright in expressing their opinions, less prepared to compromise, and less likely to modify their attitude. Furthermore, consistent with spiral of silence theory, we can expect that people with nonprejudiced attitudes will be less likely to express their attitudes if they perceive themselves to be in the minority, leading their attitudes to be underrepresented in the environment […]

Together, implicit bias and false-consensus effect generate another form of pragmatic badness from the vocalness of the minority who fail to recognize the moral badness in tech’s lack of diversity. Taking this into account, it is all the more important for us to speak out and fight against the problem. Even from a selfish perspective, there can be a more fun tech world if there exist a wider range of voices.

Update: At this point, a common follow-up is: well, what about merit? People’s judgments of merit turn out to be significantly gendered and racialized too. Amongst the earlier studies that convincingly demonstrated this is Steinpreis et al. (1999), which found that people rate a male CV more highly than an otherwise identical female CV. Most recently, Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) got a lot of press. But really, the effect is studied extensively and proven to be quite robust.

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

Satisficers > Maximizers

People who write about tech seem to be obsessed with maximizing — attempting to find and get the best, always.

There is The Wirecutter, a website that is dedicated to find the best in everything tech (and some more).

Ben Brooks wrote about his obsession with the best a while back:

[…] it’s something that is an ongoing pursuit in my life: to get the best X that I can get. […] It really is the little things that count, because if you improve enough of the little things (and the big things don’t suck) then pretty soon you are going to have a lot of great things going for you and thus you will be happier. This is the reason I often write about recurring topics on this site — it’s a documentation of my pursuit to find the perfect thing for me.

More recently, Dustin Curtis’s eponymous declaration of his obsession with the best has been making the rounds in the Appleverse:

[…] trust me: the time it takes to find the best of something is completely worth it. It’s better to have a few fantastic things designed for you than to have many untrustworthy things poorly designed to please everyone.

Marco Arment echoes the sentiment:

This is why I research and review everyday objects like light bulbs: I have no patience for poorly working, poorly designed, or low-quality products.

Patrick Rhone agrees too:

This is something I believe in strongly. The reason is simple, choosing the best is a final choice. A final choice means I never have to spend the mental energy on that choice again.

These quotes all converge on two themes.

  1. Best or Bust. If you are not getting the best, then you are getting something untrustworthy, poor, or low-quality.
  2. Bestness = Happiness. If you do try to find and get the best, even at the cost of spending a great deal of time and money, you’ll be happier in the end.

Both are false.

Best or Bust is simply a false dichotomy. In most instances, there is middle ground between what is the best and what is untrustworthy, poor, or low-quality. There is such a thing as being good enough — being above some acceptability threshold relevant to one’s needs and wants. Often, the second best in many categories are good enough. iPad 4 is the best, but iPad 3 is good enough.

Unlike maximizers, satisficers do not always attempt to find and get the best. Satisficing is about attempting to find and get what is good enough.

As the Wikipedia entry on satisficing recounts, Herbert Simon argued in 1956 (!!!) that, given our cognitive limitations, rationally we should be satisficers rather than maximizers:

He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to [maximize]: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality [that is, satisficing] takes into account these limitations.

In other words, even if you attempt to find and get the best, in an uncertain world you often won’t succeed. To say that the world of tech is rather uncertain is a serious understatement. Even if you researched endlessly and settled on the iPad 3 as the best tablet your money can buy, six months later that choice probably wouldn’t look so optimal after all.

Given human cognitive limitations, Bestness = Happiness turns out to be false too. More from Wikipedia:

Maximizers tend to use a more exhaustive approach to their decision-making process: they seek and evaluate more options than satisficers do to achieve greater satisfaction. However, whereas satisficers tend to be relatively pleased with their decisions, maximizers tend to be less happy with their decision outcomes. This is thought to be due to limited cognitive resources people have when their options are vast, forcing maximizers to not make an optimal choice. Because maximization is unrealistic and usually impossible in everyday life, maximizers often feel regretful in their post-choice evaluation.

In other words, you might aim for more happiness with maximization, but you won’t actually have more happiness. If anything, the attempts to find and get the best make you less happy in the end. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, satisficing is the way to maximize happiness.

Once we recognize our own cognitive limitations, it’s obviously more rational to settle for good enough than to keep searching for and trying to buy the best. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer.

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