Why Elizabeth Warren Wants to Break Up Big Tech

Earlier this year, Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren posted an online missive in which she laid out her plans to break up big tech (notably Amazon, Google and Facebook). In it, she noted:

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

We, here in the west, are big believers in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. We inherently believe that markets will self-regulate and eventually balance themselves. We are loath to involve government in the running of a free market.

In introducing the concept of the Invisible Hand, Smith speculated that,  

“[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

In short, a rising tide raises all boats. But there is a dicey little dilemma buried in the midst of the Invisible Hand Premise – summed up most succinctly by the fictitious Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed is Good.”

More eloquently, economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman explained it like this:

“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” 

But here’s the thing. Up until very recently, the concept of the Invisible Hand dealt only with physical goods. It was all about maximizing tangible resources and distributing them to the greatest number of people in the most efficient way possible.

The difference now is that we’re not just talking about toasters or running shoes. Physical things are not the stock in trade of Facebook or Google. They deal in information, feelings, emotions, beliefs and desires. We are not talking about hardware any longer, we are talking about the very operating system of our society. The thing that guides the Invisible Hand is no longer consumption, it’s influence. And, in that case, we have to wonder if we’re willing to trust our future to the conscience of a corporation?

For this reason, I suspect Warren might be right. All the past arguments for keeping government out of business were all based on a physical market. When we shift that to a market that peddles influence, those arguments are flipped on their head. Milton Friedman himself said , “It (the corporation) only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.” Let’s shift that to today’s world and apply it to a corporation like Facebook – “It only cares whether they can produce something that captures your attention.” To expect anything else from a corporation that peddles persuasion is to expect too much.

The problem with Warren’s argument is that she is still using the language of a market that dealt with consumable products. She wants to break up a monopoly that is limiting competition. And she is targeting that message to an audience that generally believes that big government and free markets don’t mix.

The much, much bigger issue here is that even if you believe in the efficacy of the Invisible Hand, as described by all believers from Smith to Friedman, you also have to believe that the single purpose of a corporation that relies on selling persuasion will be to influence even more people more effectively. None of most fervent evangelists of the Invisible Hand ever argued that corporations have a conscience. They simply stated that the interests of a profit driven company and an audience intent on consumption were typically aligned.

We’re now playing a different game with significantly different rules.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Relevance is the new gold standard in marketing. In an  article in the Harvard Business Review written last year, John Zealley, Robert Wollan and Joshua Bellin — three senior execs at Accenture — outline five stages of marketing (paraphrased courtesy of a post from Phillip Nones):

  1. Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  2. Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  3. Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  4. Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

This last stage – according to marketers past and present – should be the golden era of marketing:

“The perfect advertisement is one of which the reader can say, ‘This is for me, and me alone.” 

— Peter Drucker

“Audiences crave tailored messages that cater to them specifically and they are willing to offer information that enables marketers to do so.”

 Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Umm…no! In fact, hell, no!

I agree that relevance is an important thing. And in an ethical world, the exchange Tash talks about would be a good thing, for both consumers and marketers. But we don’t live in such a world. The world we live in has companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Stop Thinking Like a Marketer!

There is a cognitive whiplash that happens when our perspective changes from that of marketer to that of a consumer. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve even prompted it on occasion. But to watch it in 113 minutes of excruciating detail, you should catch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. 

The documentary is a journalistic peeling of the onion that is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was kicked off by the whistle blowing of Christopher Wylie, a contract programmer who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. But to me, the far more interesting story is that of Brittany Kaiser, the director of business Development of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The documentary digs into the tortured shift of perspective as she transitions from thinking like a marketer to a citizen who has just had her private data violated. It makes for compelling viewing.

Kaiser shifted her ideological compass about as far as one could possibly do, from her beginnings as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and a lobbyist for Amnesty International to one of the chief architects of the campaigns supporting Trump’s presidential run, Brexit and other far right persuasion blitzkriegs. At one point, she justifies her shift to the right by revealing her family’s financial struggle and the fact that you don’t get paid much as an underling for Democrats or as a moral lobbyist. The big bucks are found in the ethically grey areas.  Throughout the documentary, she vacillates between the outrage of a private citizen and the rationalization of a marketer. She is a woman torn between two conflicting perspectives.

We marketers have to stop kidding ourselves and justifying misuse of personal data with statements like the one previously quoted from Kevin Tash. As people, we’re okay. I like most of the marketers I know. But as professional marketers, we have a pretty shitty track record. We trample privacy, we pry into places we shouldn’t and we gleefully high-five ourselves when we deliver the goods on a campaign — no matter who that campaign might be for and what its goals might be. We are very different people when we’re on the clock.

We are now faced with what may be the most important questions of our lives: How do we manage our personal data? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who has the right to use it? When we answer those questions, let’s do it as people, and not marketers. Because there is a lot more at stake here than the ROI rates on a marketing campaign.

Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

The Decoupling Effect – And How Regulators Struggle to Keep Up

What happens when you take a world divided by distance and connect it with technology?

If you said massive disruption, you’d be right, but perhaps this is just symptomatic of an even bigger shift. What you have is a world that is becoming decoupled. In a world subject to the whims of physicality, you had tremendous amounts of transactional friction that was caused by the infrastructure required to make things happen. This infrastructure created long logistical value chains that were required to make markets function.

Let’s say you had to plan a family holiday in 1979. Realistically the only way was to use a travel agent, who was the required link between you and all the separate silos required to book plane tickets, reserve a hotel, arrange for transfers and get your tickets to Disneyland. There was a long value chain with you at one end and all the disparate pieces of your vacation on the other. That chain has since been blown apart and reconnected in a much more direct way by technology. This is the nature of decoupling.

This process introduces an interesting paradigm shift that sits at the heart of disruption. It takes a vertical chain dictated by the physical and logistical friction of a marketplace and shifts the axis 180 degrees to a number of stacked horizontal markets – all directly connected to the end customer – each of which opens up tremendous new opportunities. Take, from the example above, the process of booking a hotel room. When we pick this out of the vertical chain and rotate it to a horizontal market directly connected to consumers, suddenly there is whole new universe of options, with room for AirBnB, Couchsurfing, VRBO, Flipkey and a host of other emerging platforms.

It’s this flipping of axes that lies at the heart of the decoupling that is redefining our notion of a marketplace. According to Harvard professor Thales Teixeira, it’s here – not technology – where we find the true center of disruption. He has just written a new book, “Unlocking the Customer Value Chain,” that explores this notion of decoupling.  In it, he shows how once a “decoupled link” flips from the vertical to the horizontal, there is plenty of room for new start-ups to emerge and disrupt the incumbents. In an interview for the Knowledge@Wharton podcast, he points out that for start-up, “decoupling is looking at one activity in the customer value chain and deciding to do it much better than the incumbent.”

Teixeira also reminds us of a vital point in all of this market upheaval. This decoupling and pivoting from the vertical to the horizontal brings with it a new wave of benefits for the customer. It takes a previously necessary pain point away from them and instead opens up a huge range of new options.  He notes, “My key finding in the book, after looking at many industries, is it’s the customer who is disrupting these businesses. The changing needs and wants and behaviors of customers are actually the root cause of this huge shift away from large retailers into other startups and other online retailers.”

But if the benefits of decoupling tend to accrue to the customer, there are equal and corresponding pain points that fall on other parties. I’ve already mentioned the market incumbents. But legislators and regulator also feel the impact of disruption. It’s in the nature of a customer value chain to be fairly cohesive and somewhat stable. These chains formed to overcome the physical market logistics that introduced transactional friction into the process of buying something. The chain was the only way to overcome this friction. And that friction introduced some degree of stability into the market. Chains take time to form and this stability allows for regulators and legislators to eventually introduce governing checks and balances to address loopholes and unintended consequences in the market.

When markets become decoupled, however, they move at a speed that soon leaves governance in the dust. These emerging opportunities and the start-ups that jump on board rely solely on the “Invisible hand” to bring balance to a dynamic marketplace. That tends to work fine to balance forces of supply and demand, but markets exist within ecosystems and it’s these ecosystems that can be negatively impacted by the disruptions that come with decoupling.

Again, let’s take AirBnB as an example. I live in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The biggest city in B.C. is Vancouver, which represents an ecosystem uniquely vulnerable to the sources of disruption. First, Vancouver prides itself on both sustainability and liveability. It’s one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations. It also happens to be one of the world’s hottest real estate markets. The emergence of AirBnB dropped like a bombshell into the midst of this fragile triangle, unleashing unintended consequences in all directions. Predictably, the incumbent players felt the strain. Hotels and motels struggled to respond to the flood of new options in the market. But less predictably, residential neighborhoods were transformed into extended accommodation villages. Municipal taxes went from being an investment in the common good to a business expense to be kept under control. Zoning bylaws were ignored en masse. City legislators are just now cracking down on new legislation to try to corral the forces of disruption. And AirBnB is fighting back on multiple fronts.

This decoupling of the world is a Pandora’s box. Now that it’s opened, it will never again be closed. The links of the chain that are being decoupled will continue to get more granular, opening up more and more market opportunities. Teixeira gives the example of Sephora, who uncoupled something as minute as trying a sample of a lipstick or blush and turned it into a market opportunity.

Why Marketing is Increasingly Polarizing Everything

 

Trump. Kanye. Kaepernick. Miracle Whip.

What do these things all have in common? They’re polarizing. Just the mention of them probably stirs up strong feelings in you, one way or the other.

Wait. Miracle Whip?

Yep. Whether you love or hate Miracle Whip is perhaps the defining debate of our decade.

Okay, maybe not. But it turns out that Miracle Whip – which I always thought of as the condiment counterpart to vanilla – is a polarized brand, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.  And far from being aghast at the thought, Kraft Foods, the maker of Miracle Whip, embraced the polarization with gusto. They embedded it in their marketing.

I have to ask – when did it become a bad thing to be vanilla? I happen to like vanilla. But I always order something else. And there’s the rub. Vanilla is almost never our first choice, because we don’t like to be perceived as boring.

Boring is the kiss of death for marketing. So even Miracle Whip, which is literally “boring” in a jar, is trying to “whip” up some controversy. Our country is being split down the middle and driven to either side – shoved to margins of outlier territory. Outrageous is not only acceptable. It’s become desirable. And marketing is partly to blame.

We marketers are enamored with this idea of “viralness.” We want advertising to be amplified through our target customer’s social networks. Boring never gets retweeted or shared. We need to be jolted out of those information filters we have set on high alert. That’s why polarization works. By moving to extremes, brands catch our attention. And as they move to extremes, they drag us along with them. Increasingly, the brands we chose as our own identifying badges are moving away from any type of common middle ground. Advertising is creating a nation of ideological tribes that have an ever-increasing divide separating them.

The problem is that polarization works. Look at Nike. As Sarah Mahoney recently documented in a Mediapost article, the Colin Kaepernick campaign turned some impressive numbers for Nike. Research from Kantar Millward Brown found these ads were particularly effective in piercing our ennui. The surprising part is that it did it on both sides of the divide. Based on Kantar’s Link evaluation, the ad scored in the top 15% of ads on something called “Power Contribution.” According to Kantar, that’s the ad’s “potential to impact long-term equity.” If we strip away the “market-speak” from this, that basically means the Kaepernick ads make them an excellent tribal badge to rally around.

If you’re a marketer, it’s hard to argue with those numbers. And Is it really important if half the world loves a brand, and the other half hates it? I suspect it is. The problem comes when we look at exactly the same thing Kantar’s Link Evaluation measures – what is the intensity of feeling you have towards a brand? The more intense the feeling, the less rational you are. And if the object of your affection lies in outlier territory – those emotions can become highly confrontational towards those on the other side of the divide. Suddenly, opinions become morals, and there is no faster path to hate than embracing a polarized perspective on morality. The more that emotionally charged marketing pushes us towards the edges, the harder it is to respect opinions that are opposed to our own. This embracing of polarization in non-important areas – like which running shoes you choose to wear – increases polarization in other areas where it’s much more dangerous. Like politics.

As if we haven’t seen enough evidence of this lately, polarized politics can cripple a country. In a recent interview on NPR, Georgia State political science professor Jennifer McCoy listed three possible outcomes from polarization. First, the country can enter polarization gridlock, where nothing can get done because there is a complete lack of trust between opposing parties. Secondly, a polarization pendulum can occur, where power swings back and forth between the two sides and most of the political energy is expended undoing the initiatives of the previous government. Often there is little logic to this, other than the fact that the initiatives were started by “them” and not “us.” Finally, one side can find a way to stay in power and then actively work to diminish and vanquish the other side by dismantling democratic platforms.

Today, as you vote, you’ll see ample evidence of the polarization of America. You’ll also see that at least two of the three outcomes of polarization are already playing out. We marketers just have to remember that while we love it when a polarized brand goes viral, there may be another one of those intended consequences lurking in the background.

 

 

Life After Google: The Great Social Experiment

Google is fascinating. And not because of an algorithm, or technology, or it’s balance sheet.

Google is fascinating at a human level. It is perhaps the greatest corporate-based social experiment conducted so far this century.

If we are talking about the Silicon Valley ethos, Google is the iconic example. There were other companies that started down the road of turning their corporate culture into a secular religion before Google, but it was this company that crystallized it. It is the company caricaturized in pop culture, whether it be the thinly disguised Hooli of the series Silicon Valley, a dystopian The Circle in the forgettable movie of the same name, or even straight up Google besieged by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in The Internship.

By now, Facebook has arguably picked up the mantle of the iconic Silicon Valley culture but that’s also what makes Google interesting. Google – and it’s carefully crafted hyper-drive working culture – has now been around for two decades. Many have passed through the crucible of all that is Google and have emerged on the other side.  Today I offer three interesting examples of Life after Google – with three people who are making their social statements in three very different ways. Let’s call them the Evangelist, the Novelist and the Algorithmist.

The Evangelist – Tristan Harris

Harris_Tristan_AIF2018_0I’ve talked about Tristan before in this column. He is the driving force behind Time Well Spent and The Center for Humane Technology. Harris has been called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” by The Atlantic Magazine. He was sucked into the Google vortex when Google acquired his company – Apture – in 2011. Harris then spent some time as Google’s Design Ethicist before leaving Google in 2016 to work full-time on “reforming the attention economy.”

Tristan shares my fear that technology may be playing nasty tricks with our minds below the waterline of consciousness. He focuses on the nexus of that influence, the handful of companies that steer our thoughts without us even being aware of it. In Tristan’s crusade, the prime suspect is Facebook but Google also shares the blame. And the crime is the theft of our attention. This asset, which we believe is in our control, is actually being consciously diverted into areas by someone other than ourselves. Design engineers are all too aware of our psychological hot buttons and push them mercilessly because, in this new economy, attention equals profitability. For that reason, Harris’s message would risk being disingenuous coming from the Googleplex. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to believe that Google or Facebook would lead the “Time Well Spent” charge when doing so would directly impact their bottom line.

The Novelist – Jessica Powell

JessicaPowell_057_hires.0Jessica Powell was the head of communications at Google. And while she says her new novel – “The Big Disruption” –  is not a Google tell-all, the subject matter is definitely targeted right at her former employer. The name of the company in the novel has been changed to Anahata, but anyone who has ever visited the Google campus would recognize her descriptions instantly. The Big Disruption is satire and as such it’s been exaggerated for effect.  But hidden amongst the wild caricatures are spot-on revelations about Silicon Valley. The Novel – available at Medium.com – is billed as a “totally fictional but essentially true Silicon Valley Story.  And a review in the New York Times states, “while the events in her satire are purposefully and hilariously over the top, her diagnosis of Silicon Valley’s cultural stagnancy is so spot on that it’s barely contestable.”

The Algorithmist – Max Hawkins

maxhawkinsSo, if we’re talking about surrendering control of our lives to technology, we have to talk about Max Hawkins. His life is determined by an algorithm. Actually, his life is determined by a few algorithms.

Hawkins was profiled in the NPR podcast Invisibilia. He left his job as a Google software engineer three years ago. Max has created a number of programs that randomly direct his life. For example, he created a program that scraped Facebook’s events API and sent him to them at random. Suggestions about where and what he eats are also randomly generated by an algorithm. Even his new tattoo was determined by an algorithm that scraped Google Images for line art suggestions. Accordingly to an interview on Medium, his latest project involves a machine that scans books for verb-object pairs – such as “hire a babysitter” or even “kill a deer”  – randomly presenting them to him to act on.

The interesting thing about Hawkins’ experiment is the authority he gives to his algorithms. He feels comfortable doing this because of the randomness of the process. He speculates what this might mean for the world at large, “It’d be interesting to imagine what would happen if all power was distributed randomly. A randomized socialism where the computer decides that you’re rich for a couple of months and you get to see what it’s like to wield power and after that you’re poor for a while. There’s a certain fairness to that.”

For these three – life at Google must have shaped what came after.