[ this end up ]


In Non-fiction, Writing on August 12, 2012 at 11 pm

Google test drove its robotic car 140,000 miles—at least 1,000 of them autonomously—on California highways before we found out. I say we but really I mean they, as in the government who, no doubt, will one day decide whether robots are allowed to wait in line at the DMV alongside humans or not.

The government got a clue after a reporter inquired about the top-secret project and Google fessed up. Google then hired a lobbyist to nudge Nevada into becoming the first state to allow autonomous vehicles onto its roads. For their likely* law-breaking treks in California no punishment did they receive.

The story’s two years old now (the car has since had its first accident; Google blamed the human) but I still find it remarkable. Not the prospect of driverless cars (we’re supposed to be flying cars by now, dammit) nor that a powerful company like Google can lobbyist up and have a law quickly written and passed for their sole benefit. No, what I find remarkable is how this covert 140,000 mile robot and human road trip epitomizes the lost art of innovation and action. To bastardize the tagline of another corporate behemoth: They just did it.

Lest the weekend inventor get too excited about the prospect of up and doing it, this is Google we’re talking about. Those guys can do anything. And maybe, as we engage in a national debate over what the government should “allow” powerful corporations to do in pursuit of ever greater profit, that’s the real reason this story continues to bounce around my noodle. What if, instead of Google, a bright blue collared someone had designed the perfect driverless car? Could they let the robot take the wheel for 1,000 miles with immunity from prosecution? Would a state quickly pave the car’s legal way? Does the average man still possess either the right or inclination to just do it?

We’re at an intersection of thought (robots won’t stop at intersections, FYI) because a great number of people would say no, the state wouldn’t stand for it. They’d point to the state shutting down a child’s lemonade stand as proof that the state’s mindless adherence to existing regulation trumps common sense and innovation almost every time. They’d tell you that if only the state got out of the way of free enterprise we would return to collective prosperity. Others would claim that what the state says about Joe Schmo’s driverless car has little bearing on the final outcome:  Joe Schmo has to labor 40 a week for just enough scratch to live, if he invented the car he couldn’t fund it. Even if he found funding, some greedy financier would get rich off the idea they did not themselves create. To support this view they’d point to the ever widening income gap between the top 1% income earners and the lower 50% or bailouts for a Wall Street who inflated to explosion a Main Street housing bubble.

The view of government as the primary barrier to innovation and entrepreneurialism is characterised by its detractors as support for a no holds barred, anything goes marketplace and the view that under our current form of capitalism the poor are far too disadvantaged to the rich is likened to Marxism which held that since proletariat didn’t have the means to produce goods they would always be exploited by the bourgeoisie. Anarchist or commie, which are you?

Lost in the oversimplified navigational argument is the fact that the current road traveled is a figure eight. The state enables and sustains the powerful’s seemingly insurmountable advantage over the meek.

Even if we accept as true that regulations apply equally to all—favoring no one, regardless of political connectedness or demographics—there’s no doubt that abiding by regulations is easier for corporations and individuals of financial means. There is also little doubt that corporations are all too happy to see the state limit who, through regulatory requirements, may enter their market. Fewer competitors means longer-term profitability.

An example of one such regulatory demand is identified by Facebook on their public filing form. In their application to the SEC Facebook boldly cites SEC financial reporting requirements as a risk factor: “The requirements of being a public company may strain our resources  and divert management’s attention.” In this instance Facebook has not used it’s considerable corporate power to skirt the state mandated requirements, yet if the state’s requirements are a risk factor for Facebook then what are they to a much smaller company?

Such disproportionate regulatory burden on the meek, by virtue of their limited means by which to navigate and comply with regulation, is not limited to Sarbanes-Oxley financial reporting requirements.

If in Oregon lives the best hair-stylist the world has ever known, that person can’t just up and provide hair-dos to paying customers. No, the Best Hair-Doer Ever must first attend an Oregon licensed career school for hair design. After 1450 hours of hair-do schooling (obtaining a barbering license can be done in 350 fewer hours; barbers aren’t trained to administer chemical treatments), 150 hours in safety and infection control, and 100 hours in career development the Best Hair-Doer Ever must take both a practical and written examination. Schooling will cost the Best Hair-Doer Ever around 6 grand. The application, examinations, and authorization to practice will cost $115.

What if the Best Hair-Doer Ever is dirt poor? Due to the steep cost of entering the Hair-Doing market, a cost imposed by the government, the government provides taxpayer funding for cosmetology school. But even on a free ride, how does one survive while attending hair-do class for over 200 days? How do they get to hair-do class every day? If they have kids, who will watch them during class? The Best Hair-Doer Ever has a lot to figure out before pursuing hair-doing.

Once the Best Hair-Doer Ever’s hair-doing ability has been affirmed and authorized by the state (during the practical examination the examiner was so impressed she stopped the test early and asked to have her hair done in the remaining time) the Hair-Doer must now find a job. The Hair-Doer could start their own business but, well, you can’t just put a NOW OPEN sign on your front door and call it a business. More fees, more permits, more licenses, more state authorization.

Who knows where that Hair-Doer ended up (not on the scissor end of my uneven budget cut, for sure)? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, regardless the merit of any one regulatory requirement, regulation often serves as a barrier for the least advantaged among us to pursue their path to a more advantaged life.

How did we end up perpetually asking the government for permission in our pursuit of prosperity?

Ostensibly public safety is at the heart of many regulations**. The Oregon Board of Cosmetology alludes to this on their homepage, saying “Let’s all work together to keep the salon experience in Oregon safe and healthy!” You can’t just let anyone do hair. You can’t just let anyone drive (not even a robot). You can’t just let anyone practice medicine. You can’t just let anyone operate a MRI, clean teeth, trim nails, give massages, build houses, inspect houses, buy Sudafed, buy Adderral, buy spray paint…where does it end?

It doesn’t, not in our current figure eight. While the public will always debate the best way to minimize threats to its safety, we’ve ceded final decision making to a government who looks to entrenched corporate interests for guidance (and campaign donations). Why should the Board of Cosmetology lobby for lessening the requirements to pursue hair-doing? All their current constituents are prospering in the status quo. If the Best Hair-Doer Ever enters the hair-do market the only immediate beneficiary is said Hair-Doer. This is true of almost every major sector of the American economy. Powerful private interests advocate for continued policies of protectionism and the powerful public sector is often all too eager listen. The poor remain, on the whole, disadvantaged.

Meanwhile , the debate rages on: How can we, if at all, collectively prosper?

Lost in this debate over what is economically just, what is egalitarian, is any conception of the good life. Neighbor’s prosperity be damned, how to do you want to live ? And is economic prosperity synonymous with the good life?

There may be an answer in Google’s driverless trek. We continue to admire and be inspired by those who brazenly act, prosperous or not. The YouTube video of a father and his sons lifting a camera into the upper atmosphere with a weather balloon went viral not just for the amateur footage of the earth’s curvature but because the bold yet simple act appeals to the inventor in us all. With a weather balloon you too can send something up to near space!  Without federal funding or permission and in the pursuit of pleasure they sent their dirigible up and shared the resulting video with a hundred thousand strangers.

We admire Google for putting their robot behind the wheel and letting it press down the pedal. And it should make perfect sense that an Internet company like Google would implement an innovation so cavalierly; just doing it is what the Internet is all about.

The Internet seems to be the freest of markets, where intellectual property is constantly improved upon by one competitor after another. The cost of entering the market is so low that an endless flow of competitors keeps on coming, leading to better products for all. It gets better and better at lightning speed. The forces seeking to regulate Google’s driverless car admit as much when they tell the New York Times that “technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages.” The dubious message from regulators and policy makers: Innovation beyond existing law is dangerous.

Will innovation constrained within the limits of existing law set us free to pursue prosperity or our own vision of the good life? I doubt it. The CEO of Facebook seems to agree. In his letter to investors, Mark Zuckerberg extols his company’s hacker culture as a vital to Facebook’s continued innovative success:

The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.

Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once…

Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.

Whether Zuckerberg intended the comparison or not, the Hacker Way of innovation he describes is a far cry from that currently practiced in our legislative branch. Where Facebook strives to build the best services by quickly adopting smaller iterations, legislation moves sluggishly along until a “grand solution” can be bargained. Where only the best ideas win at Facebook, only to be rapidly improved upon, the winning idea in congress is that which becomes final law, and laws tend to be more or less final.

Beyond describing how best to innovate, Zuckerberg’s underlying message is one of action. He’s letting his investors know: We’re going to move fast, try new things, sometimes screw up, learn from it, and keep moving fast. Hold on tight.

His message reminds me that creativity is a sudden, uncontrollable thing. In one second an idea is in the mind where it wasn’t before. John Steinbeck aptly described this as a glory lighting up in the mind of a man. A slow fuse burning towards dynamite. Steinbeck claimed in East of Eden that forces were marshaling against man’s creativity and that he would fight with hatred any force that set to limit the free-roaming mind of man. That Steinbeck felt man’s free-mind was threatened in 1952 shows that the entrenched powers’ fear of being overthrown by innovation is not new to today’s debate.

Our free-roaming minds have not yet been limited, the vastness of the Internet is proof of this, but our ability to participate in American commerce has on it constraints.

Do we now seek to break free of those constraints or just to live a good life in their bind?

If the latter, if the current debate is actually one of living a good life, regardless of economic circumstance, then this is the same question that preoccupied Angelo Pellegrini, Italian immigrant turned American professor of English.

Pellegrini felt happiness could be easily attained by all in the garden, in the cellar and at the table. Believing that these simple pleasures were all man needed in fulfillment of the good life, Pellegrini was leery of scientific or economic advancements that promised mankind a better future. On the day man stepped foot on the moon Pellegrini concluded:

The world is sick with too much brains. If we must probe the moon and outer space, let us balance that act of reason with an act of faith and probe the heart of our neighbor. Let us answer confrontations on the street with fellowship at the dinner table; and to counteract the venom of discord, let us pour the holy blood of the grape and eat together of the staff of life, symbols of communion, fellowship, and hospitality.

Though Pellegrini trusted happiness to always be found at the dinner table, he recognized that participation in an economy of mass production could deplete man of his will to pursue happiness or, even worse, give false importance to material quantity. In 1948 he wrote:

To compensate for the loss of personal significance we have unwillingly submitted to the idea of quantity. Unless our accomplishments are materially great we feel that we have failed. While the philosophers are redefining “the quest for certainty,” the practical men are exhausting their energies in the struggle for the market; and the only recreation that seems adequate after such an intense struggle is usually as violent and exhausting as the struggle itself.

There is, certainly, no easy formula for the revitalization of a corroded faith. The cozy security and the confident stride of our ancestors cannot be recaptured by a simple act of will. We must accommodate to the new world we have discovered, and if the old values are no longer adequate to give significance to our lives, we must—and, across the centuries, we surely will—evolve a new credo.

But meanwhile we must live in the world we have created, a world of acceleration, conflicts, and mass production. In this world, somehow, we must cushion, in whatever degree possible, the maddening vigor of the quantitative fallacy. Not by turning the clock back to the days of the individual artisan, nor by following the misty-eyed Utopians back to the soil. While we respond to the exacting demands of the environment, we must attempt to rediscover, during what leisure time we can wrest from the struggle, the value and the quality in little things.

Is today’s economic discontent rooted in an adherence to an outdated credo? Is it prosperity we lack or is it primarily an inability to conceptualize the good life in our current environment?

If we wish to live in a society that promotes boundless innovation while retaining egalitarian principles, why not adopt the credo of what is currently one of the most innovative and egalitarian aspects of American life, the Internet?

Long before Google was audacious enough send a robot to share our roads and long before Mark Zuckerberg promoted the Hacker Way, Pellegrini advocated a similar strategy for pursuing happiness. Like the Internet moguls of our era, Pellegrini’s solution was one of swift action towards your goal. To the University of Washington Medical Alumni Association in the spring of 1979 Pellegrini declared:

Let us look to our kitchens and stock our cellars. Call friends and family to the dinner table. Salute each other with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth. Act now. Pull the cork. Don’t hesitate. We’ve nothing to lose but boredom and despair.

We must collectively pull the cork and evolve a new credo. One of action and self-reliance in our quest for the good life. One eschewing reliance on government or corporations for permission and direction.

Those who have an innovation to pursue should do as Google did: Pursue it now, ask the government later.

Those who simply long for some version the good life should heed the words of Angelo Pellegrini: Act now. Pull the cork. Don’t hesitate. We’ve nothing to lose but boredom and despair. Well, that and rubbernecking at car accidents. Robots won’t slow down to gawk.

*It is uncertain that letting a robot drive your car is illegal. An attorney for the California DMV says ”[state laws] all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle.”

**Some may claim that, regardless of the economic system we operate under, regulation is required to save us from ourselves and, more importantly, to ensure every citizen has access to safe services. In the example of Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Pennsylvania abortion clinic they have a compelling argument in favor of state oversight. State inspection agencies, in what some claim was a politicized effort to keep access to abortions unimpeded, failed to inspect Dr. Gosnell’s abortion clinic after 1993. The result: Seven dead infants, two dead women, and a clinic appearing more like the set of a horror movie than a place for medical procedures. Dr. Gosnell was operating in (and amassing personal wealth from) the lucrative black market, in his case the market cheap late-term abortions.

The takeaway: Since quality comes at a cost, cheaper services equal risky services and if the government turns away its watchful eye, the poor will be at greatest risk for injury.

A counterpoint to this view is that government regulation itself creates black markets. If there is demand then, legal or not, there will be market. Still, in the legal marketplace the question of how to protect ourselves from the insidious among us is a good one. There is no easy answer, nor is the question of public safety being fiercely debated in the public square.


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