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Make Everything Awesome For Everybody: Bridging The CP Snow-Style Divide
March 15, 2014 8:32 AM   Subscribe

The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution - "[Charles Percy Snow] was pleading for a more adequately educated ruling class so that the suffering of the poor might be ameliorated... Snow wanted to believe something like this: political decisions in the modern world often concern how to deploy science and technology, so people well-trained in science and technology will be better prepared to make those decisions. But that's a syllogism without a minor premise." (previously)

via Marc Andreessen who recently posited: "There is a growing CP Snow-style divide between people who trust math/science/tech and people who trust people/institutions."

picking up after that Andreessen speaks about the failure of, but desperate need for, building institutional capabilities that actually promote the general welfare and make the world a better place:
1/Thought experiment: "Potential gap" = Delta between every person in world fulfilling full potential in whatever way most suited, vs today.
2/Think every person —> access to education, training, nutrition, health care —> full ability to make maximum contribution in chosen field.
3/No coercion — in fact, opposite — opp'y to excel at whatever one feels more suited to do. Science, tech, arts, teaching, business, etc.
4/How to best measure "potential gap" — delta in metrics like economic growth, standard of living, rate of advance of science & arts?
5/My view: These are the stakes we are playing for. This is the big opportunity for the future. This matters more than almost anything else.
6/Why I reject claims today's tech industry not tackling big problems. This is the biggest problem. We are trying to tackle it head on.
7/Base question #1: How many people on planet today are in position now to be able to fulfill full potential in chosen fields?
8/Base question #2: What are big advances in tech, business, education, health care, other areas, most needed for this next 10/20/30 years?
9/Bear in mind great lesson of civilization: Higher economic growth = More $ available for non-financial-incented activities.
10/So 10-100x current economy = At least 10-100x current funding for nonprofits, arts, social safety net, and everything else we want.
also btw, fwiw...
Bill Gates explains how to save the planet - "In his view, the world is a giant operating system that just needs to be debugged. Gates' driving idea... is the hacker's notion that the code for these problems can be rewritten, that errors can be fixed, that huge systems – whether it's Windows 8, global poverty or climate change – can be improved if you have the right tools and the right skills. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization with a $36 billion endowment that he runs with his wife, is like a giant startup whose target market is human civilization."
posted by kliuless (37 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting.

How does #3 square with #9 and #10? I guess it depends on who coercion is defined and by whom. I didn't see anyone in the links bringing it up, I don't think.
posted by rtha at 8:44 AM on March 15


The bug in the system is overpopulation. Every institution in the world is still primed and geared for the pyramid of growth. You can save a million acres of rainforest with a few large donations but eventually people move right up to its border and begin to get hungry.
posted by Brian B. at 8:46 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Cheap labor is a feature of #9, not a bug, i.e. poverty for many is a part of the civilization system, not a bug in the civilization system, otherwise there is no mass concentration of wealth in the hands of people like Gates and Andreesen.

The massive blindness to this fact continues to dishearten me in all the so-called "solutions" being "creatively" bandied about. It seems the ideas of these engineers happen within an echo chamber of noble intentions and limited self-assessment. I get the impression Gates and Andreesen fancy themselves philosopher kings, but kings deciding the fate of many nonetheless. The only difference is that the king's court has been replaced by the Technorati and the world leaders desperate for the king's grace (and investment), and these kings don't have armies (yet).

#cynicalsaturday
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:59 AM on March 15 [15 favorites]


Haven't read everything, but the #10 outlined above indicates that the one guy's premise is still to just grow our way out of the problem. Why not say, "10-100x more equal wealth distribution = 10-100x more opportunity for artists, critics, and families" instead?
posted by jsturgill at 9:19 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


We have all the tools necessary to just pwn this planet, and that has probably been the case since we mastered fire, definitely since we created agriculture, certainly since we worked out metalworking, without doubt once we discovered working models for diseases and how to look for cures, and absolutely once mechanization and the assembly line made building widgets cheap and efficient. The problem is always sociopolitical.

Throughout history, every problem that make humans' lives shitty have been either caused by humans or left unaddressed by humans. Today is no different. Food, shelter, education, health, and self direction are solvable problems just like they've always been (only way easier). But solving those problems doesn't accrete wealth to those in power, and in fact would lessen the scope of the power they have, and that's unacceptable to them.
posted by jsturgill at 9:28 AM on March 15 [8 favorites]


Ads on that page are freaking me out. One for the movie Noah, the other, showing an African boy starving, but imploring the person to help him know Jesus.

As for the rest of this, well, the rich literati that were doing science in the amateur vein are now long gone and rightly so, important their discoveries may be.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:16 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


"There is a growing CP Snow-style divide between people who trust math/science/tech and people who trust people/institutions."

Just addressing Andreessen's assertion, I would posit that anyone who'd take a side there doesn't understand either math/science/tech or people/institutions, because the former only has meaningful social existence through the latter anyway. The premise of distinguishing between those two domains is incoherent, so anyone who'd say "I trust science, not people!" or "I trust people, not science!" doesn't really know what they're talking about.

The steps he defines to improve the world sound fine, but how would you ever make them happen, really? When you're talking about the social world and the ends to which broad social cooperation should be turned, you can't just describe a desirable end-state and then say "get crackin', mankind!"

The problem isn't that nobody can imagine desirable outcomes that social action should effect, it's that people in charge, power-holders, from the global to the local level, would stand to lose a significant portion of their power and status if they promoted egalitarianism and the general welfare, because social power is often predicated on the scarcity of its own distribution. So you would need not only the cooperation of the relevant current power-holders, but also a guarantee that those who'd succeed those people when they die or lose their power would also be committed to advancing the general welfare, even if it didn't benefit them or reproduce the systems and ideologies of power they hold high positions in. If anyone knows how to make that happen, please don't hold out on us.
posted by clockzero at 10:33 AM on March 15 [11 favorites]


As for Gates, considering that he's in the vanguard of people bent on "reforming" our education system for the benefit of Wall Street and to the detriment of the students, he serves as an excellent illustration of why approaching societal problems from a startup perspective is so problematic. In his recent interview in The Atlantic, he bemoans opposition to Common Core without grasping exactly why people are opposed - it's not because they're against a national curriculum, but because they're (quite rightfully) leery of one proposed by "reformers".
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:43 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


There's definitely evidence of a huge divide, even in this thread. I'm continually amazed at the level of simmering hostility towards anything tech related. Philanthropy and concern for humanity is interpreted as arrogance bordering on wanting to be a king. I'm having trouble imagining what experiences and thoughts led up to that interpretation. Or, Gates wants to change the education system to benefit Wall Street and harm students? In what world is Gates a friend of Wall Street?

Cynicism can be a good defense, but applied carelessly it can also prevent understanding and prevent working towards a shared goal.
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:14 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Philanthropy and concern for humanity is interpreted as arrogance bordering on wanting to be a king. I'm having trouble imagining what experiences and thoughts led up to that interpretation.

Well, I can explain my own apprehension. I don't think Gates is "wanting to be a king", but I do think it's a negative thing for society to depend on the whims of the ultra-wealthy for betterment. It seems like a return to the Gilded Age where robber barons amassed enormous fortunes then showered some of that back on society.

Of course philanthropy is a good thing and Gates and Buffet and the like should be applauded for helping people, but society should be solving the problems of society. We shouldn't be leaving things to a few individuals, we should be constructing social safety nets, reforming education, opening access to medical care, etc. If private individuals can supplement that if they want, but not substitute it, and I feel like the forces that work against any kind of building of societal infrastructure use those examples to further erode any kind of social progress. Conservatives and libertarians already love to harp on about replacing government programs with charity.

I'm continually amazed at the level of simmering hostility towards anything tech related.

I believe the hostility is often aimed at the people surrounding and boosting "anything tech related". Being exposed to the techno-libertarian "STEM is everything, hope your English degree taught you how to make a decent latte" crowd does tend to wear one down.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:36 AM on March 15 [14 favorites]


He continues to talk up MOOCs and is one of the leading supporters of education "reform", which is less about fixing the education system and more about extracting public education funding to give to the private sector. So in this case, he's very much a friend of Wall Street.

And philanthropy isn't always an unalloyed good. A large problem with the sort of stuff that people like Gates and Andreessen push is that it's meant to change the world as they envision - regardless of how the rest of us see things. Which is where the root of the hostility comes from - it would be nice if the techies would stop acting as if they're the only stakeholders, and actually try to see things from the perspective of others.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:39 AM on March 15 [6 favorites]


Sangermaine: The other problem with letting the wealthy drive societal improvement is that it puts them in control of how that improvement takes form - which in turn lets them entrench themselves even further.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:46 AM on March 15 [5 favorites]


Philanthropy and concern for humanity is interpreted as arrogance bordering on wanting to be a king. I'm having trouble imagining what experiences and thoughts led up to that interpretation.

I don't know if this example will serve your question, but we can broadly describe two sides in any social problem solving as either supply-side or demand-side. Take the near extinction of a species, for example. The former could have been a king who put them on his private lands for his caretakers to manage, with severe punishment for poaching, but always served at the king's parties of course. The latter could be a typical public reaction, pre-Reagan era, that democratized the concern, making uniform laws and raising awareness through education policies to protect the species everywhere.
posted by Brian B. at 11:47 AM on March 15


My simmering hatred is not for anything tech-related but is reserved for those people in tech (other industries too, but in the context of this fpp, tech) who think they have The Answer when they're not even asking the right questions. Like the guy who wants to split California into six different states. /rolls eyes
posted by rtha at 11:56 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


It's remarkable the kind of psuedo-intellectual bullshit Anglophones get up to when deprived of Marx.
posted by mobunited at 12:05 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


A large problem with the sort of stuff that people like Gates and Andreessen push is that it's meant to change the world as they envision

Gates envisions a world without Malaria; your vision seems to be a world without Gates.
posted by nixt at 12:08 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


those people in tech (other industries too, but in the context of this fpp, tech) who think they have The Answer when they're not even asking the right questions.

xkcd summed this up pretty nicely (referring to physicists, but IME it applies very heavily to engineers as well).

Programmers especially seem to suffer from conceiving of themselves as these hyper-logical geniuses who can reason out the solution to anything, or hold a "I'm smart in this one hard thing so I'm smart in everything" view. I guess it's why so many programmers seem drawn to being libertarians.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:08 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


I am a techie and it's my experience there is a sort of cultural/social blindness among many in the tech industry. Not to mention often an implicit contempt for the liberal arts crowd, to which I also belong. It's kind of funny, because the very best developers I've worked with and learned from over the years have tended to also have strong arts affinities or backgrounds (particularly in music). The not quite as smart as they think drudges who float by on having forceful personalities and not being reluctant to see their colleagues as social subordinates tend to be the ones getting the most liberal arts hate on. Purely anecdotal, obviously, but that's my impression.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:11 PM on March 15 [10 favorites]


It's remarkable the kind of psuedo-intellectual bullshit Anglophones get up to when deprived of Marx.

And remarkable how little difference to income equality the intellectual left* has made, despite being steeped in Marx and often speaking other languages.

*I'm part of it, if I'm part of anything, but division-by-favourite-author is not the nature of the solution to this problem.
posted by cromagnon at 12:44 PM on March 15


hold a "I'm smart in this one hard thing so I'm smart in everything" view

You know what? It's really easy to ignore those people.

Enough with the "programmers tend to be...", whether it's libertarian, tasteless yuppies ruining San Francisco, sexist, racist, know-it-all. Most of us aren't, but we don't have blogs.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:56 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


And remarkable how little difference to income equality the intellectual left* has made, despite being steeped in Marx and often speaking other languages.

The "intellectual left" seems to think having read Capital once is being "steeped in Marx," instead of actually engaging socialist and class struggle positions. Liberal-left establishments in the US, UK and Canada are obviously useless in this regard. The US has no politically effective Left. The UK and Canada both have nominally SI parties that have betrayed their founding principles.

Fortunately, it's not all about us Anglos, and there are other countries where class struggle is part of mainstream discourse and we're not entertaining the notion that maybe we're not listening to some shitty billionaire enough when he has guilt pangs about ripping off the world and has the presence of mind to pantomime some superficial American liberal positions.
posted by mobunited at 1:10 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


You know what? It's really easy to ignore those people.

If only it were! They seem to pop up online and IRL with alarming frequency.

You're right that such people are a minority, but they're a very vocal one.

Besides, this was just answering why there can be hostility to the tech community. The answer is that there is a loud contingent of assholes who give the rest of you a bad name.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:16 PM on March 15


"In his view, the world is a giant operating system that just needs to be debugged. Gates' driving idea... is the hacker's notion that the code for these problems can be rewritten, that errors can be fixed, that huge systems – whether it's Windows 8, global poverty or climate change – can be improved if you have the right tools and the right skills. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization with a $36 billion endowment that he runs with his wife, is like a giant startup whose target market is human civilization."

That is such a perfect description of his robber baron mentality. He doesn't actually own the system he is hacking but no matter! He will fix it his way because he can and he knows best. Here have some ill-gotten money.
posted by srboisvert at 1:22 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


If only it were! They seem to pop up online and IRL with alarming frequency.

So often that I wonder if they aren't getting a slice of shill pie from somewhere.
posted by Brian B. at 3:34 PM on March 15


Gates envisions a world without Malaria; your vision seems to be a world without Gates.

He also envisions a world where teachers are treated as easily replaced cogs or as a temporary step on the corporate ladder, and where education is sold as an online product. The education "reform" movement is where it is today in large part because he helps bankroll it. He also is trying to use immigration reform as a wedge to undermine the position of American tech workers, and there have been issues with his initiatives for improving farming in Africa not looking at the long picture (basically, part of sustainability is affordability, which the programs miss.)

Ultimately, the problem is that since it's his checkbook, he gets to dictate the policies. This isn't healthy, especially when his goals and society's diverge.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:40 PM on March 15 [6 favorites]


In his view, the world is a giant operating system that just needs to be debugged

Classic engineer's fallacy. So very rich.
posted by polymodus at 7:19 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


I think what gates is doing is wonderful, but also problematic. A lot of people in the sector have written how the tremendous might of the foundation is literally chaining the entire aid sector, what it focuses on, how it interprets challenges and posits solutions. This of course then enters the broader ngo environment, then the world bank, the imf, developing governments, developed governments etc.

Ironically, albeit with benevolence, he is creating another monopoly.
posted by smoke at 1:49 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


A New Multilateralism for the 21st Century
With facts like these, it is not surprising that inequality is increasingly on the global community's radar screen. It is not surprising that everyone from the Confederation of British Industry to Pope Francis is speaking out about it—because it can tear the precious fabric that holds our society together.

Let me be frank: in the past, economists have underestimated the importance of inequality. They have focused on economic growth, on the size of the pie rather than its distribution. Today, we are more keenly aware of the damage done by inequality. Put simply, a severely skewed income distribution harms the pace and sustainability of growth over the longer term. It leads to an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential.

It is easy to diagnose the problem, but far more difficult to solve it.

From our work at the IMF, we know that the fiscal system can help to reduce inequality through careful design of tax and spending policies. Think about making taxation more progressive, improving access to health and education, and putting in place effective and targeted social programs. Yet these policies are hard to design and—because they create winners and losers—they create resistance and require courage.

Nevertheless, we need to get to grips with it, and make sure that "inclusion" is given as much weight as "growth" in the design of policies. Yes, we need inclusive growth.

More inclusion and opportunity in the economic life also means less cronyism and corruption. This must also rise to the top of the policy agenda.

There is one more dimension of inequality that I wish to discuss here—one that is close to my heart. If we talk about inclusion in economic life, we must surely talk about gender.

As we know too well, girls and women are still not allowed to fulfill their potential—not just in the developing world, but in rich countries too. The International Labor Organization estimates that 865 million women around the world are being held back. They face discrimination at birth, on the school bench, in the board room. They face reticence of the marketplace—and of the mind.

And yet, the economic facts of life are crystal clear. By not letting women contribute, we end up with lower living standards for everyone. If women participated in the labor force to the same extent as men, the boost to per capita incomes could be huge—27 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, 23 percent in South Asia, 17 percent in Latin America, 15 percent in East Asia, 14 percent in Europe and Central Asia. We simply cannot afford to throw away these gains.

"Daring the difference", as I call it—enabling women to participate on an equal footing with men—can be a global economic game changer. We must let women succeed: for ourselves and for all the little girls—and boys—of the future. It will be their world—let us give it to them.
more here...
posted by kliuless at 10:04 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


Coming from the IMF, that is really offensive. Talk about pots calling kettles black.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:33 AM on March 16


Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science: As government financing of basic research has fallen off precipitously, philanthropists have stepped in, setting priorities and drawing both gratitude and trepidation from scientists.
posted by homunculus at 12:43 PM on March 16


1. Bill Gates responds to criticism: withdraws all funding from charity, shuts down Foundation. Spends money on model trains and moon rockets.

2. ?????

3. Congratulations, the world's problems have now been solved by ideology and politics!
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:04 PM on March 16


I can't help feeling that's a pretty facile response that doesn't really reflect what people are saying.

It's possible to acknowledge that Gates is doing a lot of good, whilst also acknowledging the problems and challenges with his approach - and I am the first person to jump on reflexive charity bashing.
posted by smoke at 1:25 AM on March 17


What course of action, then, should Gates take?
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:49 AM on March 17


I kind of rolled my eyes when I saw this series of tweets, because I didn't really think that Marc Andreessen would have much insight, but I was wrong. This thread has been an eye-opener in that way. I think the divide has as much to do with communication and the possible meanings that are derived from statements as it does with where one places trust. For example, I view technology as one tool that society can use to address its issues, but I see the social side of things as being the ultimate decider in pretty much all matters, so I thought I was closer to the distrust of technology side. But I really can't fathom the intentions and meanings of many comments in this thread, which clearly come from the distrust of technology side.

While it certainly would be possible to acknowledge the good that Gates is attempting to do while acknowledging the bad of the situation, I haven't seen any acknowledgement of the good in this thread, or closer to this threads' toplevel topic, acknowledgements that technology could be a part of solutions to the problems that society has failed to solve through traditional social institutions.

Instead, there are lots of snarky statements directed at the motivations of uber-wealthy technological elite, and when I asked for clarification about seemingly misplaced snark, I get completely different answers, about the structural inequalities built into the system. Which, well duh, but why did you say all those other things that fall off target? The technologically wealthy are often motivated by concerns other than accumulating wealth, and some would consider it a mere mistake of history that these individuals were allowed to accumulate wealth at all.

I agree 100% with the thoughts that our society should act to improve the world rather than depending on wealthy individuals, and that perhaps our system shouldn't allow such gross inequality in the first place. But remember that our society has been set up to allow for greater wealth inequality from before Gates got his start, back in the trickle-down wealth era, and that society itself is as responsible for Gates' uber-wealth as Gates himself is. And since nobody remembers how to operate guillotines, he's going to be around a while, so lets use his checkbooks good rather than for yachts and caviar. Society has failed to solve the wealth inequality problem, and now Gates is taking it upon himself to help at least a bit. All of Gates' wealth is a tiny tiny drop compared to the power of the the US's checkbook, but as a private individual instead of a state-level actor, Gates' motivations may seem less suspect to certain areas of the globe that distrust the US (and for good reason).

So, sure, critiques of our societies failings are essential in discussion. But it's individuals that do the convincing of other individuals, and the combined actions and thoughts of individuals that determines the direction of our society. Such convincing falls flat on its face with loose cannon snark that does not fall on its true target, and the convincing also fails when good actions are unfairly lambasted because of hard feelings about other topics, or tangentially related. So please remember that when you talk to others who don't live inside your ideological sphere, save the poison for things that really deserve the poison.

I thought I agreed with prevailing MeFite ideology, and I think I still do at least when people are willing to step away from propaganda, but I find much of the most favorited stuff in this thread borderline offensive.

For example, Gates having it in for educators and education does not to be the least bit supported by anything I can find anywhere on Gates' statements or actions. The rhetoric does not match the reality that I see. "He also envisions a world where teachers are treated as easily replaced cogs or as a temporary step on the corporate ladder," is a terrible thing to envision, but I can see no evidence of it being remotely true. So I wonder if I can trust anything else a person says, or if I want to be associated at all with a movement that spouts such things. I stand by my friends and family that are K-12 teachers, and I won't stand by obvious falsehood, and I hope I never have to make a choice between the two.
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:22 AM on March 17 [2 favorites]


Very interesting, thanks for posting this.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:08 PM on March 18


Meet the 12 Most Generous Tech Leaders. . . And 6 of the Least
posted by homunculus at 1:34 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


Omnivore: Science and society
posted by homunculus at 12:53 PM on April 1


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