Compassion is the Enemy
|Jun 8, 2020|
Welcome to new subscribers. For those just joining the party, The Generalist exists to help the curious go beyond the headlines and understand how technology is changing the world. This week you'll learn about an undeserving saint, Mayan ruins, the black-owned startups hitting hyperdrive, Amazon's thirst for blood, and a haunted island in Italy. Thank you for being here.
Editor's Letter: Social media amplifies human flaws
Mother Teresa was a hell of a marketer.
Remembered as a (literal) saint, the woman born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu had more than her share of foibles and hypocrisies, expressing draconian views of abortion and divorce, hobnobbing with the vicious Duvalier family, oppressors of Haiti, and mistreating many that found their way into her care. But she understood something fundamental about humans, something that goes some way towards explaining her popularity: we love a good story.
"If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will," she is reported to have said.
Which is to say statistics be damned. If you expect action, provide an anecdote. This phenomenon, known as "psychic numbing," represents one of the great flaws of the Homosapien OS. Against all logic, we ascribe significantly less value to every life after the first one. We are motivated to save the individual. The mass, we could care less about.
This is not a new phenomenon — Adam Smith discussed the concept in The Theory of Moral Sentiments — nor is it solitary. When we are looked at in our entirety, as a corpus of code, humanity's software is riddled with bugs. Not only do we care little about situations in which deaths > 1, but we are also fundamentally emotionally-driven creatures, meaning that we rely less on logic than we'd like to think, less than we should. As articulated by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, when it comes to moral decision-making, we are mostly acting on instinct, squeezing in logical arguments to match after the fact. As if this blemish were not sufficient, this reliance on emotion is also chimerical, flighty, subservient to sudden gusts of feeling. We are compassionate only when inspired, only when driven, and even then we are drawing from a finite resource. If over-exposed to requests for help, we are liable to suffer from "compassion fatigue," in which our better angels turn stony-faced. Anyone who lives in major metropolises with large homeless populations like New York or San Francisco will be familiar with the feeling.
We are, in short, imperfect. A groupish band of social primates, clutching to our own things, intermittently baring teeth to protect those closest to us before lauding ourselves for such vague and unreliable shows of empathy.
Social media makes it worse.
This is, of course, about George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Or, to put a finer point on it, about the way those subjects are discussed on social media. A great wave of compassion broke across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram this week, with many well-meaning people sharing their support for a vital, high-minded movement. Though we may be glad for the momentary increase in awareness brought about by this outpouring, real, enduring change requires action beyond the platforms.
We have seen the emptiness of the social media hype cycle before.
Do you remember Alan Kurdi? In September 2015, a harrowing photograph circulated. A three-year-old boy, Syrian, drowned and face down on a Turkish beach. He and his family had been trying to reach Greece.
For a brief moment, the world turned their full attention to the toddler and the atrocities he represented. Never mind that 250K had died already by then, now was the time to pay real attention and take action. The hashtag #RefugeesWelcome circulated, donations to the Red Cross spiked, and both the German and Austrian governments decided to open their borders.
Then interest faded, donations dwindled, and governments turned their attention elsewhere. In short, our compassion was redirected or exhausted. The latter is almost the inevitable result of social media with its heightened emotion and endless feed. Meanwhile, bombs continued to fall on Aleppo, and Syrians continued to flee, and boats still floundered, and children drowned in the same sea. Just a year after his death, Alan's father said, "My Alan died for nothing.”
Compassion is the enemy. In its vividness and high-color, in the delight it gives its exponent, in its brevity, compassion impedes enduring change. It is the least we should be able to provide as humans, the bare minimum, and as such, unworthy of celebration or mention.
The entirety of the corporate world was awash with sentiments of contrition this week, with venture capital, my chosen industry, no exception. A collection of tweets from various firms:
"We support our companies and teams as they stand with the Black community."
"[We] believe that equality is not a privilege, but a right for all. Everyone. Everywhere."
"We condemn racism towards the Black community. We condemn acts of violence, bigotry, hate."
"[We] unequivocally stands with the Black community, and for civil rights and equality of justice for all."
What meaning can be gleaned from such platitudes? Without accompanying action — enduring commitments that go beyond one-time donations or temporary offers to meet with black founders — this is rhetoric with the nutritional value of paper. The most charitable appraisal would be that these expressions are well-intentioned banalities. At worse, it is craven opportunism, marketing masquerading as conscience. Do we believe that capital allocators will make meaningful changes to their practices without additional pressure, without building systems that run without the intervention of compassion?
As we think of how we can move beyond empty sentiment, that, I would posit, is the true challenge. Not feeling more or undertaking some token, episodic deed, but constructing systems such that we don't need to rely on the vagaries of compassion to do good. As the author, Chinua Achebe, said, "While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”
Just as technology has had a role to play in magnifying our flaws, so too should it be part of correcting them.
Payment processors allow consumers to donate to charities on a recurring basis, avoiding the mental overhead required to recommit to a cause each month. Video games and virtual reality can reduce prejudice. Racist policing algorithms, like those previously used by the LAPD, can be amended or junked. Just as W.E.B Du Bois once did, data visualizations can be used to convey the scale of a problem in new, evocative ways.
Social media is a reflection of who we are, flaws included. But technology can be so much more, correcting for the bugs in our human software. My hope is that we may use it to find a road beyond compassion, eschewing the narrowness of Mother Teresa's words. Kierkegaard described a poet as someone whose mouth was so formed that when they cried in pain, the world heard only music. We must recognize what it is to be a human: to have a pair of ears shaped such that we can hear the cries of a single person, yet be deaf to the cacophony of the many, still suffering.
In other news...
Readers may remember a previous Editor's Letter, discussing the pandemic-induced "post-human" era. This week, an amended version of that essay was published in TechCrunch. In addition to fleshing out the existing argumentation, I took a look at how the coronavirus is changing our conception of love and romance.
Some of you may have noticed that new editions of the S-1 Club and RFS 100 were not released this week, as initially planned. Given the events of the past few days, it didn't feel right. You can sign up to receive the next editions of both newsletters below.
James Baldwin on intransigence and change
How lidar helped upstage the Pyramids of Giza
The policies that reduce killings by police
How Yelp can help black businesses
Taiwan's meme game is thwarting misinformation
"The most haunted place in the world."
Jobs at Valo Ventures, Chan Zuckerberg, PayPal, and AngelList
The "Puzzler" section gets a mayor
"People can cry much easier than they can change." — James Baldwin
Advancements in treatment have reduced the coronavirus' fatality rate. A new study has found a reduction of 40% from March to April, with particularly large improvements for those over 80 years old or suffering from hypertension, diabetes, or other chronic conditions. The use of anticoagulants, HIV antivirals, and other medications are presumed to be driving the improvement.
Scientists discovered an ancient Mayan structure this week, thanks to drones equipped with lidar scanners. The rectangular platform is believed to date back to between 1,000 and 800 BC and outdoes the Pyramids of Giza in volume. Interestingly, no signs of statues were found, indicating that Mayan culture may have been more communal and less hierarchical in its early days.
Despite making up 13% of the US population, African-Americans are 2.5x likelier than Caucasian-Americans to be killed by police according to data from Mapping Police Violence. That imbalance holds in states across the political spectrum with African-Americans 2.54x more likely than white Americans to be killed in California, and 2.89x more likely to be killed in New York. Being African-American in Minnesota poses a higher threat (3.91x), though the most dangerous states are Rhode Island (8.74x) and Utah (9.21x). Despite the latter having an African-American population of just over 1%, African-Americans made up 10% of police killings.
This tells just part of the stunning story. Mapping Police Violence notes that just 27 days in 2019 did not feature a death perpetrated by the police and that 8 of the 100 largest police departments kill black men at a higher rate than the broader US murder rate.
Certain use-of-force policies have been found to reduce the number of deaths committed by the police. Requiring all uses of force to be reported reduced police killings by 25%, while banning chokeholds and strangleholds did so by 22%.
While these changes seem immediately valuable and long overdue, it should not excuse the larger population from reformation. As described by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority."
As the nation considers how to combat systemic racism, many are putting their dollars to work. Webuyblack, an e-commerce site for black-owned products, sky-rocketed in popularity over the past week.
They were by no means the only beneficiary, with eatOkra, a food guide for black-owned restaurants seeing a similarly stratospheric rise. Bank Black, a website and app designed to surface black-owned financial institutions, saw a more modest pop.
While affinity-group tech products may profit in the short-term from social movements, sustaining interest is a trickier proposition. Some have suggested a form of algorithmic affirmative action to boost black-owned businesses over a longer time horizon. Despite being just as highly-rated on Yelp, minority-owned businesses tend to grow more slowly than white-owned businesses. A permanent change to Yelp's algorithm (or Google's or Facebook's) that favored black-owned companies might go some way to correcting entrenched biases.
No feat of imagination is required to view Amazon as a vampiric presence in the American business firmament. This time, however, the e-commerce company's hankering for hemoglobin may have a positive effect. In order to maintain a healthy workforce and grow its presence in healthcare, Amazon has backed a Columbia University study into the efficacy of convalescent plasma — the blood of survivors — in treating Covid-19. Dr. Ian Lipkin, an advisor for pandemic flick Contagion, is leading the study.
Though much-ballyhooed, hydroxychloroquine does not seem to prevent contracting the coronavirus. More here
Amazon tweeted support for BLM. It also supplies prejudiced facial recognition systems to police departments across the country. More here
Incident-tracking app, Citizen, which pulls information from the radio channels of 911 dispatchers, saw 440K new downloads over the past week. More here
Food delivery company, Grubhub, is still up for grabs. Once thought to be within Uber's reach, the platform is receiving interest from European competitors, Delivery Hero and Just Eat Takeaway. A merger with those businesses would do nothing to alter the competitive complexion of the US market, and as such, might be an easier sell for regulators, in addition to a friendlier outcome for consumers.
Restaurants are embracing an unlikely role-model: Domino's. The pizza chain is the most successful example of a ghost-kitchen model. More here
Uber has agreed to post bail for food delivery workers arrested while lawfully working during curfew. More here
"Humor over rumor"
That's the terminology used by Taiwan's digital minister, Audrey Tang, to explain the country's tactic of quashing misinformation. When hoaxes appear online, a team of civic hackers and comedians take to social media with a joke that reframes the erroneous information. For example, when rumors surfaced that Taiwan's mask-making would result in a toilet paper shortage, Tang's team created a meme showing the country's premier shaking his behind. That cartoon image was accompanied with clarifying information about the toilet paper supply chain and the message "we only have one pair of buttocks." Tang's team later discovered the story was concocted by a toilet paper company trying to boost sales.
K-pop fans have taken to spamming police departments to thwart the profiling of protestors. More here
Though a glitch made it seem like #BlackLivesMatter had zero views on TikTok last week, the app is nevertheless becoming a hub for political discourse. More here
White nationalist group, Identity Evropa, posed as an "antifa" organization on Twitter, spreading misinformation. More here
Longing for their old lives, some have taken to role-playing on Facebook. One group, titled “a group where we all pretend we’re in the same venue,” features requests for water bottles and earplugs, or help propping open a bathroom door. Others play out different pre-pandemic fantasies, whether that be working at a restaurant, or toiling in a hospital. The only unilateral rule? Don't mention the virus.
Outsized control explains Zuckerberg and Dorsey's ability to duck making meaningful changes on their platforms. More here
Facebook removed dozens of accounts linked to white supremacists Proud Boys and American Guard. More here
With Italy easing lockdown this week, allowing domestic travel and reopening borders, the first tourists began to trickle into Venice. While locals envisioned a future free of the constant crush of visitors, a pair of Germans jumped into the Grand Canal, prompting a fine and expulsion from the city.
That banishment brings to mind a less-heralded feature of the Venetian Penisula: the rather spooky island of Poveglia. Sitting between Venice proper and The Lido, Poveglia was once something of a haven, serving as sanctuary for natives of Padua and Este fleeing barbarians in 421 AD. That tranquil reputation changed in the late 1700s, as the island was used as a quarantine for sufferers of the bubonic plague. As many as a hundred thousand were said to have met their death there, birthing the rumor that half of the island's soil is made of human remains.
In 1922, Poveglia underwent yet another transformation, hosting an asylum for the mentally ill, run by a sadistic physician. Many believe patients were subjected to horrifying medical tests, including crude lobotomies. The ghosts of the deceased were said to have haunted the doctor in question so intensely that he was driven mad, eventually throwing himself from the island's bell tower.
Today, though technically under private ownership, Poveglia remains derelict. A grassroots movement, "Poveglia per Tutti," hopes to restore the island, making it a place the public can enjoy.
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I am a word of six. My first three letters refer to an automobile, my last three letters refer to a household animal. My first four letters make a fish, in my entirety, I can be found on your floor. What am I?
This one may require a pen and paper. Quite tricky. As always, all guesses welcome and clues given to those curious enough to message.
You may have noticed a few recurring names over recent editions, none appearing as frequently as this week's winner: Sam P. Making it four-in-a-row, Sam provided the correct answer in short order, before being joined by Natan W, Amit S, Steven V, Kris S, Monica V, Jeannette G, and Jimmy S. The puzzle in question?
What common English verb becomes its own past-tense by rearranging its letters?
The right answer was "eat/ate," though several readers provided clever alternatives. Harry S reasonably suggested "read/read," while Alex R put his history degree to good use with the apposite suggestion "speak/spake." Before coming to the stated answer, Monica V cleverly suggested the same. Congratulations to winners and guessers alike.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed today's edition, consider sharing The Generalist with the friend most likely to rope you into visiting Poveglia. Sending admiration for those protesting. Stay safe.