Sunday, May 22, 2016

The New Economy is Poison: On Dan Lyons's "Disrupted"

I first came across this book as an excerpt somewhere on the on the internet. I forget where, or else I would claim it loudly and give support to the publication, lord knows that they all need the traffic. I ended up reading this quickly, but it wasn’t an easy read. Basically, if you have ever had one of those sorts of jobs where you had anxiety about going in every day then this will give you great memories of that as your read Lyons and his spot-on descriptions of his job. Lyons was hired onto HubSpot, a company that I’m still not sure exactly what they do after reading the book. He was a seasoned reporter but had the unfortunate thing of being a seasoned reporter in a time where deep-learning computers will soon be writing all of our news and until then you can hire an Ivy Grad for next to nothing to create the content you need.

What I did learn about HubSpot was that it was very poorly run and seems like a pyramid scheme. I don’t know how representative it is of the tech scene in a more generalized way, but it does show the folly of this thing we do where we fetishize the young founders and VCs throw money at them before they really have a sense of what it means to be a leader and to manage people and create a good product for consumers. Nevertheless, maybe I’m biased. There are founders who are able to scale up and create lasting businesses. However, my supposition is that for every Jobs, Zuckerberg, or Gates there are infinitely more people like these clowns. I think I remember seeing a stat that like 97% of the startups those venture capitals people invest in don’t end up making money for the investors. I’d bet HubSpot is on the losing end of that. It does seem though that there is a way for the founders to cash out even if the business is horrible - just hold on long enough for the IPO. This process is chronicled here in disrupted.

One funny thing is that the whole book is horrible PR for the company. Very few people come off as sympathetic, and that may just be that the whole experience biased Lyons against the people. What is funnier though is the postscript. After 200 pages of telling how bad this company is, he then tells of what they tried to do during the process of writing the book to avoid all this bad press – to the point of hacking Lyons’s computer and even going through his trash.

Basically, it comes down to this. The new economy is horrible because it is putting out old-line professionals who have age and experience. However, you can’t sell out and work for them because the people inside of them are all horrible people. I hope that it is less black and white than that, but I hope I never have to find out. Unless I’m a founder, and VCs want to throw money at me.

The Future is in Constant Creation: Alex Ross and "The Industries of the Future"

I have a feeling that right now you can see the robots everywhere but the productivity figures.
Since I am still relatively early in my career, I am trying to be smart and position myself in the best way to mitigate any possible redundancy – my wife likes to joke about the poor people who were synergies away. I don’t want that to happen to me. The best outcome would be for some sort of preemptive national legislation to make better the plight of people who have or will be made redundant. Thankfully, it is now threatening the educated classes, so people are starting to look at what can be done to make capitalism keep working. I have no specific answer, since even the advice you get to future-proof yourself keeps changing. It used to be learning Chinese. Then it was learn to code. I don’t know what the 2020s will bring, but I’ll be pretty red in the face when I have spent a good chunk of time learning to code robots in mandarin and that was the wrong path to have taken. Ah, they’ll say in their thinkpieces and explainers – you should have learned about Pre-Columbian Aztec Philosophy, that’s where the money is.

So as I said, since mechanization is now threatening the livelihoods of people who have put in time learning non-manual skills, several books have popped up looking at what the future will look like. Now we all know the difficulty of making predictions, especially about the future, several authors have taken stabs at it. I really liked Ford’s “Rise of the Robots,” and have glommed onto some more left-wing economist’s outputs, both Reich and Stiglitz have put books out in the past year both looking at the way the economy works and who it works for and how to make it work better for everyone. Most of these books exist on a spectrum from the future is awesome to the future is scary. Ross stands more on the future is awesome side. The book covers a lot of ground, and I was calling it in my head a sort of establishment gee-wiz sort of book, where there is a lot of cool stuff that we will see but ignoring for the most part the side of the coin where the people that will get to see these changes are not just consumers, but somehow must earn a living. This is weird to me since a large part of the framing is talking about the crew on one of his first jobs cleaning up after concerts as a college student in West Virginia. There are lines in here with huge implications that isn’t explored. For example, in looking at the future of bitcoin, he talks about how there may come a day when there are only four or five currencies. I think the current issues in the Eurozone can show a casual observer what a horrible idea that is. Ultimately, the book suffers because it tries to be too many things, exploring a lot at the higher surface levels but not getting into implications of how this technology will play out socially, economically, and politically. That was the strength of Ford’s book, where he looked at one version of the future and put a policy prescription to it, no matter how impossible it seems to get a UBI going.