Gift Guide: TechCrunch writers recommend their favorite reads from 2019

2019 offered a blistering catalog of books to peruse, on top of the prodigious publishing schedules of the past few years (if you think we are at Peak TV, you might want to check out your local bookstore for a counterpoint).

We already checked in with Extra Crunch readers and did a sort of reader’s choice selection of their twelve favorites, but I also asked our TechCrunch editorial staff about what they read this year and would recommend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they came back with a mix of books (and audiobooks!) on tech, startups, biographies, graphic novels, and true crime fiction like the proper nerds we all are over here.

The criteria was that the book had to be read in 2019, but didn’t necessarily have to be published this calendar year. In part, that’s because books that may not have been all that interesting in the past suddenly got their turn in the spotlight for whatever reasons (headlines, viral influencer recommendations on Goop, or what have you).

In short, here are eleven writers at TechCrunch and the thirteen books that made the largest impact on them, any one of which would make a great gift for that techno-geek friend of yours.

Zack Whittaker

Sandworm: A New Era Of Cyberwar And The Hunt For The Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers by Andy Greenberg

Doubleday / 368 pages / November 2019

Publisher’s Link

Zack has long covered the daily breaches, cybersecurity hacks, and other data leaks that plague our world today (just last month: hacks at Macy’s and Magic: the Gathering). So perhaps unsurprisingly, his favorite book of the year was about none other than Russian hackers:

Andy Greenberg’s latest book on Sandworm, the group of Russian hackers blamed for the most disruptive cyberattack in history, is a real page-turner. Greenberg’s Sandworm is a gripping tale of the group’s discovery and their attacks, from shutting off the electric grids in Eastern Europe to the spread of the NotPetya ransomware attack, which froze hospitals, railways, and ATMs. Although written for the layperson, it’s detailed enough to satisfy any expert, and the use of first person draws in the reader to the story’s narrative. This incredibly detailed detective-style book — leaving no stone unturned — and the refreshing addition of footnotes — is a must-read for anyone interested cybersecurity.

Andy Greenberg himself has long covered security and hacking, and is currently a senior writer at Wired. This is his second book, following publication of This Machine Kills Secrets in 2012 about Julian Assange.

Sarah Perez

The Baddest Bitch in the Room by Sophia Chang

Audible Original by Hello Sunshine / 8 hours / September 2019

Publisher’s Link

Sarah has long taken a deep view into the world of mobile and apps (among a huge host of other topics), but her favorite audiobook this year comes from a behind-the-scenes player in the music industry who carefully puts herself out into the spotlight:

You don’t have to be a huge hip-hop fan to love Sophia Chang’s new memoir, but her Audible Original does include some impressive name-dropping. A music industry veteran, Chang managed rap and R&B stars like the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, GZA, and ODB, as well as A Tribe Called Quest, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo.

But her story is more than a music industry retrospective. Chang is also the fiercely independent child of Korean immigrants who left Vancouver for New York, as well as a woman who fell in love with a Shaolin monk, learned kung fu, shaved her head to shred stereotypes of Asian women, and became a mother, all while working her way up in her career.

In her self-narrated memoir (which includes some 24 guest appearances!), she steps into the limelight after a life spent behind the scenes helping talented artists tell their stories. She’s smart, funny, and inspirational — and someone, as her story shows, who has really earned the title “baddest bitch.”

Walter Thompson

Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis

Harvard University Press / 288 pages / October 2019

Publisher’s Link

Heading in the other direction a bit, our new senior editor at Extra Crunch Walter Thompson recommends a “biography” of a well-known but surprisingly misunderstood steroid that is getting its own time in the limelight:

Written by a sociomedical scientist and a cultural anthropologist, the book explodes many of the common myths surrounding the hormone erroneously associated with male virility and masculinity. Jordan-Young and Karkazis delve into science and history to explain how testosterone has been generally misrepresented by popular culture and the medical industry by exploring how ’T’ impacts aggression, reproduction, power, parenting, sports and risk-taking.

Given the increasing attention to these issues, the book’s auspicious timing and deeply researched foundations are already having a huge effect on an important cultural conversation today.

Josh Constine

SAGA: Compendium One by writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples

Image Comics / 1,328 pages / August 2019

Publisher’s Link

One of Josh’s book recommendations for 2019 is a graphic novel that is expansive in scope (as one would hope for a paperback that runs for more than a 1,000 pages):

Possibly the greatest non-superhero action graphic novel, this is a tale of star-crossed lovers from different planets trying to raise their child amidst an intergalactic war. The imaginative inventions, gorgeously colorful artwork, and mix of laser fights and suspenseful drama will transport you. The paperback is a great way to entertain yourself without staring at a screen (though it’s available on Comixology’s app too).

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / 272 pages / September 2018

Publisher’s Link

Josh has been a prolific reporter and critic of social network and media companies like Facebook and Twitter. These days, though, there is a new social network that is garnering outsized attention: Tik Tok. Josh has been covering the company and its predecessor for years, and has also been writing about how Facebook should confront this new competitive threat. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Josh’s first recommendation is for a book that addresses precisely the rise of Chinese-owned apps and the fight for the future of artificial intelligence:

If you want to understand how artificial intelligence is going to impact employment and geopolitics, this is a must read from the former head of Google China. It recounts wild stories of tech startup competition and the rise of the ecosystem in the country, and explores why every country but the US and China have hard times ahead.

AI Superpowers was also the most recommended book by Extra Crunch readers in our survey, and also a book I can personally endorse as well (thanks Josh for stealing my recommendation).

Danny Crichton (i.e. yours truly)

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age by Stephen R. Platt

Knopf / 592 pages / May 2018

Publisher’s Link

Speaking of China, the trade war continues unabated between the U.S. and the Middle Kingdom. Whereas AI Superpowers focuses on the present and future, Stephen Platt’s Imperial Twilight rewinds us back in time to the era of the Opium War, when Western forces led by a fascinating cast of characters from Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere used trade as a tool to force open China’s borders, popularize a heavily addictive drug among its people, and engorged on capital flows out of the country in a raw moment of pure political power against an incredibly weakened Qing dynasty.

The book is one of those works that every publisher wants to have in their catalog, complete with an extraordinarily well-written narrative, a deeply textured and nuanced look at a key historical event, and a perfectly timed publication date pegged to one of the most topical news stories of the year. In short, it’s a smash hit.

Catherine Shu

Continuing this China theme a bit, Catherine has covered tech developments in Asia for years (actually, seven with us as of yesterday) from her perch in Taiwan. But she also has interests outside of the latest new startups, and that includes true crime fiction.

I’ve been a fan of true crime since I was a teenager, but over the last year, I have become uneasy about my attachment to the genre. To be blunt, a lot of books and podcasts are fueled by voyeurism, and I am not comfortable with being culpable in the transformation of tragedy into entertainment. So I welcome new books that take a step back and examine famous cases within their cultural context.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

Doubleday / 432 pages / February 2019

Publisher’s Link

Catherine’s first recommendation flips the lens on one of the most well-known serial murderers in history:

“The Five” by Hallie Rubenhold is probably the first book to comprehensively document the lives of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Rubenhold’s research uncovered myths about the women, including that not all were prostitutes, a misconception that started with contemporary police and press reports (and may ultimately have hindered the investigation), but continues to be perpetuated by the industry that has grown around the murders.

Rubenhold did an enormous amount of research, but ultimately the book’s impact comes from the very simple but powerful act of restoring these five women’s humanity — an admirable feat considering that their violent murders have been commodified and romanticized for over a century.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

Simon & Schuster / 400 pages / March 2019

Publisher’s Link

Meanwhile, her second recommendation takes a more expansive view of a famous axe murder case than has traditionally been the norm in the real crime genre:

“The Trial of Lizzie Borden” by Cara Robertson is one of the best books about the case I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). In addition to providing an exhaustive but extremely compelling account of the legal proceedings that concluded in Lizzie Borden’s acquittal, Robertson, a lawyer, also analyzes the case as an example of contemporary attitudes toward gender, class, and criminality.

Her examination of newspaper accounts reveals how the case almost immediately became a media sensation and also that many of the trial’s spectators were dismissed as “a crowd of morbid females” by one reporter — a misogynistic label that continues to be attached to true crime fans, many of whom are women.

Devin Coldewey

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by David A. Mindell

MIT Press / 376 pages / April 2008

Publisher’s Link

Devin has had long-standing interests in space, artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and other hard science and tech subjects. His recommendation this year is a classic of the genre written by David Mindell, a long-time MIT professor of engineering history who also is founder of the startup Humatics, which has raised some serious venture capital dollars to make location detection inside of buildings (think robots in factories) a reality. On Digital Apollo, Devin says:

The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is a great opportunity to learn about one of the program’s most fascinating aspects: the computers that ran it. But Digital Apollo is far more than some survey of early computing hardware. Mindell documents the fascinating people and processes behind the creation of this unprecedented system. Stubborn astronauts, idealistic engineers, and skeptical officials face off while the hard deadline looms, making this an interesting and inclusive story as well as a highly informed history.

Not only is it a great story, it’s one that will be recognizable to any engineer that has ever had to ship product while dealing with other humans.

Kirsten Korosec

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

Knopf / 416 pages / July 2008

Publisher’s Link

Kirsten has vigorously reported on the transportation sector (you should sign up for her weekly transportation newsletter The Station), including the rise of companies like Tesla and whole new categories of startups like self-driving cars and scooters. Yet despite all the futurism in the industry, she wanted to take a step back in her recommendation to a book that discusses some of the first principles that ‘drive’ mobility in the first place:

This book is a decade old and yet it’s more relevant than ever before as our cities become more dense and we look for ways out of the congestion. If you want to understand opportunities and challenges for automakers, cities, and even startups around mobility, start here.

With Traffic, Vanderbilt’s goal is to show that humans have cognitive limits, and those limits have a direct effect on our traffic systems and the designs of our mobility products. As we increasingly enter a world of human/AI hybrid cars and people speeding rapidly down Market Street on rickety scooters, his book offers us a panorama view of just how hard it it to get mobility right and make it safe.

Matt Burns

Billy, Alfred, and General Motors: The Story of Two Unique Men, a Legendary Company, and a Remarkable Time in American History by William Pelfrey

AMACOM / 336 pages / March 2006

Publisher’s Link

Among our longest tenured editors, Matt Burns has been writing about automotive topics among others for more than a decade here. He brings us a book about one of the most storied companies (positively and negatively) in American history:

This is the story of General Motors and how a successful carriage maker purchased the Buick name and turned it into the largest automaker in history.

And then how Billy Durant ran the company into the ground and lost control.

So what did Billy Durant do? He founded another company, Chevrolet, the only car to ever be manufactured in New York City, and used wild stock manipulation to regain control of General Motors. And then he lost control again and ended up managing a bowling alley in Flint, MI until he died nearly broke.

Meanwhile, there’s Alfred Sloan, a methodical manager of an auto supply company who took over General Motors, devised the yearly model update and eventually wrote the book on managing corporations.

The story of Billy Durant founding General Motors resonates today. It’s the story of a wild entrepreneur who’s vision and command of the stock market led to the creation of a mega corporation but who lacked the management skills to scale. The book details his incredible rise and fall through vivid stories and first-hand accounts found in Durant’s unpublished autobiography.

Darrell Etherington

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac

W. W. Norton & Company / 408 pages / September 2019

Publisher’s Link

Darrell has chronicled the tech industry for many years (picking up a theme here?) and has picked a chronicle of a tech industry luminary which has since lost much of its luster:

This account mostly focuses on Uber founder Travis Kalanick, from his pre-Uber entrepreneurial formative years, right through the corporate power struggle that led to his ousting in 2017.

What I especially enjoyed about it was its depiction of Bill Gurley – an interesting counter-positioning of this Silicon Valley legend with Kalanick’s foil that may or may not match your understanding of the real story, depending on who you hear it from.

If you had to pick the “startup profile book of the year award,” Super Pumped would almost certainly take the crown this year. The book was also recommended pretty heavily by Extra Crunch readers in our survey as well, although it didn’t quite make the cut.

Manish Singh

Big Billion Startup – The Untold Flipkart Story by Mihir Dalal

Pan Macmillan India / 320 pages / October 2019

Publisher’s Link

Manish joined us relatively recently to expand our tech coverage more heavily in India, where the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem has been exploding crazy fast the past decade plus. Perhaps no startup better represents the potential for India than ecommerce giant Flipkart, which is the focus of Manish’s recommendation:

“Big Billion Startup – The Untold Flipkart Story,” by journalist Mihir Dalal, is a fascinating look at the making of India’s largest ecommerce platform. Flipkart, which sold a majority stake to Walmart last year for a sweet $16 billion, was founded in 2007, six years before Amazon started its online shopping business in India.

The book, released in October, not only documents the struggle, pain, and setbacks two former Amazon employees went through to build the business from a crummy apartment in Bangalore, but it also reminds us of how different India’s startup ecosystem was then.

As we wrote last month, India’s tech startups have already raised a record $11.3 billion this year. But in the early days, there were very few VCs who believed in India and even a $50 million check to a startup was unheard of. Flipkart was the trailblazer that paved the way for others to build great startups.

Gift Guide: 12 must-read books for 2019 as recommended by Extra Crunch readers

Books are fundamentally about stories, and 2019 (and really, the past decade) has been the story of technology’s domination of every industry and function of society. Founders and tech executives are more powerful than ever, and how we use that power for good or evil will deeply shape the future of our world.

Whether it’s the sudden rise of TikTok and the ubiquity of social networks in business, economics, and politics, or the coming conflagration of climate change, or the challenges of personal and professional development, or just finding your way in building a startup, there was just an avalanche of books published this year on every topic near and dear to a technologist’s and founder’s heart.

I wanted to get a sense of what our readers thought were the best books they read this year, and so I reached out to our Extra Crunch membership to ask for their recommendations. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a group of people who actually pay for deeper journalism, our EC readers submitted dozens and dozens of book recommendations on every subject imaginable.

From those recommendations, I carefully selected a list of just 12 books that seemed the most recommended by our readers and also captured the zeitgeist of the times we are living in. Every book here is great and important, and I only wish we had more time to read them all.

How to handle the coming total disruption of society by technology

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

St. Martin’s Press / 368 pages / March 2019

Publisher’s Link

Anyone who has worked long enough in innovation and technology knows that great ideas can come from anywhere. But how do those ideas actually go from mere thoughts to actions and products, while avoiding the organizational politics that often prevent them from seeing the light of day in the first place?

Safi Bahcall, a PhD physicist from Stanford who co-founded and led Synta Pharmaceuticals as CEO through its IPO on NASDAQ in 2007, has been thinking about serendipity in science for years, and Loonshots is his first book. In it, Bahcall borrows concepts from science to move beyond looking purely at organizational culture to investigating organizational structure, investigating how we design our teams and how that can play an outsized role in whether new ideas flourish — or are killed on the spot.

Widely lauded by luminaries and a bestseller on Amazon and the Wall Street Journal, the book asks one of the most important questions in innovation today and gives a series of vignettes on how to improve our ability to handle spontaneity. A great book for the disrupting — and the disrupted.

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation by Carl Benedikt Frey

Princeton University Press / 480 pages / June 2019

Publisher’s Link

Digital disruption is all around us. Artificial intelligence is quickly eliminating millions of middle-class jobs, and fears of automation are growing among more and more workers, polarizing our politics and complicating the future of business.

Yet, all of this has happened before. More than a century ago, technologies like replaceable parts and the steam engine combined to create one of the greatest transformations our society has ever seen in the Industrial Revolution. But just how did the Industrial Revolution happen, and how did it affect everyday people in England, America, and elsewhere?

Carl Benedikt Frey, a fellow at Oxford University and director of the Programme on Technology & Employment at the Oxford Martin School, investigates the short, medium, and long-term consequences of the Industrial Revolution on workers, finding that in fact the changes had extraordinarily negative consequences in the short term. His lessons from this pivotal moment in history can help technology leaders avoid the biggest risks today in how we design human/AI systems in the coming age of automation.

Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction by Thomas M. Siebel

RosettaBooks / 256 pages / July 2019

Publisher’s Link

You’ve re-built your structure based on Loonshots, and learned the lessons of The Technology Trap, but ultimately, many leading enterprise companies today are facing extinction from a number of new technology waves like elastic cloud computing and the internet of things. For those not doing the disrupting but rather on the receiving end, what exactly are you supposed to do?

Billionaire entrepreneur Tom Siebel, who founded Siebel Systems and eventually merged it into Oracle in 2006 for nearly $6 billion, wrote his first book in almost two decades on the topic of how legacy companies can navigate these turbulent times. Through Digital Transformation, Siebel tries to offer the disrupted a primer on just what is going on in AI and other big tech waves to help executives understand what strategies they can use to defend their businesses.

A brisk and reasonably short read, Digital Transformation offers key lessons, even if they may well be ignored by most before it is too late.

How to deal with tech’s inadequacies and head-banging, stupid behavior

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

W. W. Norton & Company / 240 pages / October 2017

Publisher’s Link

While we love writing about the growth of innovative products and startups here at TechCrunch, the other side of that coin is that there has been a constant cavalcade of dumb actions by founders and engineers the past few years that has turned many sour on the future of our industry. Whether it is sexism in financial underwriting or employee political controversies (stories just from the last few days), technology is increasingly under a microscope — and the industry doesn’t look good at full resolution.

Technically Wrong, a book by consultant and tech critic Sara Wachter-Boettcher, tries to take a more playful approach to all these challenges by just sort of splaying them all out together for the world to see. While ostensibly targeted at the general public, the idiocies that Wachter-Boettcher identifies should be taught in every software engineering, product management, and UX design class.

As one Extra Crunch member wrote in their endorsement:

This is my favourite book. It highlights examples of bias in tech and how this has led to negative or even harmful applications in society. It makes a strong case for any developer to consider how their tech may be biased or have potential to be used for harm. A must read.

Given the plague of scandals hitting tech, the book is perhaps a tad out of date just two years post-publication, but its lessons are invaluable and will stand the test of time.

Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again by Brittany Kaiser

Harper / 400 pages / October 2019

Publisher’s Link

Perhaps no scandal has rocked the tech industry — or politics in general — quite like the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio that not only showed the power that Facebook and other social networks have over us through our user data, but also the scale to which that data influences purchasing decisions and of course, our elections.

Brittany Kaiser was a consultant and former Obama campaign worker who joined Cambridge Analytica hoping to make a difference. I guess in a way she did, eventually learning the true nature of big data and how that intersects with the needs of campaign managers. Through Targeted, she writes about her experience on the ground floor of the organization, and also places the company in the context of the broader challenges facing technology and ethics going forward. It’s a cri de coeur for other tech industry workers to think about how their work is affecting society and perhaps tapping out in much the way that Kaiser did.

Targeted is competing directly with Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America by Christopher Wylie for this year’s best memoir on the sordid story. Targeted got the recs from EC readers though, and it’s certainly a story that deserves more than one point of view.

How to think about the biggest news stories this year

We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 288 pages / September 2019

Publisher’s Link

Climate change was all over the news this year, and perhaps nowhere more than in tech’s central headquarters of Silicon Valley, which faced fires and repeated blackouts this year as utility company PG&E struggled to deliver power amidst California’s changing climate. But climate change isn’t just something that is “happening” — it’s being driven by the choices we make every single day.

Long-time novelist Jonathan Safran Foer returns to the theme of his sole non-fiction book Eating Animals to look at how our decisions around food are directly impacting the health of the planet. While it may seem like what we eat for breakfast is but a minor drop of carbon in a massive ocean, the reality is that our collective and aggregated decisions have huge implications for how our food systems are organized.

Foer brings his literary talents to bear on the subject, creating a textured and at times stream-of-consciousness account that interleaves climate change fear, personal anecdotes, and short stories to create a compelling case for changing our daily habits in ways that align with the needs of our environment. It may not be tuned to every reader’s preferred style, but few books connect all the dots on this subject quite like We Are The Weather

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / 272 pages / September 2018

Publisher’s Link

Another storyline that just kept rearing its head in the headlines this year was China. From the trade war and tariffs between Trump and Xi, to the increasing security risks of Chinese industrial espionage, to the surveillance technology that companies like Huawei are exporting to undergird digital authoritarianism, China’s actions are transforming our world (and at least from this side of the Pacific, not for the positive).

One locus of competition between the U.S. and China though remains focused on artificial intelligence, and which country will take the lead in this critical new market. China has invested prodigious amounts of funding into the industry through its Made in China 2025 plan, while the United States continues to have some of the leading research groups and companies in the space.

Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known trans-Pacific venture capitalist, tries to demystify and de-intensify the arms race story by carefully investigating what is really taking place in the AI labs and products from leading companies like Didi, Baidu, and Google. Less focused on fear than on analysis, Lee brings to bear his decades of experience on the subject to offer readers an in-depth, sober, and ultimately compelling look at how Chinese and American efforts around AI differ, and just how they can learn from each other. It was also our most recommended book by EC members, and I’ve also personally loved it (and discussed it a bit, although never truly got around to reviewing it – sorry!)

How to think about stories

Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality by Lakshmi Sarah and Melissa Bosworth

Routledge / 258 pages / October 2018

Publisher’s Link

McLuhan’s oft-repeated and often wrongly-interpreted “the medium is the message” is a key aspect of communications studies, but another angle is that the medium determines the types of stories that can be communicated. Books, radio, and television are platforms that offer storytellers certain tools and constraints, and over the decades (and for books, centuries), we have learned how to mold and optimize our visions to those intrinsic limits.

Virtual reality though is a whole new field, and as a medium, it is just getting started. How do we take advantage of the immersiveness intrinsic to VR? What are the new limits on storytelling, and what norms around plot and characters are going to have to be established to make this medium accessible to viewers?

Multimedia journalists Lakshmi Sarah and Melissa Bosworth wrote Crafting Stories for Virtual Reality as a primer for any storyteller that wants to learn more about how immersive media, augmented reality, and virtual reality are going to transform storytelling, reporting, and entertainment into the future.

As one EC reader wrote in their recommendation:

It provides a really good overview of different types of virtual reality and how they can be shaped to resonate with audiences in different ways. For anyone considering VR, it’s incredibly helpful.

It’s certainly early days, and books like this almost certainly have a short half-life. Nonetheless, for those looking to explore stories in VR, this is just the title to get up-to-speed on this small but rapidly growing segment of the tech industry.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

W. W. Norton & Company / 512 pages / April 2018

Publisher’s Link

Our EC readers are heavy on the non-fiction, but we did occasionally get some recommendations for fiction. One popular novel was Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So, okay, clearly a critic favorite. But what makes the novel so unique and compelling in a year that had a serious number of great entries?

Similar to Foer above, Powers is concerned about how humans and climate change are coming together to devastate our natural environment and particularly, our trees and forests. The Overstory is really a multitude of stories of Americans who connect with nature and each other to start to take action to address the massive changes coming and already in progress.

This is the twelfth novel for Powers, who in addition to literature, has a background in physics and was formerly a computer programmer. His work on The Overstory was partly inspired by time he spent in Silicon Valley while at Stanford, where he observed California’s famed redwood trees. If you are looking for a thought-provoking novel, you don’t need to look too much farther.

How to help yourself in the tech world

The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhuo

Portfolio / 288 pages / March 2019

Publisher’s Link

There is an archetypical story that happens at rapidly growing startups. A founder hires friends and people they know, builds a team, launches a product, and strikes gold. As growth continues unabated, more and more people are hired — forcing the startup to invent a management structure to bring some level of organization to the chaos. But managers are hard to find, and there are already employees with some level of tenure at the company. And so those early employees are often moved up rapidly to managerial and executive roles, suddenly handling direct reports with no experience whatsoever.

Julie Zhuo, VP of Design at Facebook, has written a guide for exactly these first-time, suddenly-promoted managers on exactly what they should be doing to begin bringing order to the chaos. This book is definitely in the self-help, management guru wing of the bookstore, but Zhuo’s personal experience going through this transformation shows through in her examples and clearly defined points for improvement.

One EC reader wrote in their recommendation:

One of the biggest org fallacies of fast-growing startups is promoting great ICs into first-time management roles and expecting they’ll quickly turn into great people managers with little training, mentorship, or role-models. Since that almost always works to plan, Julie, the first designer and later head of design at Facebook, wrote a book outlining all the challenges of being that first-time manager and the learnings along the way. A book I recommend to my team across the board.

The Making of a Manager targets a unique audience with unique insights and is worth a read.

Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett

Celadon Books / 304 pages / September 2019

Publisher’s Link

This was a surprising recommendation from the EC membership, but once I investigated it, completely understood why it fits on this list. One of the biggest challenges for children is their emotional development — how do they interact with the world and with other people? How do they listen to themselves and how they are feeling?

It’s not just children though, since all of us can improve how we respond to the daily stresses on our lives.

That’s why Marc Brackett, the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explores how we handle our emotions and why it is important to give and receive “permission to feel.” He offers an acronym (of course he does) called RULER to manage our emotional lives better:

  • Recognizing emotions in oneself and others.
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotion.
  • Labeling emotions with precise words.
  • Expressing emotions taking context and culture into consideration.
  • Regulating emotions effectively to achieve goals and wellbeing.

Considering that tech can often be one of the least emotionally hospitable industries out there, Brackett’s thoughts and solutions seem like a perfect fit for improving the quality and well-being of our workplaces and lives.

How to be an entrepreneur

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Simon & Schuster / 624 pages / October 2017

Publisher’s Link

Isaacson is probably best known today for his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, but he has followed up that magnum opus with another dive into another entrepreneur, this time quintessential Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci. You’ve got all the typical Isaacson accoutrements here: the storyline, the characters, the life lessons, the inspiration. I don’t know how anyone can walk away from a book like this and not be deeply inspired by the power of a single human to change the world (or at least invent new ones!)

As one EC member wrote in their recommendation: “Curiosity and imagination lead to awareness and innovation. He perfected the art. A lesson for all.”

The book first came out two years ago with a paperback version coming out about a year ago, so perhaps noteworthy that our EC members still find deep value in this biography and its lessons.

Will the future of work be ethical?

Meili Gupta is about to ask another question.

A poised and eloquent rising senior at elite boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy, Gupta, 17, is anything but the introverted, soft-spoken techie stereotype. She does, however, know as much about computer science as any high school student you’d ever meet. She even grew up faithfully reading the MIT Technology Review, the university’s flagship publication, which shows, because Meili is the most ubiquitous student attendee at EmTech Next, a conference the publication held on campus this past summer on AI, Machine Learning, and “the future of work.”

Ostensibly, the conference is an opportunity for executives and tech professionals to rub elbows while determining how next-generation technologies will shape our jobs and economy in the coming decades.

For me, the gathering feels more like an opportunity to have an existential crisis; I could even say a religious crisis, though I’m not just a confirmed atheist but a professional one as well. EmTech Next, as I experience it, is a referendum on what it means to be human at a time when tech is redefining how we relate to one another and to ourselves.

In short: will tomorrow’s leaders, despite good and ethical intentions, ultimately use their high-tech tools to exploit others ever more efficiently, or to find a better path forward?

But I’ll get to all of that in a little while, including why it’s so unusual for someone like me to even attend such a conference, much less with a press pass.

First, back to Gupta, who has come to the conference prepared. Not that she completed any conference-specific homework assignments in advance, it’s just that each time she steps up to the microphone to kick off a Q&A session with another thoughtfully composed and energetically delivered mini-inquiry into the fate of our most dynamic industries, she not only asks about the future of work, she embodies it.

“I grew up with a phone in my hand,” Gupta told me in an interview conducted during the conference, and “most people [in my classes] have covers for the cameras on their computers.”

As managing editor for Exeter’s STEM magazine Matter, she published thoughtful analyses of the ethical challenges inherent in issues like AI and climate change. It’s a topic she’s been interested in since she walked on campus — Gupta took the senior-level course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” as a high-school freshman. She also took classes on and learned about self-driving cars and computer vision as well as setup an independent study on machine-learning algorithms. This fall, she began her senior year with a course called “Social Innovation Through Software Engineering,” in which students pick a local project and develop software towards doing social good. (Raise your hand if this resembles what you did with your teenage years).

And Meili does want to do “social good.” She considers tech ethics her generation’s job. She’s already well aware computer programmers need to learn to make less-biased algorithms, and knows this will require tech companies and the public to demand fairness and ethics. She wants to help address inequality, and is acutely aware of the irony that her superb education is the very embodiment of inequality.

After all, our social infrastructure allows, even cheerleads for certain people to learn so much more than others. It’s hardly news those same people are poised to dominate the future. What is noteworthy, however, is the rise of a class of people who are not only positioned to shape the future of the economy according to their will, but who simultaneously believe their own efforts will be necessary and sufficient to correct the injustices of that unequal future.

Students and alumni of elite institutions like Exeter, or MIT and Harvard (where I serve as a chaplain) are typically trained to see ourselves as generous, caring, and concerned citizens. We are not ignorant or callous to the suffering of others who are less fortunate, we tell ourselves. To the contrary, we are all about “service.” We will surely help others if — when — we succeed. Actually, it’s important we succeed as much as possible; only then will we have the resources necessary to help.

And yet, another narrative goes, we are also the best. We are special, exceptional, gifted. We aspire to inclusiveness. But we’re also still taught: be aggressive. Go out and win. Seize every opportunity.

What if we can only have one side of the coin?

The Student Winners Who Take All

Anand Giridharadas (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED25)

In his book Winners Take All, writer Anand Giridharadas critiques what he calls the religion of “win-winism”: the belief that the people whose ever-increasing domination of our social, economic, and political world are not only capable of fixing the problems of inequality and injustice their domination causes, but are in fact ideally positioned — by virtue of their victories — to be saviors and liberators to those who’ve lost.

Thus, you have Mark Zuckerberg championing freedom of expression as a core democratic belief while simultaneously undermining democracy by taking millions to publish false political ads. Or you have Marc Benioff proclaiming the end of capitalism and a new era of ethics while maintaining his own billionaire status and defending Salesforce’s support of ICE, even as undocumented children are separated from their families.

As we talk in an MIT Media Lab conference room, Gupta’s Chinese-born mother, who came to the U.S. just out of graduate school after student-led protests famously rocked Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, looks on, beaming with pride at her daughter’s obvious excellence.

Yet, what will the post-college experience be like for someone who developed technical and interpersonal skills like Gupta’s as a teen? After fifteen years at Harvard and MIT, I can tell you: people will throw jobs and money at her. I mean, you never know who will end up a billionaire, but she’s unlikely to end up sleeping in her car.

Or, let’s not make this about Gupta, whom I genuinely like and wish well. The bigger question is: Will the future of work be a dystopia in which thoughtful young people like Gupta tell themselves they want to save the world, but end up ruling the world instead? Or can the students now attending elite private schools and universities and conferences at MIT use their deftness with the master’s tools to dismantle their own house?

A Nonreligious Chaplain

Stepping back though, it might help to explain how a nonreligious chaplain even got involved in tech and the future of work in the first place.

I was a college religion major who thought about becoming a Buddhist or Taoist priest but ultimately got ordained as a rabbi and became clergy for the nonreligious (I’ve been the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University since 2005).

A decade ago, I wrote a book called Good Without God, about how millions of people live good, ethical, and meaningful lives without religion. Even so, I argued nonreligious people should learn from the ways religious communities build congregations to generate mutual support and inspiration. I squabbled publicly with fellow atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss over their aggressive condemnation of every aspect of religion, even the parts that inspire working people who haven’t had the extraordinary fortune to become as educated as them. And, attempting to focus on the positive rather than simply telling others what not to do, I then co-founded and led (until it closed last year) one of the world’s largest “godless congregations.”

“Good Without God” by the author.

Sounds completely unrelated to anything you came to this site to read about? If so you’re right, and that’s the point. Until recently, I’d never been involved in tech as anything beyond an enthusiastic — and at times addicted — consumer.

The Ethics Of Technology

Things began to evolve in early 2018, when I joined MIT’s Office of Religious Life (which soon changed its name to the Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life or ORSEL) as its Humanist Chaplain. The office also placed me into a new role called “Convener” for “Ethical Life,” asking me in other words to convene people across campus to reflect on how to live an ethical life from a secular perspective. Turns out, nonreligious ethics are important on a top tech campus like MIT, an institution so secular that only around 49 percent of its students consider themselves religious.

In the past, I might have declined MIT’s offer (my responsibilities at Harvard and elsewhere kept me busy enough, thank you very much). But, if I’m being honest, when I was asked to join, I was undergoing my own crisis of conscience. I’d begun to seriously question my own ethical vision.

No, I hadn’t found God (very funny). I had, however, discovered some serious flaws in the values I’d grown up with as a relatively privileged, straight, cis-gendered white man who believed in the power and virtue of American capitalism. That’s relatively privileged, by the way: my mom was a child refugee who came to the U.S. from Cuba with nothing. Both my parents attended community college, my dad never graduated, and the only money I got from him after he died when I was a teenager came from his Social Security checks.

Still, I realize now that I managed to grow up, do seven years of grad school, and start a decently prominent career around “ethics” without fully recognizing just how much of American culture and Western civilization is fundamentally unjust.

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between The World and Me in 2015, I started thinking about how slavery was not only the moral evil I’d always considered it — it was the single. largest. industry. in the founding decades of American history. As the New York Times Magazine’s1619 Project” demonstrated, the political and economic exceptionalism of this country, which I embraced as the son of a refugee from a brutal Communist regime, was itself built entirely on a foundation of brutal oppression and exploitation.

“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

With Donald Trump’s election, I could no longer avoid the conclusion that white supremacy and kleptocracy are alive and well, here and now. Then came #YesAllWomen and #MeToo. Though I’d been raised as a proud feminist, I found myself reflecting on some of the harmful ways in which I’d been taught to be a man. Never admit vulnerability, except maybe privately and ashamed, to a woman on whom I was over-relying for emotional support. Be aggressive. Always win, because losers are the most valueless and wretched things on earth.

Like millions of others, I’d spent my life under the sway of a certain strain of American meritocracy which preaches a relatively secular but nonetheless fantastical dogma: that people like me are gifted, talented winners who should devote most of our energy in life to achieving as much personal success as humanly possible. And if all our winning and dominance ever starts to seem unfair, even a bit cruel or oppressive? No worries. We’ll justify it all by “giving back,” through community service or philanthropy or both.

That’s the level of cynicism and self-doubt I was experiencing when I got to MIT last year. Then one of my students noted, “if all companies started by MIT alums combined into a country, it’d be in the G20.” Most of my life, I’d have taken her comment as a point of pride. Instead, I began to realize: maybe places like this are the problem, simply by amassing so much of the world’s wealth and power that billions of people are left without virtually any.

Maybe people like me, proudly and too uncritically devoting ourselves to serving these places, are the problem.

In short, maybe I’m the problem.

Enter Giridharadas, the critic of contemporary capitalism, whose work was introduced to me last year by a Harvard Business School student. When Winners Take All came out last fall, it had students gasping as they read it in the halls of HBS before holiday break. A fast-talking, 38-year-old Indian American with an all-black wardrobe and a preternatural ability to go viral on Twitter, Giridharadas argues “we live in an age of staggering inequality that is fundamentally about a monopolizing of the future itself,” as he told me for my first TechCrunch column in March.

“The winners of our age, the people who manage to be on the right side of an era of precipitous change and churn, have managed to build, operate, and maintain systems that siphon off most of the fruits of progress to them,” he continued. A true iconoclast, Giridharadas is utterly unapologetic in criticizing the biggest heroes of the past generation: business titans and philanthropists like Zuckerberg and Bill Gates who give away billions but, he argues, do so mainly to hide greed, exploitation, and the subversion of democracy.

Through his words, I saw myself and the status quo I had helped maintain by failing to criticize the structures in which I existed, and I felt ashamed. But unlike with the shame I felt as a young man internalizing toxic masculinity, I didn’t want to hide my feelings, repress them, or confess them only to my wife. I wanted to own them publicly and do something about them.

During this same time, I got acclimated at MIT and found myself almost obsessively drawn to reading about “the ethics of technology,” an emerging but amorphous field of study in which scholars, activists, policy makers, business leaders and others debate the societal ramifications of technological change.

Tech, after all, has become the ultimate secular religion. What else so shapes today’s values (innovation is always good!); requires daily rituals (in ancient times, we prayed when we awoke, when we went to sleep, and throughout each day; that is now called, “checking our phones”); offers abundant prophets (VC’s, TED talkers, and what The New York Times writer Mike Isaac aptly calls “The Cult of the Founder”); and maybe even deities (as in the semi-disgraced tech hero Anthony Levandowski’s seemingly sincere attempt to found a church worshipping the AI God of the future)?

Whether we think of tech like a religion or an “industry” (though what industry isn’t technology-based today?), it’s clearly causing terrible suffering and division. Uber and Lyft mobilize millions of drivers worldwide, and perhaps the majority make poverty wages. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook “democratize” culture, empowering billions to post their opinions. To do so they design algorithms so intentionally addictive and inflammatory, the world seems to have lost much of the ability it was in the process of gaining to conduct free, fair elections that enfranchise minorities and working people. And giant data centers powering all this “world changing” AI are worse for the climate than hundreds of trans-Atlantic flights. I could go on.

So I began a column at TechCrunch and took a year-long sabbatical to study the ethics of technology, of which “the future of work” is part. Which brings us to this summer.

Feeling like an eager and anxious MIT student myself, I head to EmTech Next with my press pass and my first-ever assignment as a reporter. I’m anticipating juicy work, investigating the ethical stances of companies and speakers slated to be on hand at the conference.

Walking over, however, I realize I’m stuck on a more basic question. What exactly does the phrase “the future of work” even mean?

What even is “The Future of Work?”

The past decade has brought an explosion in books, articles, commissions, conventions, courses, and experts claiming to help determine “The Future of Work.” Influential ‘FoW’ authors have run think-tanks and universities, advocated for the disabled and disadvantaged, advised harried parents, and even run for major political office. Earlier this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom even announced a prestigious “Future of Work Commission,” the first of its kind to serve in such a statewide capacity.

In tech ethics circles, the phrase references a crucial subgenre in which some of the fiercest policy debates of our time rage: are the jobs tech companies create actually good for society? What will we do if/when robots take them? And how does changing our work also change how we think about our lives and our very humanity?

The phrase dates back over a century, perhaps coined by the ironically named British-Italian economic theorist L.G. Chiozza Money, who argued in “The Future of Work and Other Essays” that science had already solved “the problem of poverty” — if only humanity could get beyond the disorganization and waste characterizing competitive capitalism at the time (!).

More recently, a TIME cover story on “The Future of Work” from a decade ago helped popularize what we tend to mean by the phrase today. “Ten years ago,” it began, “Facebook didn’t exist. Ten years before that, we didn’t have the Web.” The sub-header asked, “Who knows what jobs will be born a decade from now?”

Time’s “The Future of Work” cover (May 25, 2009).

Convenient, because of course we now know exactly what jobs have been born.

TIME’s story featured ten predictions: tech would top finance as the leading employer of elites; flexible schedules and women’s leadership rising; traditional offices and benefits declining. It’s not that the claims turned out to be egregious; but when you’re forecasting general trends, value lies in questions of nuance, like, “to what extent?” Sure, women made gains over the decade, but who would say they did to an acceptable degree? 

Some more nuanced FoW books, like The Second Machine Age, by MIT Professors Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAfee, take the optimistic perspective on tech — that “brilliant machines” will soon help create a world of abundant progress, exemplified by the success of Instagram and the billionaires that company and its business model created. But Brynjolffson and McAfee compare Instagram to Kodak, without offering solutions to the problem that Kodak once employed 145,000 people in middle-class jobs, compared to a few thousand workers at Instagram.

“The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAfee

I would come to wonder, is philosophizing about “the future of work” just a way the richest, most influential people in the world convince themselves they care deeply about their employees, when what they’re doing is more like strategizing how to continue to be exorbitantly powerful in the decades to come?

“Diverging trajectories,” other euphemisms, and billionaire humanism

Well, yes.

A sleek new report by the McKinsey Global Institute, “The Future of Work in America,” emphasizes “diverging trajectories,” “different starting points,” “widening gaps,” the ‘concentration’ of growth, and other euphemisms for rising inequality that will almost certainly typify the near future of work, fueling growing anger and polarization. Their point is fairly clear: increased polarization means certain sectors like health and STEM are poised for big gains. Other fields like office support, manufacturing production, and food service jobs could be hit hard.

The “Shift Commission,” an initiative funded by now likely Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, produced another influential Future of Work report in 2017. In the Shift report, Bloomberg’s organization, in partnership with centrist think tank New America, emphasizes more future work for older people, concern about jobs in places that have been “left behind,” and general concern that the country’s economic dynamism might slow.

Michael Bloomberg (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

The report describes four scenarios under which work in America might change in 10-20 years. Will there be more or less work, and will that work be mostly “jobs” in the traditional sense or “tasks” in the sense of projects, gigs, freelancing, on-demand work, etc.? Each scenario is named after a game: Rock Paper Scissors, King of the Castle, Jump Rope, and Go. Which reminds me of a certain Twitter meme:

Absolutely no one:

No one at all:

Literally no person:

The Shift Commission: “Hey, let’s make our deliberations over whether people will be able to find decent jobs a generation from now, or whether almost everyone but us will wind up in poverty, into a cutesy game!”

Sure, part of the “winning” strategy for doing business successfully has always been to have a little fun — and do a little good — while setting the rules of the competition heavily in one’s own favor. But will the different possible outcomes of the future of work be perceived as ‘fun and games’ by the losers of those games as much as by the victors?

The Shift report, Bloomberg wrote, aimed to “strip away the hyperbole and the doomsday tone that so often characterize the discussion of [the future of work,]” but the report’s tone and content have problems of their own.

Organizers highlight a survey finding “only people who make $150,000 a year or more say they value doing work that is important to them. Everyone else prioritizes an income that is stable and secure.” The basis for this conclusion? Given several choices to rank in terms of “What Matters Most to You About Work?” only the highest income bracket chose “doing things I feel are important” over “earning as stable and secure an income as possible.”

But if people are so scared of falling into destitution that they’ll prioritize security over meaning, that doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly discovered some Grand Truth about how only rich people would like to lead meaningful lives.

Via Shift Commission Report on Future of Work

Also, all the Shift/Bloomberg scenarios strike me as dystopian to some degree: all seemingly prophesize increasing screen addiction and competition for labor among everyone but an ultra-wealthy, ultra-educated elite continuing to gain power no matter which “game” becomes reality. None of the options is a more regulated, less unequal, dramatically more equitable future.

Which makes me think that all the various scenarios explored in the Shift, McKinsey, and other reports are just … scenarios, like when talk show hosts with thick Brooklyn or Bahstan accents break down who is definitely going to win next year’s Super Bowl or NBA Finals.

Now, I confess: instead of downloading the latest hip podcast from The New Yorker or Pineapple Street Media or wherever, in my free time, as I have since I was a kid, and like so many men, I listen to other men sitting around tawking spawts: guessing the betting lines, predicting the winners and losers, the MVP’s and the goats.

It’s a terrible hobby, but I’m basically addicted, though happily not to the sports gambling that underwrites a lot of my favorite sports talk shows. I don’t gamble myself, but I understand the appeal of betting on games and players and outcomes. And you don’t need to be a bookie in Vegas to understand why so many men like me spend our time this way: we want to know what will happen. We want to be prophets. We want to be in control. We want poetic justice. But we have no realistic way to get any of that, so we immerse ourselves in a kind of religious ritual of persuading ourselves we’re in control. A daily illusion, a form of alchemy, a pseudoscience.

Is VC the same thing? Is a lot of tech journalism? And even a fair bit of what passes for tech ethics?

I don’t know, but I do know that in addressing whether their various Future of Work scenarios will yield accurate predictions, Shift Commission organizers offer a typical FoW response. They quote John Kenneth Galbraith’s statement that, “We have two classes of forecasters: Those who don’t know — and those who don’t know they don’t know.”

Maybe what all of this underscores is that any hope most of us might have for a benign future of work is increasingly projected on to what I’ve come to think of as “billionaire humanism.”

Billionaire humanism is what happens when we say we value every human life as primal and equal, but in practice we are just fine if most humans suffer under the stress of every manner of precariousness, from birth to death, so a relative handful of humans can live lives of extraordinary freedom and luxury.

Billionaire humanism is a world in which, as Ghiridaradas pointed out to me for TechCrunch, we invent every manner of new shit, and yet life expectancy goes down, literacy goes down, and overall health and well-being decline. Billionaire humanism is when we experience that as our daily reality, yet we are expected to be grateful for “progress,” as if the current state of things is the best of all possible worlds and the future is sure to be as well. That’s why it’s appropriate to be angry when we contemplate these questions.

Which brings me back to Gupta. She was, when I spoke to her at MIT, feeling well aware that she was the future of work. For a high school student (or even if she were in her twenties), she shows such an impressive awareness of and interest in the ethical issues in AI and environmental policy-making.

But when I ask her what she wants to get out of attending EmTech Next, she replies, “I was hoping to learn some insight about what I may want to study in college. After that, what type of jobs do I want to pursue that are going to exist and be in demand and really interesting, that have an impact on other people?”

In other words, Gupta understandably also seems to want to know the future so she can control it. But is the idea to get a job that’s in-demand and interesting? Or one that makes an “impact?” Sure, one can dream of both, but what if one needs to choose more of one over the other? There’s a fundamental ambivalence to her response — a kind of agnosticism, a hedging of one’s bets, an “it depends.”

And if “it depends” is what studying and conferencing about the future of work ultimately boils down to, then it should not count as the kind of “important” undertaking the richest cohort in the Shift Commission study said it valued so much.

What Kind of Future, and For Whom?

David Autor via MIT Technology Review

As the EmTech Next conference begins, I’m as ambivalent as ever. We’re in the auditorium on the top floor of the newer of two buildings for MIT’s Media Lab (the famous “future factory” as it is widely known). The Media Lab building is such an impressive display of modern design and experimental robots-in-progress peeking out from behind glass lab walls stretching up to cathedral ceilings that even a trendily-dressed preadolescent girl roaming the halls with her father, a messy-haired worker here, can be overheard saying, “I love your work. It’s so cool in here…”

The conference’s opening speaker, MIT economics professor David Autor, is presenting on his latest paper, “Work of the Past, Work of the Future.” Autor studies displaced workers: non-college educated, mostly men in manufacturing who’ve endured what he calls the “shocks” of automation. These workers could once earn premium wages in big cities, which mitigated against toxic inequality but no longer, Autor explains. With most such jobs automated out of existence or outsourced to other countries, big cities have become concentrated havens of opportunity for richer, younger, healthier, and highly educated people.

Autor’s talk focuses on “rebuilding career pathways” for the less educated, which would be enormously invigorating, he says, for our sense of shared prosperity.

That’s unobjectionable, but peering through my Giridharadas lens I wonder, will the future of work, as economists like Autor envision it, involve a never-ending, enormous divide between haves and have-nots? Are band-aid solutions to market-driven inequality the best we can hope for? (Okay, maybe Autor is proposing minor surgery — but on a gaping, cancerous wound).

In a vacuum, it sounds appealing to give poorer workers more “training,” more “refined skill sets.” But such ideas tend to suck up whatever bandwidth the busy people at meetings like EmTech Next are willing to devote to thinking about social problems. So we get to feel good about our magnanimity for a couple of hours, then continue winning to an obscene degree, rather than ever substantively addressing the savage exploitation, racism, and greed at the heart of why people are poor in the first place.

The opening panel gets particularly depressing when it turns to Autor’s co-panelist Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources management at MIT’s Sloan business school. Osterman’s book Who Will Care For Us and his remarks here are on improving conditions for the millions of “direct care workers” (like nurses and aides) who will attend to aging Americans in the coming years. We need more and better training options for such workers, Osterman says.

Sure enough! But is THAT the big idea for the future of work? Improve opportunities to clean up after rich people like the ones attending this conference, when we get too old or sick to clean our own bodies? As I write this, I think of my dad, who grew up poor, never finished college, and tried hard but never “graduated” to a higher social class. “He had champagne taste, and a water budget,” his sister once told me about him many years after he died.

In the final weeks of his life, during my senior year of high school, dad sometimes needed my help getting his emaciated, cancer-stricken body to the toilet. The stress and sadness of that experience stuck with me for life; I have tremendous respect for people performing caring work professionally every day. But it is infuriating to hear a room full of bosses nodding: not only should millions more poor people do such jobs, it’s also a great opportunity for them. They should be grateful we’re planning out their future so brilliantly and thoughtfully.

And that’s what economists like Autor and Osterman, alongside an entire genus of similar thinkers, seem to me to be saying: that “we,” the ingenious few who control money and policy, are here to decide the fate of “they,” the poorer people who aren’t fortunate enough to be in the room with us today. By all means, let’s ease people’s suffering and “give back” to them.

But do we have a responsibility to actually bring them into the room with us to make decisions as equals?

The economics of real, structural change

The “future of work” ethos may be perfectly standard fare for the kind of economically centrist perspective to which I used to subscribe and which has characterized most of the U.S. Democratic party’s leadership since Bill Clinton’s ascendance. But it doesn’t represent what Elizabeth Warren has taken to calling “Big, Structural Change,” or what Bernie Sanders, hands akimbo, white hair and spittle flying, calls, “Revuhlooshun!” 

Yes, let’s talk about how to pay health aides and construction workers a little better and how to “give back,” but by no means should we upend our economy to pay reparations, or tell the global rich to “take less,” as Giridharadas demands in his writing.

I talked with Autor just after the conference, and I admit part of me wanted him to make things simple by being a bad guy: sympathetic to the rich, condescending to the poor, a neoliberal hack making techies feel good about themselves by proposing partial solutions that don’t challenge power or privilege. It’s hard to pin him that way, though, and not just because he’s been wearing a gecko earring since he bought it in Berkeley with his wife decades ago.

Yes, Autor told me, he is a capitalist believer in market economies. Yes, labor unions have bashed his work at times, in a “knee-jerk” way he finds “super irritating.” But he sees improved dialogue of late, now that he’s come to believe organized labor needs a larger role in society. And labor leaders have “accepted that the world’s changed,” Autor says, not just because of mean bosses and politicians … there are underlying economic forces that impact the work people do.”

Autor is also a Jewish liberal who spent three years worth of his own work time teaching computer skills to poor, mostly Black people as an early employee of GLIDE, a large United Methodist church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district now famous for its 100-member gospel choir, LGBT-affirming attitude, and a community clinic serving thousands of homeless people each year from the church’s extensive basement. That’s not nothing.

The GLIDE Ensemble performs during a Celebration of Life Service held for the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on December 17, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“I met twice with President Obama,” Autor proudly volunteers. So I figure I’ll ask him about Senator Warren, a prominent Presidential aspirant who literally lives in our neighborhood, and who is building her message around economic justice. Autor has also met with her. He likes her approach to antitrust regulation and consumer protection. But her proposal to pay off student loans is “dumb,” he says, because it will transfer too much money to the rich. 

But is that our biggest concern when trying to make inclusive economic policy? All the rich people who are apparently taking out student loans?

Of course, my questions about Autor and Osterman are really about practically the entire field of economics. For generations, economists have asked us to take on faith that their unique genius can calibrate our financial system to advance prosperity and avoid collective ruin. But what about using that same genius to make the system itself more just and equal?

That, they say, is beyond their (or anyone’s) powers.

“Economics really is a branch of moral theology,” said the great tech critic Neil Postman, in promoting his 1992 book Technopoly, about how technology had (already!) become a religion and that America was becoming the first nation to adopt it as its official State Spirituality. “It should be taught more in divinity schools than in universities.”

What about Universal Basic Income?

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang march outside of the Wells Fargo Arena before the start of the Liberty and Justice Celebration on November 01, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Martin Ford’s book The Rise of the Robots looks at the future of work less optimistically, lamenting that new industries will “rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,” and ultimately calling for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) — a favorite solution of many tech leaders and future-of-work analysts alike, including Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and unlikely top-tier Democratic presidential candidate.

Yang’s rise in popularity owes much to his identification with the tech community, including support from icons like Elon Musk. And in referring to his own prescribed version of UBI as the “Freedom Dividend,” Yang nods not only to ‘freedom,’ long a staple of presidential rhetoric on left and right, but also to the ‘dividends’ paid by companies to shareholders. At a time when some politicians propose ending capitalism as we know it, Yang’s language suggests remaking America in Big Tech’s image.

It’s tempting, for obvious reasons, to envision monthly thousand-dollar checks for millions of struggling Americans. Yet for all its fanfare, UBI does essentially nothing to address the metastasizing cancer of structural inequality in American society. Under the “freedom dividend,” the poor remain poor, while the rich almost certainly continue an inexorable upward march toward ever greater wealth. All of this would be essentially by design.

Think about the staggering inequality tech entrepreneurs have already overseen in and around Silicon Valley: homelessness, gentrification, and wage stagnation for all but the rich. That funneling of money to the wealthiest is not a bug in tech’s code. Economic exploitation was a core feature of Silicon Valley back in the 70’s and 80’s. It remains a core feature today.

The Freedom Dividend, in practice, will involve most Americans scraping by on (maybe!) a thousand more dollars a month, while elites gain ever firmer control over the entire world around them. That’s not identifying and creating structural change in the future of work.

A maddening feedback loop: the problem with “mission-driven” work

Karen Hao via MIT Technology Review

After the Autor and Osterman panels, I head out to interview Karen Hao, the AI reporter for the MIT Technology Review. Less than a decade out of her undergraduate degree at MIT, Hao writes mainly on the ethical implications of AI technologies and their impact on society, both in thoughtful articles and a snappy email newsletter, the Algorithm. Her sources and inspiration for stories are often her former dormmates and classmates.

She gravitated towards ethics stories because of a brief stint she’d had working at her dream job: a mission-driven tech company, at which, she told me, the founder and CEO was ousted by the board within months of Hao’s arrival, “because it was too mission driven and wasn’t making any profit.”

“That was a pretty big shakeup for me,” Hao said, “in realizing I don’t think I’m cut out to work in the private sector, because I am a very mission-driven person. It is not palatable for me to be working at a place that has to scale down their ambition or pivot their mission because of financial reasons.”

Hao’s comments got me thinking about the larger systems in which all of us who live and work in technology’s orbit seem to be trapped. We want to do good, but we also want to live well. Few of us imagine ourselves among the class that ought to intentionally step backward socio-economically so others might step forward. After all, there are tech executives who make $400,000 a year but still can’t afford their mortgages in Silicon Valley: should the revolution begin with them? But if not, just who does need to take personal responsibility for participating in oppressive systems of privilege?

Whatever the answers, Hao strikes me as sincere, smart, and well-intentioned, and I’m impressed she gravitated away from the moral compromise of the for-profit sector to her current role as a journalist, toward “mission-driven” work. But now that I’m not sitting with her as her chaplain but as a fellow journalist, should I dig deeper, question harder?

The MIT Technology Review, after all, might have something to gain from presenting a certain kind of tech coverage. There are advertising dollars and conference registration fees at stake, and it’s not difficult to imagine how these things might incentivize coverage that pulls punches. Attendees at a conference like EmTech Next might want to be challenged intellectually to think about ethics. But do they really want to hear, for two days straight, about perspectives that would cause them to question not only their own money-making abilities but also their moral character?

Granted, these are the risks one runs in trusting the coverage of virtually any issue at virtually any mass-media publication. And particularly after the despicable and anti-American treatment to which Donald Trump has subjected the press these past few years, I tend to give hard-working journalists such as Hao the benefit of the doubt. That said, how many costly errors in judgment at tech companies could have been avoided if tech coverage had been less fawning?

And one need only look down the road a few … actually not even a few steps from where Hao and I are sitting, to realize that sometimes even the most promising-seeming efforts to write about and study technology ethically are deeply flawed at best.

The exterior of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab/ (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

After all, the gleaming Media Lab building, in which the conference took place, was under the direction of Joi Ito, a tech ethicist so legendary that when Barack Obama took the reins of an issue of Wired magazine as a guest editor in 2016 — as the sitting United States President — he asked to personally interview Ito about the future of artificial intelligence. Just two months or so after Hao and I sat there, news broke that Ito had cultivated a longtime relationship with none other than Jeffrey Epstein (no fucking relation, thank you), the notorious child molester and a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science, tech, and writing circles.

Joi Ito (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25)

Not only did Ito take at least half a million dollars in donations from Epstein against the objections (and ultimately the resignations) of star Media Lab faculty, he repeatedly visited Epstein’s homes. Epstein even invested over a million dollars in funds and companies Ito personally supported. “But forgiveness,” some friends and supporters of Ito’s might say. And on a personal, human level, I see their point. I’ve never met Ito; from what I’ve heard, I assume he’s a great guy in many ways. But he used his leadership role to closely associate with a convicted criminal and known serial sex trafficker of children, who, as one MIT student wrote, was part of “a global network of powerful individuals [who] have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives.”

To Ito’s credit, he seems to have been devastated by the revelation of his fundraising choices (as he should be). But had the sources of tech funding been more scrutinized by the tech media earlier, would the entire situation have been less possible?

Maybe this entire saga of Jeffrey Epstein and the Media Lab seems less than fully related to the broader point I’m trying to make about how the “future of work,” as a genre of academic discussion, refers to a vicious cycle in which a few winners perpetually win at the expense of the rest of us losers, while casting themselves not as rich jerks but generous, thoughtful moral paragons. But that’s exactly what the Epstein story is about.

Consider, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose mission statement (at least in one iteration) states that it is “Guided by the belief that every life has equal value,” and that it “works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” This sounds great in theory, but what does it even mean in practice? Who decides what it looks like for every life to have “equal value?”

That last rhetorical question probably sounds pretentiously philosophical, and maybe it is. But it also has a concrete, literal answer: notwithstanding the important contributions of others like his father and wife, at the end of the day, Bill Gates decides on the direction of the foundation founded on his twelve-figure net worth.

When we think of Gates deciding how to promote the equal value of all lives, we must absolutely picture him deciding, despite the almost literal army of philanthropy consultants he would have had available to advise him otherwise, to meet cozily and honestly quite creepily with Jeffrey Epstein in 2011, long after Epstein was a convicted felon for such crimes. Where was Gates’ respect, in deciding to indulge in those meetings, for the equality and value of the lives of the girls Epstein victimized? They were vulnerable CHILDREN, as journalist Xeni Jardin points out, and Gates either knew this or willfully barrelled past a phalanx of experts who would have informed him.

Bill Gates has, to this point, escaped most criticism for his bizarre actions because of the “social good” his foundation does. And so we allow individuals like him to hoard the resources necessary to do such grand-scale charitable work. We could tax them much more and redistribute the proceeds to poor and exploited people, which might well eliminate the need for their charity in the first place. But we don’t. Why? Largely because of the belief that people like Gates are super-geniuses, which Gates’ involvement with Epstein would seem to disprove.

Then there is MIT more broadly. The Institute’s mission statement is “to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century,” but of course, it has a long history of advancing the production of weapons of mass destruction and of serving the military-industrial complex. The university’s newly-announced Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, set to be the first wing of MIT to require tech ethics coursework, is named after a donor who has close personal ties to Donald Trump, not to mention the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and, say, opposition to affordable housing.

It’s all a maddening feedback loop, in other words.

We continually entrust “special” individuals like Gates and Ito and institutions like MIT and Harvard with building a better future for all. We justify that trust with the myth that only they can save us from plagues to come, and then we are shocked — shocked — that they continually make decisions that seem to prioritize a better present … for themselves. Rinse. Repeat.

Of course, MIT is ultimately just a collection of people with incentives and feedback loops of their own. It supports the doing of great good as well. This is just to say that we can never afford to blindly trust tech coverage, tech ethicists, tech ethics conferences, or even tech ethics journalists slash atheist chaplains like me. There is too much money at stake, to name only one potential motivator for moral betrayal.

All of us who choose to involve ourselves with these industries, in the name of a better future, should have to live with skepticism, and prove ourselves daily through our actions.

“Show me your budget, and then I’ll tell you what your values are.”

Charles Isbell via MIT Technology Review

“There’s an old joke about organizations,” says Charles Isbell, the dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and a star on the next EmTech Next panel, called ‘Responding to the Changing Nature of Work.’ “Don’t tell me what your values are, show me your budget and then I’ll tell you what your values are. Because you spend money on the things that you care about.”

Isbell is evangelizing Georgia Tech’s online master’s program in computer science, which boasts approximately 9,000 students, an astronomical number in the context of CS, and the program also has a much higher percentage of students of color than is typical for the field. It’s the result of philosophical decisions made at the university to create an online CS master’s degree treated as completely equal to on-campus training and to admit every student who has the potential to earn a degree, rather than making any attempt at “exclusivity” by rejecting worthy candidates. Isbell projected that in the coming years all of this may lead to a situation in which up to one in eight of all people in the US who hold a graduate degree in CS will have earned it at Georgia Tech.

Tall, dapper, and with the voice and speaking style of an NPR host, Isbell draws a long line of question-askers in the hallway after his panel (including Gupta of course, and me as well). He can’t promise to even open all the emails people want to send him, so he tells those with particularly good questions to fill in the subject line with a reference to one of his favorite 80’s hip-hop records.

In a brief one-on-one interview after he finishes with his session and the line of additional questioners, I ask Isbell to explain how he and his colleagues so successfully managed to create an inclusive model of higher education in tech, when most of the trends elsewhere are in the direction of greater exclusivity. His response sums up much of what I wish the bright minds of the future of work were willing to make a bigger priority: “We have to move to a world where your prestige comes from how much better you make [your students]. That means, accept every person you believe can succeed, then help them to succeed. And that’s the difference between equality and equity.”

“Equality,” Isbell continues, “is treat everyone the same, [not knowing whether] good things will obtain. Equity is about taking people who can get from here to there and putting them in a situation [to] actually succeed … without equity, you’re never going to generate the number of people we need in order to be successful, even purely from a selfish, change the economy, make the workforce stronger [point of view.]”

Maybe what we really need are conferences on the future of equity. What if the extraordinary talent, creativity, discipline, and skill that has been poured into the creation and advancement of technology these past few decades were instead applied to helping all people on earth to obtain at least a decent, free, dignified quality of life? Would we all be stuck on the iPhone 1, or even the Model T?

Perhaps, but I have to imagine if seven billion people were well-fed, educated, and cared for enough to not have to worry constantly about their basic needs, they’d have reason to collaborate and capacity to innovate.

But now I’m philosophizing for sure. So I try to snap out of it by asking a concrete and focused follow-up question of my next interviewee, MIT Technology Review’s editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield: does Lichfield see his publication’s role as bringing about the sort of equity Isbell is describing? Or is he content for his magazine to promote the toothless, status-quo “equality” of “opportunity” most tech leaders seem to have in mind when hawking “Big Ideas” like Universal Basic Income?

Gideon Lichfield via MIT Technology Review

Once I’ve finally pulled Lichfield aside for an in-conference private audience, I find myself straining to discuss my ideas without completely offending him. Maybe it’s his impeccably eclectic wardrobe: the European designer jacket with some sort of neon space-monster lapel pin reminds me of my childhood in New York City, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with the latest trends among kids who were either richer than me, or tougher, or both.

I don’t want to allow myself to be intimidated, but I also don’t want to sound naive about the business world he and I are both covering. And Lichfield is clearly no dummy about questions of justice and inequality; when he explains that a lot of people in his audience work at medium and large companies who have to think of the value of their investments and other “high-end decisions,” I can guess what might happen if he one day booked a conference speaker slate filled with nothing but Social Justice Warriors.

Still, I want to know how much responsibility he’s willing to take for his own role in creating a more just and equitable future of work. So I use my training as a chaplain, delivering a totally open-ended question, like we do when conducting what are called “psychosocial interviews” to figure out how a client thinks. Beyond all this talk of the future of work, I ask, “how will we know, in 20 or 30 years, that we’ve reached a better human future than the reality we have today?”

“Wow, this is tricky,” Lichfield responds. “I feel like this is a really controversial question.”

“It is,” I respond too quickly for anything but earnestness. “I’m asking you the most controversial question I can ask you.”

Lichfield eventually offers that if society’s “decision-making processes” were more accessible to poorer people, that would be a better future; because while “you could end up with disparities,” he says, “you will also end up with choice.” But does this fall short of the vision Isbell and his colleagues at Georgia Tech have expressed through their project of putting knowledge in the hands of far more people than can usually achieve it in our current system?

When I add my signature question, which I ask at the end of all of my TechCrunch interviews: “how optimistic are you about our shared human future?,” Lichfield gives me the most gloomy answer I’ve received in my over 40 interviews to date. “I’m not especially optimistic … In the very long term, you know, none of it matters. The species disappears. And I’m pretty pessimistic in the short term [as well.]”

After a brief disclaimer about how he might feel better about our prospects for the end of this century, we wrap up, and agree to chat again sometime. Yet I’m left with more ambivalence: Lichfield comes across to me as a likable guy who leads a smart and engaging publication and conference.

But how often do influential men (like me, too, at times!) use “likability” to deflect criticism, persuading you to trust their personalities instead of questioning their motives, not to mention their profits? Whether or not the point applies to Lichfield himself, it would certainly be a valid criticism of many rich executives and elite leaders who sponsor and attend conferences like this one, selling us (and themselves) on their virtue and goodness today even as they pave their own way toward even more global domination tomorrow.

The thing about ghosts is, it’s their job to haunt you

Mary Gray via MIT Technology Review

At the next big panel I attend, things turn dark. In a good way.

The session, entitled The Dark Side of On-Demand Work, is moderated by Hao, the AI reporter, and features Mary Gray, an anthropologist and tech researcher, and Prayag Narula, founder of the startup LeadGenius and one of the subjects of Gray’s book Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass (co-authored with Siddharth Suri, a computer scientist).

“Gideon talked this morning about the best jobs and how to acquire more of them,” Hao says, quipping: “now we’ll talk about the worst jobs.”

The topic of the session is what Gray calls “on-demand platform knowledge work,” the kind of contract labor or “gig work” where the entire point is for the (now countless) people doing the labor to become invisible so as to make AI look more impressive than it currently is (not to mention so they remain in the sort of shadowy realm generally understood to be a lousy bargaining position for a living wage).

We have no exact headcount for contract labor in the U.S., but it represents most of the growth in our economy in recent years, and is expected to be a $25 billion industry by 2020.

If gig work is the future, how will workers build careers? “You don’t become an Uber driver, then a Senior Uber Driver, then an Uber Manager,” cracks Narula, who was invited to speak because his company, which he admits employs ghost workers to track down business leads for busy executives, strives to pay a living wage. In some socialist utopia off in another dimension, a Chris Rock-like comedian would crack another joke: founders talk like they should get a cookie for paying living wages, when it’s literally the least they could do.

Here in this dimension, however, living wages for ghost work are still a big deal, worthy of MIT Media Lab stages. Which is probably why Gray, whom Narula says is more “communistic” than himself, supports eliminating distinctions between full time employees and contractors, along the lines of California’s recently passed “AB5” worker law, sparking potential for a progressive gig economy revolution. Gray wants to create a “labor commons” across the country, helping people live sustainable lives; she calls her book Ghost Work “the business case” for why and how we should do it.

We love to tout AI as the future of innovation, but what if we’ve deceived ourselves, with a combination of ghost work, tax evasion, and the like, into believing our present and future societies are much more advanced than the reality?

“Not Enough Value”

Kendall Square via Tim Pierce/Wikipedia

Heading home from the conference, I’m about to get on the Red Line train at MIT’s Kendall Square station when my “Charlie Card” metro pass buzzes loudly on the card reader: “Not Enough Value.” I am so immersed in my thoughts about what technology is doing to our values, for a second I honestly read the error message as a statement about my worth as a human being.

That probably sounds like a dad joke. I love a good dad joke, but it’s not. I’ve been working for many years, in therapy and the clinical supervision I do for my work as a chaplain, on an idea that I, like a lot of smart and highly accomplished people, internalized as a kid: that my worth or value as a human being is determined not by who I am but by what I accomplish.

The great psychotherapist Alice Miller, in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, explains that though our parents may have loved us and taken wonderful care of us in many ways, they may also have sent us the subtle message that we are only really lovable if we are great. “You’re so smart,” parents may constantly tell their young children. “Look at how you won,” we then start saying to them, practically by preschool.

Our comments are well-intentioned, but what they convey is clear. We are what we do. We’re worthwhile because we’re outstanding. Which means: God help us if we aren’t. Children might intrinsically value kindness, curiosity, or loving relationships, but all too often we become obsessed with proving how great we are.

This “gifted child” mentality produces industriousness, to be sure; call it The Official Psychopathology of the Protestant Work Ethic. Left unexamined though, it leads us to constantly try to demonstrate our worth by out-working people, out-earning them, and out-greating them. We rarely stop to simply connect with other normal human beings or to allow ourselves to experience vulnerability.

Though it’s hard to feel warmth toward others while stuck in this mindset, we do need to constantly convey it. Because “winners,” remember, aren’t allowed to be naked sociopaths. They aren’t content simply to dominate the capitalist game, now and forever — they have to show you how likable they are while doing so. They have to show how deserving they are of their special status by “doing good,” not just making good.

So we end up with a company like WeWork, the shared office space company and symbol of an unethical tech future. In its recently filed IPO, WeWork said workers were yearning for a “re-invention of work.” Renters at WeWork offices were not clients or customers, but “members,” while neighboring workers were not just colleagues, but part of a “community.” Or so said Adam Neumann, only months before his platinum parachute cash-out, to the tune of $1-2 billion dollars, put the company he founded in such poor financial position that it couldn’t even afford to pay severance to thousands of laid-off employees.

Maybe the contrast between Neumann’s ridiculously communal language and his seeming rank selfishness is an extreme case, but it’s also fairly typical. In the elite social circles known for intellectual discussions of “the future of work,” it’s commonplace to use fancy language to to look not just important but heroic, even as our “innovation” disrupts lives and harms communities.

“How are we doing?” “Not very well.” On loving thy neighbor as thyself

I’m running late to the conference the next morning; I took a little more time playing one of my toddler son Axel’s favorite games: “jumping the shark,” over our living room couch. When Axel was born, I stepped back from my former life as an achievement-obsessed workaholic and encouraged my wife to embrace her busy law career. And not just for its steadier income — I love being Axel’s daily presence, trying to change every single diaper; entertaining his friends when I drop him off at daycare; and holding him tightly in my arms on long daily walks, discussing each new object along our way.

Prayag Narula via MIT Technology Review

Arriving at the Media Lab, I find Narula, who promised before his panel the previous day to describe how startups like his struggle to even attract venture capitalists to human-centered projects these days. He tells me about his friend with a similar business model — ghost work — but who, unlike Narula, doesn’t mention the “human factor” at all in pitches to VCs. The friend, far more successful at such pitches, once confided: “What I pitched to them is, ‘Hey, we are doing this today using people, but it will get automated in the future. And then because we have all this data, we will be the ones automating it.'”

When Narula asked, “do you really believe this can be automated?” his friend responded, “that doesn’t matter.”

“Our economy punishes people that rely on people,” Narula explains. “The education system and thought leaders have created this cascade effect of technologists not taking the human aspect of technology seriously.” I linger too long thinking about his story; now I’m even later for the first morning panel.

As I shuffle into the session, a discussion on the ethics of automation moderated by MIT Technology Review editor David Rotman, Rotman asks, “How are we doing?”

“Not very well,” says Pramod Khargonekar, a distinguished professor of computer science at the University of California.

On the panel with Khargonekar is Susan Winterberg, a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project. Winterberg tells the story of Flint, Michigan’s famous exploitation of its poor, mostly people-of-color citizens, whose water was poisoned while their government abandoned them. Over 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, she then explains.

The Flint Water Plant tower. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The number manages to make me the angriest I’ve been at the conference thus far. What can you even call a society whose vast majority doubts the future of their own work, while a small, comfortable minority lives in an almost literally different country? We don’t think of apartheid as something that could happen here, but that’s essentially what took place in Flint between April 2014 and…? Actually, as of this year, an estimated 2,500 lead service lines are still in place.

Winterberg’s talk pivots promisingly, however, to the story of how Nokia executives, including a former Prime Minister of Nokia’s native Finland, worked dutifully and creatively to help their own soon-to-be-displaced workers.

Winterberg’s story, published with Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher in a series of HBS case studies, begins in Germany in 2008. Nokia had closed a mobile-phone assembly plant in Germany that year, despite its record profits. The plant was not “cost competitive,” executives explained, with similar work being done in Eastern Europe or Asia.

Factory workers, politicians, and the German public were outraged, generating massive boycotts against Nokia. Unions organized people to ship their Nokia phones back to the company’s international headquarters in Finland. The anti-Nokia campaign cost €700 million in lost sales, Winterberg and Sucher found.

A few years later, after the smartphone revolution made it increasingly clear Nokia’s entire global phone manufacturing business would be decimated, company leadership chose not to abandon workers. Instead, it undertook a massive campaign to help employees cope with displacement, going so far as to stage career fairs and encourage other companies to hire its workers en masse. The campaign’s return on investment, according to the researchers’ analysis, was a thousand to one.

Photo by Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s their values, and it came from the very top of the company,” Winterberg tells me after her panel. “It came from the chairman of the board basically saying, ‘Find a way to do this that treats people with respect, that’s compatible with our values and will help us achieve the transformation we want to achieve, and report back.’”

Listening to her, I can’t help but wonder aloud: was Nokia able to model such solidarity (albeit only after failing in Germany three years earlier) thanks primarily to their roots in a homogenous and affluent society, where it’s a lot easier for management to identify with labor? “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” after all, has since Biblical times generally seemed to work out a lot better when racism and other forms of bigotry were not in play.

But, Winterberg reminds me, Nokia’s magnanimous response was also a global one. They had factories in China, the United States, and other far-flung locations, applying their “bridge program” basically universally. So I ask instead about her own background. From the Cincinnati area, she went to the University of Cincinnati as an undergraduate. There, she was deeply influenced by a field trip to urban Detroit, the degraded state of which made Winterberg want to know, “how could something like this happen?”

Moving on to a Masters in Urban Planning, then work as a researcher at Harvard, Winterberg came to understand the failures of the American Midwest in terms of a kind of unintentionally toxic coastal and economic elitism that has helped Donald Trump. “If you’re living in a small town and don’t have great tech skills,” she tells me, “your future is very dim. [My] presentation is designed to bring you to the experience of the more average person going through this and not just revert to your own experience where [mass layoffs are] basically just a bonus and an inconvenience for a couple of weeks. For most people, this is devastating and a lifelong change.”

Not everyone, in other words, can afford to view the future of work like a game, or from the relatively detached perspective of the typical attendee of a tech conference. And as Winterberg continued about Trump and right-wing populism more broadly, “He understands that from a political point of view. He’s been able to use that. We see that with politicians taking right-wing, populist stances across Europe. Brexit was a couple months before our elections here happened. It was the same thing.”

We’re all implicated, this makes me think. Not too many managers and executives intended to drive middle America into the arms of a Donald Trump. Certainly the centrist economic advisors in the Obama administration didn’t.

But we are all part of a system in which it is just too easy for people of means and privilege to glide along obliviously. It will take enormous, proactive, non-obvious action on our own part to avert disaster. But we’re stuck, deep in denial.

So I leave my conversation with Winterberg feeling sad: for our collective ignorance, and for the rarity of hopeful examples like 2011 Nokia.

To be fair

I find myself recharging as I talk, next, with Walter Erike. Erike, a mid-career independent management consultant also pursuing his MBA at Cornell’s Johnson School of Business, traveled from Philadelphia to attend EmTech Next, hoping to gain insights to inform his consulting business.

Erike, a Black man who spent much of his childhood in Harlem, is somewhat self-conscious about being a visible minority at the conference. But he’s also a dynamo of optimism and positivity.

“I don’t want to pile on MIT,” Erike tells me when I ask him how a conference like this, with a heavily white crowd, could be more relevant to other Black people in tech and related fields. “Because I don’t think it would be fair. But perhaps it would help if they were to reach out to the Urban League, reach out to the National Black MBA, reach out to the Consortium, reach out to NAAP, which is a national organization of Asians, to get more ethnic diversity in the room.”

Not inclined to linger on racial divides, Erike then steers the conversation to the idea of geographic diversity, echoing Winterberg’s concerns about the loss of manufacturing jobs in midwestern America. “If I hear many of the companies in the room, and if I consider where their headquarters are, we’re very West Coast, Silicon Valley focused, and New York, finance focused,” he notices. “There are a lot of really intelligent, motivated Americans living in the center, the Midwest, the breadbasket of America. From what I’ve heard and seen, they’re not represented.”

(My complete conversation with Walter, one of my favorite of the 40+ tech ethics interviews I’ve done for TechCrunch thus far, can be found here.)

Next I talk with Andrea Thomaz, CEO and Co-Founder of Diligent Robotics. Diligent’s signature invention, a robot prototype named Moxi, is roaming outside of the presentation room. Slightly resembling the maid Rosie the Robot in “The Jetsons,” Moxi is a person-sized presence designed to assist overworked hospital staff. Moxi’s typical day, Thomaz tells me, would be spent trailing doctors and nurses responsible for training it how and when to fetch medicines and other necessary supplies, so they can spend more time with patients.

‘Moxi’ of Diligent Robotics via MIT Technology Review

Thomaz’s product, in other words, may be just the sort of thing to force the cynical critic of AI and machine learning to throw up his or her hands and admit, “you got me.” Who is Moxi hurting? How is it not at least one small part of the solution to real human problems? And then there is Thomaz’s background as a relatively young woman CEO and founder in robotics, with a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and experience teaching at public schools; God knows we need more stories like hers. Like Erike, Narula, Gupta and others, she impresses me as sincere, smart, dedicated to her craft, and determined to pursue it ethically.

Maybe there’s a way towards technological advancement alongside true human decency. Maybe all is not lost yet?

Is ‘Get Hooked’ the Answer?

It’s time to shut the conference down: organizers are peeling “EmTech” logo decals off the walls, but I’m not ready to leave the Media Lab — I need a place to collect my thoughts. Will the work of the future bring ever-ballooning inequality under the guise of what is ultimately the slick, self-serving “philanthropy” of Billionaire Humanism and Winners Take All? Or will the good people I’ve met here at this conference prove not only to be exceptional, but the ethical and inspirational rule?

Bewildered, I begin to wander home. Uber or Lyft are the most efficient way to get from MIT to my house, but I’ve been researching and writing about the ways in which ridesharing is morally compromised. That’s out, given my current mood.

Even a train feels too fast, too claustrophobic, too … technological. So I walk the hour-long route, first through the sleek, monolithic beauty of MIT’s Kendall Square (“the most innovative square mile in the world”) and then through a sleepy industrial neighborhood of tow trucks, a defunct-seeming rail yard, and a multiethnic, working-class population (an area about to be transformed, to the tune of billions of investment dollars, by a coming extension of the Boston metro Green Line train).

Finally, I arrive at Bow Market, a crown jewel of my current home city of Somerville’s ambitious plans for sustainable modernization.

Bow Market opened in the spring of 2018 as a former storage facility turned semicircular courtyard for more than 30 local, independent restaurants, shops, galleries, and even a comedy club. The businesses are mostly women-owned, and the Market’s developers are proud of their nearly 30% minority and 20% non-cisgender owners, too. A quick walk through and you’ll find everything from hand-carved wooden pins of James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston to vintage heavy metal t-shirts and motorcycle gear, to grilled pickle pizza and a chocolate mousse in a small chocolate waffle cone that is literally the best thing I have eaten in my entire life.

I go in to Get Hooked, a Bow Market fish shop run by Jason Tucker, a stocky, six-foot-something, grey-bearded New England fisherman with a Bahstan accent. Tucker has a humble, folksy manner and a knack for delicate dishes of lightly marinated blueberry-sized cubes of melt-in-your mouth fish, alongside field greens, citrus, kosher sea salt, and brown rice.

He and his business partner Jimmy Rider started this shop, then partnered with Matt Baumann, a former “money lawyah,” in Jason’s gruff expression, who changed directions several years ago for a career smoking fish. From May to October, Tucker is out on Cape Cod Bay chasing striped bass, mackerel, bluefish, and tuna. And this particular summer Wednesday night, he’s here making $14 bowls for people like me. I take my tuna ceviche in compostable cardboard to a metal table adorned only by a small blue jar. Over the course of my meal, the jar lights up as a sparkly, solar-powered, dark-activated lantern.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, in a 2015 cover story, “A World Without Work,” examined growing research on America’s likely steep decline in jobs in the coming decades. Thompson tells, for example, the story of a 54-year-old writer, grandmother, and former university literature teacher in the post-industrial city of Youngstown, OH, who took a part-time job as a hostess at a cafe, just to stay afloat.

But he also discusses different possibilities, including one scenario he calls “The Artisan’s revenge”: Harvard economist Lawrence Katz’s vision of a world in which 3D printing machines create much of our basic infrastructure, leaving room for a new artisanal economy “geared around self-expression, where people do artistic things with their time.”

Is 3D printing the future of work? Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images

“In other words,” Thompson wrote, the future of work “would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”

So is Get Hooked, and the entire Bow Market in which it sits, the answer? Local working people, applying their crafts with extraordinary artistry, at prices high enough to support a living wage but accessible enough to at least be a very occasional treat for other working-class people, while helping build a diverse, multiethnic, gender nonbinary, social-justice community where an entire city can come together to laugh, to celebrate, to eat, and to ponder important issues?

Or will it ultimately only be people like me, who have the enormous luck and fortune to afford homes in Somerville (current median single family house price: $799,000 and rising) and plunk down $20-plus for a light meal, who are able to enjoy this kind of “artisanal” and “community” experience “sustainably”? Am I doubling down on being part of the problem right now? I don’t know, but I can tell you which way I’m rooting, because that smoked fish is good.

Will the future of work be ethical?

I’m happy to admit I don’t know exactly what the future of work ought to be. I am developing my own ever-evolving understanding of what true human dignity and flourishing mean and what a healthier, less dystopian future might look like; I hope to elaborate on it later, including in a book I’ve recently begun to write.

For now, I can say a better future will demand emotional awareness and vulnerable courage from those currently in positions of power and privilege. We have to recognize that though we may not have caused these problems, we are responsible for them. Such a recognition is bound to be painful and confusing. It’s okay — wise, in fact — to not be able to face such a reality alone.

This is why I wasn’t entirely kidding when I wrote that the entire tech industry could use a Chief Social Work Officer to help us cope with constant feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Maybe more women in leadership across the board(s) will help too, as I’ve discussed with feminist tech philosopher Moira Wiegel.

Wiegel argues that the internet has feminized our entire culture, and we need to embrace the positive aspects of such a change. If we do, maybe we can replace some of our tendency to grasp for power with the visceral joy of being on what tech critic and ethicist Douglas Rushkoff calls “Team Human.”

Meanwhile, however, we don’t need a perfect prophecy for a better future to know that much of what passes for discussion of “the future of work” isn’t it. It’s obvious such discussions exclude and, in effect, dismiss the majority of humans who will have to actually live through that future.

It should also be obvious by now: if it takes a corrosively unequal future of work to maintain profit margins, maybe there needs to be a lot less profit.

I can hear the VC philosopher protest: “who decides how to re-distribute my money?” So, yes, of course, any re-distributive efforts to remake the future of human labor will be complex, flawed, and require enormously vigorous debate.

But the main point I’m trying to make is actually simple. You can have a massively unequal economy, or you can have an ethical one. But please don’t continue to insult us by claiming we can all have both.

If you want to be on the side of an even somewhat status quo distribution of work by those who “create” it to those who are supposedly lucky enough to receive it, you’re free to hold such a position. But then don’t be surprised when increasing millions (billions?) of people try to hold you and your position accountable by denying your efforts to portray yourself as a philanthropist and humanist who only has our best interests at heart.

Though you won’t hear much about it in the various reports and conferences, maybe the future of work is a lot more work stoppage. More protest movements, like the ones that brought 11 deaths and thousands of arrests in Chile, or the ones that mobilized nearly a million people into the streets of Hong Kong, also causing a dozen or more deaths. Maybe the future of work clogs American streets, making it harder to recruit top talent, bringing down IPO valuations. Maybe it gives way to more unions, across almost every kind of industry and sector. Maybe more Cooperatives. Maybe Neo-Luddism. Probably fewer billionaires by far. And a Green New Deal. In short, the future of work will quite possibly be conducted on a very different political and moral playing field than that of today.

Is this the only possible ethical vision? No, but the onus is on those currently in power to prove to the rest of us that another worthwhile possibility exists.

“Will the Future of Work be Ethical?” I ask Mary Gray in our post-conference interview, explaining that the question would likely be the title of this essay. “I love that ,” Gray responds. Philosophers answer questions with more questions; anthropologists compliment your questions and then go back to thinking about their own.

“But will it be?”

“I would say it can be,” Gray allows, “if we move towards imagining valuing the collective contributions of people and stop looking for a future of work that looks like the past. It’s not going to look like a better version of the past.”

I’ve kept in touch with Gupta a bit since the conference; we’ve even talked about me visiting Exeter and leading discussions with her and her fellow Matter students. She continues to seem genuine, thoughtful, committed, and of course brilliant. But I continue to worry it’s going to be nearly impossible for her, or at least for students like her, to resist some of the self-interest inherent in pursuing jobs that are “in-demand” (translation: big bucks) and have an “impact” (translation: allow us to feel good about our magnanimity and broad-mindedness with regard to the less fortunate, when really, it’s almost all about us and the profits we’ll make).

“Not everybody knows as much [about AI] as you do,” I tell her at one point. “I don’t.”

“You don’t?” she responds innocently. In the abstract, she understands how lucky she is, but comparing herself to a specific person like me is probably harder.

Maybe that slight lack of perspective on her own privilege is part of why Gupta is just too well positioned not to win. That is, unless she and many others actively and consciously choose a future in which they massively give up that privilege, walk away from economic domination, and hand many of their opportunities to others. There is not, as Giridharadas says, always going to be a “win win” the way we’re teaching students in places like Exeter.

“Hopefully more people saying we need to panic now. Personally, I am a little bit more relaxed about that,” Gupta tells me about the climate crisis she’s just spent a semester learning and writing all about.

“Let’s go to the future, yeah.”

The Cerebras CS-1 computes deep learning AI problems by being bigger, bigger, and bigger than any other chip

Deep learning is all the rage these days in enterprise circles, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Whether it is optimizing ad spend, finding new drugs to cure cancer, or just offering better, more intelligent products to customers, machine learning — and particularly deep learning models — have the potential to massively improve a range of products and applications.

The key word though is ‘potential.’ While we have heard oodles of words sprayed across enterprise conferences the last few years about deep learning, there remain huge roadblocks to making these techniques widely available. Deep learning models are highly networked, with dense graphs of nodes that don’t “fit” well with the traditional ways computers process information. Plus, holding all of the information required for a deep learning model can take petabytes of storage and racks upon racks of processors in order to be usable.

There are lots of approaches underway right now to solve this next-generation compute problem, and Cerebras has to be among the most interesting.

As we talked about in August with the announcement of the company’s “Wafer Scale Engine” — the world’s largest silicon chip according to the company — Cerebras’ theory is that the way forward for deep learning is to essentially just get the entire machine learning model to fit on one massive chip. And so the company aimed to go big — really big.

Today, the company announced the launch of its end-user compute product, the Cerebras CS-1, and also announced its first customer of Argonne National Laboratory.

The CS-1 is a “complete solution” product designed to be added to a data center to handle AI workflows. It includes the Wafer Scale Engine (or WSE, i.e. the actual processing core) plus all the cooling, networking, storage, and other equipment required to operate and integrate the processor into the data center. It’s 26.25 inches tall (15 rack units), and includes 400,000 processing cores, 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory, 9 petabytes per second of on-die memory bandwidth, 12 gigabit ethernet connections to move data in and out of the CS-1 system, and sucks just 20 kilowatts of power.

A cross-section look at the CS-1. Photo via Cerebras

Cerebras claims that the CS-1 delivers the performance of more than 1,000 leading GPUs combined — a claim that TechCrunch hasn’t verified, although we are intently waiting for industry-standard benchmarks in the coming months when testers get their hands on these units.

In addition to the hardware itself, Cerebras also announced the release of a comprehensive software platform that allows developers to use popular ML libraries like TensorFlow and PyTorch to integrate their AI workflows with the CS-1 system.

In designing the system, CEO and co-founder Andrew Feldman said that “We’ve talked to more than 100 customers over the past year and a bit,“ in order to determine the needs for a new AI system and the software layer that should go on top of it. “What we’ve learned over the years is that you want to meet the software community where they are rather than asking them to move to you.”

I asked Feldman why the company was rebuilding so much of the hardware to power their system, rather than using already existing components. “If you were to build a Ferrari engine and put it in a Toyota, you cannot make a race car,” Feldman analogized. “Putting fast chips in Dell or [other] servers does not make fast compute. What it does is it moves the bottleneck.” Feldman explained that the CS-1 was meant to take the underlying WSE chip and give it the infrastructure required to allow it to perform to its full capability.

A diagram of the Cerebras CS-1 cooling system. Photo via Cerebras.

That infrastructure includes a high-performance water cooling system to keep this massive chip and platform operating at the right temperatures. I asked Feldman why Cerebras chose water, given that water cooling has traditionally been complicated in the data center. He said, “We looked at other technologies — freon. We looked at immersive solutions, we looked at phase-change solutions. And what we found was that water is extraordinary at moving heat.”

A side view of the CS-1 with its water and air cooling systems visible. Photo via Cerebras.

Why then make such a massive chip, which as we discussed back in August, has huge engineering requirements to operate compared to smaller chips that have better yield from wafers. Feldman said that “ it massively reduces communication time by using locality.”

In computer science, locality is placing data and compute in the right places within, let’s say a cloud, that minimizes delays and processing friction. By having a chip that can theoretically host an entire ML model on it, there’s no need for data to flow through multiple storage clusters or ethernet cables — everything that the chip needs to work with is available almost immediately.

According to a statement from Cerebras and Argonne National Laboratory, Cerebras is helping to power research in “cancer, traumatic brain injury and many other areas important to society today” at the lab. Feldman said that “It was very satisfying that right away customers were using this for things that are important and not for 17-year-old girls to find each other on Instagram or some shit like that.”

(Of course, one hopes that cancer research pays as well as influencer marketing when it comes to the value of deep learning models).

Cerebras itself has grown rapidly, reaching 181 engineers today according to the company. Feldman says that the company is hands down on customer sales and additional product development.

It has certainly been a busy time for startups in the next-generation artificial intelligence workflow space. Graphcore just announced this weekend that it was being installed in Microsoft’s Azure cloud, while I covered the funding of NUVIA, a startup led by the former lead chip designers from Apple who hope to apply their mobile backgrounds to solve the extreme power requirements these AI chips force on data centers.

Expect ever more announcements and activity in this space as deep learning continues to find new adherents in the enterprise.

Three of Apple and Google’s former star chip designers launch NUVIA with $53M in series A funding

Silicon is apparently the new gold these days, or so VCs hope.

What was once a no-go zone for venture investors, who feared the long development lead times and high technical risk required for new entrants in the semiconductor field, has now turned into one of the hottest investment areas for enterprise and data VCs. Startups like Graphcore have reached unicorn status (after its $200 million series D a year ago) while Groq closed $52M from the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital fame and Cerebras raised $112 million in investment from Benchmark and others while announcing that it had produced the first trillion transistor chip (and who I profiled a bit this summer).

Today, we have another entrant with another great technical team at the helm, this time with a Santa Clara, CA-based startup called NUVIA. The company announced this morning that it has raised a $53 million series A venture round co-led by Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital (DTC), Mayfield, and WRVI Capital, with participation from Nepenthe LLC.

Despite only getting started earlier this year, the company currently has roughly 60 employees, 30 more at various stages of accepted offers, and the company may even crack 100 employees before the end of the year.

What’s happening here is a combination of trends in the compute industry. There has been an explosion in data and by extension, the data centers required to store all of that information, just as we have exponentially expanded our appetite for complex machine learning algorithms to crunch through all of those bits. Unfortunately, the growth in computation power is not keeping pace with our demands as Moore’s Law slows. Companies like Intel are hitting the limits of physics and our current know-how to continue to improve computational densities, opening the ground for new entrants and new approaches to the field.

Finding and building a dream team with a “chip” on their shoulder

There are two halves to the NUVIA story. First is the story of the company’s founders, which include John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerard Williams III, who will be CEO. The three overlapped for a number of years at Apple, where they brought their diverse chip skillsets together to lead a variety of initiatives including Apple’s A-series of chips that power the iPhone and iPad. According to a press statement from the company, the founders have worked on a combined 20 chips across their careers and have received more than 100 patents for their work in silicon.

Gulati joined Apple in 2009 as a micro architect (or SoC architect) after a career at Broadcom, and a few months later, Williams joined the team as well. Gulati explained to me in an interview that, “So my job was kind of putting the chip together; his job was delivering the most important piece of IT that went into it, which is the CPU.” A few years later in around 2012, Bruno was poached from AMD and brought to Apple as well.

Gulati said that when Bruno joined, it was expected he would be a “silicon person” but his role quickly broadened to think more strategically about what the chipset of the iPhone and iPad should deliver to end users. “He really got into this realm of system-level stuff and competitive analysis and how do we stack up against other people and what’s happening in the industry,” he said. “So three very different technical backgrounds, but all three of us are very, very hands-on and, you know, just engineers at heart.”

Gulati would take an opportunity at Google in 2017 aimed broadly around the company’s mobile hardware, and he eventually pulled over Bruno from Apple to join him. The two eventually left Google earlier this year in a report first covered by The Information in May. For his part, Williams stayed at Apple for nearly a decade before leaving earlier this year in March.

The company is being stealthy about exactly what it is working on, which is typical in the silicon space because it can take years to design, manufacture, and get a product into market. That said, what’s interesting is that while the troika of founders all have a background in mobile chipsets, they are indeed focused on the data center broadly conceived (i.e. cloud computing), and specifically reading between the lines, to finding more energy-efficient ways that can combat the rising climate cost of machine learning workflows and computation-intensive processing.

Gulati told me that “for us, energy efficiency is kind of built into the way we think.”

The company’s CMO did tell me that the startup is building “a custom clean sheet designed from the ground up” and isn’t encumbered by legacy designs. In other words, the company is building its own custom core, but leaving its options open on whether it builds on top of ARM’s architecture (which is its intention today) or other architectures in the future.

Building an investor syndicate that’s willing to “chip” in

Outside of the founders, the other half of this NUVIA story is the collective of investors sitting around the table, all of whom not only have deep technical backgrounds, but also deep pockets who can handle the technical risk that comes with new silicon startups.

Capricorn specifically invested out of what it calls its Technology Impact Fund, which focuses on funding startups that use technology to make a positive impact on the world. Its portfolio according to a statement includes Tesla, Planet Labs, and Helion Energy.

Meanwhile, DTC is the venture wing of Dell Technologies and its associated companies, and brings a deep background in enterprise and data centers, particularly from the group’s server business like Dell EMC. Scott Darling, who leads DTC, is joining NUVIA’s board, although the company is not disclosing the board composition at this time. Navin Chaddha, an electrical engineer by training who leads Mayfield, has invested in companies like HashiCorp, Akamai, and SolarCity. Finally, WRVI has a long background in enterprise and semiconductor companies.

I chatted a bit with Darling of DTC about what he saw in this particular team and their vision for the data center. In addition to liking each founder individually, Darling felt the team as a whole was just very strong. “What’s most impressive is that if you look at them collectively, they have a skillset and breadth that’s also stunning,” he said.

He confirmed that the company is broadly working on data center products, but said the company is going to lie low on its specific strategy during product development. “No point in being specific, it just engenders immune reactions from other players so we’re just going to be a little quiet for a while,” he said.

He apologized for “sounding incredibly cryptic” but said that the investment thesis from his perspective for the product was that “the data center market is going to be receptive to technology evolutions that have occurred in places outside of the data center that’s going to allow us to deliver great products to the data center.”

Interpolating that statement a bit with the mobile chip backgrounds of the founders at Google and Apple, it seems evident that the extreme energy-to-performance constraints of mobile might find some use in the data center, particularly given the heightened concerns about power consumption and climate change among data center owners.

DTC has been a frequent investor in next-generation silicon, including joining the series A investment of Graphcore back in 2016. I asked Darling whether the firm was investing aggressively in the space or sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude, and he explained that the firm tries to keep a consistent volume of investments at the silicon level. “My philosophy on that is, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. No, I’m not gonna do a ton of silicon plays. If you look at it, I’ve got five or six. I think of them as the foundations on which a bunch of other stuff gets built on top,” he explained. He noted that each investment in the space is “expensive” given the work required to design and field a product, and so these investments have to be carefully made with the intention of supporting the companies for the long haul.

That explanation was echoed by Gulati when I asked how he and his co-founders came to closing on this investor syndicate. Given the reputations of the three, they would have had easy access to any VC in the Valley. He said about the final investors:

They understood that putting something together like this is not going to be easy and it’s not for everybody … I think everybody understands that there’s an opportunity here. Actually capitalizing upon it and then building a team and executing on it is not something that just anybody could possibly take on. And similarly, it is not something that every investor could just possibly take on in my opinion. They themselves need to have a vision on their side and not just believe our story. And they need to strategically be willing to help and put in the money and be there for the long haul.

It may be a long haul, but Gulati noted that “on a day-to-day basis, it’s really awesome to have mostly friends you work with.” With perhaps 100 employees by the end of the year and tens of millions of dollars already in the bank, they have their war chest and their army ready to go. Now comes the fun (and hard) part as we learn how the chips fall.

Update: Changed the text to reflect that NUVIA is intending to build on top of ARM’s architecture, but isn’t a licensed ARM core.

Takeaways from Nvidia’s latest quarterly earnings

Nvidia has been on a wild growth ride the past five years. Surfing a wave around AI deep learning and cryptocurrency where its specialized chip architecture is among the highest performing, the company’s share price rose from the low $20s in late 2014 to eventually soar to almost $300 in September 2018. And then crypto winter set in, and within weeks the company’s market cap was sliced nearly in half as crypto miners canceled their orders and inventories at Nvidia started building up a glut of chips.

Since that nadir in late 2018, the company has mostly been on the upswing as it has pushed expansion into a variety of other verticals like automotive, most notably by announcing the purchase of Israeli chip maker Mellanox for $6.9 billion in an all cash deal.

So with its latest earnings announcement coming after the bell yesterday, the big questions were how it was continuing to navigate chip inventories, and whether its transaction with Mellanox would close. The company ultimately presented a bit of a mixed bag, and Wall Street seems to have barely budged on the stock price as we all wait resolution on some of the key questions facing the company.

Before we dive into the analysis, first the high level numbers for Q3, which ended on October 27: top-line revenues declined slightly to just above $3 billion, from roughly $3.2 billion in the year ago quarter. Gross profits were flat from a year ago, but net income was down 27% to $899 million, mostly due to higher R&D costs and lower income from operations. Earnings per share was $1.47, down from $2.02 a year ago.

Now though, there were some more interesting takeaways from the results beyond the sort of lukewarm numbers emanating off the income statements.

China trade war still affecting Nvidia through Mellanox

A16Z-backed announces veterans hiring pipeline partnership with

While across much of Asia, November 11th is either “singles day” (a $38 billion Alibaba extravaganza this year) or Pepero Day (named because 11/11 looks like a bunch of chocolate dessert sticks), here in the United States and parts of Europe, November 11th also marks the end of World War I and the commemoration of Veterans Day.

Every year in the U.S., tens of thousands of soldiers leave active duty and transition into the civilian workforce, a route that can be startlingly difficult to navigate. How do you describe what an ordnance specialist does to civilians who have no idea what an MOS is? While the military teaches skills useful to a wide number of professions, holding the right conversations in a job search is key to making the leap.

That’s why a spate of new programs aims to help make it easier for veterans to head into the civilian workforce, and particularly into tech, which obviously has huge growth and great jobs waiting for those who can lock them up. I’ve previously covered one TechStars-connected non-profit, Patriot Boot Camp, which helps veterans looking to launch startups navigate the founder route.

One company that we haven’t covered on TechCrunch before though is, an a16z-backed for-profit startup that aims to help veterans learn the key career skills needed to “shift” from the military into the civilian workforce.

Today for Veterans Day, the company announced a new employer partnership with mortgage fintech startup that will see hire 80 veterans in the next few months using as a sourcing pool, with a projected hiring target of 5,000 veterans and their spouses by 2025 (assuming, as with all high-growth startups, that the high-growth continues firing on all cylinders).

In a press statement, CEO Vishal Garg said that “Veterans are an untapped source of talent that learned, operated and adapted to some of the world’s most innovative technologies from VR to robotics, nuclear technology and cyber.”

I chatted a bit with CEO Mike Slagh about how he sees these partnerships and his own path into building a company. “I got started three years ago after serving in the Navy for just over five years as a bomb disposal officer,” he explained. In many ways, was trying to fix his own challenge in moving back into the civilian workforce:

… My story was, I was going on base to the career fairs — there are these big aircraft hangers — and you’re sitting across the table from these employers, and they’re telling you what it’s like to work at their company, they’re telling you what [their] culture is like, and it’s just really hard to picture and it’s such an anxiety-ridden decision, and a big high-stakes moment in your life where you want to get it right for your family, you want to get it right for your future career trajectory.

Part of that anxiety is that saying the right things is often more crucial in recruitment settings than having the right skills. Slagh said that “I actually think that the gap is much narrower than many people naturally assume,” but, “you have to oftentimes have industry-specific context for somebody to take a bet on you when you have a non-traditional background.”

Since launching, has partnered with employers like, Major League Baseball, and Symantec to help bridge the divide and open the pipeline to a wider and more diverse set of candidates.

The company was first funded by Garrett Camp of Expa Labs, and netted a reported $4 million round from Jeff Jordan at Andreessen Horowitz early last year. Slagh said his hope is to eventually work with hundreds of thousands of veterans not just secure great jobs, but also to train them in the skillsets they need to succeed in the future. The company is exclusively partnered today with Lambda School to help provide some of that technical background, for instance.

Can America ever rebuild its neighborhoods and communities?

We talk a lot about startup ecosystems around these parts, and for good reason. Strong ecosystems have great reservoirs of talent congregated close together, a culture built around helping one another on ambitious projects, and sufficient risk capital to ensure that interesting projects have the resources to get underway.

Strip off the ecosystem layer though, and you are left with the actual, physical manifestation of a city or region — its housing, its transportation and mobility options, and its infrastructure. And if Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity is any indication, a whole heck of a swath of America has little hope of ever tapping into the modern knowledge economy or creating the kind of sustainable growth that builds “Strong Towns.”

Across the country, Marohn sees evidence of what he dubs a “Municipal Ponzi scheme.” Cities — armed with economic development dollars and consultants galore — focus their energies and budgets on new housing subdivisions as well as far-flung, auto-dependent office parks and strip malls, all the while ignoring the long-term debt, maintenance costs, and municipal burdens they are transferring to future generations of residents. “The growth creates an illusion of wealth, a broad, cultural misperception that the growing community is become [sic] stronger and more prosperous. Instead, with each new development, they become increasingly more insolvent,” the author writes.

He provides a multitude of examples, but few are as striking as that of Lafayette, Louisiana:

As one example, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, had 5 feet of pipe per person in 1949. By 2015, that had grown to 50 feet, an increase of 1,000%. They had 2.4 fire hydrants per 1,000 people in 1949, but by 2015, they had 51.3. This is a 2,140% increase. Over the same period, median household income in Lafayette grew just 160% from an inflation-adjusted $27,700 to $45,000. And if national trends hold locally in Lafayette, which they almost certainly do, household savings decreased while personal debt skyrocketed. Lafayette grew its liabilities thousands of times over in service of a theory of national growth, yet its families are poorer.

The author contextualizes just how weird the modern American suburb and community is in the grand sweep of human history, where co-location, walkability, and human-scale density weren’t just norms, but necessities. The lack of thoughtful, dynamic planning that allows cities to adapt and evolve over time eventually comes to tear at the vitality of the town itself. “Only the richest country in the world could build so much and make such poor use of it.”

Marohn has spent decades in urban planning and also runs Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy organization that tries to create more sustainable cities by attempting to guide the urban planning conversation toward better models of adaptable growth. He brings an authority to the topic that is heartening, and the book is absolutely on the right vector on how to start to think about urban planning going forward.

In addition to his discussions around municipal finance, he makes the critical connections between urban planning and some of the most pressing challenges facing America today. He notes how the disintegration of tight-knit communities has exacerbated issues like drug abuse and mental health, and how the focus on big-box retail development has undermined smaller-scale entrepreneurship.

Even more heartening in some ways is that the solutions are seemingly so easy. For example, one is to simply account for the true, long-term costs of infrastructure and economic development dollars, properly accounting for “value per acre.”

Yet, the flaws in the book are manifold, and I couldn’t help but shake my head on numerous occasions at the extent to which movements to improve urban planning always seem to shudder on the weight of reality.

Nowhere are those flaws more glaring than over the actual preferences of the residents of these cities themselves. As anyone who lives in San Francisco or Palo Alto understands, there is a serious contingent of NIMBYs who consistently vote against housing and density regardless of its effects on inequality or urban quality. Kim-Mai Cutler wrote one of the definitive pieces on this topic five years ago right here at TechCrunch, and yet, all these years later, the same dynamics still animates local politics in California and across the world.

The prescriptions offered in Strong Towns are not only correct, they are almost incontestable. “Instead of prioritizing maintenance based on condition or age, cities must prioritize based on financial productivity,” Marohn writes. Public dollars should be spent on the highest-impact maintenance projects. Who is really against that?

But, people are, as evidenced by city council meetings all across the United States and the simple ground truth that cities don’t spend their dollars wisely. Whether your issue is housing, or climate change, or economic development, or inequality, the reality is that residents vote, and their voices are heard. That leads to Marohn writing:

As a voter, as a property owner within a municipal corporation, as a person living cooperatively with my neighbors in a community, I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city. My local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options, particularly at the price points people expect.

Yet, what should one do if 70-80% of a city’s voters literally want to jump off the proverbial cliff?

Ultimately, should cities be responsive to their own voters? If San Francisco refuses to build more transit-oriented development and in the process exacerbates the climate change literally setting the Bay Area on fire, shouldn’t the damn voters burn straight to the ground?

Marohn, who talks over several pages of his political evolution from Republican to complex libertarian communalist, never faithfully addresses this core problem with the Strong Towns thesis, or indeed, the entire activism around urban politics today. “American culture spends a lot of time debating what should be done, but hardly any time discussing who should make the decision,” he writes. But we do — we did — discuss who makes the decisions, and our political systems actively respond to those decision-makers: local voters.

American towns are in a perilous state – and that is precisely what people demanded and received. Marohn criticizes the planning profession for its lack of municipal sustainability, but seemingly is willing to substitute one group of far-flung experts with another to override the locals, presumably just with a different (better?) set of values.

In the final analysis, Strong Towns the book gets the fundamentals right. But will it change minds? I’m doubtful. It certainly doesn’t offer a clear guidebook on how local leaders can start to educate their neighbors and build the kinds of voter blocs required to get local, democratic change on these issues. Ultimately, the book feels like a smaller footnote to the worthy work of Strong Towns the organization, which ultimately will drive the activity needed to build change on these issues.

From the NBA to Sequoia to TikTok and more, a week of national security concerns with China

It has been a tough week for China-U.S. relations. Vice President Mike Pence ratcheted up the administration’s rhetoric yesterday, calling the NBA “a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime” in China while the league’s commissioner Adam Silver continued to try to tamp down the intensity of criticism over the league’s business, saying in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “We have no choice but to engage and to attempt to have better understanding of other cultures and try to work through issues.”

The NBA was hardly the only challenge between the U.S. and China. This week saw the intensification of two threads of national security concerns continue to get airtime on Capitol Hill that could have massive ramifications for startups.

The first and potentially most potent thread is swirling around TikTok, the epically popular social video app that also happens to be owned and operated by China-based ByteDance. This week, senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas circulated a bipartisan letter requesting an assessment of TikTok’s national security risks.

ByteDance remains the world’s highest-valued unicorn (which, perhaps in the wake of WeWork’s collapse the past two weeks, is not an epithet that any startup wants to actually hold these days). It has received major funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital China, and is currently valued at $75 billion.

Sequoia is clearly preparing for the worst around these national security reviews. Last week, the firm confirmed to The American Lawyer that Donald Vieira, a partner at top law firm Skadden, would be joining the venture firm as chief legal officer. Vieira has spent the last few years working on cases surrounding CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (WTF is CFIUS?), and earlier, was chief of staff of none other than the Department of Justice’s national security division.

That expertise will be critical as Sequoia potentially faces a tough reception for ByteDance in the national security circuit on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, CFIUS required video game publisher Beijing Kunlun to retroactively divest itself of its purchase of gay-dating app Grindr over concerns that the app’s user data could provide Chinese intelligence and law enforcement officials with compromising material that would allow for individual blackmail.

While Grindr’s text messages may be far more compromising than the average TikTok viral video, the app’s small user base is dwarfed by TikTok, which has seen more than 100 million downloads in the U.S. alone. That potentially wide surveillance net is of acute concern for U.S. intelligence officials.

On top of that, of course, is the media’s heightened discussion the past few weeks that ByteDance could carefully calibrate the virality of videos on TikTok to hew toward Beijing’s censorship dictates. That has led to some teens posting various memes about the Hong Kong protests to see how far they can push the platform’s red lines (as teens are wont to do).

Strategically, the China angle has become very useful for Facebook, who faces a viable threat in TikTok’s popularity according to my colleague Josh Constine. Mark Zuckerberg has made China’s potential censorship within TikTok a major speaking point, which he emphasized in a major policy speech at Georgetown:

While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.

Is that the internet we want?

Facebook’s strategic messaging starts to lead us to the other national security thread happing these days in DC. There have been wide concerns over the past few months on Capitol Hill over bids for subway, rail, bus, and other transit contracts from Chinese companies like state-owned CRRC and electric bus and battery manufacturer BYD . There have been motions to ban federal transit funding for projects that use vehicles from Chinese-subsidized sources.

A new report published this morning by Radarlock, a data-driven research organization, argues that Beijing is using access to these contracts to enhance its ‘civil-military fusion,’ by which China means learning how to manufacture and build leading global supply chains that help it in both private sector competitiveness and in military superiority. As the research leads Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic write:

Through both data collection and technology, CRRC contributes to Beijing’s military and military-civil fusion [“MCF”] projects: Explicitly declaring, in its company documents, a role in the military-civil fusion strategy, CRRC has set up an investment fund dedicated to MCF; operates in MCF industry zones; shares technology, resources, and data with military-and MCF-affiliates; and assigns the MCF label to high-profile projects and centers.

Like Facebook though, these results are being highlighted by industry sources, with Politico Pro noting that Securing America’s Future Energy and the Alliance for American Manufacturing have been pushing a previous report on BYD around DC.

And that gets back to the challenges of future economic ties between the two superpowers, notwithstanding the latest developments in the trade war negotiation (which seem as likely to conclude as Brexit is to happen).

National security policy is increasingly being used by incumbent players as a cudgel to stifle competition. Many of those national security concerns are valid — and sometimes acutely so — but we also need to be extraordinarily clear that like any market restriction, there is ultimately a consumer cost to these initiatives as well. The Chinese may go without star-studded basketball as much as Americans will go without working subway cars, and that’s the cost of a relationship that has never been built on a foundation of trust.

Don’t wait to plan your exit, even if it’s years away

Startup founders have a million things to worry about every day.

Finding product-market fit, great talent and and a sustainable plan for constant growth are top of mind, but perhaps most importantly, they need to keep the lights on, whether it’s by raising venture capital or managing cash flows while bootstrapping.

The flip side to thinking about fundraising and growth, however, is skipping ahead to the final chapter — whether that involves M&A, an IPO or perhaps a bankruptcy, eventually all startups come to an end.

Instead of thinking about an exit while in the final throes, founders need to strategically lay the groundwork, even if it is potentially years away. Here’s how.

On the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, we had a deep conversation on what founders should do to prepare for an exit with Jess Lee of Sequoia, who sold her startup Polyvore to TechCrunch parent company Yahoo; Justin Kan, who sold Twitch to Amazon and now runs legal startup Atrium; and Mike Marquez, the founding managing director of boutique investment bank Code Advisors.

The good news is that the primary requirement for exiting a startup is really the same work that a founder has to focus on: building a great business. “The best way to sell your company is to actually build a good company,” said Kan, since no acquirer is looking to buy damaged goods.

But even if you are building a solid business, that’s not nearly enough to get a transaction done some time down the line. One consistent piece of advice from the group was that founders should be thinking about an exit much more regularly, even if they are steadfastly opposed to one. That means identifying key relationships that will make an M&A possible and working to build and maintain those relationships.

“I thought about it too late,” Lee said about her time running Polyvore . “The same way you build relationships with investors, you should spend at least a little bit of time building relationships with partners who could become potential acquirers.”

Kan elaborated further. “I think that in the beginning, your responsibilities as a founder is just to find product-market fit [and] work on your product,” he said. “And then once you have a product that people want, you want to figure out how to get it in the hands of more people, and that’s when it starts to become really valuable to know everyone in your market and then adjacent markets.”

Far from being a completely separate task from the other duties of being a CEO, connecting with potential acquirers often has benefits for growing a company in the first place.