Problem Tech Companies

Slate magazine sent a ballot to a host of people like journalists, scholars or advocates asking them for who they thought were the tech companies they were concerned about. They did not define what was meant by concern or what was meant by tech companies. Then they tallied the results and published a list of what those they asked considered the 30 technology companies they were most concerned about.  Let’s note that the companies were not listed by size or name recognition, but by how much concern those polled experience towards them. As is perhaps expected the top three companies on that list of 30 are Amazon as number one, Facebook as number 2 and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, as number three. Exxon Mobile is number 10, Huawei is 11, Tesla 14 and Disney number 15. But there are surprises too, AirbnB as number 24  or Megvii at number 25, a company  working with facial recognition which I for one had not heard of. The popular 23andMe is number 18.  Elon Musk SpaceX is number 17 and Verizon number 16.  Many of the companies are not household names, but as a whole they reflect our general concern for AI, for surveillance, for the loss of privacy, for how big they can be, how pervasive their reach  is or for not being sufficiently interested in climate change. For me, though, the list is a rather good microcosm for companies which may not as a rule concern themselves with the public good.

Homelessness and Solutions

Homelessness is now well-known as a national problem, one that had been worse in California. As I follow the progress of this issue I rarely read something that to me at least addresses a potential real solution. Mainly because I’ve been wondering who understands the source of the problem, until I read a NYT piece on Dr. Margot Kushel, a longtime advocate for the homeless, now director of the Benioff Homelessness Initiative at UCSF which has a $30 million endowment from the billionaire Salesforce founder. She reminds us that we know what works: Housing First, programs where finding housing is the first and fundamental step to being able to help many who are homeless. But she also acknowledges that “We’ve always known that homelessness is a result, pure and simple, of poverty: the lack of a living wage, the lack of affordable housing and the insidious impact of racism. If we don’t fix the fundamentals, we are just patching a leaking ship. And that is what has happened.”

In my neighborhood as in many others new apartment buildings are going up on almost every block, apartments which are by law exempt from rent control and called luxury units partly to justify their high rents with a slew of amenities. These units are touted by many in politics and elsewhere as the answer to homelessness—implying that a shortage of units is what makes rents unaffordable. And yet when one remembers as was the topic of a post not long ago, that 44% of the labor force work at low paying jobs, economic inequality does seem to emerge as an underlying cause of homelessness. As the California legislature is struggling to come up with a new version of recently defeated AB 50 which wanted to supersede local zoning laws to be able to build more apartments such as those in my neighborhood, the views of Dr. Kushel gain added importance. Let her voice be heard.

Post Office Privatization?

If you haven’t taken the time to speak to a mail carrier and find out more about what his or her job entails and what mail delivery calls for, I suggest you do. It can be revelatory, but even more relevant it helps to understand why there is no reason for the post office to be privatized. Due to retirement, the head of the USPS is about to be replaced. The whole board is made up of Trump appointees and the word is he would like to have the post office go private in 2020. Public services such as the post office or garbage collection are called public for a reason. Their main function is to serve the public. As soon as a service is privatized the issue of profits comes to the fore and to guarantee those profits either services have to be curtailed or decreased as has been the case with private prisons, or prices have to increase. Probably in the case of the USPS both will occur. When you consider that the postal services deals with millions of pieces of mail each day, their errors are negligible. It may not feel that way when the piece of mail in question is yours, but consider that percentage in relation to the total amount of mail you receive. A tenth of a percent? Compare that to the errors you have to deal with every day including those you yourself might be likely to make and the old phrase if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, comes to mind.

What stands in the way of privatization right now are the unions. For all our sakes, let’s wish them well.

Top Technology Policy Issues

Two authors well versed in the state of the world and the state of technology give a yearly list of how they see the top ten technology policy issues facing us. The list is meant to refer to challenges before us as well as challenges technology could address. Given a new decade, this year’s list applies to the 20’s as a decade.

  • Sustainability
  • Defending Democracy
  • Journalism
  • Privacy in an AI Era
  • Data and National Sovereignty
  • Digital Safety
  • Internet Inequality
  • A Tech Cold War
  • Ethics for Artificial Intelligence
  • Jobs and Income Inequality in an AI Economy

One may disagree with the placement of some of these challenges, such as jobs and income inequality but it is difficult not to agree with the items on the list being important. While many of these challenges are self-explanatory, I needed to review their explanation of the journalism item. If I may paraphrase, it is a profession crucial to the survival of democracy whose lower profits over time have caused a decline. The authors hope that technology can foster a revival that will help not only to protect journalists who have been under attack (particularly overseas where journalists can too easily be jailed) but for the whole field.

Because technology has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives, directly or indirectly, the list as a whole has great relevance in in determining our future and shaping needed answers. What is a concern, though, is how little these issues are being acknowledged and addressed by decision makers.