The Dangers of the Success Myth

This is taken from an excellent article about the social network Diaspora and its tragic end What Happened to the Facebook Killer? It’s Complicated. Aside from telling this story the article also has an excellent critique of the myth of success in silicon valley where survivor bias and the need to create “strong man” myths dominates to an incredible degree.

These creation myths not only prevent us from seeing the blatantly obvious truths but actually work to prevent us from understanding what success is and how it is  achieved.

In Silicon Valley, where college dropouts go on to become billionaires and takeover the world, a deadly myth propagates. “As long as you’re over a certain threshold of intelligence, what matters most is determination,” evangelizes Paul Graham, founder of the legendary startup incubator Y-Combinator, which would later back Diaspora in a last gasp effort to keep the project alive. It’s a beautiful thought and fundamental to the American Dream. It’s a delusion that drives starry-eyed youngsters to quit school and head West, living off ramen and moving into hostel communities, “not so different from crowded apartments that cater to immigrants.” In Silicon Valley, they believe that if you do whatever it takes, eventually, you’ll get there too. There, everyone is on the cusp of greatness. And if you haven’t yet made it to the land of milk and honey, it’s only because you aren’t working hard enough. Or worse, you’ve given up.

Success, however, is never quite so straightforward, a layered concoction, equal parts good idea, perseverance and whole lot of serendipity. It’s for this reason that many of the industry’s biggest rock stars remain one hit wonders. Marc Andreessen has struggled to match the triumph of Netscape Navigator. Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone left their company a year ago to work on something called Obvious, but so far have only a single blog post to show for it. Then there’s Sean Parker of Napster fame. After wiggling his way into Facebook, his latest celebrity-endorsed venture, the Chatroulette clone AirTime, has yet to take off, if it ever does. Even with their credibility, confidence and cash, repeating past success eludes Silicon Valley’s finest.

Yet the myth propagates because survivor bias rules. Failure just isn’t part of the vocabulary; startup honchos prefer terms like “pivot” over more straight-forward words for a coming-to-terms. It’s not something winners acknowledge, nor is it something the media often reports. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there’s thousands of also-rans, who had parties no one ever attended, obsolete before we ever knew they existed.

Then there’s the issue of money. In the early stages of a tech startup, there are few measurable achievements and progress is abstract. At the height of Silicon Valley’s second great tech bubble, new players defined themselves not by what they’d done, but how much money they raised. While raising capital is fundamental, too much too soon can be a death sentence. All that cash hangs like an albatross around your neck, explains Ben Kaufman, who just raised $68 million for his company, Quirky.

“In the eye of the public, and specifically the tech community, funding is thought to mean much more than it actually does,” Kaufman writes. “The world views funding as a badge of honor. I view it as a scarlet letter.” This is the age of Kickstarter, where you can earn press and raise millions on the back of just an idea, undermining the tech scene’s supposed love affair with execution. It reinforces a false sense of success, Kaufman says, remembering the first time he raised his first $1 million at the age of nineteen. “My grandfather called me to congratulate me on building a successful company,” Kaufman recalls. “We still hadn’t done shit. We just got some dude to write a check.” In other words, when the money is flowing, it’s easy to feel like you’ve made it, before you’ve actually made it.

Digital Sharecropping

George Lucas is joining the Web 2.0 bandwagon and allowing fans to create mashups of Star Wars. Wow, what a guy? Impressed? Happy? Don’t be!!!

â??Star Warsâ?? fans can connect with the Force in ways theyâ??ve only imagined beginning May 25, when launches a completely redesigned website that empowers fans to â??mash-upâ?? their homemade videos with hundreds of scenes from â??Star Warsâ?? movies; watch hundreds of fan-made â??Star Warsâ?? videos; and interact with â??Star Warsâ?? enthusiasts from around the world like never before.

With an innovative, interactive site that allows users to navigate to multiple â??Star Warsâ?? worlds, a new video focus, and groundbreaking â??Web 2.0â?? features â?? including a unique online multi-media mixing platform from Eyespot â?? the new will unveil its redesigned website on May 25 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the â??Star Warsâ?? Saga.

Among the most compelling features of the newly redesigned is the incorporation of an online video-editing tool provided by Eyespot. It allows users to add their own video shots to more than 250 scenes and music taken from all six â??Star Warsâ?? films and create their own â??Star Warsâ?? movies to share with others.

Unfortunately the material the creative fans will create will not belong to them but will remain in the hands of George Lucas. The fan-created videos will run along with commercials profits split between Lucasfilm and Eyespot.

The idea of users being drafted, fooled, enticed into doing the work for someone else has been called digital sharecropping by Lessig. This refers to the situation where the work is carried out by poor day laborers while the landowners sit and reap the rewards of another’s creativity.

Read more about this over at the Volokh Conspiracy

Digital Waste

Natalie Behring has a photo essay: Inside the Digital Dump on the remains of our technology in the recent issue of Foreign Policy. Behring’s pictures are good and the theme/topic is familiar. Third world nations risking environmental poisoning from the digital hardware we no longer desire or can use.

The images come from the world’s biggest digital dumping ground located in Guiyu, China. Locals work for $2 per day sorting, disassembling, and pulverizing hundreds of tons of digital hardware. The purpose of their work is to get at the valuable gold and copper. Computer waste contains 17 times more gold than gold ore, 40 times more copper than copper ore. But the detritus also leaches chemicals and metals into local water supplies.

Natalie Behring

Call me cynical but I believe that the profits will move out of Guiyu while the environmental damage will remain there.

Short Complaint

Urgh, I am tired. This week I am giving six lectures in four days. After the first four I feel worn out. Don’t get me wrong I love my job but I am getting tired of hearing my own voice. My legs hurt from pacing up and down the room and my brain is numb from concentrating.

When I feel like this it’s good to remember that I have an easy job…

from Age of Irony

You can't say McJob

After films and books like Supersize Me and Nickel and Dimed. Not to mention things like McLibel (documentary, book and lawsuit). It may be understandable that McDonald’s have had enough of bad publicity. So bad has the publicity become that the word McJob has now become synonymous with a badly paid shitty jobs. It’s even in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary)

The word McJob, as the OED definition makes clear, is “depreciative.” It goes on to define the term as: “An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.” It found its way into the dictionary in March 2001, 15 years after it was apparently coined by the Washington Post. (Speigel Online)

But now McDonald’s has had enough and is demanding that the word McJob be stricken from the OED.

“Dictionaries are supposed to be paragons of accuracy. And it this case, they got it completely wrong,” Walt Riker, a Mickey D’s McSpokesman complained to the Associated Press. “It’s a complete disservice and incredibly demeaning to a terrific work force and a company that’s been a jobs and opportunity machine for 50 years.” (Speigel Online)

Apparently McD is arguing that the definition is outdated and old-fashioned. That may be true but the last time I looked into a McDonald’s the people working there sure seemed to have really classic McJobs.

Not a fashion blog

This is not a fashion blog. I have no intention of attempting to bore you with pictures of what I am currently wearing (or not wearing) but I want to share with you my latest purchase.

After looking at these online I was very happy to find them being sold in a store locally. The shop is called Minni Ekoaffair on Sveagatan 3 in Göteborg.
We’re using 100% organic hemp, which is processed with natural methods such as water retting, eliminating the need to use chemicals. The Blackspot Sneaker has a rubber sole and a toe cap that is 70% biodegradable, whereas The Unswoosher has a sole made from recovered car tires. We’re not currently using water-based glues, as they lack permanence so shoe longevity suffers. The white anti-logo and the red splotches are hand-painted, and the soles are stitched, glued and embedded for extra durability.
This makes it one of the world’s most environmentally friendly shoes. In addition to this they are union friendly and anti-corporation.
The Blackspot Anticorporation and the Blackspot Shoes venture are projects of Adbusters Media Foundation.

Apple Sweatshops Spoof

Have you seen the Get-a-mac adverts? Basically a minimalistic, humorous set of adverts (watch them here) begging for someone to do a good spoof â?? and of course someone has!

The spoof is on the working conditions in Chinese factories manufacturing (among other things) Apple products. These factories are infamous for their low wage, long hours and brutality. More info in this article from MacForum.

See this spoof and others over at MacSpoofs â??Get-a-macâ?? category.

The guilt of a travelling techie

I replaced my iPod yesterday after the total collapse of my last one. Today I read about the iSweatshops. The iPods are assembled in China by mainly female workers. The workforceâ?¦

â?¦resides in “iPod cities” with as many as 200,000 employees. Outsiders are forbidden, and 15-hour workdays are the norm. As you might expect, the wages are low, even for China. (Foreign Policy).

Tomorrow I will fly to Barcelona to participate in the GPLv3 conference besides being an event that I am looking forward to, the privilege of visiting foreign cities is one I value. Recently the discussion on environmental damage caused by flights has taken speed â?? especially with the rapid rise of cheap tickets which increases our â??unnecessaryâ?? flights.

Monbiot writes: â??Flying kills. We all know it, and we all do it.

Monbiot is referring to the environmental effects of flying. He claims (convincingly) that while most of our reliance on fuels causing carbon emissions can be reduced without a too serious limitation to our freedom â?? this does not apply to flying. Reducing carbon emissions caused by flying means reducing the number of flights we take.

Both these arguments (iSweatshops & flying) have something important in common. They both bring into question things I appreciate. The question that must be posed from this information is â?? what shall I do about it?

When bringing this information to people he meets Monbiot writes of the listeners response: â??They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening.â??

The first impulse may be the ostrich approach â?? by sticking oneâ??s neck into the sand the bad news can be ignored. This approach should not be ignored â?? it works surprisingly well and is applied successfully by many. I tried this for a while â?? unfortunately it eventually wears thin. Another approach is self-denial. A no-excuses approach to technology and flights. This entails limiting everything to the bare necessities â?? without allowing for rationalisations. This involves denying oneself of many of the things that I appreciate â?? not an easy approach.

Can there be a middle-of-the-road approach? Is awareness better than ignorance? This argument would mean that our knowledge of the harm our choices entail legitimises our actions even if this has no real effect on physical events (better working conditions or environment). As much as I would like this, I cannot believe this is a solid approach to improvement.

The answer? Donâ??t look at me. I believe it is better to be aware than ignorant of the harm I do â?? even if this cannot mitigate the harm.