posted 3 days ago on re/code
American suburbs are undergoing a transition due to a higher number of remote workers. San Mateo, California, seen here, is a suburb in San Francisco’s Bay Area. | Wu Xiaoling/Xinhua via Getty Images How working from home is changing the suburbs as we know them. Watertown, Massachusetts, has long been a popular place to live due to its proximity to Boston and its distinction as having a very large Target. Thanks to remote work, locals say the city is now becoming increasingly attractive in its own right. More people spending more of their time in Watertown has meant more urban amenities, like trendy stores, coffee shops, and even a potential food co-op, for the once sleepy suburban community. Developers are buying up real estate there in the hope that it will become a destination for the life science and innovation sectors. A once defunct mall is currently being converted into mixed-use space full of retail, residences, and restaurants that act more like a downtown than Watertown’s actual downtown. The Arsenal Yards project began before the start of the pandemic, but much of the leasing has happened after it. Already, 76 percent of its apartment space and 85 percent of its retail space have been leased. And its developers expect full occupancy next year. Watertown is one of many American suburbs undergoing a similar transition as a consequence of the pandemic. Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images Single-family suburban homes, like these in Cupertino, California, are characterized by lawns, similar construction, and proximity to cities. In the spring of 2020, many of the typical draws to cities — plays, nightclubs, restaurants — shut down. Space took on a premium, as small apartments close to others felt particularly claustrophobic. All of a sudden, a big home in the suburbs for the same monthly price as a tiny apartment in the city got a whole lot more attractive. The lifestyle also seemed safer, as you could travel in the isolation of your own vehicle and play in personal green spaces with less fear of infection. More companies than ever are allowing employees to work from home, and studies say that between 13 and 45 percent of the workforce is now remote some or all of the time. As a result, a new rush to the suburbs is well underway. The number of net new households that moved to the suburbs grew 43 percent last year, according to data from the Wall Street Journal, compared to 2019. While that naturally slowed in the first half of 2021, urban areas are still losing people as they relocate to suburban and rural areas. It’s important to remember that people who left their city apartments for houses in the suburbs aren’t just living in the suburbs, they’re working there now, too. In turn, the people and services these workers may have relied on in city centers are moving to the suburbs as well. All of this will affect which businesses thrive and what real estate develops in the suburbs. It could also change traffic patterns, exacerbate urban sprawl, and heighten inequality. New suburban businesses and improved real estate trends could lead to revitalized communities, less travel, and better quality of living for some. But not everyone will benefit. Sprawl is bad for the environment and can make life worse for the poorest Americans. The urbanization of the suburbs People might be leaving behind the cities, but that doesn’t mean they want to forgo the city lifestyle. Even in the suburbs, people still want to be able to grab a quick coffee and a sandwich, and maybe a midday workout, and they don’t always want to do that at home. That demand has huge repercussions for commerce and construction. Research from Stanford’s Arjun Ramani and Nicholas Bloom estimates that major cities have lost approximately 15 percent of their population and business to the suburbs. And moving to the suburbs isn’t new: People young and old have long left the bustle and tight quarters of cities for the relative serenity and expanse of the suburbs. The postwar period created the suburbs as we know them, with many families accepting commutes in exchange for big houses outside urban hubs. In recent decades, that trend reversed. As newer generations glommed on to the entertainment, energy, and easy public transit of cities, population growth in many cities again outpaced suburbs beginning a decade ago. And even before 2020, the suburbs had been urbanizing for years, as suburban dwellers sought the ease and efficiency of mixed-use areas that centered homes among commerce. But the increased prevalence of remote work has supercharged that progression by making it more viable. This influx of people from cities to the suburbs will in some ways make the suburbs a lot more like the city, with more businesses located within walking distance of where people live. Achieving something that resembles urban density in the suburbs requires repurposing existing real estate to support a wider variety of businesses and functions, according to June Williamson, a professor of architecture and urban design at the City College of New York and co-author of Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia. “I do not foresee a circumstance where a bunch of people who bought homes [in the suburbs] are going to just en masse turn around” —Jeff Tucker, senior economist at Zillow “The model is to reuse spaces, so instead of one entity, it’s lots of smaller businesses,” Williamson said. “There might be a food court, farmers market, hairdresser, preschool, lots of events, maybe a micro hotel — basically an ersatz downtown.” Shifts in where people are spending their time are transforming how all kinds businesses in the suburbs work, too. Previously, suburban businesses were beholden to the daily commute — catering to people headed out to the city in the morning, emptying out during the day, and picking back up only after people returned home for the evening. A suburban restaurant near a transit hub, for example, might only get enough business to support a breakfast and dinner service, so wouldn’t be profitable midday. “[Suburbs] used to be incredibly dead because there were just large stretches of time when no one was there,” Arpit Gupta, an assistant professor of finance at NYU’s business school, said. Having people live and work in one area means there is a more regular flow of people throughout the day, which is better for sustaining a wider variety of businesses. “In the long run, I think it will make the suburbs more vibrant,” Gupta said. Anton Grassl Arsenal Yards in Watertown, Massachusetts, calls itself an “urban village.” A number of examples of repurposing bygone suburban real estate for mixed-use are also popping up around the country. While some of these projects were initiated before the pandemic, the influx of people to these areas since the pandemic began is making the fate of these developments more secure. The Arsenal Yards development mentioned earlier books itself as an “urban village set right in the heart of Watertown’s historic East End.” In the suburbs outside of Austin, Texas, another defunct shopping center, the Highland Mall, is being converted into a community college campus, office space, housing, and stores in addition to parks and trails. During the pandemic, Bell Works, a “destination for business and culture” that already had a location at the former Bell Labs headquarters in Holmdel, New Jersey, opened a second office, dining, and fitness space in another former AT&T campus in the Chicago suburbs. It bills itself as a “little metropolis in suburbia.” Courtesy of Bell Works Remote work could be a boon for mixed-use spaces like Bell Works coworking, residential, and retail space in New Jersey. Office real estate is also changing in the suburbs and mimicking the city coworking trend of the last decade. Prices for suburban office real estate haven’t declined nearly as much as downtowns, according to data from real estate firm CBRE. That’s because working from the suburbs doesn’t necessarily mean working from home. For those whose homes aren’t suitable for work or who need space to meet or collaborate, or who just enjoy going into an office, a cottage industry of suburban office options is popping up. “My competitor is right now your home and maybe Starbucks,” said Joel Steinhaus, a former executive at the coworking space pioneer WeWork and cofounder of Daybase, a coworking company that plans to open spaces in former suburban retail stores like Pier 1 Imports and Victoria’s Secret. WeWork and its model for flexible office space rose to prominence in the early 2010s, when city centers were thriving and companies were experimenting with new approaches to real estate. WeWork nearly went under just before the pandemic. In some cases, suburban coworking has become more popular than in cities, according to new data from LiquidSpace, a marketplace for coworking space. Sacramento, a popular decampment for people moving from the high prices of the Bay Area, currently has more bookings on the site than San Francisco. Housing in the suburbs is changing, too. It’s getting more expensive. Due to high demand and limited supply, housing prices in the suburbs and exurbs have skyrocketed, while prices in major city centers have stagnated. For example, central Boston saw its home value grow 9 percent in the last two years, while prices for places within commuting distance of the city like Worcester and Providence grew about 30 percent, according to data from Zillow and HERE Technologies. Zillow and HERE Technologies The price of homes outside Boston grew much more quickly than central Boston from 2019-2021. The difference is even more apparent in New York City — a city with a high concentration of remote workers — where the median home price in urban areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens actually declined while prices for homes 90 minutes away went up about 25 percent in the past two years. Zillow and HERE Technologies Two-year home values declined in New York city but rose steadily in areas outside it. “Small, expensive homes close to the office that previously benefited from a short commute as well as proximity to urban amenities — those homes saw a lot of their appeal decline,” Jeff Tucker, senior economist at Zillow, said. That’s because many of the city amenities were curtailed during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the home office became the new office. “The relative value of space definitely went up,” he said. While some question how long-lasting the move to the suburbs will be, the fact that people are buying so many homes makes it a difficult trend to unwind. “I do not foresee a circumstance where a bunch of people who bought homes, even if they’re relatively further out, are going to just en masse turn around,” Zillow’s Tucker said. “The vast majority are going to build their lives out there.” The rush to the suburbs will also affect what houses will look like. Instead of homogenous developments of large detached homes on half-acres of land, Tucker said, new construction includes more varied housing types to meet a broader range of consumer demand. That means construction of townhouses and apartment buildings in addition to the single-family homes of yore. Like the mixed-use retrofits mentioned earlier, these developments will be near or even include businesses within them. Old problems showing up in familiar places While the move to the suburbs will certainly benefit individuals, it threatens to exacerbate problems that have always plagued the suburbs — traffic, sprawl, inequality — unless we do something different this time. When people talk about the benefits of remote work, skipping their commute — and its logistical and environmental challenges — is often the first thing they mention. However, the jury is out on whether remote work will actually lead to less driving. Whether or not remote work leads to a net decrease in miles driven will depend on two main factors, according to Adie Tomer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: how many days a week people go into the office and how far from cities they move. We don’t really know the full extent of either yet. Most office companies have said they will operate under the so-called hybrid model, which means employees can split work between home and the office, but many haven’t hashed out the details yet or those details are still in flux. What we do know is that the majority of travel happens outside of commutes, and when people live in more suburban areas, their average trips to things like grocery stores or restaurants or day care are longer. Many suburbs lack good public transit, which makes it difficult for those with lower incomes — or without cars — to be able to get around So far, while overall vehicle miles traveled in the US is down slightly from pre-pandemic, it varies widely by area. Traffic in city centers is below normal, but it has recovered in the suburbs and is in some cases heavier than before, according to data from StreetLight Data, which studies traffic patterns through cellphone data. Things could get worse as more people head into the office again, leading to more time spent in cars and more greenhouse gas emissions. Another related issue to consider is how increased remote work could negatively affect mass transit. Fewer people taking mass transit into cities threatens the overall viability of those transit systems going forward. Many suburbs already lack good public transit, which makes it difficult for those with lower incomes — or without cars — to be able to get around, inhibiting their access to jobs and even basic necessities. “Urban sprawl makes providing a robust public transit system very difficult,” Christina Stacy, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, said. David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Workers eat a meal on a rooftop deck, which features a dining area, grill, and outdoor television, at a suburban office park in Burlington, Massachusetts. Rising housing prices in the suburbs are making matters worse. New housing in the suburbs tends to happen at the outskirts, where land is available and less expensive, another factor that contributes to sprawl. While some places like Minneapolis and, more recently, the state of California are embracing suburban densification by allowing more than one house to be built on a property, that’s by no means the norm and depends on the policies of a given municipality. Residents in so-called “high-opportunity neighborhoods,” predominantly white areas with low poverty and unemployment as well as ample job opportunities, can be reluctant to embrace these changes. “In a lot of high-opportunity neighborhoods, homeowners don’t want that increased density. They don’t want increased population. They worry about traffic and congestion and their house prices going down and schools being overcrowded,” Stacy said. That’s an impediment to changing zoning laws to allow more dense and mixed-use building. If such changes don’t happen and prices continue to rise in the suburbs, poorer residents could get forced out of what’s becoming a more vibrant place to be. “We need to be careful and make sure we’re preserving and developing affordable housing to allow households to remain in place,” Stacy said. “It’s important for the economy as a whole,” she said, noting that in order to have more amenities, you need people to staff those amenities as well. Mismatches between where lower-income people live and where jobs are located lead to higher unemployment rates and longer periods of joblessness. To combat these problems, suburbs will need better transit and more affordable housing near commerce centers. While today’s suburbs are getting a facelift — younger people, more urban amenities, a more consistent revenue stream from remote workers — many of the problems that have plagued previous iterations of the suburbs persist. In many ways, the suburbs are more vibrant than ever. But to keep them that way, we need to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
New York state launched the Excelsior Pass in March 2021. Above, concertgoers use the pass to attend a show on April 22, 2021, at The Shed in New York City. | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images A key feature of the Excelsior Pass app is rarely used. New York’s Excelsior Pass is getting more popular. Since it launched in March, the digital vaccine platform has issued millions of passes, which allow people to display proof of vaccination or negative test results via an app developed by the state. But not many businesses are using the Excelsior Pass’s signature feature: a scannable QR code that can quickly verify customers’ vaccination status by checking state records. While New York state has issued 6 million total Excelsior Passes in the 29 weeks since launch, those passes have been scanned just over 314,000 times, the governor’s office told Recode on Thursday. That amounts to an average of about 10,800 scans per week. The app that businesses use to scan Excelsior Pass QR codes has been downloaded around 156,000 times. New York, the first state to launch an app-based vaccine passport system, paid IBM millions of dollars to help build the Excelsior Pass platform. The system was designed to make reopening safer by providing businesses with a more secure way to confirm vaccination status than checking paper CDC cards, which are easily forged. But neither New York state nor New York City require businesses to scan the Excelsior Pass, and the low number of total scans suggests the Excelsior Pass is too complicated for its own good. Meanwhile, workers don’t have a strong incentive to prolong the process of checking people’s proof of vaccination when they already face harassment from customers angry about Covid-19 guidelines. Recode first learned that statewide scanning activity was low between March and June after obtaining a report from the New York Office of Information Technology Services through a public records request. The governor’s office then shared the latest data, which showed a similar trend. The scanning figures also match up with anecdotal evidence from more than a dozen New Yorkers who spoke to Recode, all of whom have used the Excelsior Pass but said their QR codes are rarely or never scanned. “I’ve been to a number of places, more than 10 times. Basically, every time I go out, they look at it, but there’s no scanning,” Bruna Martins, a marketing manager who lives in Manhattan, said. “They don’t even have a scanner.” “They just sort of look at it. ‘Oh, hey, it’s on your phone. It exists, great.’ I’ve never had anyone scan the QR code,” said Matt Gross, a digital strategist based in Brooklyn. While New Yorkers said the app was a convenient way to store proof of vaccination, they weren’t sure why the Excelsior Pass included a QR code. Some said they didn’t even know there was a separate scanning app. How the Excelsior Pass is supposed to work The Excelsior Pass system includes two apps: the NYS Excelsior Pass Wallet app, which customers use to store their Excelsior Passes, and the NYS Excelsior Pass Scanner app, which venues use to scan the passes’ QR codes. New Yorkers can download their individual Excelsior Pass from the state government website by providing personal details such as their name and birthday. The site also asks for the type of vaccine the person received as well as the date of their most recent doses, after which the system cross-checks the information against a state-run immunization database. If everything checks out, the state issues the person an Excelsior Vaccination Pass, which displays their QR code, name, and birthday. There’s also a newer option to retrieve an Excelsior Pass Plus, which also shows the type of vaccine a person received and the date of their doses. The Excelsior Pass system also works with test results and verification systems in other states. Restaurants, movie theaters, and other venues are supposed to download the NYS Excelsior Pass Scanner app to scan their customers’ passes. When this app scans a QR code, the technology checks to see whether the user’s vaccination information matches the state’s records and is still valid. The scanner app then displays an alert, like “valid,” “expired,” or “not found.” Businesses are also supposed to check that the name on someone’s pass matches their official state ID. New York has advertised the Excelsior Pass system as an advanced tool that could help the state reopen safely and quickly. To build this system, New York’s Office of Business Information Services agreed to pay IBM an initial $2.5 million to build a state-specific version of the company’s existing blockchain-based Digital Health Pass technology. Depending on how many Excelsior Passes are downloaded over the next three years, however, IBM could earn up to $12.3 million more in licensing fees. Overall, the project could cost as much as $27 million, according to the New York Times. The IBM contract also stipulates that the Excelsior Pass technology could be repurposed for other tasks in the future, like confirming someone’s age or checking their driver’s license. The Excelsior Pass is rarely scanned Some Excelsior Pass users say they’re surprised when a venue asks to scan their app. Alina Butareva, a communications professional based in Brooklyn, told Recode that the Barclays Center is the only venue that’s ever scanned her Excelsior Pass. Martins, the marketing manager, said that her code has only been scanned by Pasquale Jones, an Italian restaurant. The Excelsior Pass scans that do happen vary across a range of industries, according to state data. Sports venues accounted for 29 percent of scans between March and June, while food service businesses accounted for 23 percent and performing arts centers for 22 percent. The governor’s office would not share any additional data about which venues were scanning passes, citing the scanner app’s privacy policy. Meanwhile, it’s service workers who have the unpleasant job of enforcing New York City’s indoor vaccine mandate. While they can glance at a CDC card and driver’s license, using a new app and scanning QR codes could make the already taxing process of checking vaccine statuses more tedious. After all, these workers have faced abuse, violence, and sexual harassment when trying to enforce public health measures during the pandemic. When asked about the scanner app’s limited usage, the architect of the Excelsior Pass program, Sandra Beattie, emphasized that venues have a choice when it comes to scanning the passes’ QR codes. “As more strict measures have been put in place, we see scanning activity increase, but that scanning activity is up to the cooperation of individuals, no matter how you’re interacting,” Beattie, the first deputy director of the New York State Division of the Budget, told Recode. “The scanner is optional — recommended, not mandated.” Leaving the verification piece out of the process is problematic, according to Siddarth Adukia, the technical director at the cybersecurity firm NCC Group. “If you just look at the pass on a user’s device, that’s no guarantee that the user is actually vaccinated or the credential is genuine,” Adukia said. While he thought the scanning number seemed low, Adukia said it matched up with his own experience visiting venues in New York City. Despite the low scanning numbers, New York is still trying to expand the Excelsior Pass system. The Excelsior Pass Plus can also be scanned anywhere that accepts SMART Health Cards, which are vaccine passes that adhere to a set of standards developed by the Vaccine Credential Institute. Smart Health Cards are currently being used by businesses in California, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Virginia. New York state also upgraded its Excelsior Pass Scanner app so that it can scan out-of-state SMART Health Cards, too. While Excelsior Pass started out as a tool to help New York businesses recover from the pandemic, the state is now exploring how the platform could be retrofitted to verify other types of records and credentials. New York hasn’t decided exactly what the Excelsior Pass system could be used for next, but it is confident there’s a role for these apps in the future. “Probably one of the biggest lessons learned coming out of the Covid environment [is] our experience with the digital vaccine credential, in that it’s accelerated our thinking about digital governments,” Beattie told Recode. But if New York’s experience with Excelsior Pass is any indication, when faced with digital solutions, the government can overengineer problems that have more analog solutions. After all, it’s not clear how valuable these high-tech tools will be if people don’t actually use them.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the European Commission in 2020. | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images Political scrutiny isn’t stopping Mark Zuckerberg from building the metaverse. Facebook’s plan to change its company name, as first reported by The Verge, comes at a peculiar time. The nearly $1 trillion company that owns Instagram and WhatsApp is facing its biggest scandal in years over damning internal documents leaked by a whistleblower, as well as mounting antitrust scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators. So what’s really going on? Is the name change meant to be a distraction from its bigger problems? A sign of more company changes to come? And when did Facebook first come up with this idea? There’s still a lot we don’t know, including what exactly Facebook’s new corporate name will be. The Verge indicated it will connect to the company’s focus on the “metaverse,” a developing digital platform enhanced by augmented and virtual reality where people interact through digital avatars. “We don’t comment on rumor or speculation.” said Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne in response to Recode’s questions about the company. But one thing this rebrand makes clear is that despite the massive challenges Facebook is facing, it isn’t slowing down or staying in a defensive crouch. It still has its sights set on expanding its domination and world-building, which is what it’s trying to achieve with its metaverse plans. Rather than announcing serious reforms in response to the whistleblower’s revelations, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made no apologies. Instead, he and his company have dismissed the whistleblower’s complaints and evidence, and are plowing ahead with a longstanding plan to turn the science-fiction concept of a metaverse into a business reality. For Facebook, this isn’t a new idea. Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as the next phase of major technological innovation akin to the invention of the internet or mobile phones. The CEO told journalist Casey Newton in March that Facebook will be a metaverse company — not a social media company — in the next five years. The company recently announced 10,000 new hires in the EU who will work on the metaverse. And this reported name change shows that Zuckerberg will reorient the entire Facebook brand around it. The name change could also help Facebook distance itself from the baggage associated with its main product as it builds out its shiny new metaverse-related products, like Oculus headsets and other AR/VR wearable devices. Some Facebook critics have argued that a splashy new name serves as a convenient media distraction from the deeper issues at hand — comparing the strategy to that of tobacco giant Philip Morris changing its name to Altria in 2001 or British Petroleum to BP Amoco in the late ’90s and then BP in 2001. “Faced with a tsunami of evidence of irresponsible behavior and possible criminal violations, Facebook is desperate to change the subject,” Roger McNamee, an early investor in the company who has become one of the company’s most vocal critics, told Recode. “Journalists and policymakers need to remain focused on the crime scene, not the arm-waving.” Usually, corporate name changes for a company of Facebook’s size require long-term planning and strategizing, so it seems unlikely that the company came up with the idea overnight — although it’s plausible that recent events could have sped up a decision already in the works. Facebook has struggled with its brand’s appeal since long before the Haugen testimony. And so far, the reported name change is only prompting more scrutiny and is seeming to provoke some legislators’ ire, such as Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Blackburn co-chairs the influential bipartisan Senate Commerce subcommittee that has been leading an investigation into the recent whistleblower’s claims; she tweeted on Wednesday that Facebook changing its name “doesn’t make a difference until they change their habits of prioritizing profit over the well-being of children.” As the world waits to learn more about Facebook’s rebrand, a key detail to watch for is whether there will be actual structural change to the company. When Google restructured its business lines under the umbrella of Alphabet in 2015, it was intended in part to let co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin take a step back from the company’s search business and instead focus on its more experimental innovations. While Zuckerberg has given no indication he plans to do the same, people will be watching to see if any kind of organizational or leadership change comes with this rebrand. In the meantime, these reported plans signal that no matter the reputational hits it’s dealing with, Facebook won’t be deterred from pursuing its business goals. Despite all its public scandals, the company is still wildly financially successful, raking in tens of billions in revenue each quarter. And while Facebook’s shares took a notable 5 percent dip shortly after the whistleblower went public and an unusual network outage, the price is already bouncing back, and analysts expect another strong earnings report next week. That success seems to give Zuckerberg a mandate to further his ambitious agenda — which right now doesn’t seem to be fixing Facebook’s messy reality today, but building out a whole new one for tomorrow.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
On Tuesday, the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy exchange-traded fund started trading on the New York Stock Exchange with ticker symbol BITO. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images This cryptocurrency fad isn’t going away. Cryptocurrency’s journey into the mainstream hit a major milestone this week when the first exchange-traded fund linked to bitcoin made its stock market debut. Put more simply, that means that anyone with a brokerage account will soon be able to buy and sell a bitcoin-backed financial product on the stock market. This comes after years of US financial regulators shying away from cryptocurrency, which is notoriously volatile. But now, it looks as though the government is ready to try new things. The debut was a big hit. After executives from ProShares, the Maryland-based company behind the ETF, rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday morning, the product topped $1 billion in trading volume on its first day. That makes it one of the top ETF debuts in history. Later that day, the price of bitcoin soared past its all-time high of $64,895 to a new record of $66,975. Experts don’t actually seem that surprised. “It was a blockbuster, smash, home run debut,” Eric Balchunas, a senior ETF analyst at Bloomberg, told me. “This brings a lot of legitimacy and eyeballs into the crypto space.” But before we get into why that is, you probably have a few more questions about the terms being thrown around here. For example, what on Earth is an “exchange-traded fund linked to bitcoin?” What does “futures-based” mean? And do most people really need to pay attention to cryptocurrency after so many years of probably not paying attention to cryptocurrency? Let’s walk through these questions one by one. An exchange-traded fund, or ETF, is a basket of securities tied to the price of assets, like stocks, bonds, or commodities, that can be bought or sold on stock exchanges; anyone with a brokerage account can trade ETFs. An ETF linked to bitcoin, naturally, is tied to the price of bitcoin, and under the Investment Company Act of 1940, all new ETFs must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. This detail is important because the agency’s approval of a bitcoin ETF suggests that it’s open to allowing more products tied to cryptocurrency to be traded. While the SEC has not considered cryptocurrencies to be securities in the past, the latest development suggests that its views on the matter are evolving. But it seems it will take some time before the SEC decides if it will allow bitcoin trading on the stock market. The new ProShares fund, which is called the Bitcoin Strategy ETF, is futures-based. That means the fund tracks bitcoin futures contracts traded on the highly regulated Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In other words, the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF doesn’t contain bitcoin itself but rather bets on the future price of bitcoin. In a Tuesday CNBC appearance, SEC chairman Gary Gensler pointed out that the new product will be overseen by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the SEC’s sister agency, which will provide some protection to investors — but it is “still a highly speculative asset class.” Despite those tricky details, this new bitcoin-based ETF is a big deal. The cryptocurrency community has been angling for a financial product like this for years, but regulators have been hesitant to approve one. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss pitched the first ever bitcoin-based ETF in 2013, but the SEC rejected their first application four years later — and again in 2018 — citing the volatility of the crypto market. Since then, the SEC has delayed decisions on various bitcoin-based ETFs, but it’s currently considering several new proposals, which are subject to a 75-day review period after companies submit them. If the SEC does nothing, which is what happened in the case of ProShares, the funds can start trading. In the next couple of weeks, the SEC review periods for cryptocurrency-based proposals from other companies, including Valkyrie Investments, Invesco, and VanEck, will end as well. “It’s not that this particular ETF is going to bring in hundreds of billions of dollars or anything,” Balchunas explained. But it’s an important moment because “It’s a bridge to this whole other world that probably isn’t that into crypto and might start to be, now that it’s being delivered in the format they like.” In other words, more crypto-based ETFs are on the way. And if Gensler sees these new financial products being traded without incident, his SEC might open the door for even more, including those that actually contain cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin and ethereum. The very existence of these ETFs not only means that investing in crypto is easier. It also means that bitcoin has more in common with gold than it ever has before. This story first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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posted 9 days ago on re/code
Earlier this week, Joe Biden announced a new effort to keep the Port of Los Angeles open 24/7. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Despite what conservatives say, Joe Biden is not trying to ruin the holiday shopping season. President Biden announced this week that the Port of Los Angeles would operate 24/7 in a bid to address product shortages in the United States. The news arrived in tandem with the Labor Department’s release of data showing that the ongoing supply chain crisis is driving up consumer prices and inflation. Conservatives are spinning these developments into a tale about how this supply chain catastrophe is ruining Christmas — and it’s all Biden’s fault. There’s a new front in the Fox News "War on Christmas" coverage: supply chain delays. pic.twitter.com/kosVA3pkMV— The Recount (@therecount) October 13, 2021 Despite what some people are saying on right-wing news outlets and social media, recent problems with the global supply chain can’t be blamed on Biden alone. As his recent efforts have shown, the president is trying to help. In reality, these shortages and delays are the product of many cross-cutting problems that have existed for years, including the Covid-19 pandemic, rising consumer demand, and a global and highly optimized manufacturing network that doesn’t adapt to change quickly. As handy as it would be to blame just one person for America’s supply chain woes, the situation and its solutions are far too complex for such an easy explanation. Let’s discuss. So the supply chain is complex. What does that even mean? The supply chain is how the global economy produces and delivers the stuff that people buy. It encompasses all the people, companies, and countries that play a role in that process. Technicians at facilities in Taiwan who make computer chips are part of the supply chain, and so are the truck drivers that deliver goods from warehouses to retailers in the US. Factories that make the plastic used in packaging, cargo ships that move products from Asia to the West Coast, even Amazon’s fleet of jets are all considered part of this incredibly complicated system of global manufacturing that’s been dramatically disrupted in the past couple of years. How did the supply chain get so messed up? It’s tempting to blame the pandemic alone for the current supply chain catastrophe, but in some ways, the pandemic merely exacerbated existing problems with global trade and exposed some new ones. What the pandemic did do was cause factories to shut down, usually because there weren’t enough workers, and that created shortages of products and components. Those shortages led to bottlenecks and delays in product manufacturing (if factories don’t have the parts to build something, it doesn’t get made and doesn’t get shipped). As more shortages lead to more bottlenecks, the disruption causes problems in other parts of the supply chain, creating even more shortages, new delays, and higher prices. For example, automotive manufacturers haven’t been able to make cars and trucks, because they can’t get their hands on enough computer chips. Ikea can’t ship furniture parts from its warehouses to its stores thanks to the trucker shortage. A supply crunch for petrochemicals has driven up the cost of making anything that includes plastic, including children’s toys. Who broke the supply chain? Again, no one person is responsible for upending the global supply chain. Several long-term trends and compounding challenges created the conditions that caused this crisis. US companies have been moving more and more manufacturing abroad for decades, which means a growing amount of the stuff American consumers want to buy needs to be imported. Meanwhile, worsening conditions for truck drivers in the US have made the job incredibly unpopular in recent years, even though the demand for drivers has gone up as e-commerce has become more popular. That means that as Americans relied more on online shopping during the pandemic, getting goods from ports to doorsteps has been challenging. “It’s 40 years in the making,” Nick Vyas, the director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Southern California, told Recode. “We allowed supply chains to get away without having contingencies in place, resiliencies in place, and other measures to ensure humanity would never be subjected to this.” The pandemic made these problems worse, which contributed to the breakdowns in the supply chain we’re now witnessing. While US automakers have imported semiconductor chips from abroad for decades, Covid-19 forced those companies to compete with laptop and phone manufacturers over the same components. As the pandemic pushed many veteran truckers to retire early, new drivers couldn’t earn licenses because trucking schools were closed during lockdown. Covid-19 has also affected consumer demand — namely, which products they want to buy and how much — creating constant changes that the supply chain just hasn’t been able to keep up with, especially lately. It seems like we’ve had plenty of time to fix these problems. Why are they suddenly ruining Christmas? Global manufacturing has been operating at full capacity for more than a year. But without any slack to address worker shortages, bottlenecks, and delays, problems have only piled up. These issues have now reached a critical mass. So even though American consumers have started to order much more stuff, there’s no flexibility in the supply chain to accommodate that demand. “Delta basically conditioned our behavior to tell all of us that, ‘Hey, this could last a while,’” Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, a senior resident fellow for climate and energy at the think tank Third Way, said. “So we just went out and bought like crazy.” This record number of imports is slowing down product deliveries. Cargo ships carrying holiday merchandise are waiting to unload their stock along the California coast, but there aren’t enough port workers to do the job. Those delays mean there are fewer containers available for manufacturers trying to send more products to the US, which only sets the supply chain back even more. We can agree that it’s everybody’s problem. But what’s Biden actually doing to fix it? Pushing the Port of Los Angeles to operate 24/7 is Biden’s most direct action to date, and it’s supposed to ensure that an additional 3,500 cargo ships are unloaded each week. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, which expanded its operations last month, are responsible for 40 percent of the containers brought into the US, so expanding their operations is supposed to speed up shipping nationwide, the White House says. The move will help reduce the number of ships waiting to dock, but it only affects the later stages of the supply chain problems: shipping and delivery. Right now, it’s not clear what Biden can do to fix the bottlenecks occurring higher up in the supply chain, like manufacturers running low on components and factories getting shut down abroad. While the White House has convened task forces to address these underlying problems, those efforts probably won’t bear fruit in time for the holidays. “This is more a demand and supply situation, more so than a government situation,” Patrick Penfield, a supply chain management professor at the University of Syracuse, said. “The government has a role with regulations and enforcing laws, creating laws, and trying to stimulate development. But other than that, they’re powerless as far as how commerce works.” If Biden can’t fix it, who can? No one can fix the supply chain challenges before the holidays because they’re too complicated. Factories can’t immediately increase their manufacturing capacity, and more people won’t suddenly receive trucking licenses just because US consumers want to buy more stuff. Severe weather events in Texas, an energy crisis in China, and a fire at a chip factory in Japan have created new hurdles, too. In the long run, it’s possible that the US government can change policies that contributed to this situation in the first place. Politicians could shift their approach to trade, which has historically encouraged US companies to manufacture products abroad. Improving labor standards might boost working conditions for truckers and factory workers to make those jobs more appealing — boost global vaccine manufacturing and ensure that workers in other countries are safer from Covid-19 outbreaks. Admitting more people into the US could address a shortage of delivery and port workers. The government could even consider redeploying the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law that gives the president certain powers over domestic manufacturing during a crisis. For instance, the US Commerce Department is weighing how to use that law to address the US supply of semiconductor chips. But these ideas are a reminder that US supply chain policy does not exist in a vacuum. It’s an amalgam of all sorts of broader policy choices that aren’t so easy to change. When is this all going to end? Some experts say it will be months before these supply chain problems resolve themselves. Others think these disruptions represent a new normal that could last years. Regardless, there’s no reason to think these issues will be fixed by the holiday season. In fact, the White House has already said there’s no guarantee that packages will arrive on time. So should we blame Joe Biden for ruining Christmas? No.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
An artificially intelligent robot inspects power lines in Chunzhou, China. | Song Weixing/Visual China Group via Getty Images A top Pentagon software official recently quit his job, claiming that the US is dragging its heels. The Pentagon’s first-ever chief software officer abruptly quit earlier this month, and now we know exactly why: Nicolas Chaillan, former CSO of the United States Air Force and Space Force, told the Financial Times that the United States has “no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years” when it comes to cyberwarfare and artificial intelligence. Chaillan, a 37-year-old tech entrepreneur, added that cyber defenses at many government agencies are at “kindergarten level,” and that companies like Google were doing the US a disservice by not working with the military more on AI, since Chinese companies were making a “massive investment” in AI without getting all hung up on the ethics of it all. And while quitting your job because America has already lost the AI race is a bit dramatic, Chaillan isn’t the only one who’s concerned about China’s dominance in this arena. We can all agree that nobody wants China to invent a real-world version of Skynet, the all-powerful AI that takes over the planet in the Terminator movies. But we don’t want the US to do that either. But what does the finish line in this AI race actually look like? And does the US really want to win at all costs? For years, pundits have been comparing the AI race to the space race — and warning that the US is losing it. It’s a handy analogy, since it helps Americans put current conflicts with countries like China and Russia into the familiar context of the Cold War. Many have argued that we’ve found ourselves in a second Cold War and that the country that wins the AI race will take the throne as the dominant superpower. But the AI revolution isn’t just about fighting wars or geopolitical dominance. What we’re racing to build will transform almost every aspect of our lives, from how we run businesses to how we process information to how we get around. So it’s imperative that the US is thoughtful about quickly charging into a future filled with autonomous cars, boundless data collection, and full-time surveillance. These are the applications that next-generation AI will enable, and if a small group of powerful tech companies and/or the US military pushes for innovation without putting the proper guard rails in place, this world-changing technology could lead to some grim unintended consequences. President Biden called for the US and Europe to work together on developing new technology responsibly in a February speech at the Munich Security Conference. “We must shape the rules that will govern the advance of technology and the norms of behavior in cyberspace, artificial intelligence, biotechnology so that they are used to lift people up, not used to pin them down,” Biden said. “We must stand up for the democratic values that make it possible for us to accomplish any of this, pushing back against those who would monopolize and normalize repression. You could also look to present-day China to see what the near future of a more AI-centric society might look like. As Kai-Fu Lee argues in his book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, China has been more aggressive at implementing AI breakthroughs, especially in surveillance and data collection applications, thanks in part to government support and a lack of oversight that’s let some tech companies there leapfrog the competition and dominate entire industries. WeChat and its parent company, Tencent, are perfect examples of this. On WeChat, privacy does not seem to be a priority, but the vast quantities of data the app can collect are certainly helpful for training AI. “Imagine, if you will, that Facebook acquired Visa and Mastercard and integrated everything into the functions, as well as invested money into Amazon and Uber and OpenTable and so on and so forth, and made an ecosystem that once you log into Facebook, all these things are one click away and then you could pay for them with another click,” Lee told New York magazine. “That is the kind of convenience that WeChat brought about, and its true worth is the gigantic data set of all the user data that goes through it.” This is the sort of winning-at-all costs approach that appears to give China a leg up in the AI race. China also appears to be playing catch-up when it comes to establishing standards for algorithmic ethics. Just last week, the country issued its first-ever guidelines on AI ethics. The US has long known that algorithms can be racist or sexist, and the Pentagon adopted its guidelines on ethical AI nearly two years ago. And as we’ve learned more recently, the AI that companies like Facebook and YouTube use to serve up content can also be used to radicalize people and undermine democracy. That’s why — especially in the wake of Facebook’s whistleblower scandal that revealed internal research showing that its products were harmful to some users, including teenage girls — lawmakers in the US lately seem more interested in talking about how to regulate algorithms than how to beat China in the AI race. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way. Chaillan, the former military software chief, has certainly earned his right to an opinion about how quickly the US is developing its cyber defenses and artificially intelligent computers. And now that he’s taking his knowledge of how the Pentagon works to the private sector, he’ll probably make good money addressing his concerns. For the rest of us, the rise of AI shouldn’t feel like a race against China. It’s more like a high-stakes poker game. This story first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Field Trip Health currently offers ketamine-based psychotherapy at its US-based clinics. | Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images A startup called Field Trip is opening clinics where they administer ketamine treatments. Other psychedelics, like MDMA and psilocybin, may follow. For a long time, Chase Chewning had wanted to try a new type of psychotherapy that uses ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic that’s shown promise as a mental health treatment. Chewning, a veteran who has had several recreational experiences with MDMA and psilocybin, hoped the drug could help him with his PTSD, so he made an appointment at a Los Angeles ketamine therapy clinic operated by Field Trip Health. Having now completed two ketamine sessions, Chewning says his experience at Field Trip has indeed helped him make progress. “In two sessions, I am profoundly closer to my work on my PTSD,” Chewning told Recode. “And [the treatment] left me with a lot of responsibility on some new work, but very, very exciting things, because I know I’m moving in the right direction, towards better mental health.” Field Trip, a Canadian startup, is betting others could have similar experiences. In fact, the company is so confident in the promise of these drugs that it’s building 75 centers for psychedelic therapy over the next three years. Although ketamine is legal if prescribed by a doctor, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) lists psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA in schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act, which says they have no medical value and a high potential for abuse. But there’s also growing evidence that psychedelics could lead to game-changing medications and, when combined with conventional therapy, may help people who aren’t seeing results through currently available treatments. Several US cities have already decriminalized psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is overseeing clinical trials into using psychedelics to treat PTSD and depression. This potentially revolutionary approach to mental health also represents a tremendous commercial opportunity for health care and pharmaceutical companies. But despite promising, privately funded studies into psychedelics, current government regulations prevent the wider availability of psychedelic therapy. Field Trip currently offers ketamine treatments at six clinics in major US cities, including New York and Atlanta. The actual ketamine therapy session — Field Trip calls this a “psychedelic exploration session” — involves a patient receiving one or two shots of ketamine into their arm muscles, initiating a 45- to 90-minute hallucinogenic journey that’s supposed to help people disconnect from their normal selves. As the drug sets in, patients cover their eyes and listen to music as they’re coached by a therapist. The next day, patients return for a follow-up appointment called an “integration session” to reflect on the treatment. “Whatever comes up in your session — new insights, perspectives — that can be fleeting if you don’t work to integrate that into your life,” Emily Hackenburg, Field Trip’s clinical director, told Recode. “Regardless of what psychedelic you’re using, preparation, journey, integration, that’s going to be the same.” Field Trip says most patients undergo the ketamine program four to six times. The initial treatment, which includes a medical screening, an exploration session, and an integration session, costs $750. Because ketamine isn’t specifically approved for mental health applications by the FDA, the medication itself isn’t typically covered by insurance, though customers can try to get other aspects of the therapy reimbursed. Though its treatments are expensive, Field Trip is growing quickly. In July, the company went public through a direct listing on Nasdaq and plans to offer ketamine treatments at 20 clinics in the US by early next year. Along the way, Field Trip is also setting itself up to be a huge player in an industry that largely doesn’t exist yet. While Field Trip’s US locations are currently limited to ketamine, the company hopes to offer more psychedelics, including MDMA, when the government approves their use. Field Trip is even developing its own psychedelic that’s meant to have similar effects as psilocybin, but with a much shorter trip. The future of psychedelic therapy is also uncertain. While it seems likely that at least some psychedelic drugs will be approved for certain medical conditions in the years to come, it’s also possible that recreational use could be widely decriminalized or legalized. The status quo could also stay in place. The US government has only recently begun to support and review research into psychedelics’ potential mental health benefits. But that slow approach means that just a few prominent companies and nonprofits are shaping much of the narrative surrounding the emerging psychedelics industry. “This is really the most promising development in mental health care to come along, literally, in many decades. And that’s one reason why you don’t want a few companies controlling it,” says Mason Marks, a project lead at Harvard Law’s Petrie-Flom Center who focuses on psychedelics regulation. Of course, not everyone is pleased that these startups could make psychedelics more mainstream. Some think these companies are capitalizing on a medical pathway for psychedelics that could ultimately exclude recreational users and make psychedelics more expensive and inaccessible. Others believe that psychedelics are being marketed as a cure-all that current research doesn’t support. “Our experience with so-called pain clinics peddling untold amounts of opioids should be a cautionary tale,” Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy adviser who opposed legalizing cannabis, told Recode. “The psychedelics fad has reached a fever pitch far above and beyond what science tells us. We cannot forget the harmful potential and opportunity for manipulation by massive corporate interests.” Nevertheless, it seems clear that the movement to make psychedelic therapy an accepted mental health treatment is gaining momentum. A psychedelics renaissance could be coming The origins of the government’s apprehensive approach to psychedelic-based mental health treatment stretch back decades. In the 1950s and ’60s, the federal government invested heavily into researching drugs like LSD and psilocybin. But after the Controlled Substances Act of 1972, federal funding into the possible benefits of psychedelics quickly evaporated. That stance may be changing. In September, researchers at Johns Hopkins University received funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to investigate whether psilocybin could help people quit cigarettes. it appears to be the first federally funded direct study in decades of the mental health benefits of a traditional psychedelic drug. At the same time, the DEA, which keeps tight caps on how much psychedelics are available to US researchers, recently proposed increasing the nationwide availability of psilocybin from 30 grams to 1,500 grams. Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images Ketamine can be taken in the form of a lozenge, an IV, a nasal spray, or an intramuscular shot. There is also a growing number of efforts to make psychedelics more widely available not only to researchers but also to patients. In the last few years, Denver, Oakland, and Washington, DC, have decriminalized psilocybin, and in 2023, supervised psilocybin-based therapy will become legal in Oregon. Meanwhile, a psilocybin regimen for depression is in phase 2 trials, and an MDMA-assisted treatment for people with severe PTSD is currently in phase 3 clinical trials. The FDA has also already approved a Johnson & Johnson drug called Spravato, a nasal spray that’s derived from ketamine, to treat depression. In anticipation of looser regulations, there’s a burgeoning psychedelic health care industry made up of companies that want to offer psychedelic treatments or develop new drugs based on psychedelic compounds. In addition to Field Trip, there are 31 publicly traded firms focused on psychedelics, and at least 18 more that are still private, according to the psychedelics industry tracker Psilocybin Alpha. Inspired by promising but limited research showing that psychedelics can help treat not only treatment-resistant depression but also addiction and end-of-life anxiety, venture capitalists, including Peter Thiel, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into these companies. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm. And that makes sense because there are many people who have suffered for many years for whom this has brought relief,” Sharmin Ghaznavi, an associate director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics, told Recode. “But we have a lot that we need to learn, and we owe that to our patients.” The government has been slow to support research into the potential benefits of psychedelics. That means philanthropies and private companies have funded almost all of the recent studies into the medical applications of drugs like MDMA and psilocybin. Many of those studies come with important caveats, including small sample sizes and unrepresentative patient pools. One 2018 analysis of 18 psychedelics studies found that 82 percent of the participants were white. But even as research into psychedelics continues, companies are already developing everything from apps for guided trips and mushroom-facilitated retreats to psychedelic-assisted virtual reality experiences. After all, as with any big pharmaceutical breakthrough, the future of psychedelics could be extremely profitable. How Field Trip plans to get ahead Field Trip is well on its way to being a major player in the psychedelic health care industry. A centerpiece of Field Trip’s plan is the design of its clinics. The idea, the company says, is that psychedelics will need a brand new environment for medical care. Doctors’ offices are too sterile, and therapists’ offices don’t have the medical staff, time, or equipment to monitor patients. After all, trips on more intense psychedelic drugs require several hours and lots of supervision. That’s why, at Field Trip’s New York location, there are serene rooms with reclining chairs and headphones for patients to use during their exploration sessions. Because ketamine can increase blood pressure, there are blood pressure monitors on-site, too. There are also rooms for post-trip reflection, where there are soft fur rugs, easels for drawing, and a gong. The space also includes a wall covered in live moss, a bubble-blowing machine, and several copies of Michael Pollan’s influential book about psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind. “There’s lots of shoe companies out there, but Nike has a very prominent voice in that conversation,” Field Trip CEO Ronan Levy told Recode. “I want Field Trip to do that for psychedelics.” Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images Field Trip hopes to open 75 clinics by 2024. While the company had about $100 million on hand at the end of June, Field Trip is currently making less than $1 million on patient services, according to its most recent quarterly report. One of the biggest challenges for Field Trip is that most people don’t have several thousand dollars lying around to spend on ketamine therapy. But if the FDA were to approve a psychedelic drug for a mental health condition, insurance companies may start to cover more Field Trip treatments, bringing them a huge new customer base. There are certain conditions, like a history of psychosis or a ketamine allergy, that rule out Field Trip’s offering for some patients. Levy says the safety of ketamine has been well established and that Field Trip hasn’t had any medical issues. But others believe there is a litany of open questions. Jeffrey Lieberman, a Columbia psychiatry professor, says the enthusiasm about psychedelics is outpacing the science, and he worries that mishaps could lead to backlash and a return to restrictions. If MDMA is approved for PTSD, for example, companies could end up prescribing the drug for other conditions that it hasn’t been approved for. That practice, which is sometimes called off-label prescribing, is already in place for ketamine. Lieberman added that we don’t fully understand the long-term safety of ketamine. There is also evidence ketamine clinics throughout the US are overhyping the drug’s abilities and not properly screening patients, acccording to a 2018 investigation by STAT. There are other objections. A significant number of people oppose even the monitored use of psychedelics, including the 44 percent of Oregon residents who voted against the state’s recent measure to legalize a supervised psilocybin therapy model much like Field Trip’s. There are also psychedelic advocates who believe that allowing companies like Field Trip to do business will end up medicalizing and driving up the cost of psychedelics, which they think should be freely available. The companies and people hoping to make psychedelic-based mental health care mainstream say this trend is about far more than just the drugs themselves. “Taking a gram of mushrooms recreationally with your friends sitting around and giggling at YouTube music videos … it’s harmless,” Sanjay Singhal, a tech entrepreneur who directs the Nikean Foundation, a nonprofit that funds psychedelics research, told Recode. “But it’s completely different from taking five grams, knocking you out in the presence of a therapist for five hours while your brain processes whatever trauma, anxiety, emotional issues you might have.” We’re bound to hear more about psychedelic therapy in the months to come. But even if psychedelics’ legal status remains the same, it’s clear to some patients that there’s a place for psychedelic therapy — even if it’s just the existing ketamine treatments — in our health care system. To Chewning, the veteran, these startups are addressing the demand for better mental health care and providing a new option for people who haven’t had success with traditional medications and therapy. “I just look at what they’ve done for me personally, I look at what they have done for people I know,” he said. “We’re being put on a path toward a higher quality of life in the near future.”

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posted 16 days ago on re/code
Nicholas Thompson, seen speaking for Wired magazine, is now CEO for the Atlantic. | Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED Heads up, Substack. But also Twitter. And Facebook. And the New York Times ... Here’s a media trend: Journalists setting up their own newsletters instead of working for big, established publishers. Here’s a media trend working in the opposite direction: Big, established publishers with robust business models or big backers — or both — consolidating their power by hoovering up talent. And here’s a story that can do both: The Atlantic is launching a newsletter offering that wants to bring writers under the Atlantic’s umbrella (and paywall) while letting them stay semi-independent. The idea, per people familiar, is for the magazine to unveil a roster of newsletter writers — maybe a dozen or so — in the coming weeks. They’ll only be available to Atlantic subscribers. The New York Times has done something similar this year, rolling out subscriber-only letters from writers, including Kara Swisher and Jay Caspian Kang. One big difference between the Atlantic’s plan and other newsletter distributors is that, in some cases, the Atlantic is recruiting writers who are already in the paid newsletter business. And it wants to convert those writers’ subscribers into Atlantic subscribers. At least one of those writers, I’ve confirmed, is a writer who currently has set up shop at Substack, the company that kicked off the most recent newsletter boom by making it easy (theoretically) to make money self-publishing. Here’s the rough outline of what the Atlantic wants to do, via people with knowledge: The Atlantic isn’t hiring the writers as full-time employees, but will offer them some sort of base payment with the ability to make additional money if they hit certain subscriber goals. So it’s a much more reliable income source than a paid newsletter — even Casey Newton, a contributing writer for Vox Media’s The Verge, who has been running his own, successful, Substack for the last year, says he sees monthly churn of 3 to 4 percent. If the writers are already selling paid subscriptions to their letters, the Atlantic wants to turn those subscriptions into Atlantic subscriptions. That is: If you’re currently paying Provocative But Thinky Takes Guy $5 a month for his work, now that same money will get you that letter, plus any other newsletters the Atlantic publishes, plus the Atlantic itself, which currently sells a digital-only subscription for $50 a year. Newsletter writers who join the Atlantic’s program get to keep their existing list of subscribers. So if they decide to bail on the Atlantic, they could start up their business again. How much oversight or assistance the letter writers will get from Atlantic editors and staff still sounds like a work in progress. But the thrust is that the writers are supposed to remain editorially independent from the publication; they won’t be edited by Atlantic editors. So what happens if the Atlantic ends up hiring someone the Atlantic decides is too racy/racist/problematic for the Atlantic? Good question! An Atlantic rep declined to comment. It’s easy to see the appeal of the program to the Atlantic, led by Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg and CEO Nick Thompson. The publication gets a new roster of voices and the possibility of instantly increasing its subscriber numbers. And while more subscribers are always nice, they would be particularly nice for the Atlantic right now, which thrived during the Trump years and the pandemic in particular but, like other publishers, has seen its website traffic slump as Trump and Covid-19 have stopped dominating the news cycle. And since declining traffic makes it harder to convert new readers into subscribers, anything that brings in new eyeballs — let alone an injection of paying readers — would be welcome. (Here we should note that even though the Atlantic is owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire wants the publication, which had a round of layoffs in the early months of the pandemic, to be self-sustaining.) The pitch to writers is a little more nuanced, with some parts spelled out and other parts more tacit. The obvious one: Come work at an award-winning publication with wide reach, backed by a billionaire. Unstated: Maybe you thought you’d be crushing it once you started up your newsletter business. But maybe you’re not, and maybe you’d like a steady paycheck. Running a solo shop isn’t for everybody. That said, some newsletter writers who’ve found receptive audiences — primarily via Substack — are making way more money than they ever did at established media companies. Former New York Times opinion writers and editor Bari Weiss, for instance, tells me she now has 16,500 subscribers to her Substack, Common Sense. Which at $5 per subscriber, per month, means she could be bringing in $890,000 a year, after Substack takes its 10 percent fee. So don’t expect Weiss to show up in the Atlantic’s roster anytime soon. I asked Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie what it means if competitors like the Atlantic poach some of his authors. He was gracious about it. “We root for writers even when they’re not Substackers, so we’re glad to see a trend toward more ownership for writers,” McKenzie said in a statement. “We’ve always advocated for writers to have full ownership of their content and audiences, and we applaud every step in this direction.” McKenzie and his team have clearly contemplated some kind of this platform-jumping: Part of Substack’s pitch is that writers can easily walk away, taking all the content they published and an email list of all their subscribers. And Substack’s success has spurred new competitors, including Facebook and Twitter, both of which can easily outspend Substack if they want to — as I reported in June, Facebook dropped $6 million on the URL for Bulletin, its Substack clone. But if you’re not a Substack superstar, maybe it doesn’t take a ton of money to woo you from the company: just a steady paycheck and the ability to write for a big group of people. Like people at some regular media companies do.

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posted 17 days ago on re/code
Customers should expect shopping to be a little more difficult this Black Friday. | Paul Hennessy/Getty Images The most popular holiday gifts might not arrive in time for the holidays, even if you order now. Best Buy has revealed a curious way to cash in on worldwide shortages and shipping delays: subscriptions. This week, the company announced a $200-a-year program that promises consumers lower prices and exclusive access to hard-to-find devices. While the new membership also includes 24/7 tech support and free shipping, the idea of guaranteed product availability might be particularly appealing to shoppers worried that their orders won’t arrive in time for the holidays. The new Best Buy service is a stark reminder that retailers don’t anticipate that supply chain issues, including the global semiconductor chip shortage, are going away anytime soon. In fact, it looks like they’re getting worse. A supply crunch for petrochemicals, which are used in everything from paint to plastics, has raised the prices on all kinds of products. Meanwhile, an emerging energy crunch in China has led to power cuts that have closed factories and disrupted daily life there. These recent developments are compounding the existing problems with the global supply chain and making logistical bottlenecks worse. Combine that with an ongoing shortage of shipping containers and truck drivers, and the end result is a huge slowdown in the delivery of goods. “You’ve got labor-related issues. You’ve got issues of lack of availability of empty containers and space on vessels. Port congestion here in the United States, workforce issues with trucker availability and warehouse workers,” Jon Gold, a vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, told Recode. “The entire system has been stretched.” While retailers are racing to import the goods and gadgets they think consumers will want during the holiday shopping season, the growing list of shortages has made it difficult for them to find enough stock. Now, experts say consumers should expect higher prices, delays, and opportunistic resellers as Black Friday and Cyber Monday draw closer. And for the next six months to a year, we just won’t see the same variety of products that we’re used to, according to Patrick Penfield, a supply chain professor at Syracuse University. Supply chain problems are getting worse Gadgets are particularly vulnerable to shortages because they include many different components. Consider all the parts that go into a PlayStation 5 or a new laptop, including their chips, outer shells, and screens. Many of these components require their own specialized manufacturing facilities, which are typically in different factories and often in different countries. For a device to be delivered on time, all of these parts need to be made in sync. Right now, that’s not happening. “A lot of people who are working on this don’t really understand how diverse all the components that go into supply chains are,” Willy Shih, a business administration professor at Harvard, told Recode in August. “They don’t understand that I need capacitors. They don’t understand that I need power management chips. They don’t understand that I need inductors.” Demand for these components has run up against efforts to contain Covid-19 in the countries where the production and assembly of many goods actually take place. Amid a recent delta variant outbreak and nationwide lockdown in Malaysia, the government designated electronics manufacturers critical businesses so that production could continue. In May, Vietnam directed vaccines directly to factory workers, while urging smartphone manufacturers working in the country, like Samsung, to do the same. (Vietnam’s Covid-19 challenges haven’t gone away: This past weekend, tens of thousands of workers fled the country’s commercial center after the government, which is still struggling to access vaccines, lifted pandemic lockdown restrictions.) Now, planned power outages aimed at curbing energy use in China are making electronics manufacturing increasingly complicated. The situation is a consequence of several interwoven problems, including a global surge in fossil fuel prices; a dispute between China and Australia, which is one of the country’s main suppliers of coal; and China’s efforts to curb pollution ahead of the Winter Olympic Games. The resulting electricity cuts have had a devastating effect on people’s daily lives and left some homes and classrooms without power and water. China’s energy crunch has also forced many factories, including those that build components for Apple, Dell, Tesla, and Microsoft, to pause or cut down on production. Meanwhile, appliance manufacturers and automakers in the country are bracing for a shortage of metal after metal smelters limited operations. Power shortages are likewise hindering companies responsible for things like chip packaging, chip testing, and phone assembly. On top of all this, the shortage of petrochemicals, which are derived from oil, has made it more difficult and expensive to produce all sorts of goods, including paint, adhesives, and food packaging. In recent weeks, the price of polyvinyl chloride, a chemical used to make plastic, has surged 70 percent. Without those raw materials, makers of everything from credit cards to medical devices to cars are having an even harder time keeping up production. “What will happen is that a phone will be delayed because they’re waiting on their plastic supplier, and the plastic supplier is waiting on the ingredient,” Penfield, the Syracuse professor, said. “It just takes one supplier — and it could be the base ingredient supplier — to fully screw up your supply chain.” The disruptions in petrochemical manufacturing have many causes, but some are linked to companies that still haven’t recovered from the winter storm in Texas and several recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. This correlation shows how extreme weather exacerbated by climate change is having unanticipated ripple effects across many industries. Rethink the holiday season All these problems mean that consumers are seeing rising prices and shipping delays for a wide range of products. So those looking ahead to the holiday shopping season might want to get an early start, and not just on consumer electronics. As Vox’s Terry Nguyen reported last month, almost everything people might want to purchase for the holidays seems to be vulnerable to snags in the global supply chain: Here is an incomplete list of consumer goods that have been subject to backorders, delays, and shortages: new clothes, back-to-school supplies, bicycles, pet food, paint, furniture, cars, tech gadgets, children’s toys, home appliances, lumber, anything that relies on semiconductor chips, and even coveted fast food staples like chicken wings, ketchup packets, Taco Bell, Starbucks’ cake pops, and McDonald’s milkshakes (in the UK, for now). “Most likely, there will be some shortages on specific products over the holiday season,” Seckin Ozkul, from the University of South Florida’s Supply Chain Innovation Lab, said. “So, if consumers know what they want to buy for their loved ones for the holiday season, now is a good time to act on it.” Beyond buying early and paying more, there are other ways customers can adapt. Shoppers should consider purchasing products that aren’t their first choice, since some items, like the PlayStation 5, will likely be in short supply until sometime next year. When buying online, it may be worth looking to see if local stores have a curbside pick-up option. (One helpful tool for this is Google Shopping, which can include information about where an item is in stock at nearby retailers.) Another strategy is just to avoid online shopping altogether and buy items in stores, the old-fashioned way. Bigger chains like Walmart and Home Depot have the resources to charter their own cargo ships, and they seem less likely to be out of items. Best Buy, of course, is hoping that some people will consider paying $200 to secure access to in-demand products, though the company hasn’t shared which products that program will include. Regardless of how customers choose to prepare, they shouldn’t assume that supply chain problems will be resolved before the holidays. Given how easily shortages compound other shortages, there doesn’t seem to be an end date in sight.

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posted 18 days ago on re/code
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee in Washington on October 5. | Matt McClain/Getty Images As they’ve done with fossil fuels and tobacco in the past, lawmakers have set their sights on the social network. Sen. Richard Blumenthal mentioned a familiar metaphor in the Facebook whistleblower hearing on Tuesday. “Facebook and Big Tech are facing their Big Tobacco moment,” he said, arguing that the social network’s products “can be addictive and toxic to children.” Frances Haugen, the aforementioned whistleblower, has similarly called Facebook’s decisions “disastrous” and has said that the company “chooses profit over safety.” Do these phrases remind you of Big Tobacco? Sure. They also make me think of Big Oil. At its best, Facebook’s products are a resource that has led to some good. (Connecting people online can be a powerful thing!) The company also produces an untold quantity of byproducts that lead to a lot of undesired effects. (Helping destroy democracy wasn’t exactly part of Mark Zuckerberg’s plan for world domination.) With nearly 3 billion users around the globe, Facebook isn’t going away anytime soon. The Big Tobacco metaphor does a good job of framing Facebook’s products as unhealthy. The only problem with comparing the two is that you can pretty easily avoid cigarettes these days. But it’s actually quite difficult to spend a day on the internet without interacting with Facebook. Enter the oil metaphor. Just like Facebook, there are upsides to fossil fuels. Oil and gas have historically provided us with a relatively cheap, seemingly plentiful energy supply. This has led to cool inventions like the internal combustion engine and the cars it powers. But just like Facebook, fossil fuels come with a lot of downsides — like how our reliance on them is destroying the planet — but it’s also almost impossible to imagine the world functioning without them. Most of us can’t just quit Facebook. The entire world can’t easily pick up and move to a new platform. At this point, we depend on Facebook’s products so much that turning them off suddenly can bring entire economies to a halt. We saw this play out on Monday, when a server configuration error took out Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp for hours. This may have seemed like a mere inconvenience for a lot of people in the United States, where there are plenty of other ways to communicate and do business online. But in the global South, some of Facebook’s products, particularly WhatsApp, have become essential services. “Developing nations such as India, Mexico, and Brazil have come to rely on these free messaging services,” Callum Sillars, a social media expert at Ampere Analysis, told the Guardian this week. “They are often the backbone of communication in these countries. Small businesses and informal economies in particular rely on Facebook’s services.” Sounds a bit like our reliance on oil, right? For example, if we woke up next Monday and all of the oil and gas on the planet had disappeared, it would be chaotic. But it wouldn’t be quite as bad in the US, where renewable energy use has been rising quickly, as it would be in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The developing countries in these areas depend heavily on fossil fuels for their daily energy needs, and they don’t have a viable alternative right now. You could extend the analogy, too. Facebook is like the oil industry because both play an outsized role in geopolitics. Facebook, like oil, makes massive profits while causing immeasurable harm to society. Facebook, like oil companies of yesteryear, has a habit of gobbling up smaller competitors to increase its control over the market. Comparing Facebook to Standard Oil is actually a pretty fun thought experiment, especially when you look at the inverse relationship between public sentiment and government intervention in Standard Oil. Simply put, it was only after people’s opinion of the Standard Oil monopoly plummeted in the early 1900s — thanks in part to muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell — that antitrust regulators swept in to break up John D. Rockefeller’s empire. What will happen to Mark Zuckerberg’s empire as it confronts its latest crisis over the harm it causes society remains unclear, but this time feels more serious than its past scandals. In her testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, Haugen gave lawmakers a blueprint for how to fix Facebook, and Sen. Blumenthal called on Zuckerberg to appear before the committee and answer some questions — specifically about recent revelations, like how Facebook knew that Instagram was harming teen girls but did nothing about it. If his appearance happens this month, Zuckerberg might even run into some oil industry executives testifying before the House Oversight Committee about climate disinformation. This story first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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posted 19 days ago on re/code
Tesla and Waymo have similar goals — safely transporting people — but totally different ways of getting there. | Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images Autonomous tech could lead to deaths at the hands of robots. But is continuing to let humans drive even worse? Last year saw a jump in the number of car fatalities, even as the pandemic kept many Americans off the roads. The number of deaths per 100 million miles driven grew 24 percent from a year earlier. It was the biggest single-year rise on record — and 2021 is on track to be just as bad. At the same time, the promise of autonomous cars has never been closer. Waymo and Tesla are continually improving their autonomous capabilities, drawing the tantalizing prospect of markedly less human suffering ever nearer. But getting to that future is complicated. The decision to switch to autonomous vehicles presents a very modern take on an old ethical dilemma: the famed trolley problem. This thought experiment involves a trolley car driver on a collision course with a group of pedestrians. The driver can do nothing and kill several people on the track ahead or take action, switching tracks so that just one person dies. These days, doing nothing means that about 1.3 million people will die each year globally in regular car accidents, the leading cause of death in people under 30. Switching tracks would involve more rapidly developing and adopting autonomous vehicles that could eventually prevent thousands of deaths per day. The problem is that the technology has a long way to go before it can drive people safely on its own in everyday conditions. In the meantime, it could lead to deaths at the hands of robots, if not humans. Waymo and Tesla are at the forefront of the driverless car push and thus have a front seat to this dilemma. Both have similar goals — to safely transport people in autonomous vehicles — but they are operating with wildly different strategies. Waymo, which shares a parent company with Google, is slowly and methodically rolling out its autonomous vehicles in the form of a robo-taxi service. The company boasts it has logged well over 20 million miles of autonomous driving without a single death. But currently, regular people can only ride in one of several hundred Waymo vehicles, in sunny Phoenix. Last week, the company got permission to launch its taxi service (with a human monitor behind the wheel) in a second city — San Francisco — where hills, weather, and traffic complicate the task. The company eventually plans to launch in other cities and license its automated driver technology to car manufacturers. But Waymo doesn’t know when that will happen because, as its co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana told Kara Swisher at the September 2021 Code Conference, the company is “in the process of learning.” “It’s, I would say, the engineering challenge of our generation. That’s what’s taking it so long,” Mawakana said. “Safety takes time.” In the meantime, people will continue to die in car accidents, with 94 percent of fatal car crashes caused by human error. Tesla, on the other hand, has rolled out autonomous features much more quickly. In September, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that drivers with a record of safe driving and who paid for the feature could request permission to beta test its “Full Self-Driving” technology. It includes more advanced driver assistance features than Autopilot, Tesla’s existing semi-autonomous feature, which helps drivers steer, brake, and accelerate within a lane. The company claims that the hardware — but not the software, which is still being tested — in new Teslas is capable of “full self-driving in almost all circumstances” and is “designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are currently no fully automated or self-driving cars for sale, and such technology is years away. The head of the National Transportation Safety Board has said that Tesla should fix existing safety deficiencies before rolling out the new tech. Meanwhile, other Tesla critics say that names like “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” cause people to place more faith in the technology than they should, erroneously taking their hands off the wheel or not paying attention. This dissonance has resulted in tragedy. In August, the NHTSA opened a formal investigation into Autopilot after crashes involving Teslas and emergency vehicles (12 so far). The agency has also opened special investigations into accidents suspected to have happened while advanced driver assistance systems were engaged and which have resulted in 12 deaths. Musk maintains that, despite the deaths, these cars are 10 times safer than regular cars. “Even if you, for argument’s sake, reduce fatalities by 90 percent with autonomy, the 10 percent that do die with autonomy are still gonna sue you,” Musk told Swisher at Code. “The 90 percent that are living don’t even know that that’s the reason they’re alive.” There’s some truth to that. By taking humans out of the equation, autonomous cars have the potential to save lives and alleviate incalculable social and economic losses. As NHTSA put it, “Fully automated vehicles that can see more and act faster than human drivers could greatly reduce errors, the resulting crashes, and their toll.” The key is getting to that future quickly without jeopardizing it by causing the very harm you’re attempting to stop. Two roads traveled If the goal is to get autonomous driving assistance to the masses, Tesla is closer. If the goal is to have cars that safely drive themselves, Waymo is winning. “Tesla is doing high-altitude flights or near-space flights, and Waymo is landing on the moon,” Mike Ramsey, vice president at research firm Gartner, told Recode. “One is trying to achieve something that’s far harder to do than the other. But that’s not to say that the high-altitude flights can’t keep getting higher and higher.” In other words, while Tesla probably won’t be delivering a fully autonomous vehicle anytime soon — despite its misleading naming — it could incrementally get better and better assistance features that would eventually lead to true self-driving capabilities. Tesla vehicles are considered to be at level 2 on the engineering society SAE International’s automation scale. That means Tesla’s system requires constant driver supervision, even if the assistance features are handling some of the steering and braking. Waymo vehicles are level 4, meaning the car can drive itself under limited geographic conditions and doesn’t need driver supervision. However, the technology that powers them is not ready for mass-market use outside of its test areas. Waymo’s hardware is much more robust than Tesla’s. It uses several redundant sensor systems, including lidar, radar, and cameras, to create a real-time picture of where it’s operating. The company also maps areas ahead of time by having human drivers manually drive the vehicles through them. Meanwhile, Tesla vehicles rely exclusively on cameras and ultrasonic sensors. “The more sensors you have, it adds to the complexity of the system, but it also makes it way safer,” Ramsey said. Cameras aren’t as accurate at gauging distance as lidar or radar, and their ability to map an area can be impaired by everyday hazards like snow, dust, or darkness. However, cameras are a lot cheaper, and that matters when it comes to getting this technology into consumers’ hands. You can purchase a souped-up Model 3 Tesla for around $75,000. However, experts don’t think Tesla vehicles could be fully autonomous with their current hardware, and will likely need to incorporate other technology like lidar to get there. We don’t know the exact price of Waymo vehicles — which are Chrysler Pacificas and Jaguar I-Paces outfitted with Waymo’s sensors and autonomous driver tech — but the company’s former CEO previously said it “cost no more than a moderately equipped Mercedes S-Class,” which has a price tag of about $180,000. Waymo says its costs have come down significantly with the latest generation. But by selling its vehicles to the general public, Tesla is able to collect lots of real-world driving data that will be useful in helping solve autonomous driving challenges. Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and an autonomous vehicle pioneer, calls Tesla’s data collection an “incredible advantage” but warns that data is “part of the answer, but it’s not the entire answer.” Still, he thinks Waymo ought to collect more of it from regular drivers in regular conditions. “We should be driving them whenever they can drive themselves and, when they do not, humans drive themselves,” Rajkumar said. “And for a time we collect experience. We understand what works, what does not work, and we refine.” Tesla’s relatively wide reach also means rolling out a truly autonomous vehicle, when they eventually make one, will be a lot easier. “Tesla’s strategy is interesting because, if it works, it could be a lot more scalable. They could launch a lot faster in other cities than their competitors could,” Tasha Keeney, an analyst at Ark Invest, which has a large stake in Tesla, said. Keeney said a faster rollout of autonomous vehicles will hasten a safer driving future, but it won’t be without cost. “Are computers better than humans at driving? I think yes,” she said. “Will there be mistakes along the way? Yes.” What’s next for autonomous vehicles? Experts estimate that we could have level 3 or 4 cars for sale within the next 10 years. But in the meantime, it’s important not to overlook the benefits that the pursuit of autonomous cars has already wrought. Cars will soon be able to reliably take over in some instances, say, on the highway — where the lanes are clearly marked and the rules are pretty clear — but humans might take over on city streets. Already a number of advanced driver assistance features are showing up on regular vehicles. Automatic emergency braking, technology that automatically slows or stops the car before it hits an object, has been shown to reduce injuries and fatalities and will be standard on most vehicles sold in the US next year. Consumers can expect more of these features to spill over from the quest for autonomous vehicles in the next few years. “We should all stop thinking in terms of something magical will happen and all of a sudden cars will become self-driving,” Rajkumar said. Rather, the shift will happen feature by feature, after many tests and improvements. “That last change will be so incremental you won’t be able to realize it happened over the last five to 10 years.” When cars do become fully autonomous, there are also benefits beyond safe driving. Keeney said autonomous technology would also greatly reduce the cost of travel because taxi services could do away with drivers. “It’ll give a lot of people access to very inexpensive point-to-point travel, which could totally change our lives and how we get around.” In the meantime, perhaps the path forward for self-driving cars isn’t a binary choice at all. We’ll likely see a spectrum of improvements from many car companies as they incorporate more and more driver assistance features. And although in the near term the tech might not be the self-driving future we were promised, it will be better than nothing. “We should not lose sight of the benefits the technology can bring,” Rajkumar said. “It takes time, but we’ll eventually get there.”

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posted 19 days ago on re/code
Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testifies before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on October 5. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Frances Haugen’s testimony offers a path forward on how to address Facebook’s harms. WASHINGTON, DC — US lawmakers have been angry at Facebook for years. Since as early as 2011, they have raised alarms about Facebook’s failures to protect users’ privacy, its struggles combating misinformation on its platforms, and its impact on its users’ mental health. But they haven’t passed any new laws addressing those issues. Now, some key legislators are saying they have the catalyst they need to make real change: whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. Haugen, once a product manager at the company, testified before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security on Tuesday in what lawmakers are describing as an urgent call to action to regulate Facebook. The whistleblower prompted a wave of media scrutiny of Facebook when she shared thousands of internal documents with the Wall Street Journal, the SEC, and Congress that show Facebook has known about the harms its products can cause but has downplayed this reality to lawmakers and the public. This proof, which has been missing from the conversation until now, reveals how Facebook conducted research that found its products can cause mental health issues, allow violent content to flourish, and promote polarizing reactions — and then largely ignored that research. “I came forward because I recognized a frightening truth: Almost no one outside Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook” “I came forward because I recognized a frightening truth: Almost no one outside Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook,” said Haugen in her opening testimony on Tuesday. In a statement in response to Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook’s director of policy communications Lena Pietsch wrote that Haugen “worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.” “We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” wrote Pietsch. “Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.” In the past, congressional hearings about Facebook have often descended into political grandstanding, with lawmakers veering off-topic and into their own partisan grievances with the company. Some Republicans have focused on making unproven accusations that the social media company has an anti-conservative bias. At other times, lawmakers have made gaffes that reveal their seeming lack of basic technical knowledge — such as the infamous question by now-retired Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) about how Facebook makes money, or Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s recent question about “Finsta” during a Senate subcommittee hearing last Thursday. This time, though, lawmakers across the aisle were notably focused and well-studied on the relevant — and tangible — issues at hand. They asked Haugen pointed questions about the harms Facebook can cause, particularly to teenagers and children, and how that can be resolved. In return, Haugen was an eloquent witness. She broke down complicated topics like Facebook’s algorithmically ranked News Feed in an accessible manner. And she provided some of the clearest explanations yet to both Congress and the public as to what’s wrong with Facebook and how these issues can be fixed. Give Facebook real external oversight Haugen repeatedly called for lawmakers to create an outside regulatory agency that would have the power to request data from Facebook, particularly about how its algorithms work and the kind of content they amplify on the company’s social media platforms. “As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one,” said Haugen in her opening testimony. Haugen argued that “a critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency: full access to data for research not directed by Facebook.” In her written testimony shared ahead of the hearing, Haugen criticized Facebook’s existing quasi-independent oversight board (which has no real legal power over Facebook) because she believes it is “blind” to Facebook’s inner workings. “Right now, the only people in the world trained to analyze these experiences are people who grew up inside of Facebook or other social media companies,” said Haugen. “There needs to be a regulatory home where someone like me could do a tour of duty after working at a place like this,” she said. Stanford law professor Nate Persily, who has previously worked directly with Facebook on academic partnerships in the past and who has acknowledged the limitations of those partnerships, recently called for legislation that would compel platforms like Facebook to share internal data with external researchers. Data transparency isn’t exactly the most attention-grabbing concept, nor is it an easy topic to regulate. But as Recode has previously reported, many leading social media experts agree with Haugen that it’s a first step to meaningfully regulate Facebook. Jabin Botsford-Pool/AFP via Getty Images In Frances Haugen’s opening statement, she said, “I believe Facebook’s products, harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.” Open Facebook’s algorithmic black box Facebook’s algorithms power how its platforms work and what everyone sees on their News Feeds. Haugen said these powerful mechanisms shouldn’t operate in a black box that only Facebook controls and understands, and that they must be scrutinized and regulated. Internal documents that Haugen revealed showed how a 2018 change to Facebook’s News Feed rewarded content that provokes more emotion in people — particularly anger, because it prompts more engagement than any other emotion. Haugen and members of Congress also talked about how Facebook’s algorithms can also push teens toward toxic content, like those promoting eating disorders. “I have spent most of my career on engagement-based rankings,” said Haugen, who in the past has worked at Google and Pinterest. “Facebook says, ‘We could do it safely because we have AI. The artificial intelligence will find the bad content that we know our engagement-based rankings is promoting,’” she said. But she warned that “Facebook’s own research says they cannot adequately identify” that dangerous content, and that as a result those algorithms are drawing out “extreme sentiment and division” in people. This, Haugen stressed, is at the core of many of Facebook’s most urgent problems, and it needs oversight from Congress. “I think [Haugen] has allowed us to get under the hood of Facebook,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). “Now we can now see how that company operates and how it is indifferent to the impact the algorithms have on young people in our country.” Drew Angerer/Getty Images Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (left to right) arrive to hear Frances Haugen’s testimony. Create federal privacy laws to protect Facebook users Privacy wasn’t one of Haugen’s key focuses during testimony, but several lawmakers, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), brought up the need for better privacy regulation. Protecting people’s privacy on platforms like Facebook is an area in which Congress has introduced some of the most legislation so far, including updating the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the KIDS Act, which would force tech companies to severely limit targeting advertising at children 16 or younger, and the SAFE DATA Act, which would create user rights to data transparency and ask for opt-in consent for processing sensitive data. So it makes sense why this would be a key part of their potential plans to regulate Facebook. “Passing a federal privacy standard has been long in the works. I put my first one in 2012 and I think it will be this Congress and this subcommittee that will lead the way,” said Blackburn. Haugen agreed that how Facebook handles its users’ privacy is a key area of concern that regulators should focus on, but she also said she doesn’t believe privacy regulation is the only solution to mitigating Facebook’s harms to society. “Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient,” said Haugen. “While important, they will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive traits of Facebook except for Facebook. We can afford nothing less than full transparency.” Reform Section 230 — but focus on algorithms During the hearing, several senators brought up Section 230 — the landmark internet law that shields tech companies from being sued for most kinds of illegal content their users post on their platforms. “[Haugen] has allowed us to get under the hood of Facebook. Now we can now see ... how it is indifferent to the impact the algorithms have on young people.” Reforming Section 230 would be highly controversial. Even some policy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future, which heavily scrutinize tech companies, have argued that stripping this law away could entrench reigning tech giants because it would make it harder for smaller social media platforms with fewer content moderation resources to operate without facing costly lawsuits. Haugen seemed to understand some of these nuances in her discussion of 230. She proposed for regulators to modify Section 230 to make companies legally liable for their algorithms promoting harmful content rather than specific users’ posts. “I encourage reforming Section 230 decisions about algorithms. Modifying 230 around content — it gets very complicated because user-generated content is something companies have less control over,” said Haugen. “They have 100 percent control over algorithms.” What’s next The leaders of the Senate subcommittee that brought Haugen to testify on Tuesday said they are going to keep Facebook in the spotlight and that they’ll hold more hearings in the future (they wouldn’t say when) about Facebook and other tech companies. “She has really gripped the consciousness of Congress today and made a lasting and enduring difference in how we will regard Big Tech,” said Blumenthal. “Without any exaggeration, we are beginning now a different era — I hope it will be different — in holding Big Tech accountable.” But Congress is still very much in the talking stage. None of the many bills that have been introduced over the years — such as a bill to prevent health misinformation on social media or a proposed antitrust law to prevent major tech companies from selling product lines they control — are remotely close to passing. And while this moment feels different — and some senators, like Ed Markey, have been reintroducing bills in light of the new scrutiny — there’s a battle ahead for lawmakers if they are ready to fight. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who co-leads the subcommittee that held the hearing Tuesday, declined to say if he will subpoena Mark Zuckerberg or exactly when the next hearing would be. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who co-leads with Blumenthal, said that change is coming “sooner rather than later” and that Congress is “close to bipartisan agreement.” But given the reality that Congress is still negotiating basic funding for the US government, trying to regulate Facebook effectively is going to take time as well as some remarkable cross-party coordination. But the focus senators brought to today’s hearing shows that even this polarized Congress may be ready to unite — at least when it comes to regulating Facebook.

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posted 21 days ago on re/code
A few companies are lowering pay for remote workers. Most are not. | Getty Images You used to get paid based on where you live. That’s changing. Google recently bet $2 billion that its New York workforce will return to the office. But to encourage its employees to actually make use of its massive real estate investments, some say the tech behemoth is using sticks, not carrots: Google employees who move to less expensive parts of the country could see their pay cut. In June, the company launched a tool for employees that showed how much less they’d be paid — anywhere from 5 to 25 percent, according to Reuters — if they move from somewhere like the Bay Area or New York City to a lower-cost location. Many companies that employ the estimated 13 percent of US workers who are still working from home due to the pandemic expect to open their offices back up in January. Google is one of several notable tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, that has enacted controversial plans to lower pay for remote workers who’ve moved away from the expensive areas where their headquarters are located. But there are signs these policies may backfire. While potential repercussions for cutting workers’ pay may not be immediate, humans are highly susceptible to loss aversion — losses are more painful than gains are pleasurable — and pay cuts could cause workers to either leave or resent the company. Alienating your existing workforce is always a bad idea, but it’s especially bad when tech companies are already struggling to find the workers they need. Even though Google is a highly desirable employer, 53 percent of 230 verified Google workers said, in a survey for Recode that was conducted by workplace community app Blind, that they would think about leaving the company if they moved and had their pay cut. That’s a bit less than the 68 percent of all professionals on Blind who said so, but it’s still high. Googlers are also more likely (30 percent) to have moved outside their metropolitan area since the pandemic began than professionals at large (22 percent), and some Googlers have already shown a willingness to leave the company over what some of them have called hypocritical remote work policies. Of course, there are other reasons keeping people at tech companies like Google — prestige, innovation, paychecks so big pay cuts don’t matter — but they might not be enough. So why are these tech companies floating this idea in the first place? Google, like many companies, says it has always based people’s pay on where they live. But one could argue that adjusting existing employees’ pay downward was a rarer instance before the pandemic, and that with an increasingly dispersed workforce doing the same labor, location-based pay is becoming a thing of the past. Thanks to remote work technology like Zoom and Slack, employees have been successfully working remotely for over a year and a half. During that time, Google has logged record profits. In turn, employees have enjoyed better work-life balance, shorter commutes, and the potential to live in places where their salaries can go much further. Remote work has moved from a perk that they’d willingly pay for to an expected benefit. “If we force them into the office because of pay cuts, they’re going to come in hostile, resentful, and potentially rageful” And most other companies have gotten the memo: Some 95 percent said they would not lower pay for fully remote workers, regardless of where they live, according to a survey of 753 organizations by compensation data company Salary.com. That’s because it’s widely understood that pay cuts are bad for worker morale, performance, and retention. That makes tech companies like Google notable outliers. Beyond what these companies are saying, experts have a few theories for why they’re so far standing firm. Foremost is that companies know office work works. Although they have seen that their workforce can be just as productive working from anywhere in the short term, they’re still unsure about remote work’s long-term effects on innovation. “If all you care about is day-to-day productivity, then remote work is great,” Columbia Business School leadership and ethics professor Adam Galinsky told Recode. “But if you care about long-term commitment to an organization and collaboration among people, remote work is problematic.” Pay cuts — or even the threat of pay cuts — might help maintain the status quo by disincentivizing people from moving to places where they couldn’t go into the office. But it will also likely have some unintended negative consequences for commitment and collaboration, which is precisely what these companies are trying to retain by having people come into the office. “It’s particularly ironic because the entire reason why we want people to come back to the office is so they’re more committed, engaged, functional, collaborative members of the organization,” Galinsky said. “But if we force them into the office because of pay cuts, they’re going to come in hostile, resentful, and potentially rageful.” There’s another reason for continuing location-based pay policies: equity in compensation. For example, not docking pay for a worker who moves from San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, might seem unfair to the person in Idaho already making less. “What am I supposed to do, pay the Boise person more or pay you less?” Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Visier, which helps companies make HR decisions based on data, said. Then there’s the economic rationale: Location-based pay models not only ensure a consistent rationale for paying tech workers in certain areas less than in others but also stand to save the company money. Not paying workers based in Idaho or India less could end up being very expensive for a global tech company. “Once you start to do that, it’s like tugging at the thread on a sweater: Why do we pay people less than other markets? Why do we pay people less anywhere? Should there be one global salary for all?” Rubenstein said. Indeed, the pandemic is causing location-based pay to become outdated, according to the salary comparison company Payscale, which also found that most companies don’t plan to lower pay for remote employees. “What we do expect to see more broadly is a shift from employer-location-based pay strategies to pay strategies that can better accommodate a remote or distributed workforce,” Payscale CEO Scott Torrey told Recode. That means instead of basing pay on where a company is headquartered and adjusting downward if people live elsewhere, more companies are adopting a national pay median for each position. Nowhere is that happening faster than in tech, according to Gabriel Luna-Ostaseski, co-founder of Braintrust, a user-owned talent platform that connects companies with technologists, exclusively remotely. “There is now a global market for their skills,” he said. “Enterprises will pay top dollar regardless of where those individuals are located.” Additionally, smaller tech companies could swoop in with more generous remote policies as a way to punch above their weight. “Just because you work in tech doesn’t mean you’re magically enlightened in management styles” That’s all to say that employees, especially ones at tech companies, have options other than having their pay cut. And employee turnover is very expensive, costing a company about a third of an employee’s salary, according to Salary.com CEO Kent Plunkett. Add that to the fact that he said 50 percent of workers — compared to the typical 25 percent — are thinking of leaving their jobs, and it seems like a very bad move for companies to reduce worker pay. Given the situation, it seems Google feels it has the power and motivation to keep as many people as possible near its offices. However, several of the experts we spoke to also aren’t convinced that companies like Google will continue with these changes in the long run, or might only apply the policy selectively to weed out people it doesn’t want. “I don’t believe that’s what they’re actually going to do when it comes down to retaining their top that wants to relocate,” Plunkett told Recode. “You’re not going to let your best talent go out the door over a $15,000-a-year pay differential.” Although Google told Recode it has always adjusted employee salaries based on location, the current damage to employee morale might already be done. “Just because you work in tech doesn’t mean you’re magically enlightened in management styles,” Rubenstein said.

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posted 21 days ago on re/code
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in July. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images Internal evidence that former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen shared shows Facebook has known — but ignored — the harm it causes. On Sunday evening, a former Facebook employee who has previously revealed damning internal documents about the company came forward on 60 Minutes to reveal her identity. Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic integrity team, shared documents that were the basis of an explosive series of articles in the Wall Street Journal. The reports revealed that the company knew its products can cause meaningful harm — including negatively impacting the mental health of teens — but it still has not made major changes to fix such problems. “There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money,” said Haugen in the 60 Minutes interview on Sunday. The employee also shared new allegations — not previously covered in the WSJ’s extensive reporting — about Facebook allegedly relaxing its standards on misinformation after the 2020 presidential elections, shortly ahead of the January 6 riots at the US Capitol. In an internal staff memo obtained and published on Friday by the New York Times, Facebook’s vice president of public policy and global affairs, Nick Clegg, wrote that the responsibility for January 6 “rests squarely with the perpetrators of the violence, and those in politics and elsewhere who actively encouraged them.” Clegg also wrote that Facebook is not a “primary cause of polarization.” Facebook has been mired in PR and political crises for the past five years. But this is a staggering moment for the company and the billions of people who use its products. Already, in response to documents revealed by the whistleblower, the company has paused development of its Instagram for Kids product, brought two executives before Congress to testify, and launched a PR offensive dismissing the Wall Street Journal’s reporting as “cherry picking.” The whistleblower has also shared internal Facebook documents with lawmakers, and is expected to testify before members of Congress on Tuesday. The fact that the whistleblower is coordinating with lawmakers reflects how politicians on both sides of the aisle are viewing social media companies like Facebook with more concern — and they’re becoming more adept at scrutinizing them. “This is the first time I can remember anything this dramatic, with an anonymous whistleblower, this many documents, and a big reveal,” said Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy at Facebook who is now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Atlantic Council. While plenty of Facebook employees have spoken out against the company anonymously or internally, only a handful — particularly at a high-ranking level — have ever spoken out on the record against Facebook. And never before have they revealed such detailed evidence that the company seemingly understands but ignores systematic harms it causes. Nor has a Facebook defector had this kind of press rollout: first, a series of investigative reports with a major publication, then an unveiling on primetime television, and soon testimony before Congress — all within the span of just a few weeks. The extent to which Facebook seemingly knew about the harmful effects of its products and withheld that knowledge from the public has caused lawmakers such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to compare the company’s tactics to those of Big Tobacco. Facebook has already responded to the allegations with a playbook defense, similar to its response to President Joe Biden’s criticism that the platform was “killing people” because of the spread of Covid-19 misinformation on the platform. The company and its leaders are arguing that the allegations are sensationalized and untrue, that information is being taken out of context, and that Facebook isn’t the only one to blame for the world’s problems. And just like it did during the recent Biden and Facebook Covid-19 misinformation debate, Facebook has questioned the credibility of outside research on how its platforms function. This time, the company went so far as to discredit some of its internal researchers’ findings about Instagram’s negative effects on teenagers’ mental health. Last week, it distributed an annotated version of the original research that was first published in the Journal. In its annotated slides, Facebook said that its researchers’ slide titles “may be sensationalizing” findings that Instagram can negatively contribute to teenage girls’ body image issues. The company also said the size of the study was limited. The fact that the company is disputing the topline findings of its staff’s research shows just how damaging the reporting coming out of the whistleblower’s documents are, and how urgently the company is moving to change the narrative. “It is a big moment,” said Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook’s former global head of elections integrity operations. She has been a vocal critic of the company since she left in November 2018. “For years, we’ve known many of these issues — via journalists and researchers — but Facebook has been able to claim that they have an ax to grind and so we shouldn’t trust what they say. This time, the documents speak for themselves,” she told Recode. A key reason why this latest scandal feels more significant is that politicians on both sides of the aisle feel deceived by Facebook because they have previously asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg about Instagram’s mental health effects on children and teenagers, and the company wasn’t forthcoming. In March, Zuckerberg told Congress that he didn’t believe the research was conclusive, and that “overall, the research that we have seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental health benefits.” But he did not disclose the negative findings in the research cited in the Wall Street Journal reporting, including that 13 percent of British teenage users and 6 percent of American teenage users studied who had suicidal thoughts traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram. The company also didn’t share the research in response to two separate inquiries by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-MA), and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) when they asked for Facebook’s internal research on the matter after the March congressional hearing. More of Facebook’s current and former employees — instead of being quieted by the company’s reported tightening of communication among its staff — are starting to openly discuss the company’s issues on Twitter, and within internal settings like company message boards, according to reporting from the New York Times. Some researchers working at the company feel “embarrassed” that Facebook dismissed the quality of its own staff’s work, according to the Times. Facebook, like other major tech companies, prides itself on hiring world-class researchers and engineering talent. If it further taints Facebook’s image in the engineering and academic communities, that could limit the caliber of employees it’s able to recruit. “I think Facebook is miscalculating what a watershed moment this is, not just because the public now has eyes on these documents, but because employees are starting to get angry,” Eisenstat told Recode. In the coming days, the attention around the whistleblower will likely shift to include her personal story: her background, what she worked on at Facebook, whether she has any incentive to share this information other than the public good, and how she might face legal challenges or even retaliation for her actions (Facebook executives have testified under oath that they will not retaliate against her for addressing Congress). But the whistleblower coming forward is about much more than one individual. In revealing thousands of documents involving the work of many people at the company —which was subsequently largely ignored by top executives — this whistleblower has reignited longstanding debates both inside and outside the company about Facebook’s flaws. “[The whistleblower] has provided an unvarnished and unprecedented look at the extent to which Facebook executives have knowingly disregarded the life-and-death consequences of their own products and decisions,” Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the policy nonprofit Accountable Tech, told Recode. “And she’s paved the way for others to speak out.”

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posted 24 days ago on re/code
Zac Freeland/Vox Our pick for October 2021 is Matrix by Lauren Groff. The Vox Book Club is linking to Bookshop.org to support local and independent booksellers. Here’s how the Vox Book Club works: Each month, we pick a book. Around the middle of the month, we publish a discussion post containing thoughts and questions from Vox book critic Constance Grady, but we also have comments turned on and moderated so you can share your thoughts, too. Talk among yourselves! Post your opinions and questions! Or use the conversation as a jumping-off point for your own conversations with friends and family. And at the end of the month, we gather on Zoom for a virtual live discussion. Our pick for October 2021 is Matrix by Lauren Groff. It’s a rich, beautifully written novel about ambition, desire, and also witchy separatist medieval nuns. We’ll have plenty to discuss here on the site, and at the end of the month, we’ll meet with Groff herself live on Zoom to discuss the whole thing. RSVP here to join the fun, and in the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything. Here’s the full Vox Book Club schedule for October 2021: Friday, October 15: Discussion post on Matrix published to Vox.com Thursday, October 28, 5 pm: Virtual live event with author Lauren Groff. You can RSVP here, and reader questions are encouraged!

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posted 25 days ago on re/code
R. Kelly (center), seen here in 2019, has been found guilty on nine counts of sex trafficking and racketeering. | Scott Olson/Getty Images It took decades and dozens of allegations for the R&B singer’s survivors to be heard. Activists are not sure the verdict is a turning point. For the dozens of survivors who came forward, the R. Kelly verdict was three decades in the making: After a six-week trial, the R&B singer was found guilty on nine counts of sex trafficking and racketeering on Monday. The 54-year-old musician, long accused of disturbing allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, was being held accountable. “Thank God they got it right this time,” Stephanie Edwards, who tried for 20 years to convince the world that R. Kelly raped her niece, told The Cut. It took the jury just nine hours to deliberate after prosecutors, with the help of 45 witnesses, untangled a web of abuse that targeted Black women and girls as young as 13 and teenage boys. The harrowing stories of these survivors — and their bravery to share them — helped lead to the R&B superstar’s conviction after years of evasion. One woman testified that R. Kelly gave her herpes when she was 16 and he was 42. Another shared how Kelly locked her in a room for days without food to eventually wake up having been drugged and raped. Others on the stand told of Kelly forcing them to get abortions, demanding they have sex with other women who were locked up in his studio, coercing them to have sex and perform sexual acts under the threat of a gun, and obsessively recording much of the abuse on video. The verdict, many say, is evidence that a cultural tide has turned after years of activism. Since the Me Too movement took off in 2017, Kelly’s reckoning has been a major milestone in the music industry and the first high-profile case in which the majority of the victims were Black women and girls. These survivors had to fight especially hard to have their stories be heard and taken seriously. Allegations go back as far as 1996, when a young woman filed a lawsuit against Kelly, saying she was underage when he initiated sex with her; in 2001, another young woman did the same. A year later, police indicted Kelly on 21 counts of child pornography after an anonymous source sent a sex tape to the Chicago Police Department. When the case went to trial in 2008, jurors were not convinced by the video evidence that showed Kelly sexually abusing what appeared to be a young Black girl, and Kelly was acquitted of the child pornography charges. In the years since, activists — from Me Too founder Tarana Burke to the women behind the #MuteRKelly social media campaign — have worked hard to cultivate a climate that brings attention to Black survivors. The explosive Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly further brought allegations against the singer to light. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images Family members of survivor Jocelyn Savage attend the trial in the racketeering and sex trafficking case against R. Kelly in Brooklyn, New York, on August 18. Only time will tell if Kelly’s conviction will be an outlier, or if it means that Black women and girls are truly being recognized and taken seriously in discussions about sexual abuse and assault. Much like Harvey Weinstein, who in February 2020 was sentenced to 23 years in prison for third-degree rape and first-degree criminal sexual acts, Kelly’s list of abuses is egregious, excessive, and damning. But there are signs that Me Too fatigue has set in, with the public less interested in following abuse cases, and Kelly’s music still remains popular on streaming platforms. Some who have long followed the allegations see the verdict as a step forward for the country’s most vulnerable survivors — but they note that there’s still a long way to go to change the reality that one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before age 18, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). “It’s remarkable the level at which one has to prey upon Black girls and women for there to be this kind of recognition,” Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, told Vox. “It took three decades of allegations, a docuseries, a #MuteRKelly campaign, and more to even produce the moment that we’re in. But the systems that enabled Kelly are still intact.” From child porn allegations to Surviving R. Kelly: What led to a conviction The world where R. Kelly was able to evade authorities for years looks a bit different from the world in which he was finally convicted this week. In 1994, Kelly illegally married R&B singer Aaliyah when she was just 15 years old. When news of their relationship broke, it was mostly discussed as a misguided choice made by a mentor and protégé “in love,” not one of abuser and victim. In the recent trial, however, Aaliyah was noted as Jane Doe No. 1, with a witness testifying that he saw Kelly having sex with Aaliyah when she was 13 or 14. What made more headlines than the illegal marriage, though, was what many called Kelly’s “sex tape.” In June 2002, the self-titled Pied Piper was charged with 21 counts of making child pornography that featured oral sex, intercourse, and urination. The video in question had been widely copied and sold, earning a place in the cultural discourse with comedians joking about golden showers and Kelly’s kinks. It took six years for the case to make it to trial, where Kelly was found not guilty on all counts. Jurors concluded that they could not determine that the girl on the 27-minute tape was a minor. While the trial focused on this one sex tape, there were several allegations against Kelly by this time. Between “the tape” and his first trial, Kelly only grew in popularity with an NAACP Image Award nomination in 2004 and the release of his cult classic hip hopera, “Trapped in the Closet,” the following year. When Kelly was exonerated in 2008, he left the courthouse with his hand on his heart as he walked by fans with the “flicker of a smile” on his face, the New York Times wrote. Back then, the 14 witnesses at Kelly’s trial weren’t believed, or at least weren’t believed enough by the jurors (nine men and three women) to convict him. Kelly’s defense team called the witnesses liars and extortionists and even compared one of them to the devil. Kelly’s lawyers made their entire defense about gold-digging women, since one of the witnesses admitting to stealing a $20,000 Rolex from the musician. The jury explained that the lack of testimony from the victim created “grayness” in the case. During Kelly’s 2021 trial, a defense team tried once again to paint women who testified against Kelly as promiscuous and desperate for fame, but the effort didn’t stick — more survivors came forward, and there had been a years-long movement of supporters behind the women this time around that had worked to uncover Kelly’s alleged intricate criminal enterprise and shine a light on a culture that enables predators. The #MuteRKelly campaign, founded in 2017, brought greater attention to the longstanding allegations against Kelly, urging individuals, radio stations, and music venues to stop playing his music or hosting his live performances. The movement’s founders, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, two Black women, believed it was time for Black communities to take a stand against R. Kelly by not supporting his music career — less streaming and album sales meant less money for the lawyers and networks that prolonged the abuse. Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images Demonstrators gather near R. Kelly’s former recording studio in Chicago on January 9, 2019, following the release of the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. Scott Olson/Getty Images The #MuteRKelly campaign, founded in 2017 by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, brought greater attention to the longstanding allegations against the R&B singer. That same year, music writer Jim DeRogatis, who originally broke the story of allegations against Kelly and had been chronicling the allegations against Kelly since 2000, published a BuzzFeed feature detailing information about a “cult” of young women that Kelly maintained. Just four months later, decades of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, launching the Me Too movement to heights activists never believed would happen. For a moment, it seemed as though Kelly’s victims could ride this wave — people tried to vocalize the decades of horror the R&B singer wrought — but their stories weren’t amplified in the way others survivors’ were. It took another push for Kelly’s victims to get some attention: The six-part Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, directed by dream hampton and released in early 2019, featured several accusers describing their experiences with Kelly and seemed to finally break the weight of silence that had settled in. In the six hours of television testimony, survivors, allies, and advocates laid out the most comprehensive look yet at Kelly’s abuse, making it difficult for people to look away. After the series aired, Kelly was dropped by his record company and later charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and sex trafficking. “What’s striking is that the trial revealed an even broader scope of victimization that he perpetrated than the docuseries alluded to,” Candice Norcott, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago who was a featured expert in the Lifetime docuseries, told Vox. “There was still more that was revealed, like the scope of gender identities that he targeted.” Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images R. Kelly arrives for a hearing on sexual abuse charges alongside his defense team in Chicago, Illinois, on June 26, 2019. Monday’s verdict, after decades of accusations and activism, shows that change is happening, albeit very slowly. One of the biggest critiques at the height of Me Too — which was started by Burke, a Black activist, around 2007 before surging in the wake of the Weinstein story — was that it left out marginalized women, particularly Black women. It only received widespread recognition after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted out the phrase 10 years later and captured stories of abuse that women in Hollywood experienced. Most of the stories that garnered attention centered on white women; meanwhile, more than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lives, according to the APA, a higher percentage than women overall, and for every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not. The unique discrimination that Black women face as a result of misogynoir — the combination of anti-Black racism and misogyny — makes it harder for Black women to report campus sexual assaults, for example, even at majority-Black institutions. Activists have helped bring these realities to the fore in recent years, and Americans have become more receptive to understanding systemic oppression. The fact that jurors at Kelly’s 2021 trial believed the Black women who testified against him, especially given that the women are not famous or wealthy, is significant. Still, Lindsey pointed out, survivors can’t help but feel a loss for not being believed for so long. “The verdict finally offers a clear indictment, not only of R. Kelly, of course, but of all the enablers and systems that had to be in place to allow that to proceed,” Lindsey said. “But for Black women and girls, and especially those who are the survivors of sexual violence, it’s not comforting to know that it took three decades of allegations for people to say, ‘Perhaps this was terrible.’” Why the greater impact of Kelly’s guilty verdict is tough to predict It is yet to be seen whether this trial and verdict will encourage society to listen to and believe Black women and girls going forward. There are multiple reasons Kelly’s case may be an outlier. For one, Kelly’s behavior was monstrous in terms of its flagrancy, frequency, and longevity. That isn’t the norm for sexual violence for the average victim, Lindsey said. Kelly was a rich and powerful man, with a network of enablers; he was known to scout teenage girls and commit his abuses in plain sight. His crimes also included some especially foul details — one woman testified that Kelly forced her to smear feces on her face and put them in her mouth. For another, it’s well-documented that Black women and girls are less likely to be seen as victims, or to be believed and supported when they report abuse. In fact, there are a number of Black women who have accused high-profile men of sexual abuse whose accounts still deserve serious attention. Jennifer Hough — the woman whom Kenneth Petty, Nicki Minaj’s husband, was convicted of attempting to rape — has said that Petty, Minaj, and their fans have pressured her to recant her story of the sexual assault. The 20 women who have accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct face an uphill battle as Simmons denies the allegations with the hashtag #NotMe. And those stories have made the news because the accused men are famous — but what about those who’ve faced sexual violence at the hands of non-famous men? “These instances [with Petty and Simmons] tell us we aren’t necessarily somewhere new with how we tackle sexual violence against Black women and girls,” said Lindsey. “There’s still a way that we are willing to villainize and demonize them for their behavior without actually reckoning with the pervasiveness of sexual violence.” Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images Twenty women have accused Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. Michael Abbott/Getty Images Bill Cosby (second from left) arrives home alongside his attorney and spokespeople after being released from prison on on June 30, 2021. There are also other factors that signal a larger, overall Me Too fatigue. Though some dedicated viewers tuned in to Kelly’s 2021 trial daily, posting recaps in Facebook groups or devoting entire YouTube series to analyzing the case, social media attention to the six-week trial was markedly low. When the Weinstein allegations first came out in October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo was used 200,000 times, and 80,000 people were talking about the movement on Facebook. By the time the jury reached a verdict in the R. Kelly trial, #MeToo was hardly being used; meanwhile, one of the top R. Kelly hashtags was #FreeRKelly. “I had to kind of search it out a little to find information from the trial,” Lindsey said. “I know there were news sites keeping a daily record, and Black news outlets were pretty good about regular updates, but I did not see that same kind of investment that we saw with the Harvey Weinstein case, in terms of public lure. And this is perhaps one of the most intricate, complex, and just damning cases of serial sexual predation we’ve probably seen in quite some time, but you wouldn’t know that from the news.” Norcott also noted having to dig for news pertaining to Kelly’s trial. “There was the context of [Instagrammer Gabby Petito’s] story emerging and getting so much attention while this trial was underway. It’s important to pay attention to how and why that happened.” As Spencer Kornhaber noted in the Atlantic, it’s also important to understand that Kelly was convicted not of rape or sexual assault, but of sex trafficking and racketeering, a charge notoriously linked to the mafia. This strategy was a workaround for sexual abuse allegations that had reached the statute of limitations, with the prosecution opting instead to show how Kelly constructed a grand scheme of abuse that involved dozens of enablers. That prosecutors chose this approach also highlights how hard it is to get a sexual assault conviction against a powerful man. Then there is Kelly’s popularity as a musician. Though the debate of separating the art from the artist has persisted for ages, there will always be people who are not concerned about consuming the art of an abuser. Just this month, Drake released an album featuring a song credit from Kelly. After Surviving R. Kelly aired, streams of Kelly’s music shot up on Spotify; he currently has 4.9 million monthly listeners. By this point, people have already made up their minds as to whether they will continue to play “Ignition (remix)” or stop listening to it altogether, and Kelly’s guilty verdict is unlikely to affect their decision. “There’s a way that a lot of us are grappling with our role as enablers, and as part of rape culture, that also keeps us much more timid in our responses and our investment in the verdict,” Lindsey said. Ultimately, activists want the long-overdue R. Kelly verdict to underscore how challenging it is for survivors to tell their stories — and that’s why it’s important that they’re heard, especially Black women and children, who are often some of the most vulnerable. People may be exhausted by Me Too, but the work to dismantle a culture that enables abuse is nowhere near done. “What I hope comes out of this is more messages about accountability and fewer messages about doubt, shame, and the persecution of survivors who decide to come forward,” Norcott said.

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posted 26 days ago on re/code
Getty Images When values are at odds with a company’s bottom line, all too often they won’t win out. “Don’t be evil” —Google “Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome” —Starbucks “Include and empower” —Zillow Corporate values sound really good. They’re positive, optimistic, and assert some sense of moral authority, which has become expected by consumers: A majority say they expect companies to take a stand on issues, whether they agree with the stand or not. “Moral leadership in this country has been ceded to the corporations now. I don’t think anyone has much faith in politics taking care of people anymore. Corporations are sort of the default, and there’s a lot of pressure on them to do the right thing,” says Tyler Wry, a management professor at Wharton. One way corporations take up that mantle is through corporate values statements. Corporate values statements are pervasive: About 80 percent of large companies have an official list of values on their websites. At their best, core values are spoken of as hallowed and immutable, the heart and soul of a company. Despite the language of essentialism around them, though, corporate values don’t always track with company behavior (all the value statements above have come under fire for inconsistencies with action). Some of this is due to a lack of specificity and accountability in their rollout — you can’t expect people to change their behavior if they don’t know why or how — but the primary reason is that, despite lip-service to the contrary, the long-term vision that values require is not rewarded. US corporate governance norms are based on the shareholder value model, which enshrines maximizing shareholder profits as a company’s raison d’être. This model in its most typical application operates at the expense of a labor and economic ecosystem. Looking at the workforce, we’ve reached a tipping point in this power imbalance triggering both individual and collective action. Employees are resigning at unprecedented rates, with many employees opting out of the system entirely. The gap in sentiment between big business and unions hit a record high favoring unions in 2020, with over half of employees saying they’d vote for a union at work. Labor laws currently favor businesses, but if the federal PRO Act passes, “it will be the most significant pro-labor legislation passed since the New Deal,” Zack Beauchamp wrote for Vox. Despite rising incentives, when companies are unwilling to make governance and policy changes, it’s hard to see initiatives like extra time off or even pay raises as anything other than an attempt to placate employees in lieu of giving them more power. Without a shift to a more democratic model that emphasizes the health of all stakeholders, we’ll all continue to suffer the calamitous effects of profit maximization. Corporate values are guiding principles and beliefs that serve as the foundation for behavior. These values are reflected in the decisions the company makes: who gets hired and who gets fired, what gets rewarded and what gets punished. Codifying values as a trend seems to have kicked off in 1994 with the publication of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, which stressed the articulation of and commitment to core values and “cult-like cultures.” Broadly speaking, values say what a company cares about. They refer to ethical characteristics like integrity and respect, strategic lenses like customer focus, and ways of working like collaboration (all four values listed appear on about 30 percent of value statements). It’s also become common to see social impacts noted on corporate value statements, like diversity and environmental impact. Internally, values can guide the day-to-day employee experience, like a culture of feedback or innovation. They speak to expectations, both how employees are expected to behave and how they can expect to be treated. Externally, they articulate what customers and other parties can expect in their experience. Corporate values’ primary purported purpose is to serve as cornerstones for company culture, but they are also integral as marketing tools, pitched to consumers and prospective employees. Leaders really like to talk about them: More than three-quarters of CEOs interviewed in recent decades in Harvard Business Review spoke about their company values, even when they weren’t specifically asked about them. This value-centric messaging strategy can pay off, at least hypothetically. According to a recent study from the Bauer Leadership Center at Washington University in St. Louis and Vrity, a brand measurement company specializing in values, 82 percent of people say they are willing to pay more money to buy from companies whose values align with their own, with 43 percent of respondents willing to pay twice as much. On the recruitment side, company values may help attract and retain talent. Employers living core values ranked above benefits in an analysis of corporate culture elements most important to employees. They also may make employees more engaged, and engaged employees are productive employees. The problem is, research indicates that values often don’t have a significant impact on making the world better. In an MIT Sloan study, researchers found no correlation between a company’s expressed values and how well employees felt they lived up to them. Diversity statements can do more harm than good. Environmental impact commitments fall short. The corporate values trend doesn’t seem to have much to do with values at all; it’s saying the right thing and doing nothing. The first, perhaps obvious reason is that the highly subjective nature of value statements renders them nearly meaningless. Values are couched in the language of platitudes: respect, integrity, and even having a positive impact on communities mean different things to different people. There are some relative exceptions, like Netflix. Its actual values are no longer novel — they’ve been parroted by many tech companies — but the form embodies best practices, with a highly detailed culture memo of more than 4,000 words that takes a strong perspective on what each of their values means in context. Netflix’s stated values range from the typical — respect, communication, and inclusion — to nuanced, company-specific norms like freedom as the explicit priority over error prevention. The memo includes statements explaining why they set these norms and examples of actions that support values. In at least some ways, it sets the stakes: The memo talks about compensation in line with values, having a fire-fast culture for those who don’t live up to them, and incentivizing people who want to leave to do so by fully vesting company stock options rather than requiring employees to stay for a certain amount of time to cash out. In a more typical vacuum of process and operating principles, though, application and enforcement are up to interpretation. Especially as company policies tend to stress independent decision-making, this subjectivity puts employees at risk. In early 2020, for example, a US Bank employee was fired for bringing a customer who was stranded at a nearby gas station $20 with manager approval. (Her manager was also fired for approving the trip; the bank cited “unnecessary risk” and said it does not allow call center workers to meet with customers.) US Bank’s culture statement at the time was, “Our employees are empowered to do the right thing” (the language has since been changed to “We do the right thing”). Doing the right thing is highly personal, and asks the question, the right thing for whom? The employee and her manager acted in a way consistent with their interpretation of the company values, yet were terminated without severance for “putting herself and the bank at unnecessary risk,” answering the implicit question with “the company.” Doing the right thing is highly personal, and asks the question, the right thing for whom? The subjectivity of values also means they can be used disingenuously or to defend bad behavior. In another case, as reported by Zoe Schiffer at The Verge, the DTC luggage company Away sold a vision of inclusion and a responsibility to make a positive impact. Leadership messaging was stacked with company values but characterized by employees as manipulative. CEO Steph Korey reportedly weaponized Away’s value statements to bully employees. One factor was the company’s insistence that conversations take place on Slack rather than email — ostensibly for inclusion and transparency, but also to monitor employee conversations. In this way, the values of “accessibility” can be used as an excuse to micromanage and “empowerment” as a pretense for overwork. Inconsistencies in internal value application can attract negative attention and impact brand sentiment, but the effects are often temporary and do not catalyze substantive changes. “To a certain extent, it’s driven by news cycles. The company thinks that they manage these things with PR as opposed to action. I mean, it’s a cheaper solution,” says Wry. Some of the bad strategy around values can be credited to sloppy implementation or because companies are going too “brand-first,” thinking about how they want to be perceived versus how they want to behave. The root cause, though, is that for most companies, no matter what they say, values simply are not a top priority. This is not a moral judgment against corporate America but a simple fact of how corporate governance works in the United States. Values are a long-term commitment. Research indicates that prioritizing community and employee satisfaction does have positive long-term financial gains, but to actually live up to their promises takes resources, and as a rule, short-term financial priorities win out over any value statement, no matter how detailed. This rampant focus on short-term financial gains over long-term sustainability and growth is born out of the shareholder model, which has been the norm of business governance in the United States since the 1970s. Introduced as the Friedman doctrine, it explicitly denounces corporate social responsibility and limits the goals of a company to maximizing shareholder profits. The longstanding defense of the shareholder model is it is the most likely to ensure the survival of the business, which is good for everyone. In practice, though, limiting the end goal of companies to making money for shareholders has shifted gains from worker productivity to shareholders, stagnating wages and stifling economic growth. In 2019, the average CEO made 320 times as much money as the average worker. As companies create and codify income inequality, they also create and codify unproductive and unsafe communities, says Julie Battilana, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard’s Business and Kennedy Schools and the author of Power, for All. “Everyone is losing, including the people at the top. They get a large part of the pie, but that pie is getting smaller.” Counterarguments to critiques of the shareholder value model boil down to, “It works if you’re doing it right, and they weren’t doing it right,” and “the law lets us do it, so it’s fine.” (It’s also hard to convince a person making $231 million annually that the status quo is bad for them.) But if most people aren’t doing it right — with destructive environmental, social, and economic ends — then maybe we should reconsider it as the primary mode of corporate governance in the United States. Upending hierarchies is a big cultural shift — one that requires a lot of work, process, and bureaucracy, not to mention a departure from current operating norms — but it is long overdue to prioritize the health of our interdependent communities. Working within the current system, the solution is unglamorous: distributing voting power, with stakeholder needs systematically represented, and expanding the definition of success beyond purely the financial and setting incentives and accountability to that end. In short, procedural changes. They are not without precedent. “If you look abroad at the number of European countries, including one that’s well known for it, Germany, there’s a co-determination system, so by law, employees actually are entitled to have seats on the board. They do not only voice concerns and suggestions. They participate in the key strategy decisions,” says Battilana. There is even a 1919 law still on the books in Massachusetts that regulates employee representation on boards, though it is rarely applied. Similarly, the standards and metrics have been set by external bodies like the Global Reporting Initiative that specialize in sustainability and impact. There is a roadmap to follow. The move to a power-sharing model allows companies to make their values real instead of hollow intentions, opening the door for actual innovation, integrity, collaboration, and respect. Procedural changes are not as flashy as culture decks, but they are how companies can expand their focus past financial goals. And with a quick reframe, they can sound like the best kind of value statement: articulating a long-term vision and how to execute on it. By shifting the focus from solely financial goals to a system that incentivizes broader positive impact, companies might be able to think long term and reap the benefits of healthy employees, a healthy economy, and, hopefully, a healthier planet. It’s subjective, perhaps, but so is “doing the right thing.”

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posted about 1 month ago on re/code
Do older people needed their own dedicated devices? | Westend61/Getty Images As boomers age, a new crop of iPads and Alexas are popping up. Are they necessary? In the grim pits of 2020, ElliQ recited a poem to 81-year-old Deanna Dezern. Dezern doesn’t remember what the poem was called or who wrote it, but she says that thematically, it was about persistence and determination — qualities that resonate during a world-altering pandemic. Dezern needed reassurance; she’d spent the last year cocooned alone in her Florida home, and as the weeks turned into months, she fell into a foggy depression. Thankfully, robots cannot transmit Covid-19, which made ElliQ a perfect ally to ride out the storm. “The poem said, ‘You can do it, just keep trying,’” Dezern continued. “ElliQ was always where I left her. She said soothing things to me. She was always ready to talk to me when nobody was around. I don’t know how to describe it. She was there for me in the way that I needed her.” ElliQ, as you can probably infer by now, is an AI companion designed for seniors by the Israeli tech company Intuition Robotics. Think of it as an Alexa for older folks: ElliQ looks a bit like the mid-century lamp from the Pixar movies, and she can read the news, stream music, and share weather reports, all from her perch on a coffee table or kitchen counter. But the core appeal, and the way Intuition hopes to position itself as a major player in the burgeoning elderly-oriented tech sector, is ElliQ’s empathy. It is impossible to teach a robot how to love, but ElliQ can encourage people to take their meds, to practice mindful meditation, or, in Dezern’s case, to simply be present and absorb the quiet, empty nights of retirement. That’s the guiding philosophy at Intuition Robotics; ElliQ possesses a gentle, caregiving patience that neither Apple, Google, nor any other power broker in Silicon Valley prioritizes in its products for the general public. View this post on Instagram A post shared by ElliQ (@elliqsidekick) “ElliQ doesn’t say, ‘Would you like to listen to music?’ She says, ‘Would you like to listen to music together?’ ‘Do you want to play a game together?’ You establish trust. We want to move from doing things for someone to doing things together,” Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition, said in a Zoom call with Vox. “What’s unique about the senior population is that we think they’ll be early adopters of this technology. … Humans are social beings, and unfortunately, many elders are deprived of that in our society. In a weird way, they might embrace this new kind of relationship.” Intuition Robotics isn’t the only company trying to tap into the geriatric market. Assistive tech might be a social good, but it isn’t a public good, and there’s a reason capital firms are trying to get in on the ground floor. “They’ve waited for the aging of the baby boomers, the oldest of whom are now 76,” said Laurie Orlov, a digital-industry analyst who runs the website Aging and Health Technology Watch. “And baby boomers have all the money. The tech industry understands that money talks. It’s time to pay attention.” The executives I spoke to did not shy away from Orlov’s conclusions. In fact, Skuler believes that more entrepreneurs should investigate the potential upside of a successful slate of senior tech. “This sector is underinvested in a significant way,” he said, “considering the available spending within this population.” One of the first personal tech devices marketed toward seniors was the Jitterbug phone. It arrived in 2005, right as smartphone mania started to sweep the country, bearing a simple, tactile layout. The blueprint made sense. For those confused by the rising touchscreen tide, and for grandparents who just wanted to call their family and never concern themselves with the app store, here was a flip phone completely divorced from all 21st-century design trends. The Jitterbug was intentionally spartan — equipped with a dial, a clock, and a speaker button, and nothing more. And yet its popularity revealed one of the more anxious truths of the digital revolution. Between the Cloud, the algorithms, and the litany of icons splayed across our home screens, the rules of living had changed so much in the previous decade. Suddenly, technology as familiar as the telephone became extraordinarily complicated, and we worried whether America’s golden-agers could ever catch up. One of the people trying to solve that problem is Scott Lien, a former Intuit executive who became an advocate for elder accessibility in 2014 after feeling increasingly “digitally disconnected” from his octogenarian mother in Iowa. “We tried to do video calls over Skype, and that just frustrated her,” he said. “I thought, ‘What if we designed something from scratch based on the unique needs of the typical 80-year-old?’” Shortly afterward, Lien broke ground on his GrandPad line of software, which aims to deliver a simple tablet without any complexities getting in the way. The GrandPad comes preloaded with bingo, solitaire, and sudoku. There’s a jukebox that plays a slew of past hits (available genres include big band, classical, and ’40s,) as well as photo albums, address books, and video call functionality. All of this is presented onscreen with supersized text and large, primary-color buttons. Lien told me he and the GrandPad team actively collaborate with senior consultants to further refine the tablet’s architecture. To build a device for older folks, he said, one must be in active communication with those who know what it’s like to age. View this post on Instagram A post shared by GrandPad (@grandpad_social) “We had a woman named Anna helping us who was 114 years old. You learn some really interesting things from them. Anna told us about the dry skin issue. Once you hit your 90s, your skin gets really dry, papery, and leathery. Us younger guys have moisture in our skin, and that’s what makes touchscreens work,” Lien explained. “We changed the screen properties, and we include a stylus in all the packages.” Of course, the average elderly technology user isn’t 114, and Orlov, the digital-industry analyst, believes the hackneyed image you or I might have of the typical senior — an old man befuddled and annoyed, trying to fire up a Zoom call — is out of date. The AARP reported in 2020 that more than 51 percent of people over the age of 50 purchased some sort of tech product, be it an iPad, a laptop, or a wifi-enabled television, within the previous year. In fact, AARP’s research also found that 62 percent of Americans over the age of 70 own and use a smartphone. Those findings draw a strong contrast to a project like GrandPad, which is saddled with an interface that’s significantly scaled back compared to the Apple estate. Obviously, GrandPad and ElliQ are targeting a customer who’s considerably older and more alienated from cyberspace than the typical prime boomer, but it does make you wonder whether we’re underestimating just how commonplace tech literacy has become in our culture. “I think technology that has been simplified to the point where you can’t really access anything is a dwindling market,” said Orlov. Lien pushes back on that front. He believes studies, such as AARP’s, are skewed by selection bias. “It doesn’t work for this age group. They randomly call 1,000 people, and the people who are in a nursing home and don’t have a phone obviously can’t pick up,” he said. GrandPad published its own research two years ago. The company, which traveled directly to the homes of 60 people over the age of 75, found that only 8 percent of them knew how to fire up a video call. It gets to Lien’s overarching thesis: An elder might own a smartphone, but they might not know how to use it effectively. This is particularly relevant given the conditions of 2020 and the massive proliferation of fraud the year brought with it. TechCrunch reported an 18 percent increase in spam calls during the pandemic, many of which disproportionately targeted the geriatric population. “It was catastrophic during Covid. With my mother and mother-in-law, when she got a suspicious phone call, she’d wait for me to come around so I could say, ‘Yeah Mom, that’s a scam.’ But in lockdown, when they couldn’t have their families around them, it only got worse,” Lien said. “At GrandPad, we have what’s called a circle of trust. Only the family or caregivers are invited to it, and only they can call, video call, or share photos with grandma.” Tom Kamber, founder and executive director of the advocacy organization Older Adults Technology Services and Senior Planet, notes that he too has noticed an uptick in scams targeting older adults, particularly among the Spanish-speaking population. He believes the power brokers in technology often regard the elderly as another vague checkpoint in a superficial pursuit of diversity. To truly protect the vulnerable, he argues, the retiree population ought to be considered at every step in the value chain. “People talk about inclusive design, and so often that means that when they’re done making something they test it with some older folks, and they say they’re being inclusive. It doesn’t work that way,” Kamber said. “The whole process of ideation and design and marketing and distribution, all of those pieces are crucial to having older adults using the technology well. If you engage with them throughout the whole process, you’re going to get a product that’s more usable, which makes people less vulnerable.” Both of these perspectives are sound. I think we all wish we could fend off the bad actors who want to do harm to our loved ones, especially older relatives who come to the digital world as total novices. And yet I came away from this story wondering if people in my generation, all of us highly concerned 30-somethings, have been too eager to infantilize our elders. The internet is overwhelming and rife with danger, but we’ve all been forced to parse it one way or another. A preventative approach — this desire to keep our mothers and fathers insulated in an uncanny parallel dimension, filled with quasi-iPads, quasi-iPhones, and quasi-Alexas to shield them from reality — seems to miss the point. As Kamber said, surely we can inherit an internet that is safe and empowering for all users, if only we spend a little more time to consider the vast swath of humanity that is using modern technology. Riley Gibson, president of Silvernest, feels the same way. Silvernest is a roommate-matching service designed for people around retirement age. The company’s specialty is seniors in the middle of a huge life change — a divorce, a widowing, a cross-country move — who don’t want to enter the next chapter alone in an empty house. Every Silicon Valley startup intends for its customers to wield technology and better their lives, but rarely has that same wondrous possibility been presented to the nation’s elders. Gibson says Silvernest has found the lion’s share of its clients through Facebook ads, because whether we like it or not, older folks are very much online in the same way we are. Entrepreneurs ought to consider that truth more often, Gibson argues. Maybe we should be optimistic as we watch Grandma and Grandpa organize their home screens. “[Some companies] are designing for someone [who] needs their help. This mindset that we need to save our seniors from technology,” Gibson said. “Let’s take a broader look at how people above the age of 65 use technology. Let’s design for a hero’s journey. None of us want to feel designed down to. We need to realize that people might have more interests, or more ambition, for technology to enable them rather than fix them.”

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posted about 1 month ago on re/code
Apple’s resistance to full-time remote work has sparked an unprecedented battle with employees. | Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images Inside the unexpected fight that’s dividing the most valuable company in the world. For the past several months, a fight has been brewing inside Apple, the world’s most profitable company, about a fundamental aspect of its business: whether its corporate employees must return to the office. Apple expects employees to return to their desks at least three days a week when its offices reopen. And although the Covid-19 delta variant has made it unclear exactly when that will be, Apple’s normally heads-down employees are pushing back in an unprecedented way. They’ve created two petitions demanding the option to work remotely full time that have collected over 1,000 signatures combined, a handful of people have resigned over the matter, and some employees have begun speaking out publicly to criticize management’s stance. Apple employees who don’t want to return to the office are challenging the popular management philosophy at many Silicon Valley companies that serendipitous, in-person collaboration is necessary to fuel innovation. “There’s this idea that people skateboarding around tech campuses are bumping into each other and coming up with great new inventions,” said Cher Scarlett, an engineer at Apple who joined the company during the pandemic and has become a leader in, among other issues, organizing her colleagues on pushing for more remote work. “That’s just not true,” she said. If Apple doesn’t budge on its remote work policy — and everything it’s said so far indicates that it won’t — some of its workers will likely jump ship. But Apple can afford to draw a hard line here because of its enormous power. The company offers workers hard-to-beat pay, benefits, and prestige, so it’s capable of retaining most of its workforce and continuing to attract top talent, regardless of its stance on flexible work. Other companies will either copy Apple’s remote work policies and risk losing more workers than Apple would — or they’ll try to compete with the tech giant by offering something it won’t. “This is a huge opportunity to essentially poach talent from companies that are just too rigid,” Art Zeile, CEO of Dice, a hiring platform for tech recruiters, said. And those are just the potential consequences in the short term. This fight will have bigger ramifications later on. That this battle is happening at Apple signals a major shift for the company. For the most part, until now, it’s managed to avoid the internal conflicts that have seized other tech companies like Google. Now Apple will need to reckon with internal employee activists who are learning to pressure their employer about issues beyond remote work, like pay parity and gender discrimination. Even when the question of remote work is eventually settled, its employees are now emboldened to push for other demands — and so Apple will likely continue to grapple with this challenge. Apple did not respond to a request for comment. While the immediate outcome of this conflict will mainly affect Apple workers, its ripple effects will impact white-collar workers elsewhere, both in and outside of the tech world. That’s because the fight itself reveals a growing tension in corporate America over what the future of work should look like for knowledge workers. Does a successful, innovative company like Apple need its employees to show up in person? Or can it adapt to its workers and offer them more flexibility while expecting the same results? What Apple decides will likely influence a host of other companies that will either emulate its choice or react to it. Inside the fight at Apple For Apple employees like Scarlett — a single mom with ADHD — working remotely has been a godsend. At home, she’s not distracted by coworkers’ conversations as she would be in an open office, and she can use some of the time she saves to pick up her daughter from school. “Being a single mom, there wasn’t anybody to get my daughter or stay with her. Before, it would come up that I leave the office a lot to do that,” Scarlett told Recode. “Now, I no longer have that anxiety of feeling the need to explain that there is no one else to pick up my child.” Scarlett is one of over 7,000 Apple employees who participate regularly in an internal corporate Slack group called “remote work advocacy,” where workers discuss their frustrations with management on the issue, and how other companies are offering more flexible arrangements. The group’s beginnings were relatively uncontroversial — it started as a place for Apple employees to share tips about how to work productively from home — but it turned into a hub of worker organizing. “This is a huge opportunity to essentially poach talent from companies that are just too rigid” —Art Zeile “Over time, a lot of people started realizing how great things were going as we were working from home,” said Janneke Parrish, an Apple employee who has been active in pushing for more remote work options and was one of several employees who drafted the petition. “And as the initial trauma of the pandemic wore off, the membership of that group just grew and grew and changed, from ‘here’s some tips on how to survive’ to ‘how can I talk to my manager about doing this [working from home] more permanently?’” While the members of the group are still a small subset of Apple’s some 147,000 employees, it’s now one of the largest channels on the company’s corporate Slack system, where engineers, designers, project managers, and people across the business actively participate. The fact that Apple even uses Slack is notable: As reported by the Information, the company only adopted Slack in late 2019, and since then, the platform has made it possible for employees to communicate with one another in ways they haven’t before. At Apple, a company so siloed and secretive about its product development that it’s not uncommon for employees to be unaware of what people outside their immediate team are working on, the breadth of the discussion is unprecedented. The worker organizing in the group has also spilled over into public view — another rare phenomenon at the intensely private company — beginning with when The Verge first reported in early June that employees were petitioning Apple to continue working remotely. For a while, leaders of the petitions were hopeful that management might concede to some of their ideas, especially after HR met with organizers to hear out their concerns about returning to work. But so far, management has ignored or dismissed employee demands, saying that the company needs its workers to show up. “We believe that in-person collaboration is essential to our culture and our future,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and people operations, in a video sent to staff in late June that The Verge obtained, a few weeks after the first petition was circulated. In response, employees distributed a new internal petition, as Recode first reported, proposing more detailed plans for how employees could continue to work remotely full time. And at a recent all-hands, which Recode obtained a recording of, CEO Tim Cook addressed some of the pushback on his return-to-office plan. “I realize there are different opinions on it,” said Cook about Apple’s current plan to have employees come to work three days a week. “Some people would like to come in less, or not at all, some people would like to come in more.” While Cook didn’t concede to any employee demands, he did say the company is “committed to learning and tweaking.” Damian Dovarganes/AP Apple CEO Tim Cook seen at the Apple Tower Theatre flagship retail store in Los Angeles on June 24. “We’ll see how that goes,” said Cook. After details of that meeting were published in the press, Cook sent a memo condemning employees who leak, saying that they “do not belong at Apple” — and that memo was then leaked to The Verge. As the debate over remote work drags on, it’s added to other longstanding tensions at Apple around the company’s notoriously high-pressure culture — which employees are critiquing more candidly than before. “We had a running joke where we had a ‘crying room’ at the office,” Parrish told Recode. “We are as a group happier, healthier, and just doing so much better than we ever were in the office. And that’s because we’re able to have our own spaces ... we’re able to escape a little bit from some of the more toxic elements of work.” Discussions about working from home have also been followed by more public discussions about other issues at the company, including pay disparity. Scarlett started a survey asking employees to self-report their salaries and demographic information, which was posted in the remote work advocacy channel and other channels. That survey, first reported on by The Verge, ended up showing that out of the 2,400 people who responded, women earned about 6 percent less on average than men. The self-run study doesn’t necessarily represent a full picture of Apple’s workforce — respondents opted in and thus were a self-selecting group. But it did further suspicions among some employees that the company may not pay all men and women equally (which it has said it has done since 2016). All this employee backlash at Apple over remote work is a testament to how important the issue is for knowledge workers across industries. For many, remote work during the pandemic made their lives better. Skipping a commute or being able to duck out in the middle of the day to run errands or shepherd children gave people a better sense of work-life balance. For those who felt left out from office camaraderie and extracurricular activities, the ability to work from home has been less isolating. Recode spoke with a handful of other Apple employees who shared why they and some of their colleagues don’t want to return to the office. Their perspectives mirror that of many other white-collar workers, particularly those who used to work at corporate campuses in expensive urban areas like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. One thing some cited, in addition to family and medical reasons, was the incredibly high cost of housing near Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. For the first time, some workers were able to move farther away from the office to more affordable areas on the outskirts. For those who currently have no commute, it’s hard to imagine going back to driving a two- to four-hour round trip. Parrish said that she is often on calls as early as 6 am and sometimes as late as 10:30 pm. She finds it much easier to take those calls from home. “For a lot of people, remote work allowed them a kind of work-life balance that was absolutely impossible in the office,” said Parrish, who said she also has health concerns about returning to the office because her partner is immunocompromised. “I’m able to have a life outside my job again, and I’m not willing to give that up.” Parrish isn’t alone, and her concerns aren’t unique to Apple. Workers of all kinds — regardless of whether their job or industry is suitable to it — overwhelmingly want the ability to work from home, at least some of the time, according to data from Boston Consulting Group. For the remote jobs on its platforms, LinkedIn says it sees two and a half times more applications than it does for non-remote jobs. Meanwhile, US employers are desperately in need of workers of all types to fill millions of jobs, both white collar and blue collar. But workers, for a variety of reasons, aren’t taking those jobs, as many of them hold out for better options — especially ones that offer remote work. White-collar workers, particularly tech workers, are much more likely to get this kind of work since their jobs are more easily done at home and since their skills are considered less replaceable than those of their blue-collar counterparts. Nearly half of jobs on the tech job platform Hired now allow full-time remote, while remote job listings on a more general job site, LinkedIn, are at 16 percent. “We are as a group happier, healthier, and just doing so much better than we ever were in the office” —Janneke Parrish Apple’s retail employees have also started pushing for more remote flexibility, particularly for customer support and sales roles that can be performed partly or totally online. That’s prompted Apple’s retail and corporate employees to connect in a new way. The discussion between retail and corporate employees has also turned to larger issues like alleged harassment, discrimination, and general mistreatment within Apple Stores’ work culture. Scarlett and several other corporate employee activists started a Discord subgroup and website called #AppleToo to discuss their grievances and coalesce workers. The group also has a Medium blog where Parrish is publishing some of the most jarring anecdotes that workers, including those in retail, have submitted. While it’s unlikely that Apple’s retail employees will be able to work from home, the fact that they are continuing to communicate and organize with corporate staff may be a sign of broader worker activism Apple will have to confront in its future. Why Apple is fighting remote work One of the most critical reasons Apple is fighting to get people back in the office is that its leaders think being in the office is good for business. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” Cook told People magazine this spring. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.” “I don’t think [management] is entirely wrong,” one Apple engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Apple’s policy against employees speaking to the press without authorization, told Recode. “I think there are hallway conversations that I miss. But I think they overstate the value of it.” There isn’t hard evidence that spontaneous in-person meetings in the office, like what Cook describes, boost innovation for a company. But generally, having more connections with coworkers outside your team correlates to higher performance and creativity, according to research cited by Brandy Aven, an associate professor of organizational theory at Carnegie Mellon University. And you’re likely to bump into people outside your team if they’re physically nearby, so maybe Cook is onto something. At many offices, particularly at a giant tech campus like Apple’s headquarters, there’s a sort of formula for encouraging workers to talk to each other, even if they don’t work in the same department or on the same project. Through architecture and design, which Apple has invested in heavily, management can channel workers into the same space with communal kitchens, centrally located bathrooms, and atriums. That’s harder to recreate in the virtual world of Zoom calls, Slack, and email. Aven, however, thinks companies could use technology to come up with creative solutions and replacements for this situation rather than relying on requiring workers to be present in the office. “I think we could engineer serendipitous encounters over the web. Organizations just have to update and be a little bit more innovative,” Aven told Recode. “If we can put men in space, we can figure this problem out.” Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images Employees gather near the Apple visitors center ahead of an event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, in 2019. For now, despite a year and a half forced experiment of working from home, we don’t know how remote work will affect things like innovation and collaboration in the long term. Companies are still trying to quantify the full impacts of remote work and trying different approaches to make it better. It’s an ongoing challenge, and how Apple responds — either by trying to bring its creativity to bear on remote work or by rejecting it outright — could have lasting influence on what remote work ends up looking like for everyone else. One thing that sets Apple apart is that unlike other Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Facebook, it is primarily a hardware — not a software — company. That means it needs to test, tinker, and develop physical products in person. The company’s success also depends, in part, on how tightly it can keep from its competition its plans to develop the latest iPhone or yet-to-be-announced gadget. If engineers and other staff working on sensitive products are allowed to do so at home, the thinking is, it may be easier for competitors to get access to confidential information. For all these reasons, Apple management is holding its ground. But due to the delta variant, the company’s return-to-office plan has been put on pause. Apple pushed back its office reopening until at least January due to health concerns. The announcement came only a day after the second employee petition on the matter. Several organizers Recode spoke with said they had no evidence that the petitions influenced Apple’s decision — but for now, the delta variant has essentially kicked the can down the road. The ripple effects of Apple’s hard line on remote work Even if everyone who signed the petitions at Apple were to quit, they would represent less than 1 percent of its workforce. In the short term, Apple will continue to be just fine regardless of what it decides about remote work. “Apple is probably an aberration since they’re the largest company by market cap and they have such a great tradition of innovation, and you can’t go wrong with a career at Apple,” Dice CEO Zeile said. “But there are thousands of other companies that are still going to be rigid, potentially, in their hiring practices. They’re the ones that are going to lose.” In other words, companies that aren’t like Apple will face more challenges if they choose to emulate the tech giant’s remote work policies. “There’s an absolute war on for talent in tech,” Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, told Recode. She says there have been very few software engineer applications per vacancy. “Where companies have said, ‘We want you back in the office,’ or, ‘We want you in the office three days a week,’ it looks as though all of those positions are softening pretty quickly. And they’re being pushed into a corner by competitors, who are saying, ‘Hey, we don’t care if you’re fully remote all day long and working out of Hawaii.’” Some other companies may choose to react strategically, rather than following suit, if Apple continues to reject employees’ calls for full-time remote work. That would create an opening for them to offer remote work to punch above their weight and attract more applicants. “We definitely think it gives us a competitive advantage” —Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR It’s notable that even the finance industry, where leaders have been vocal about their opposition to remote work, is becoming more open to it. Companies like Citibank and Jefferies Group are using this as a way to poach talent from their stricter peers like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs. And Twitter, which announced in May 2020 that its employees could work from anywhere forever, is already using remote work to poach talent from tech companies that are more strict about when and where people can work. “We definitely think it gives us a competitive advantage,” Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR, told Recode. The company, she says, is telling prospective employees, “‘If you don’t want to wait and see what happens with your company’s work-from-home policy, come work for us.’ It’s a selling point for people who don’t want to be in limbo.” In the near future, most of Apple’s employees seem like they’re willing to accept being in limbo. No matter what Apple decides, it can afford to take a hard line against employees pushing for full-time remote work. But in the long term, this battle over flexible work has created an opening for other issues and tensions to rise to the surface at the company. Its workers are organizing in ways they haven’t before, and they’re standing up to management in mostly unprecedented ways. That’s a challenge that Apple may need to deal with long after the debate over working from home is settled.

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Apple’s resistance to full-time remote work has sparked an unprecedented battle with employees. | Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images Inside the unexpected fight that’s dividing the most valuable company in the world. For the past several months, a fight has been brewing inside Apple, the world’s most profitable company, about a fundamental aspect of its business: whether its corporate employees must return to the office. Apple expects employees to return to their desks at least three days a week when its offices reopen. And although the Covid-19 delta variant has made it unclear exactly when that will be, Apple’s normally heads-down employees are pushing back in an unprecedented way. They’ve created two petitions demanding the option to work remotely full time that have collected over 1,000 signatures combined, a handful of people have resigned over the matter, and some employees have begun speaking out publicly to criticize management’s stance. Apple employees who don’t want to return to the office are challenging the popular management philosophy at many Silicon Valley companies that serendipitous, in-person collaboration is necessary to fuel innovation. “There’s this idea that people skateboarding around tech campuses are bumping into each other and coming up with great new inventions,” said Cher Scarlett, an engineer at Apple who joined the company during the pandemic and has become a leader in, among other issues, organizing her colleagues on pushing for more remote work. “That’s just not true,” she said. If Apple doesn’t budge on its remote work policy — and everything it’s said so far indicates that it won’t — some of its workers will likely jump ship. But Apple can afford to draw a hard line here because of its enormous power. The company offers workers hard-to-beat pay, benefits, and prestige, so it’s capable of retaining most of its workforce and continuing to attract top talent, regardless of its stance on flexible work. Other companies will either copy Apple’s remote work policies and risk losing more workers than Apple would — or they’ll try to compete with the tech giant by offering something it won’t. “This is a huge opportunity to essentially poach talent from companies that are just too rigid,” Art Zeile, CEO of Dice, a hiring platform for tech recruiters, said. And those are just the potential consequences in the short term. This fight will have bigger ramifications later on. That this battle is happening at Apple signals a major shift for the company. For the most part, until now, it’s managed to avoid the internal conflicts that have seized other tech companies like Google. Now Apple will need to reckon with internal employee activists who are learning to pressure their employer about issues beyond remote work, like pay parity and gender discrimination. Even when the question of remote work is eventually settled, its employees are now emboldened to push for other demands — and so Apple will likely continue to grapple with this challenge. Apple did not respond to a request for comment. While the immediate outcome of this conflict will mainly affect Apple workers, its ripple effects will impact white-collar workers elsewhere, both in and outside of the tech world. That’s because the fight itself reveals a growing tension in corporate America over what the future of work should look like for knowledge workers. Does a successful, innovative company like Apple need its employees to show up in person? Or can it adapt to its workers and offer them more flexibility while expecting the same results? What Apple decides will likely influence a host of other companies that will either emulate its choice or react to it. Inside the fight at Apple For Apple employees like Scarlett — a single mom with ADHD — working remotely has been a godsend. At home, she’s not distracted by coworkers’ conversations as she would be in an open office, and she can use some of the time she saves to pick up her daughter from school. “Being a single mom, there wasn’t anybody to get my daughter or stay with her. Before, it would come up that I leave the office a lot to do that,” Scarlett told Recode. “Now, I no longer have that anxiety of feeling the need to explain that there is no one else to pick up my child.” Scarlett is one of over 7,000 Apple employees who participate regularly in an internal corporate Slack group called “remote work advocacy,” where workers discuss their frustrations with management on the issue, and how other companies are offering more flexible arrangements. The group’s beginnings were relatively uncontroversial — it started as a place for Apple employees to share tips about how to work productively from home — but it turned into a hub of worker organizing. “This is a huge opportunity to essentially poach talent from companies that are just too rigid” —Art Zeile “Over time, a lot of people started realizing how great things were going as we were working from home,” said Janneke Parrish, an Apple employee who has been active in pushing for more remote work options and was one of several employees who drafted the petition. “And as the initial trauma of the pandemic wore off, the membership of that group just grew and grew and changed, from ‘here’s some tips on how to survive’ to ‘how can I talk to my manager about doing this [working from home] more permanently?’” While the members of the group are still a small subset of Apple’s some 147,000 employees, it’s now one of the largest channels on the company’s corporate Slack system, where engineers, designers, project managers, and people across the business actively participate. The fact that Apple even uses Slack is notable: As reported by the Information, the company only adopted Slack in late 2019, and since then, the platform has made it possible for employees to communicate with one another in ways they haven’t before. At Apple, a company so siloed and secretive about its product development that it’s not uncommon for employees to be unaware of what people outside their immediate team are working on, the breadth of the discussion is unprecedented. The worker organizing in the group has also spilled over into public view — another rare phenomenon at the intensely private company — beginning with when The Verge first reported in early June that employees were petitioning Apple to continue working remotely. For a while, leaders of the petitions were hopeful that management might concede to some of their ideas, especially after HR met with organizers to hear out their concerns about returning to work. But so far, management has ignored or dismissed employee demands, saying that the company needs its workers to show up. “We believe that in-person collaboration is essential to our culture and our future,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and people operations, in a video sent to staff in late June that The Verge obtained, a few weeks after the first petition was circulated. In response, employees distributed a new internal petition, as Recode first reported, proposing more detailed plans for how employees could continue to work remotely full time. And at a recent all-hands, which Recode obtained a recording of, CEO Tim Cook addressed some of the pushback on his return-to-office plan. “I realize there are different opinions on it,” said Cook about Apple’s current plan to have employees come to work three days a week. “Some people would like to come in less, or not at all, some people would like to come in more.” While Cook didn’t concede to any employee demands, he did say the company is “committed to learning and tweaking.” Damian Dovarganes/AP Apple CEO Tim Cook seen at the Apple Tower Theatre flagship retail store in Los Angeles on June 24. “We’ll see how that goes,” said Cook. After details of that meeting were published in the press, Cook sent a memo condemning employees who leak, saying that they “do not belong at Apple” — and that memo was then leaked to The Verge. As the debate over remote work drags on, it’s added to other longstanding tensions at Apple around the company’s notoriously high-pressure culture — which employees are critiquing more candidly than before. “We had a running joke where we had a ‘crying room’ at the office,” Parrish told Recode. “We are as a group happier, healthier, and just doing so much better than we ever were in the office. And that’s because we’re able to have our own spaces ... we’re able to escape a little bit from some of the more toxic elements of work.” Discussions about working from home have also been followed by more public discussions about other issues at the company, including pay disparity. Scarlett started a survey asking employees to self-report their salaries and demographic information, which was posted in the remote work advocacy channel and other channels. That survey, first reported on by The Verge, ended up showing that out of the 2,400 people who responded, women earned about 6 percent less on average than men. The self-run study doesn’t necessarily represent a full picture of Apple’s workforce — respondents opted in and thus were a self-selecting group. But it did further suspicions among some employees that the company may not pay all men and women equally (which it has said it has done since 2016). All this employee backlash at Apple over remote work is a testament to how important the issue is for knowledge workers across industries. For many, remote work during the pandemic made their lives better. Skipping a commute or being able to duck out in the middle of the day to run errands or shepherd children gave people a better sense of work-life balance. For those who felt left out from office camaraderie and extracurricular activities, the ability to work from home has been less isolating. Recode spoke with a handful of other Apple employees who shared why they and some of their colleagues don’t want to return to the office. Their perspectives mirror that of many other white-collar workers, particularly those who used to work at corporate campuses in expensive urban areas like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. One thing some cited, in addition to family and medical reasons, was the incredibly high cost of housing near Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. For the first time, some workers were able to move farther away from the office to more affordable areas on the outskirts. For those who currently have no commute, it’s hard to imagine going back to driving a two- to four-hour round trip. Parrish said that she is often on calls as early as 6 am and sometimes as late as 10:30 pm. She finds it much easier to take those calls from home. “For a lot of people, remote work allowed them a kind of work-life balance that was absolutely impossible in the office,” said Parrish, who said she also has health concerns about returning to the office because her partner is immunocompromised. “I’m able to have a life outside my job again, and I’m not willing to give that up.” Parrish isn’t alone, and her concerns aren’t unique to Apple. Workers of all kinds — regardless of whether their job or industry is suitable to it — overwhelmingly want the ability to work from home, at least some of the time, according to data from Boston Consulting Group. For the remote jobs on its platforms, LinkedIn says it sees two and a half times more applications than it does for non-remote jobs. Meanwhile, US employers are desperately in need of workers of all types to fill millions of jobs, both white collar and blue collar. But workers, for a variety of reasons, aren’t taking those jobs, as many of them hold out for better options — especially ones that offer remote work. White-collar workers, particularly tech workers, are much more likely to get this kind of work since their jobs are more easily done at home and since their skills are considered less replaceable than those of their blue-collar counterparts. Nearly half of jobs on the tech job platform Hired now allow full-time remote, while remote job listings on a more general job site, LinkedIn, are at 16 percent. “We are as a group happier, healthier, and just doing so much better than we ever were in the office” —Janneke Parrish Apple’s retail employees have also started pushing for more remote flexibility, particularly for customer support and sales roles that can be performed partly or totally online. That’s prompted Apple’s retail and corporate employees to connect in a new way. The discussion between retail and corporate employees has also turned to larger issues like alleged harassment, discrimination, and general mistreatment within Apple Stores’ work culture. Scarlett and several other corporate employee activists started a Discord subgroup and website called #AppleToo to discuss their grievances and coalesce workers. The group also has a Medium blog where Parrish is publishing some of the most jarring anecdotes that workers, including those in retail, have submitted. While it’s unlikely that Apple’s retail employees will be able to work from home, the fact that they are continuing to communicate and organize with corporate staff may be a sign of broader worker activism Apple will have to confront in its future. Why Apple is fighting remote work One of the most critical reasons Apple is fighting to get people back in the office is that its leaders think being in the office is good for business. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” Cook told People magazine this spring. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.” “I don’t think [management] is entirely wrong,” one Apple engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Apple’s policy against employees speaking to the press without authorization, told Recode. “I think there are hallway conversations that I miss. But I think they overstate the value of it.” There isn’t hard evidence that spontaneous in-person meetings in the office, like what Cook describes, boost innovation for a company. But generally, having more connections with coworkers outside your team correlates to higher performance and creativity, according to research cited by Brandy Aven, an associate professor of organizational theory at Carnegie Mellon University. And you’re likely to bump into people outside your team if they’re physically nearby, so maybe Cook is onto something. At many offices, particularly at a giant tech campus like Apple’s headquarters, there’s a sort of formula for encouraging workers to talk to each other, even if they don’t work in the same department or on the same project. Through architecture and design, which Apple has invested in heavily, management can channel workers into the same space with communal kitchens, centrally located bathrooms, and atriums. That’s harder to recreate in the virtual world of Zoom calls, Slack, and email. Aven, however, thinks companies could use technology to come up with creative solutions and replacements for this situation rather than relying on requiring workers to be present in the office. “I think we could engineer serendipitous encounters over the web. Organizations just have to update and be a little bit more innovative,” Aven told Recode. “If we can put men in space, we can figure this problem out.” Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images Employees gather near the Apple visitors center ahead of an event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, in 2019. For now, despite a year and a half forced experiment of working from home, we don’t know how remote work will affect things like innovation and collaboration in the long term. Companies are still trying to quantify the full impacts of remote work and trying different approaches to make it better. It’s an ongoing challenge, and how Apple responds — either by trying to bring its creativity to bear on remote work or by rejecting it outright — could have lasting influence on what remote work ends up looking like for everyone else. One thing that sets Apple apart is that unlike other Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Facebook, it is primarily a hardware — not a software — company. That means it needs to test, tinker, and develop physical products in person. The company’s success also depends, in part, on how tightly it can keep from its competition its plans to develop the latest iPhone or yet-to-be-announced gadget. If engineers and other staff working on sensitive products are allowed to do so at home, the thinking is, it may be easier for competitors to get access to confidential information. For all these reasons, Apple management is holding its ground. But due to the delta variant, the company’s return-to-office plan has been put on pause. Apple pushed back its office reopening until at least January due to health concerns. The announcement came only a day after the second employee petition on the matter. Several organizers Recode spoke with said they had no evidence that the petitions influenced Apple’s decision — but for now, the delta variant has essentially kicked the can down the road. The ripple effects of Apple’s hard line on remote work Even if everyone who signed the petitions at Apple were to quit, they would represent less than 1 percent of its workforce. In the short term, Apple will continue to be just fine regardless of what it decides about remote work. “Apple is probably an aberration since they’re the largest company by market cap and they have such a great tradition of innovation, and you can’t go wrong with a career at Apple,” Dice CEO Zeile said. “But there are thousands of other companies that are still going to be rigid, potentially, in their hiring practices. They’re the ones that are going to lose.” In other words, companies that aren’t like Apple will face more challenges if they choose to emulate the tech giant’s remote work policies. “There’s an absolute war on for talent in tech,” Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, told Recode. She says there have been very few software engineer applications per vacancy. “Where companies have said, ‘We want you back in the office,’ or, ‘We want you in the office three days a week,’ it looks as though all of those positions are softening pretty quickly. And they’re being pushed into a corner by competitors, who are saying, ‘Hey, we don’t care if you’re fully remote all day long and working out of Hawaii.’” Some other companies may choose to react strategically, rather than following suit, if Apple continues to reject employees’ calls for full-time remote work. That would create an opening for them to offer remote work to punch above their weight and attract more applicants. “We definitely think it gives us a competitive advantage” —Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR It’s notable that even the finance industry, where leaders have been vocal about their opposition to remote work, is becoming more open to it. Companies like Citibank and Jefferies Group are using this as a way to poach talent from their stricter peers like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs. And Twitter, which announced in May 2020 that its employees could work from anywhere forever, is already using remote work to poach talent from tech companies that are more strict about when and where people can work. “We definitely think it gives us a competitive advantage,” Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR, told Recode. The company, she says, is telling prospective employees, “‘If you don’t want to wait and see what happens with your company’s work-from-home policy, come work for us.’ It’s a selling point for people who don’t want to be in limbo.” In the near future, most of Apple’s employees seem like they’re willing to accept being in limbo. No matter what Apple decides, it can afford to take a hard line against employees pushing for full-time remote work. But in the long term, this battle over flexible work has created an opening for other issues and tensions to rise to the surface at the company. Its workers are organizing in ways they haven’t before, and they’re standing up to management in mostly unprecedented ways. That’s a challenge that Apple may need to deal with long after the debate over working from home is settled.

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Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos pledged $1 billion for conservation this week. Can billionaires like him halt the biodiversity crisis? | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images The ultrarich want to change the paradigm of conservation. It won’t be easy. Welcome to the age of billionaire biodiversity conservation. As climate change scorches the planet and a global extinction crisis escalates, the ultrarich have started funneling bits of their wealth into protecting nature. This week, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the wealthiest man on Earth, pledged $1 billion to protect land and water as part of his $10 billion Earth Fund. Bezos was joined by eight other donors — including Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation, which is built on the Walmart fortune — who together committed an additional $4 billion to the cause. Combined, it’s the largest private funding commitment ever to the conservation of biodiversity, which generally refers to diverse assemblages of species and functioning ecosystems. In announcing the pledge, Bezos acknowledged that many past efforts to conserve nature haven’t worked. And he’s right, judging by the state of the environment: Populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by almost 70 percent on average since 1970, and the planet has lost about a third of its forests. “I know that many conservation efforts have failed in the past,” Bezos said. “Top-down programs fail to include communities, they fail to include Indigenous people that live in the local area. We won’t make those same mistakes.” Bezos and other billionaires are promising to support Indigenous-led initiatives, which represents something of a paradigm shift in conservation. But not all experts are convinced that their money will forge a new path and make a dent in the extinction crisis. While Bezos is known for disrupting the e-commerce world, the primary approach his fund is taking — bolstering the planet’s network of protected and conserved areas — is not new, and could even be considered old-school. That’s not to say protected areas don’t work. They just don’t do much to erode the root causes of biodiversity loss, which include the very culture of over-consumption and same-day convenience that has made Amazon Amazon. “Amazon remains reliant on massive fleets of polluting delivery vehicles, wasteful packaging, and even a new fleet of jet-fuel-powered planes to keep speedily delivering stuff to impatient online shoppers,” as Vox’s Rebecca Heilweil reported this week. Which is to say: While Bezos and other billionaires are aiding conservation and signaling that their efforts will support a historically underfunded group of people, they’re doing little to limit the forces that make conservation necessary in the first place and that made them rich. The age of billionaire biodiversity Bezos’s announcement is just one of several recent pledges that have poured in from prominent billionaires — in support of biodiversity efforts like 30 by 30, which aims to protect 30 percent of all global land and oceans by 2030. “Protecting at least 30 percent of our planet by 2030 is not a luxury but a vital measure to preserve the Earth’s health and well-being,” said Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, who run the UK-based Arcadia Fund, which is among nine philanthropy groups, including Bezos’s Earth Fund, that pledged the $5 billion to conservation this week. Other tech moguls have also thrown their weight behind conservation in recent years, from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who’s gone all-in on tree-planting, to Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, whose foundation put $1 billion into the 30 by 30 campaign. (The Wyss Foundation is also among the nine organizations that contributed to the $5 billion pledge.) “We’re seeing a lot of [conservation funding] from billionaires, who are becoming increasingly conscious of the global cataclysm upon us,” said David Kaimowitz, a forest director at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, who spent more than a decade at the Ford Foundation. Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Bezos’s billion will go toward expanding and managing a network of protected and conserved areas in the Congo Basin, tropical Andes, and the Pacific Ocean. Here, the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, a protected area in the Republic of the Congo in the Congo Basin. Plenty of good comes from big pledges like these: They draw attention to the biodiversity crisis — which is often overshadowed by other environmental concerns — and the fact that we can’t fight climate change without also protecting nature. The Earth Fund, after all, was set up to advance climate solutions. Bezos’s pledge is “a really important gesture that we cannot solve the climate crisis without addressing biodiversity and conservation,” said Rachael Petersen, principal and founder of Earthrise Services, a consulting firm that advises high net-worth individuals and foundations on environmental philanthropy. “I think this will usher in climate donors who realize the importance of conservation as a climate strategy.” It’s also meaningful that much of the recent funding from billionaires will, according to the donors, go toward supporting Indigenous people and local communities. “Five years ago, such a commitment would be unthinkable,” Kaimowitz said. “There has been a sea change in the global recognition of the central role of Indigenous peoples and local communities” in conservation, he said. Some experts like Kaimowitz are cautiously optimistic about what billionaire fortunes will bring. But others say that while it’s easy to pledge support for Indigenous-led conservation, these statements fail to capture the deeper commitments necessary for actually stemming biodiversity loss. Can the mega-rich stop species from dying out? There’s an idea floating around the conservation community: Once the ultrarich wake up to the extinction crisis, we might be able to solve it, said Jessica Dempsey, a political ecologist at the University of British Columbia. But if losing nature was a problem of just money — or lack thereof — we probably wouldn’t be seeing such drastic declines of the world’s ecosystems today, said Pamela McElwee, an associate professor at Rutgers who was involved in a flagship 2019 biodiversity report, which raised the alarm about extinction threats. “If just throwing money at the problem solved the problem, we’d be farther along than where we are,” she said. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Amazon Bezos co-founded The Climate Pledge in 2019, a coalition of companies focused on reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. The bulk of recent pledges tend to favor somewhat traditional models of conservation, Dempsey said, such as building networks of protected areas or planting trees, which we’ve been doing for decades. These kinds of initiatives are convenient because they work within established political and economic systems, Dempsey said — the very ones that allow billionaires to thrive. “Protected areas obviously can be extremely important,” she said. “But they don’t challenge existing concentrations of power and wealth.” A parallel might be fossil fuel companies investing in technologies that capture carbon: While those investments could reduce the greenhouse gases that are trapping heat in the atmosphere, they do nothing to disrupt the industries that spew climate-warming emissions. Protected and conserved areas don’t, for example, address the issue of tax evasion, which limits the money that governments can spend on public conservation, Dempsey said. Bezos, like so many of the world’s ultrarich, pays barely any taxes relative to his wealth, which amounts to nearly $200 billion. “This works very well for someone like Bezos because he’s been a beneficiary of the structuring of our economy, which doesn’t tax wealth,” she said. Traditional conservation funding also does nothing to lessen the waste created by corporations like Amazon, or the policies that enable them. The company’s carbon footprint has risen each year since 2018; last year, Amazon’s carbon emissions grew 19 percent, while global emissions fell roughly 7 percent, as Heilweil reported. What’s $1 billion — or even $5 billion — compared to the ecological harm that philanthropists’ companies have caused? Another example of this uncomfortable juxtaposition comes from Norway, McElwee said. Much of the country’s enormous wealth stems from oil and gas production, yet Norway is also one of the world’s largest funders of forest conservation and clean energy. “Can we use capitalism to save the world from capitalism?” McElwee said. Not in its current state, Dempsey said — unless the money from billionaires is spent on reining in their own power and influence, which is arguably antithetical to the very idea of capitalism. “You cannot have democratic approaches to any of these problems when you have that amount of concentrated wealth,” she said. Where four experts would put $1 billion for conservation So how should a person spend billions of dollars on biodiversity? Dempsey recommends a “two-step” approach: Protect the environment, for example by creating more reserves or conserved areas (step one), while also fostering the political, economic, or social conditions for conservation strategies to succeed (step two). On the conservation side, experts call for more investments in communities that already know and care for the land. “A very large percentage of the biodiversity left in the world is in areas managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities,” Kaimowitz said. “They’ve been able to manage these areas and protect these resources as well as — and, in many cases, better than — non-Indigenous protected areas.” Specifically, Kaimowitz suggests spending money on granting Indigenous people land rights, paying them for the services provided by the ecosystems they manage, and supporting initiatives focused on agroforestry — that is, natural forests that grow food or other resources. A lot of local communities have also been hit hard by the pandemic, McElwee said, and need an injection of funds now more than ever. Bezos hasn’t yet detailed where, exactly, the billion dollars will go, but the Earth Fund says it will “give emphasis to the central role of local communities and Indigenous peoples in conservation efforts” — which is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Beyond that, McElwee said, it’s important that donors target the underlying causes of biodiversity loss. Here’s where nature-based philanthropy gets complicated because these efforts might not look like conservation. They could, for example, include supporting industries that sell plant-based meats (cattle farming is a major driver of deforestation) or cleaning up corporate supply chains, instead of setting up a reserve for a rare species. “It’s easier to say, ‘We’re going to conserve X hectares of land,’” McElwee said, rather than try to fix a complex supply chain — and the companies that control it — that threatens a particular ecosystem. Dempsey, meanwhile, would put money toward limiting the government policies that enable extractive industries, such as oil and gas, to become powerful. It should be more costly for banks and other financial institutions to lend to corporations that harm the environment, such as agribusinesses, she says. “We need to be thinking about how to rein in those flows in ways that don’t rely on voluntary measures or weak market disclosures,” she said. We also need to fund politicians and policies that support Indigenous sovereignty, she said. There’s a limit to the impact of billionaires like Bezos if a country like Brazil — home to 60 percent of the actual Amazon, i.e. the world’s largest rainforest — doesn’t want Indigenous peoples to have autonomy and sovereignty over their resources, she said. It’s more complicated than simply saying that conservation efforts must be Indigenous-led, she added. Similarly, McElwee wants to see more efforts directed at eliminating government incentives that benefit the oil and gas sector and other industries that harm the environment. “I would love to see a conservation organization have its mission be eliminating subsidies,” she said. “That is a perpetual issue that never seems to get solved. Maybe that will make it in your article and Bezos will read it and be, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to fund that.’”

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Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone in January 2007 | David Paul Morris/Getty Images Even if you don’t use Apple products, you still live in a world the company completely reshaped. True story. Once upon a time, mobile phones were ... phones. You used them to make phone calls. Maybe you’d send some texts, if you were kind of advanced. The iPhone changed all that. And it changed more than the way we used phones: It changed Apple, and it changed culture, and it overturned industries and created new ones. And all of that happened really, really fast: Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone just 14 years ago. But it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like before that. So that’s where we’re kicking off our newest season of Land of the Giants, our podcast series that focuses on the biggest and most influential tech companies of our time. If you want to tell the story of Apple, you start with the most important thing Apple has ever done. In our first episode, we talk to high-ranking Apple executives who shepherded the iPhone project from the very beginning, as well as unsung Apple employees who actually figured out how to build the thing. But the iPhone isn’t just a consumer electronics breakthrough. It’s a device that remade the world, and we want to explain how that happened. And, crucially, what it means to live, now, in a world where iPhones — and the competitors’ phones it inspired — aren’t just nice to have, but requirements. It’s worth considering as Apple, Facebook, and every other big tech giant work on some kind of augmented/virtual reality headwear that each of them hopes will be the next iPhone. How do we want that story to play out this time around? As in other seasons of Land of the Giants — we’ve previously tackled Amazon, Netflix, and Google — we want to bring you inside Apple and inside the thinking of the leaders who shaped it. And we also want to scrutinize the power Apple has amassed as it has changed the world, and the real-time battles it’s fighting with regulators and critics to hang on to that power. That’s a big story to tell, and a fun one, and a provocative one. We hope you enjoy it. The first episode of Land of the Giants: The Apple Revolution is out now. New episodes drop on Wednesdays. Feel free to listen to it on your iPhone, or any other device you choose.

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posted about 1 month ago on re/code
Billionaire Jeff Bezos walks on the tarmac near the Blue Origin rocket that took him to space on July 20. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images The former Amazon CEO said his recent trip to space further inspired him to protect the planet. Jeff Bezos is donating $1 billion of his $10 billion climate philanthropy pledge to protect biodiversity and carbon-saving forests in the Andes, the Congo Basin, and the tropical Pacific Ocean. After nearly three decades leading Amazon, which has a vast and growing carbon footprint, Bezos seems intent on forging a new identity as an environmentalist and perhaps the world’s most generous financier in the fight against climate change. And that expensive trip to space he just took? Bezos says it was enlightening. “Nature is our life support system and it’s fragile,” the billionaire said Monday at a press conference. “I was reminded of this just this July when I went into space with Blue Origin. I’d heard that seeing the Earth from space changes one’s point of view of the world, but I was not prepared for just how much that would be true.” While the fundraising effort is certainly notable, Bezos’s commitment to protecting the environment serves as a stark reminder that much of his legacy and largely untaxed fortune was built by companies that have staggering carbon footprints. Amazon’s carbon emissions have grown every year since 2018, and last year alone, when global carbon emissions fell roughly 7 percent, Amazon’s carbon emissions grew 19 percent to 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly equivalent to burning 140 million barrels of oil. Amazon has moved to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, like committing to electrifying its delivery vehicles, and it has recruited dozens of companies to sign its Climate Pledge, a corporate commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. But for now, Amazon remains reliant on massive fleets of polluting delivery vehicles, wasteful packaging, and even a new fleet of jet-fuel-powered planes to keep speedily delivering stuff to impatient online shoppers. Meanwhile, Amazon Web Services (AWS) uses massive amounts of energy to keep its servers online. In 2019, Greenpeace accused the cloud computing company of abandoning its pledge to use 100 percent renewable energy and said that some of the largest AWS data centers used just 12 percent renewable energy. And even as other companies, like Google, have moved away from offering some cloud services to fossil fuel companies, AWS still lists Shell, Hess, and BP as customers. Bezos is technically no longer part of Amazon. But Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company he owns that recently took him to space, has raised environmental concerns. While the space rocket company has used carbon-free fuels — namely, a combination of liquid hydrogen and oxygen — making these fuels is still environmentally costly, and environmentalists warn that Blue Origin rockets still leave behind particles that can harm the atmosphere. So when seen from a certain perspective, Bezos’s environmental philanthropy feels a bit like an effort to clean up a mess his companies helped make.

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posted about 1 month ago on re/code
Tesla is one of several car companies introducing increasingly autonomous features into cars meant to be operated by human drivers. | Toru Hanai/Bloomberg via Getty Images Concerns about features like Autopilot aren’t going unnoticed in Washington. More advanced autonomous driving is coming to cities across America. Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised Tesla owners people who have good driving records would soon be able to request access to the beta version of the carmaker’s Full Self-Driving feature, which expands the AI-powered highway navigation software to work not only on highways but also in urban environments. But some regulators think Tesla should pause the rollout of more autonomous features until its current safety issues are fixed. “Basic safety issues have to be addressed before they’re then expanding it to other city streets and other areas,” Jennifer Homendy, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told the Wall Street Journal after Elon Musk tweeted about the update. It’s worth pointing out that, much to Tesla owners’ frustration, Musk has made promises about a wider rollout of Full Self-Driving for years and continuously pushed back the date the feature would be available to anyone willing to pay for the upgrade to Autopilot, Tesla’s standard driver assistance technology. Regulators are also not happy with how Tesla has been releasing its autonomous driving technology. In August, the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it would investigate safety problems in Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance technology. Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have also accused the company of misrepresenting the quality of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving tech and urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to open an investigation. In response to regulators’ concerns that the company doesn’t ensure drivers using autonomous features are paying enough attention to the road, Musk said in a tweet last week that drivers who want the latest update would have to turn on a driver behavior tracking tool that Tesla uses to calculate insurance rates. That feature will tell Tesla owners in real time how well they’re driving, and “what actions are needed to be rated ‘good driver,’” Musk said. Only drivers who maintain a good driving record for at least a week will be able to use the new version of Full Self-Driving. Musk’s latest announcement about Full Self-Driving comes just a few months after both the NTSB and NHTSA investigated whether Autopilot was at play in a Tesla crash in Texas that killed two people in April. The NTSB later found that, despite initial suspicions that the driver’s seat was empty, the driver was indeed sitting in the front seat before the crash. In May, the California Highway Patrol arrested a man who brought a Tesla onto public roads while sitting in the back seat. Later that month, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicle announced that it would review whether the automaker is misleading customers about the state of its Full Self-Driving technology. These events highlight the dangerous, ongoing confusion over Tesla’s autonomous driving capabilities and how people are using them. All new Tesla vehicles come with the sensors and cameras the company says it needs to deliver autonomous driving features, including its latest Full Self-Driving capability for city driving, though the technology is not quite the same as more elaborate setups you might see in self-driving cars from companies like Waymo. While Autopilot currently comes standard on all Tesla vehicles, drivers can buy the Full Self-Driving capability as a software upgrade. Back in July, the technology research institute New Street Research estimated that about 360,000 users had paid for Full Self-Driving, which is available for a $10,000 flat fee or as a $199 monthly subscription. There even seems to be some confusion between Musk and Tesla over what the self-driving features can do. A public records report published in May showed Tesla officials saying that Elon Musk had been overpromising the autonomous abilities of Tesla cars. Musk had previously said that he was “extremely confident” that Tesla cars would reach full autonomy by the end of this year. He’s made similar statements over the past five years. In recent weeks, Musk has expressed less confidence in the tech and has acknowledged that drivers can become overconfident in Tesla’s semi-autonomous abilities. Ongoing concerns about Tesla highlight how lawmakers and regulators are struggling to keep up with self-driving technology that’s showing up in cars that aren’t quite fully autonomous. While states make their own rules for the testing of self-driving vehicles, federal standards for commercially available vehicles are set by the NHTSA. The body can also exempt a certain number of vehicles from these standards for the purpose of testing self-driving cars. But there’s still ongoing debate about how the government should approach the increasingly autonomous features popping up in our everyday cars. Some members of Congress have been pushing the Transportation Department to do more, and through new proposed legislation, lawmakers are broadening the agency’s role in order to evaluate the safety and efficacy of new features, like pedestrian avoidance and driver monitoring. In May, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) proposed new legislation that would force the agency to study crash avoidance tech, following up on legislation reintroduced this year that would force companies with advanced driver assistance tech to monitor that drivers are actually paying attention. But as long as car companies, like Tesla, continue to push out new, ever-more-autonomous features — without clear regulatory standards — people will be driving in a potentially dangerous gray zone. Self-driving car tech, briefly explained While fully autonomous cars that don’t need a human driver behind the wheel are still in development, plenty of semi-autonomous features are already available in the vehicles that are on the road. These tools use different types of sensors to observe what’s happening on the road, and then employ sophisticated computing power to make decisions for the vehicle. The transition to fully autonomous vehicles isn’t happening all at once. It’s happening gradually as individual features that require the driver to do less and less get rolled out. The NHTSA sorts autonomy into six levels, where Level 0 has no autonomous features and Level 5 is fully autonomous and doesn’t require a driver. “Right now, the automation systems that are on the road from companies such as Tesla, Mercedes, GM, and Volvo, are Level 2, meaning the car controls steering and speed on a well-marked highway, but a driver still has to supervise,” explained Vox’s Emily Stewart in 2019. “By comparison, a Honda vehicle equipped with its ‘Sensing’ suite of technologies, including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, and emergency braking detection, is a Level 1.” Sorting out and enforcing the dividing line between these various levels of autonomy has proven complicated and can give people a false sense of security in these cars’ capabilities. Tesla’s Autopilot feature, in particular, has been a source of confusion. Autopilot allows the car to operate itself within a given lane, combining a cruise control feature and an auto-steering feature. In the recently published documents that showed the gap between what Elon Musk has said in public about Autopilot’s capabilities and what the technology can actually do, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said that “Tesla is currently at Level 2.” Since at least 2016, Musk has been saying that every new Tesla could drive itself, a claim he’s repeated many times. Tesla officials have said privately that what Musk says about Autopilot and full self-driving capabilities for Tesla’s vehicles does not “match engineering reality.” (Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, dropped the term “self-driving” earlier this year and committed to using “more deliberate language” in its marketing.) Autopilot currently requires drivers to pay attention and keep their hands on the steering wheel. But drivers can end up over-relying on the tech, and it appears some have figured out ways to avoid Tesla’s related safety features. In addition to the many videos showing people riding alone in the back seat of Tesla vehicles, some people have been caught asleep at the wheel presumably with Autopilot engaged. There is also a growing list of Autopilot-related crashes. The same week that Musk announced the expansion of Full Self-Driving, a California woman reportedly using Autopilot was arrested on DUI charges after passing out in a moving vehicle. At the same time, Tesla continues to beef up Autopilot’s autonomous capabilities — for example, by adding a feature for automatic lane changing or the latest update that will enable Full Self-Driving to work in cities. But it’s not clear that Autopilot or Full Self-Driving is entirely safe. As of March, NHSTA was investigating 23 crashes that may have involved Tesla Autopilot. Tesla, which dissolved its PR department last year, did not reply to Recode’s request for comment in May. Federal agencies like the NHTSA are supposed to be taking the lead on setting standards for evaluating autonomous features. However, in April, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) urged the agency to “develop recommendations for improving automated driving and driver assistance systems” and “implement policy changes that stop these preventable deaths from occurring.” They’re not alone; other members of Congress have also been thinking about creating new rules, like expanding the number of self-driving exemptions the NHSTA can give. Even car manufacturers have signed on to the idea that the NHSTA could do more. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group that represents carmakers like Ford and General Motors, says that forward collision warnings, automatic braking, and lane assistance tech need to be evaluated by regulators and included in NHSTA’s new car rating system. Lawmakers want murky standards improved Lawmakers, safety advocates, and even representatives of the industry are demanding more discerning federal standards to govern autonomous features, including crash avoidance features and driver assistance tools built into cars that are already on the road. These critics are specifically calling for more research from the Transportation Department, a task they say is important even before fully self-driving cars are on the road. “Before we get to autonomous technology that can do everything that people can do, there’s a real opportunity to introduce lifesaving technology into vehicles that people will still be driving,” said Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit focused on vehicle safety in May. The NHTSA has created testing protocols for some features, like collision warnings and automatic emergency braking. It has also requested public comment on what autonomous vehicle safety rules should be. But the agency has yet to create any national standards for how well crash avoidance and driver assistance features ought to perform, according to Ensar Becic, an investigator for highway safety for the NTSB. Still, more cars are being equipped with increasingly autonomous features. As automakers debut more and more advanced driver and safety features and inch toward more self-driving abilities, NHSTA has recommended more and more of these tools. But there’s also growing concern that the agency isn’t providing enough information about how well these tools should actually work. “Manufacturers are out there advertising their different versions of this technology, without any true sense of oversight,” Levine added. Lawmakers now think the NHTSA and the Transportation Department as a whole should have a role in more stringently evaluating this tech. Last month, Sens. Markey, Blumenthal, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reintroduced the Stay Aware for Everyone Act, which would require the Department of Transportation to look at how driver assistance tools, like Tesla’s Autopilot, are impacting driver disengagement and distraction, and would mandate that companies institute driver monitoring tools to make sure drivers are paying attention to the road. “With NHTSA often slow to act and auto manufacturers rushing to put new autonomous features in cars, this bill and other congressional action that puts public and driver safety first is necessary,” Blumenthal told Recode in May. He’s also urging President Joe Biden to fill the vacancy for NHTSA administrator to “ensure our country’s top auto safety agency has the leadership needed as this new technology rapidly advances.” Others also want a better system for regulating how well these autonomous features perform. The legislation Rush, the Democratic representative from Illinois, introduced last week with his Republican co-sponsor Larry Bucshon (R-IN) would order Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to commission a study on the safety of crash avoidance features and how well these systems identify pedestrians and cyclists with different skin tones. The bill, called the Crash Avoidance System Evaluation Act, comes after research from the Georgia Institute of Technology finding that people with darker skin tones are less accurately detected by technology that could be used in self-driving cars. “We certainly do not want to unleash vehicles on our nation’s streets and highways that can’t guarantee all Americans, all pedestrians, all bicyclists that they are protected equally,” Rush told Recode this past spring. “I am concerned … the technology can’t guarantee that I have the same protection against being harmed by a self-driving vehicle as someone who has a darker skin tone or a lighter skin tone.” Rush’s proposal, Levine added, would force the agency to make this key type of safety information public. In February, the NTSB chair wrote to the NHTSA urging the agency to develop performance standards for collision avoidance features, like vehicle detection and emergency braking. “We know that creating new motor vehicle safety standards or revising old ones to bring up to date is very time-consuming and very resource-intensive,” said Will Wallace, the manager for safety policy at Consumer Reports in May. “This is an agency that is chronically underfunded. The agency doesn’t have anywhere near the resources that it needs to protect the public effectively. It’s incumbent on Congress to give the agency what it really needs.” Lack of detailed requirements for these kinds of autonomous tools puts the US behind other parts of the world, including new car rating systems in Japan, Australia, and Europe. The US’s new car assessment program doesn’t rate these advantaged technologies, explained Becic of the NTSB. Neither automatic braking nor lane assistance features are designed to allow a car to operate without a driver’s full attention. And, again, the public availability of fully autonomous cars is still years away. Some think that moment may never arrive. Still, these features set a foundation for what regulating roads full of self-driving vehicles could eventually involve. Figuring out how to regulate autonomous car features is important not just for cars that already offer them — it’s key to building a future where the roads are safe for everyone. In the meantime, Tesla appears ready to plow ahead and introduce the newest version of Full Self-Driving in American cities. We don’t know how many drivers will ultimately use this tool, but as more and more Tesla vehicles edge closer to autonomous navigation, Elon Musk seems to be daring regulators to act. Update, September 20, 2021: The story has been updated to include information about Tesla’s Full Self-Driving technology and regulators’ concerns. Clarification, May 12, 2021: The story has been updated to include the information that, following publication, the NTSB said that its preliminary research found that Autopilot’s Autosteer function couldn’t be used during a test in the crash location and that it had not made conclusions about the crash. The story has also been updated to note that the man who operated a Tesla without someone in the driver’s seat was arrested.

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posted about 1 month ago on re/code
While you can’t always outsmart an algorithm or a bloated corporate hiring system, there are some ways to make your job search more successful. | Getty Images Get your résumé past the robot reading it. There are plenty of jobs listings lately — but have you actually tried applying? Despite a record number of open jobs in the United States, many people looking for work are having a hard time getting it. To complicate matters, many of the jobs out there aren’t necessarily ones you want. Maybe they don’t pay enough, have poor benefits, or require you to put yourself in a dangerous situation where you could contract Covid-19. But even when you do find that job you want, it might seem like your application is getting lost in the ether. The problem is a combination of hiring software that needlessly excludes completely hirable people and a corporate hiring process that, for a variety of reasons, isn’t always good at bringing in the right people for an interview. While you can’t always outsmart an algorithm or a bloated corporate hiring system, there are some ways to give yourself an edge. We spoke with a number of job experts about how to navigate our current system in order to make your job search a little less awful: Be early. “If you aren’t one of the first 20 people to apply on LinkedIn, you’re probably not going to get seen,” J.T. O’Donnell, founder and CEO of Work It Daily, a career coaching platform, said. Scan LinkedIn to see which skills and certifications people in the job you want have. Make sure you list them if you have them or acquire them if you don’t. Don’t chase your own tail by applying to a job you’re unlikely to get. Don’t leave off skills, even if they seem basic. Are you proficient at Excel? List it. “Your odds of getting an interview and a job if you have a facility with Microsoft Office goes up hugely,” Fuller said. Don’t leave unexplained gaps. If you took a year off to write the Great American Novel, say so. Otherwise, it will look like you were doing nothing, and you might be screened out. Make sure your résumé, cover letter, and application match the job description. To some extent, this means using the same phrases in your application materials as you see in the listing, even if that can feel a little cheap. As Joseph Fuller, a management professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of a recent paper on the disconnect between employers and employees put it, “Being robotic is good if you’re talking to a robot.” That does not mean, however, that you should game the system and use terms that don’t actually apply to you, according to O’Donnell. Doing so, she says, can get you blacklisted. Show that you can handle change. Skills are changing faster than ever. Rather than learning every new technology, you might be better off explaining that in the past you’ve been good at picking up new software. That might include using words like “transformation,” “migration,” or “upgrade,” and really explaining how you handled change at other jobs. “What employers are looking for is agility,” said Tim Brackney, president and COO of the management consulting firm RGP. “If you can demonstrate that in your story, and pull those elements out when you’re in person, you have the best shot. “ Get to a human. Try to outsmart the algorithm, or try to actually get in touch with someone who works at the company. That way, you’ll at least have a shot to tell your story. O’Donnell said, “If you apply online because they say apply, you also have to work your back channels.” Rethink your priorities. O’Donnell tells her clients to create a list of the requirements they’re looking for in a new job — and often discovers that the list they make is too long. It’s one thing to not want to sell yourself short, it’s another to be so specific that you find absolutely nothing is the right fit. Her advice: Shorten your list to two or three things you really need. Keep the job you have. It’s easiest to get a job if you’ve got one. You automatically seem appropriate for a similar position, and you avoid gaps in your résumé. Employers could get better at how they hire Not being able to fill roles is a problem for employers, too, and there are a number of things employers can do to make sure they’re getting the talent they need (nearly three-quarters of employers say they are having difficulty attracting workers). So while we’re at it, some tips for companies looking to hire: Update and fix the criteria your AI is using. Rather than looking for people who have exactly the skills in the job description, look for those who have attributes similar to your best employees — those who are most productive or who’ve stayed with the company longest. This also means making sure your algorithm isn’t unnecessarily excluding huge swaths of candidates, including parents who’ve stepped out of the workforce to care for kids, people with criminal backgrounds, or those with gaps in their employment. Fuller has some in-depth suggestions on what to do in his report. Update job descriptions. Make sure job listings are up to date and that they focus on the core skills the person absolutely needs. This requires involving the person who’s directly supervising or working with the candidate to weigh in on what’s needed for the job. Relax education or other requirements. “Hire someone who hits seven out of 10 of your requirements, instead of 10 out of 10,” Indeed director of economic research Nick Bunker said. “Sometimes what they find out is that people can do the job quite well but don’t hit all of their high metrics.” Provide on-the-job training. Plenty of people could do the job if only they had a little instruction.

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