Showing posts with label Twitter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Twitter. Show all posts

Monday, October 29, 2018

Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience

 
Mark Zuckerberg meets with Mohammad bin Salman (Reuters)


“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

Governments routinely do business with oppressive regimes based on geopolitical, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism requirements. I am not absolving governments, but merely stating the realities of operating in a complex and increasingly inter-connected world where it is harder to be black and white about these choices. However the same constraints do not hold true for private corporations. There is nothing preventing them from boycotting or refusing to take money from bad actors and brutally oppressive regimes, particularly when they go against the stated values of the company.

I think we can also make a distinction between older generation of companies and the new ones in the digital age. The Exxon Mobiles and Goldman Sachs’s of the world never claimed to be ‘do-gooders’ or touted the inherent social values of their business models. They were clear about focusing on the bottom line, profits and increasing shareholder value above all else and did not care if they were profiting from Mother Theresa or Nicolas Maduro.

However, Silicon Valley startups have always claimed to have a strong moral compass and repeatedly tout the social good they do and stand for. They have corporate motto's that say things like “Don’t be Evil” and spend much on PR touting all the good they do in the world. Yet the vast majority of these same companies have found ways to rationalize and do business with Saudi Arabia. Uber justified its launch in Saudi Arabia in 2014 by saying it would help women who were not allowed to drive, even though Saudi women were against Uber launching.

While it is true that Saudi rulers have always ruled with an iron fist, most limited their brutality to within their own borders and also took pains to manage the optics for their democratic and freedom-loving allies. However, with the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, the Kingdom’s transgressions have not only grown bolder but now go well beyond their borders.

The Prince began his reign by extra-judicially imprisoning elite businessmen and ruling family members, reportedly torturing and coercing them to hand over billions in cash and properties, publicizing his actions as a ‘crackdown on corruption'. He also purged the security services and other high ranking government officials, filling key posts with loyalists. He has placed his mother under house arrest to keep her from advising her husband, the King, whose health is dwindling and his moments of lucidity said to be fleeting.

The thirty-three year old Prince has a record of acting impulsively, as he has shown with an ill-conceived blockade of Qatar, the brazen abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister, and an unrestrained war in Yemen which has resulted in a quagmire that the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet

It is true that MBS has opened a few movie theaters and has finally given Saudi women the right to drive, but at the same time he has jailed and exiled leading women activists, purged the clerical ranks and ruthlessly suppressed all dissent. Yet, Silicon Valley has been championing MBS as a great reformer. It seems that the billions invested in cash-starved Unicorns have washed away all of MBS’s sins and Silicon Valley’s corporate ethics along with them.

Companies ranging from Google and Facebook to Blackrock have all been clamoring to shake MBS's hand and strike lucrative deals with the Kingdom. It is no surprise then that MBS grows more reckless, as companies continue to pat him on the back, and felt emboldened enough to brazenly murder a journalist who was a US permanent resident, and expected to face no consequences for this heinous crime.

Here is a list of some of the US companies awash in Saudi money:
· Saudis own 5% of Tesla, 5% of Uber (making them the largest shareholder), 5% of Lyft, 5.2% of Twitter (which is more than Jack Dorsey owns) and 2.3% of Snapchat.
· They invested $461 million in Magic Leap, the hottest US virtual reality company.
· They have committed $20 billion to Blackstone Group’s infrastructure fund.
· Through the Softbank Vision Fund, in which Saudi Arabia is the principle investor, they have invested:
o   $4.4 billion in WeWork
o   $2.25 billion in GM Cruise Holdings
o   They own shares in WAG, Slack, Door Dash and SoFi.
It is true that the Saudi’s have also invested in UK, French, Indian and Chinese companies but the bulk is US based companies.

I am not naïve and understand that business cannot succeed based on purely moral decision-making; profit motives will always collide with doing what is right. For the most part companies manage to find a reasonable balance between these two competing forces, but my issue is that Silicon Valley pretends to wear morals and principles on its sleeve, preaching that their growing monopolies are forces for good. How do they justify being owned and increasingly funded by entities that make no bones about having neither morals nor principles?

A large part of the problem lies not in capitalism itself, but in the broken system of capitalism Silicon Valley has engineered and vigorously championed in the last few decades. It is a system that encourages a winner-take-all mentality and even rewards companies that are not profitable.

It is quite normal today for a company to have an IPO long before it is profitable, like Twitter and Snapchat both did. In fact Snapchat, in it its IPO disclosure, stated, "We have incurred operating losses in the past, expect to incur operating losses in the future, and may never achieve or maintain profitability," and yet this did nothing to discourage institutional and individual investors who flocked to participate in its initial offering.

Instead of using sound business metrics like earnings, sales or revenue to measure companies, Silicon Valley has made it dangerous and fashionable to look purely at things like ‘stickiness,’ in terms of how often users interact with a service or app on a daily basis. As a result, companies are being incentivized to make long-term losses and thus need constant infusions of cash to grow artificially and rapidly expand their base of users.

Some of the most highly valued startups today even lack real competitive differentiation and barriers to entry like Uber and WeWork, so the only thing fueling their competitiveness is infusions of cash. The issue with this winner-take-all model of capitalism, one devoid of business fundamentals, is that it encourages companies to cut corners, act in cut-throat ways, and ignore the most basic principles of ethical behaviour - simply to stay ahead of competitors.

Ultimately, this model leads to running out of ‘good’ money and avenues for hyper-growth, and startups are forced to compromise on their stated ideals and acquiesce to any suitor with deep pockets.

The truth is that this discussion around Saudi Arabia’s behaviour should have taken place a long time ago. To some extent one can understand why governments need to deal countries whose values conflict with our own, but it is harder to make a case for why companies, especially those who claim to cherish ‘values’ as a primary reason for their own existence, are in bed with them.

While it is true that many CEO’s like Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, and Larry Fink of Blackrock dropped out of the recent Saudi investment conference, the BBC reported the majority of these companies still sent junior executives to represent them. Not one of them has cut business ties with Saudi Arabia, and I suspect that no matter what the outcome of the Khashoggi murder investigation is, most of them will not sever ties, as Larry Fink stated on CNBC.

Irrespective of whether MBS is directly implicated or not, I hope that Mr. Khashoggi’s brazen and brutal pre-meditated murder will serve as a wake up for the rest of us. While I do not expect Tesla, Uber or WeWork to be returning the billions they have received anytime soon, I do hope we will begin to hold these companies more accountable for their actions and stop being swayed by their words alone.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Facebook and Division by Data in the Digital Age

(Image: theodysseyonline.com)

“The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot clearer ways.”
Max Levchin (PayPal co-founder)

There was a time not too long ago when people from all walks of life gathered around the proverbial water cooler in offices, places of worship, community centers, schools, local sporting events or watering holes. This ritual was underpinned by a shared experience based on a national or local conversation or a cultural artifact like a popular new book, advertisement or TV show that everyone had recently experienced.

It was not that people gathered around and sang Kumbaya, but that we brought a variety of viewpoints relating to the same event. I remember such gatherings being a melting pot of diverse perspectives, and passionate opinions; some that we vehemently agreed with and others we disagreed with, equally vehemently. But irrespective of where we stood on an issue, we all walked away without animosity and with a perspective we would not have otherwise had.

I am not suggesting that we left with changed minds or that we were competing to bring others around to our point of view, but that by listening, discussing and accepting the fact that there are different reactions to exactly the same content, it allowed us to build empathy and I believe helped to open minds in the long run; and being face-to-face they were also civil and respectful.

The internet, with its ability to turn the planet into a virtual global square, was meant to be the ultimate water cooler and bring us even closer together through diverse and shared experiences on a scale unimaginable before, but the opposite has transpired.

In country after country, social media feeds and discussion forums are filled with disagreement and hate. Once respected members of society like journalists, academics and scholars are engaging in shouting matches on TV screens, while family members are unfriending each other on social media. Research shows that this generation is more lonely and unhappy than any before it.

Nobody seems willing to entertain or discuss a point of view slightly different from their own. We have lost the ability for nuanced conversation and seem only to find comfort in absolutism. And we have eroded our ability to empathise with those who do not share our finite and inflexible worldviews.

It’s as if we have all stopped talking to each other, and now only talk at each other. What happened?

To begin with, it is true that we no longer reside in neighborhoods populated with a broad mix people from different walks of life. Increasingly we live, work and socialize only with people with similar income and educational backgrounds. The majority of educated urbanites have long stopped attending places of worship or congregating in local centers where they might still fraternize with a wider cross-section of society and viewpoints.

Even online we have retreated into echo chambers and digital fortresses filled with similarly-minded people, and our social rituals have been replaced with impersonal digital ones. We chat with friends on WhatsApp, visit grandma on Skype and share all significant milestones with extended family through email and social media.

While it is true income and educational segregation have been in part responsible for our growing divide, I believe that digital targeting technology, invented by the advertising and social media industry, along with the growing sophistication of how much data is being used, has contributed to our loss of empathy, inability to compromise and increasing vitriol. Not only are massive amounts of personal data being accumulated, but it is being used to divide people into groups and to manipulate behaviour.

Every advertiser and marketer has always wanted to connect with customers on a more personal level, but it was never possible to talk to us on a one-to-one basis until recently. The sophistication of digital technology allows companies to monitor every keystroke, eye movement, voice command, even physical movement, and, more worryingly, they are now able to put it all together to create a startlingly granular and deeply accurate view of our daily lives, habits and motivations on an individual level.

Like most innovations, this type of data accumulation was done for targeting of products and to deliver personalised content; so people would no longer waste time looking at diaper ads when they wanted to buy shoes. The idea was to accumulate so much data about each individual that it would allow marketers to get so precise that they would always show the right ad, with the right product message, or right piece of content, at the very moment we were looking for it.

Sounds great in theory, but nobody considered the dangerous and unintended consequences of such sophisticated tracking and predictive algorithms that now power every website, internet service and mobile app. Or the ability to use it for things other than selling us shoes and diapers.

What started as an advertising tool has now grown into an information arms race with numerous companies accumulating more and more personal data on each of us without any transparency, independent or third party oversight. People do not have the ability to opt-out and nobody has a clear idea of how this data is being used or with whom it is being shared.

Granted, most advertisers still use personal data to sell more shoes or diapers, but because the use of this technology has proliferated far beyond marketing and media and is used by virtually every industry and by governments, it has greatly increased the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands, and to be used to manipulate and influence behaviour of individuals and groups.

We need look no further than the 2016 US election. We know the effectiveness with which state-sponsored Russian actors used ad-targeting technology on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to target, test and fine-tune messages that spread various bits of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that briefly worked with Trump’s election team, legally bought and harvested personal data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends) from an academic who had built a Facebook app, to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.

It is important to understand just how sophisticated targeting technology is today. Anyone can accurately target the 38 year old baseball loving, Democrat voting, Budweiser drinking and Nike shoe collector on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as their Grandma in Bhopal, India. The targeting is both granular and precise.

In addition, you can exclude people by age, ethnicity, religious belief or political affiliation, thereby ensuring efficacy of your message among only like-minded people. Additionally, I could ensure that the message I show grandma is not even seen by her neighbours, even when they are all on the same page on the same website or watching the same TV show (known as addressable TV).

This is what I refer to as division by data, when data is used to segment and sub-segment every section of the population, with each segment further refined with more granular data until it gets down to an individual level based on which algorithms decide “what” to show people.

What this means is that what I see on my Facebook newsfeed is not what my wife, my neighbour or colleague sees. With addressable TV, companies can show different ads to different people in the same area code and building while they are watching the same programs. The same is true of our Twitter feed, news, iTunes and Netflix recommendations and even Google search.

Ask a liberal and a conservative friend to type in the exact same search query, e.g. global warming, on their respective computers and see how different the results and ‘facts’ they get are. I urge every skeptic to read this article about an experiment conducted by Dr. Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology: “Epstein conducted five experiments in two countries to find that biased rankings in search results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive opinion of that candidate.”

Consider that Facebook has become the primary “source of news for 44% of Americans” and now boasts over two billion active users worldwide and Google is what the world relies on to search for news, information and facts, and both are driven by this underlying ‘personalisation and targeting’ philosophy that I call division by data. Think about the fact that the greatest source of influence on human minds is still the power of persuasion - one that is driven by repeated exposure to the same message.

This is where the notion of using data obsessively to personalise everything down to the individual level has gone horribly wrong. By treating human beings like objects and dividing them into ever smaller groups that only see content, information, news and even ‘facts’ uniquely tailored and created based on their preferences and biases, we might manage to increase ad sales, but we also increase societal divisions by reducing the ability to find common ground on issues.

In the digital age, we have effectively replaced our real and proverbial water coolers with bottles of water that can be dynamically flavoured to meet individual tastes, and with this hyper-precise targeting we have ensured that we no longer have shared experiences that human beings have relied on for centuries as a way to build bonds that lead to diversity of thought and open-mindedness.

This is a solvable problem, but until we find ways to restore our water coolers in the digital age and craft sensible new regulations on data privacy, sharing and targeting, we will continue to weaken every democracy and hamper our shared progress. 

Monday, December 31, 2012

The New Social Revolution


"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”
Howard Beale (in Network)

The world did not end on 21st December 2012, but something amazing has started to happen this past year, and it is happening all over the world. It is not something I have witnessed in my lifetime or, I suspect, my parents in theirs. The youth all over the developing world have found their collective voice and are starting to use it to fight social injustice. They are even willing to take to the streets and stay until things really change. One could argue that perhaps the greatest generation was like that too, but they faced much greater adversity with two world wars. However, there is still one other fundamental difference from any other time in history. Every other great movement of the people has been led by a single charismatic leader or been galvanized by some government. The youth today are nameless and faceless, but rally around a cause that they believe in, not behind a personality or party. There is something rawer, authentic, grassroots and democratic about the way these spontaneous protest movements are erupting all over the world from America to Egypt to India and even Russia. Governments have never faced this type of opposition and most of them have no idea how to engage with it, choosing instead to deal with it through police and riot gear. This is the ultimate vox pop and all of the governments are missing the writing on the wall.

Technology may have enabled and does help facilitate the rapidity of these movements, but they are fueled by something much more powerful than a Twitter or Facebook account. For our leaders to discount them as such would be foolhardy and perilous to their existence. These movements are fueled by a feeling of gross social injustice, and government’s failure to be for the people; not by words but by their actions. It is for this reason that they are not like the seventies age anti-war demonstrations. They are much bigger because they are about society and their rights, as a whole. And they are directly related to issues that a government is meant to deliver and solve for its people from public safety to every citizen’s right to free speech. Simply ignoring them will not make them go away or lose steam. Making speeches filled with platitudes and promises might placate them for a few minutes but they will still not go away until there is follow-through. Politicians the world over have not yet understood this. Passing a few new laws will also not extinguish these fires; it will only fan the flames. Only real and meaningful change that the average person on the street feels the impact of will make a difference.

Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, learned this the hard way and had to annul a constitutional decree that would have given him wide-ranging powers and made him accountable to no other government authority, including the judiciary. Even the new Egyptian constitution that was hurriedly passed only garnered votes from one third of the population, making it unacceptable to the majority of the country. You need to look no further than Tahrir Square tonight to see if the youth and people of Egypt are satisfied.

In India, our politicians are used to never being questioned or required to deliver on their promises. Scam after scam has been uncovered this past year, and yet not one single politician or bureaucrat has been prosecuted. In fact, the ruling party seems to believe that silence is the best weapon against protests from the people. However, the number of instances and the sheer egregiousness of government excess, corruption and apathy have slowly been reaching a boiling point with the youth of India. From the Bombay police acting like moral guardians of society; arresting teenagers for holding hands in public parks after dark, or a girl for opposing a Bombay bandh to the nation witnessing the horror of human bite marks on baby Falak. The final straw has been the barbaric rape (even wild animals are better than these men) of a twenty-three year old girl, nicknamed Brave Heart, in the middle of South Delhi at nine-thirty in the evening. The Indian youth are saying that they too are mad as hell and that they are not willing to take the same old same old anymore. The reaction from our politicians has been laughably predictable. First there was complete silence, then riot police were called in, and then an effort was made to discredit the protestors as nothing more than a bunch of miscreants. But this time the people did not disperse or quietly fade away with the last flicker of the candles. This time the people have called our out of touch political elite's bluff. This time they have not been placated by words or more empty promises. This time they are demanding action and will not leave the streets until they believe there will be some real and meaningful change, and they start to see it implemented.

The thing our politicians need to realise is that while it may be the youth in these countries that are starting and leading these movements and protests, they are managing to achieve something that no generation has before them. They are starting to wake up the rest of us. This is a global revolution underway, and every country will be in the cross hairs, mark my words. China, USA, Russia and UK beware. Our youth are stirring the same passion and patriotic fervour across generations, from senior citizens to parents to teens; from the middle class to farmers and to the poorest segments of society. From big cities to tiny villages, the lights are starting to come on and people are starting to come out. Until now my generation has always complained about the problems we face. We bitch and moan about all the issues, but then we quietly sink back into our comfortable armchairs and sip on our aged scotch. But this time I feel like something is different. Our youth are waking us up from our accepting and lethargic slumber because now

…I AM MAD AS HELL AND I AM NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Open Letter to Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Dear Mr. Walsh,

I felt compelled to write to you one last time as I believe there is a dire need to remind you of your words from British Airways 2009 Annual Report, as your airline’s customer service continues to sink to new and hitherto unimaginable lows. “We will not let this crisis compromise our long-term goal – to create a world-leading global premium airline with a reputation for being the very best at meeting its customers’ needs.” Everybody makes mistakes but your staff’s attitude and lack of care, concern and pure arrogance after the poor experience we had is abhorrent and led me to make the decision never to fly BA again. However, BA again started courting me for my business a few months ago through numerous emails, letters and offers promising a new and vastly improved customer service and experience. It was this promise to woo back the countless customers’ it has no doubt lost over the last few years that prompted me to make one last effort to resolve the matter.

Once again I have had no joy from your Customer Service department. I corresponded via your website’s customer complaint mechanism, and initially Mr. B, from BA Customer Relations (as in 2006) sent me a response and then again there was complete silence when it came to actually resolving my issues. And this upon my supplying both clarification of the facts, and the supporting documents he requested; boarding cards and credit card statement, with e-ticket#, as proof of purchase (Fax dated: 2/2/2010).

In short, I never received what Mr. B himself promised me by way of apology in 2006, mileage credit to my wife’s account, nor did I get the refund/partial credit owed me from travel completed in 2005.

In summary our experience in 2005 is as follows: my wife and I were travelling New York-London-Dubai-London-New York with one full fare Business Class and one Premium Economy ticket. BA messed up our reservations causing us to miss our flight out of NY, then promised to upgrade my wife from London to Dubai, as there was no extra seat available in Business on the next flight, nor was my pre-booked aisle seat that I had on the original flight; so I too downgraded to economy from NY-London (and was promised a refund of the fare difference, which I was told would be automatically credited to my credit card within 60-90 days). Then your staff in London refused to honour the upgrade promise made to us by your staff in New York. Upon my seeking assistance from your London staff and getting the run around, frustrated, I finally asked who I needed to speak with in BA to help me, I was told, and I quote: “there is nobody in this airline that can help you.”

Sadly and truthfully, my expectation for resolution at this stage is virtually zero from both you and your airline, but I feel that in the end it is unhappy customers like me remaining silent that allow companies like British Airways to continue charging high premiums, while delivering subpar quality and service. Most importantly, our silence allows you to continue to treat your customers like cattle and take our business for granted. So consider this my way to stop turning my head and looking the other way, allowing companies like yours to continue the pursuit of profits at the expense of customers and everything else that matters. With this open letter, I am going to make every effort to ensure that the world is made aware of our less than poor experience and encouraged to do the same, through my personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter and all the various public and travel forums and discussions I actively participate in.

In my opinion British Airways, over the last decade has squandered its well earned reputation as “The World’s Favourite Airline” and become the “World’s Worst Airline,” and this from a customer who for years remained steadfastly loyal to your airline in the face of increased and better competitive options becoming available.


Sincerely,

Mr. Vaish

NOTE posted on 4th December 2010: I got a response from BA one month after sending this letter, and responded (http://bit.ly/cUp7HA) and of course have heard nothing back.