“The rich are different from you and me.”
“Yes, they have more money.”
No exchange like that between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ever took place, but it’s a lot more fun to imagine that it did.
The initially curt put-down contains within it the germ of a much more intense concurrence the more you think about it. Unscaled by Hemant Taneja, or “How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future” manages to embody both readings of that exchange.
The multimillionaire venture capitalist’s book often reads like a literal vanity-press product, talking of its subjects as an excuse to brag about all of the occasions Taneja’s investments thus far have paid off. That includes investments you’ve heard of like the temporary-messages app Snapchat as well as those you probably haven’t, like the “consumer digital health company”, Livongo.
In that way, the experience of reading Unscaled is very much like anyone who’s ever been cornered at a house party by someone you’ve just met, quite sure everything they do will be as interesting for you to hear as it clearly is for them to recount.
But, the rich are different from you and me, and what interests Taneja versus what does not is almost like reading an alien species talk about the implications of technology for the future.
Take this summary of the challenges posed by CRISPR gene-editing techniques.
Wealthy people will have the opportunity to make themselves better, healthier, and smarter than poorer people, creating a gap between rich and poor that’s not just about wealth and opportunity but about talent and physical prowess. … We could end up with a society of permanent classes. Governments must think this through before it becomes reality.
That certainly sounds profoundly important and interesting. Yet even with what’s contained in the ellipses, the entirety of reflection on the subject is one paragraph, and the book then skips merrily along to the genetic-testing company 23andMe’s data disclosure then the future of energy for a paragraph, offering nothing more about how we might avoid actively bringing the world of Gattaca to reality.
I don’t really need two pages on why Jeff Bezos thinks a “Day 1” mindset is important to keeping a mega-corporation virile when you’ve just told me it’s entirely plausible all my descendants will be Morlocks, Hemant.
His premise that the world is unscaling rather than accelerating having-yet-more to the haves is also not entirely convincing when, according to Oxfam, eighty-two percent of all new wealth went to the richest one percent of the globe from 2016 to 2017, and those people already had half of everything, per Credit Suisse, the Swiss banking multinational.
Moreover, if companies like Facebook and Amazon are allowed to extend their monopolies, to buy out their competitors when they need to taste breakfast octopus, to steal from and crush them if they choose not to sell, how exactly are we supposed to see fewer giants? Who the particular giants are may change with time, but that’s sort of like shuffling around which patrician families get to rule Rome.
If, as Taneja argues, the future is unscaled and personalized, and you’re to have an individual product made just for you and no one else, why wouldn’t the companies already capable of creating the most perfect psychographic profile of you based on their access to your data see their advantages increase further?
As to how Artificial Intelligence is going to change all this for the better, well, there’s always a certain flavor of futurist with optimism for what they promise is just about to be possible while never reckoning with how what’s already possible hasn’t realized that same utopian result.
One of the most popular examples of this, in the book and culture generally, is the bright, ever-approaching day when we’ll have self-driving cars.
The most motivated supporters cast the ultimate effect as something akin to eradicating polio because they’re going to be eradicating traffic death and injury, or at least reducing it to close to nothing. Indeed, removing human error from billions of interactions each day globally would be a monumental accomplishment, if the security dangers can be overcome.
But this ignores how for well more than a century we’ve had the technology to effect the largest part of that decrease: investing in mass transit.
Moving folks in tens and hundreds — having professionals responsible for applying their sober, wakeful attention in professionally-maintained vehicles that are accountable to public audit — makes traffic deaths all but evaporate.
For New York City in 2017, there were 214 deaths in a year counting all pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and automobile occupants. By contrast, the car-glutted twelve counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex had a million fewer people than NYC and five hundred more transportation deaths: seven hundred and forty-three.
Mass public transit available to all manages to accomplish other nigh-magical ends like making real estate more valuable by allowing for greater density. It wastes less space mostly-unused roads for single-occupant cars and places to park them. It reduces racial disparities by providing freedom of movement irrespective of wealth. It gives more options for people to live and work where they choose.
Of course, mass transit isn’t a good fit everywhere, but we have managed some further innovations since the American Civil War, like seatbelts sensors and the ignition-lock breathalyzer. That may seem flippant, but of the 37,461 traffic deaths in 2016, 10,428 were related to lack of seatbelts and 10,497 to alcohol impairment.
We don’t actually need more innovations; we just need the will to make automobile transportation rarer and safer. We’ve had the technology to stop drunk driving for 30 years and not done it because it’s too inconvenient to the wrong people.
You see, I totally believe that self-driving vehicles will help companies become even more profitable by giving them fewer employees to pay, especially long-haul truckers and warehouse workers. Those who can afford self-driving vehicles, afford the upkeep, and afford ensuring they’re the ones their algorithm chauffeurs consider most valuable, will feel quite comfortable.
But technology and machines age, and the Trolley Problem turns out not to be so much of a problem as soon as you put it into the context of the real world and real world power dynamics. We don’t care much at all about medical care or protection from natural disasters when it comes to 2.3 million prisoners.
We don’t care about the elderly when they’re too poor to afford a decent assisted living facility. Does anyone honestly believe that Elon Musk would get into a self-driving car with his next girlfriend if it might have to swerve into a pylon just to avoid killing ten people in a homeless camp?
In a country where we go along with permanently separating asylum seekers from their children and force toddlers to represent themselves at deportation hearings, would you be shocked if the algorithm didn’t give any weight to people it couldn’t recognize as being properly-documented residents?
Why wouldn’t collision algorithms factor that into their trolley problem to ensure that they’re fair to more valuable citizens?
In a capitalist country, why shouldn’t you be able to pay to have your status upgraded for better protection?
One of the few prescriptions Taneja is willing to offer for how a gig-based economy for the ninety-nine percent can avoid massive social unrest of the teeming masses and the perfunctory ritual cannibalization of GMO ultra-rich is the idea of a Universal Basic Income. Along with cheap Virtual Reality and on-demand 3D printing, this may be enough to placate the poor while guaranteeing a society still based on wealth doesn’t churn too much or at all.
More than AI, more than self-driving or self-taught things, there’s a disruptive, unscaling innovation for the future that billionaires and venture capitalists don’t ever seem too jazzed about. Instead of a Universal Basic Income, we could have a Universal Maximum Wealth, Huey Long-style.
If that were the case — if the gulf between rich and poor and what was available to each, now and in the future — weren’t quite so disparate, maybe the only difference between us would be that the rich have a bit more money.